Bet On It: NFL Championship Weekend predictions
Last Week: 3-5; Overall: 7-9
We're coming up on the end of the line. After Sunday's NFC title game wraps up, there's nothing between us and the Super Bowl but the Pro Bowl and two weeks worth of chatter.
Will this weekend's conference title games match the excitement from last weekend's thrilling divisional round? Aside from the Patriots' dismantling of the Broncos, it was a great ride -- two games went down to the final seconds, while the third saw the dethroning of last year's Super Bowl winner.
What's on tap for the AFC and NFC championship games? Here are a few guesses:
• Ray Rice will rush for at least 120 yards
As both the Ravens and Patriots have said all week, the 2009 playoff meeting between the two teams won't hold a lot of weight Sunday, given the changes both franchises have made since then.
And yet ... it's hard to forget Ray Rice's 159-yard day on the ground that day, which started with an 83-yard TD run on the game's first play. Baltimore, as it usually does, will try to feed Rice the ball early and often.
New England may prevent him from busting off a huge play, like he did in 2009, but it will be difficult for the Patriots to contain him completely.
Lost amidst all the criticisms of New England's secondary was the fact that Kyle Arrington actually had a pretty decent season, highlighted by seven interceptions. He nearly picked off another one last week, jumping a route and coming within inches of taking a Tim Tebow pass to the house.
If nothing else, Arrington has shown himself to be very opportunistic this season. Joe Flacco, meanwhile, seems to make at least one or two real shaky decisions per game. Arrington will be there to capitalize Sunday.
• Lee Evans will catch multiple passes
As reporters rushed to grab Ravens players in the team's locker room after practice Wednesday, Evans sat alone at his locker, his back turned to the throng next to him surrounding Cory Redding.
Once thought to be a huge pickup for the Ravens' offense, Evans endured his worst season as a pro. He finished the regular season with just four catches -- two coming in Week 2. But he stepped in and made a terrific one-handed, 30-yard grab last week and could sneak onto the field more Sunday, if the Ravens find themselves trailing. He may not have a career-reviving game, but he should get at least a couple of looks.
• New England's running backs will score multiple touchdowns
It doesn't seem overly likely, given Baltimore's prowess up front and at the linebacker positions, that the Patriots' running backs will enjoy a monster day Sunday.
What they will have to do, though, is take advantage of those times when the Ravens are focused on Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. New England's tight end duo should keep Baltimore's linebackers and safeties busy, especially down near the goal line. That may open the door, ever so slightly, for BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the Pats' ground game to make a dent.
• Hakeem Nicks will lead the Giants in receiving yards again
Victor Cruz was New York's main man during the regular season, hauling in 82 passes for more than 1,500 yards. The balance has shifted in the playoffs, however, with the Falcons and Packers trying to lock down Cruz.
It's been Nicks who has taken advantage. He had 115 yards receiving and two touchdowns vs. the Falcons, then 165 yards receiving and two more scores -- including on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half -- against Green Bay.
Carlos Rogers drew the assignment of covering Cruz during the Giants-49ers regular season meeting (and drew Cruz's ire by mocking his salsa dance celebration after making an interception). Rogers said this week that most of his work Sunday will come defending Cruz, which will free Nicks up on the outside.
• San Francisco's D-line will force at least one Eli Manning fumble
Since a three-interception outing in a Week 15 loss to the Redskins, Eli Manning has done a terrific job taking care of the football. Over the final two weeks of the regular season and his first two playoff games, Manning has just two total turnovers -- both interceptions.
He faces a major test Sunday, though, especially with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith doing a lot of their work on his blindside. Manning may not implode in the face of that pressure, but San Francisco's rush will make him cough up the ball at least once.
• The Giants will record at least three sacks
New York's win at Green Bay really was a complete team effort, but the Giants' success in that one and the previous week against the Falcons started with the play of their defensive line.
With Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck both back on the field after missing time to injuries, the Giants are operating at a maximum level. San Francisco may be able to limit the damage that front does by using Frank Gore and some short passes, but Alex Smith won't be able to dodge the pass rush forever.
• Frank Gore will finish with at least 50 receiving yards
But he also caught seven passes for 38 yards, both numbers marking the highest totals he's recorded all season, by a wide margin -- his previous highs of three catches and 19 yards receiving came in Week 1.The 49ers have to have Gore on the field, no matter the situation Sunday. And with that aforementioned Giants' pass rush bearing down on Smith, it could be the perfect opportunity for San Francisco to slip Gore out in screens or as a safety valve. Whether or not Gore gets his carries remains to be seen, but don't be surprised if he has a big game as a receiver.