San Francisco (11-4-1) at Atlanta (13-3)
For the second year in a row, the 49ers are back in the NFC championship game. This time, young, dynamic Colin Kaepernick is running the show instead of steady Alex Smith. Kaepernick’s record-setting performance last week against Green Bay showed why coach Jim Harbaugh made the switch. Kaepernick’s ability to make plays with both his arm and legs is something every team, especially Atlanta, has trouble defending. The Falcons’ ability to contain Kaepernick will be one of the main keys Sunday. Atlanta is playing at home with nothing to lose — a dangerous combination. Matty Ice won his first playoff game last week, beating Seattle with a spectacular late drive. Ryan used all his weapons effectively. Atlanta will need to get its running game going to keep the 49ers defense honest. The Falcons must give help to whatever side of the field Aldon Smith is rushing from. Last year, a fumbled punt cost the 49ers in an OT loss to the Giants. They won’t make the same mistake again.
49ers 24, Falcons 21
Baltimore (10-6) at New England (12-4)
The Ravens return to Foxborough for a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game. John Harbaugh’s Ravens would have gone to the Super Bowl if Lee Evans holds on to a catch in the end zone… or to overtime if Billy Cundiff subsequently makes a 32-yard field goal. The Ravens try again — fueled by last season’s loss and inspired by Ray Lewis’ impending retirement. The Pats will be ready as always. Tom Brady leads a more diverse offense that features an excellent rushing attack to go with a dangerous passing game. Unfortunately, TE Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots’ most explosive weapon, is out with an injury. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez have stepped up. The biggest question: Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense. Ray Rice needs a great game but Flacco must make big plays. Flacco should get time behind Baltimore’s excellent offensive line play, and with the loss of the Pats best pass rusher Chandler Jones. Expect Bill Belichick’s defense to stop the big play and force the Ravens to sustain drives. Which quarterback and coach do you trust more. I’m going with Brady and Belichick.
Pats 31, Ravens 28