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AFC, NFC championship picks

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  January 18, 2013 12:32 PM

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The AFC championship will be decided in the trenches. (Barry Chin / Globe Staff)

Last week was bittersweet for me. I went a sterling 4-0 against the spread, but my Super Bowl pick, the Seattle Seahawks, lost to the Atlanta Falcons in the team's NFC divisional bout.

It was a stellar game with the Falcons edging the Seahawks 30-28 on an inspiring game-winning drive by former Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan certainly lived up to his nickname, Matty Ice, completing two passes with 31 seconds left in the game to get his Falcons down to the Seattle 31-yard line, setting up Matt Bryant's game-winning field goal. Bryant was clutch, nailing the 49-yard attempt after getting a practice kick courtesy of Pete Carroll.

Atlanta won the game, Seattle covered the spread. It was a small victory and a huge loss that has me re-thinking the whole Super Bowl dynamic now that the final four is set to kick off on Sunday. I've been fairly good at picking games. I'm 7-1 against the spread and 7-1 picking straight up winners during the postseason, but this week feels different. There's a lot of talent in Atlanta that I underestimated, namely the next-level worldly play of Ryan that the entire south has come to expect. But I have my doubts.

Meanwhile, we have two spreads that are virtually unbelievable. And that makes for this week's picks to be a little more hairy than usual.

49ers (-5) at Falcons (+5) -- When Jim Harbaugh installed Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, it was with the understanding that the second-year pro's performance would come with high risks and high rewards. Kaepernick proved as much against the Green Bay Packers, throwing a first quarter interception before literally running away with the game. His playoff-record 181 yards rushing (in addition to the 263 yards passing) buried the Packers in a 45-31 win at Candlestick Park. The onus is on Harbaugh and Kaepernick to replicate the effort at the Georgia Dome, proving the option is viable in the NFL once again. The Falcons got a taste of the option last week, clamping down on the Seahawks' powerful running game before eking out the win thanks to Ryan's heroics. One key I noticed in the Falcons' matchup with the Seahawks, rookie quarterback Russell Wilson failed to keep Atlanta on its toes by taking the option. He kept feeding Marshawn Lynch (16 carries, 46 yards) to no avail. I doubt the 49ers' young quarterback, who has seemingly grown up overnight on the football field, would be so hesitant to take advantage of the opportunities a leaky Atlanta defense will provide. The Falcons surrendered 491 yards against the Seahawks and were the No. 24 total defense during the regular season. Ryan will be facing a 49ers team that has a significantly better defensive line with Justin Smith leading the way. It won't be easy, but with the possibility of another breakout game from Kaepernick and an already shaky defense in Atlanta, I see this breaking for the 49ers. Matty Ice can only do so much.

Straight up winner: 49ers
By the line: Falcons

Ravens (+9.5) at Patriots (-9.5) -- Joe Flacco is a much better quarterback when the pressure is on the line. But what's more, he has enough moxie about him to throw the deep pass with regularity. And lucky for him, he has the talent to come up with the passes in Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Add in a steady dose of Ray Rice, who ran for 131 yards on 30 carries in the AFC divisional round, and the Ravens are the most balanced team the Patriots have faced this season. Also taking into consideration the Ravens' Week 3 win against the Patriots, a game in which Flacco completed eight passes of 20 yards or more, and fans in Baltimore are probably hyped at the possibility of taking down the Patriots again. The Ravens did it on the back of Rice in 2010 and by Flacco's arm in September. But I don't see that happening this time around. The Patriots have made the necessary adjustments on defense, particularly in tightening up the secondary, to fend off another upset. Devin McCourty has yet to take the bad angles we saw from Patrick Chung in Week 3 at safety. And Aqib Talib is a quality corner that can battle one-on-one with bigger receivers like Anquan Boldin. I fully expect to see McCourty playing over the top of Smith looking for those deep passes Flacco favors, and the game to be won in the trenches. The Patriots' run defense (No. 9 overall in the regular season) is my small cause for comfort. But I do expect this one to be close.

Straight up winner: Patriots
By the line: Ravens

@zuriberry

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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