Here are six things I know heading into this weekend’s NFL conference championship tilts.
1. Ray Rice will run all over the Patriots.
2. Tom Brady will have at least four touchdown passes.
3. Rob Gronkowski will “Gronk” at least twice.
4. Chad Ochocinco will at least double his snaps from last week.
5. Bill Belichick will have another wrinkle in the backfield, a la Aaron Hernandez last weekend.
6. I really can’t take two weeks of Giants-Patriots preview coverage.
6a But I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to.
AFC title game predictions
Here’s what they’re saying around the country, with the Patriots an overwhelming favorite to head back to the Super Bowl.
Cold, Hard Football Facts: Patriots 26, Ravens 23. The Patriots will win. But given Baltimore’s obvious advantages in the trenches, and it’s better defense, expect a game closer than the one that the Pigskin Public is anticipating.
ESPN.com staff: Seven out of eight pick the Patriots.
CBS Sports staff: Patriots across the board.
Pete Prisco, CBS Sports: Patriots 31, Ravens 21. The Ravens went into Foxboro and beat the Patriots in the playoffs two years ago, dominating from start to finish. But these are much different teams. Even so, that has to help Baltimore’s confidence. The Ravens lost 23-20 in overtime to the Patriots last season in Foxboro. Tom Brady is coming off a six-touchdown game. He looked as comfortable as he has looked all season in carving up Denver. But this Ravens defense is much better. The Baltimore secondary will have to try and take away Rob Gronkowski and force Brady to go elsewhere. He doesn’t have a deep threat, which will help make that easier to do. New England’s defense has really struggled this season, but played well against Denver. That’s because Denver is a run-first team. The Ravens can’t be that here. Even though Ray Rice is key, they have to make some plays down the field, and they will. Joe Flacco will have some shots and hit a few. But he won’t be able to keep up with Brady. The Ravens won’t be able to hit him enough and Brady will make them pay. Patriots take it and move on to the Super Bowl.
Vinnie Iyer, Sporting News: Patriots 24, Ravens 23. No offense to Flacco, but Brady looks like a man on a mission. He played brilliantly against the Broncos with six touchdown passes. And he will get his team a step closer to accomplishing it.
Mike Florio, ProFootballTalk.com: Patriots 27, Ravens 20. Yes, the Baltimore offense looked sluggish against the Texans. During the regular season, however, the Texans had one of the best defenses in the league. The Patriots, in sharp contrast, had one of the worst. Still, can the Ravens muster at least one more point than the New England offense will score? The internal offense-vs.-defense strife in Baltimore seems to be real, and it could lead to an ugly confrontation on the sidelines if the Pats jump out to an early lead and the Ravens can’t respond. Also, the Pats’ defense quietly is improving. Throw in the fact that the Patriots would love to give owner Robert Kraft something about which to feel good as he continues to mourn his wife’s passing (Myra Kraft’s initials remain on their jerseys), Tom Brady’s memory of a home thrashing two years ago from the Ravens, and a burning desire by Brady and Bill Belichick to finally get that fourth championship, and it’s hard to envision the Patriots losing.
Gregg Rosenthal, ProFootballTalk.com: Patriots 31, Ravens 27. This game comes down to two questions. Is the Ravens defense more dominant than the Patriots offense? After watching Houston’s running game push Baltimore around last week, I’m rolling with the Patriots there. Terrell Suggs disappears too often. New England’s tight ends are too hard to defend. Second question: Does the good Joe Flacco show up this week? All season, I’ve thought a great quarterback would take the Patriots out in the playoffs. New England doesn’t have to face a great quarterback in the AFC. The health of Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, and the rest of the Patriots no-names all help make the New England defense competent enough.
Greg Cote, Miami Herald: Patriots 27, Ravens 17. Ravens safety Ed Reed, the old Cane, caused a bit of a tempest this week saying he thought quarterback Joe Flacco seemed – rattled – in last week’s win over Houston. I think Reed and his defense are more apt to be the ones rattled in Sunday’s early game for the AFC title. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are the NFL’s most playoff-savvy quarterback/coach combo, and at home they present a mighty two-headed dragon to slay even for a premier defense like Baltimore’s. Still-maniacal-but-aging Ray Lewis is not as good in coverage as he once was, and Crows will find it tough to defend the heart of the field against Pats super-tight-end Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who’d be the best tight end on about 25 other teams. Also expect Belichick defensively to go blitz-heavy on Flacco, who can be mistake-prone when his pocket gets flooded (which is probably why Reed’s “rattled” comment hit a nerve). All four of Baltimore’s losses came on the road this season. Give Blackbirds a medium shot to cover the bet line – it’s no fluke they got this far – but not much chance to win outright. I don’t trust anything about this game more than I simply trust Brady to outscore the other team.
Peter Schrager, FoxSports.com: Ravens 30, Patriots 27. I know it sounds crazy, but I like the Ravens on Sunday. Like the Cowboys did earlier this season vs. New England, the defense should stifle Brady just enough to give the offense a chance. And unlike the Cowboys earlier this season, the Ravens offense will be able to get the job done. I’m taking the Ravens. And if Cody happens to knock out Tom Brady on Sunday, I’ll be sure to give you those stock tips next week.
NFL Network “Playbook:” Three out of four pick the Patriots.
Tim Kawakami, San Jose Mercury News: Patriots 27, Ravens 13. I just can’t see the Ravens QB making a series of plays – enough plays – to match or even come close to matching what Tom Brady can and will do. I’m not saying Flacco can’t do any of it. The New England D certainly isn’t awe-inspiring. And maybe Baltimore’s defense can shut down Brady.
ESPN NFL Live crew: Patriots across the board.
Mark Potash, Chicago Sun-Times: 23, Ravens 20. Even after humiliating the Broncos last week, the “Tebow factor” still looms for the Patriots. Teams that defend Tim Tebow have struggled against conventional QBs the following week: allowing an average passer rating of 100.5 (20 TDs, 4 INTs) this season. That could come into play with Ravens QB Joe Flacco, who has a 61.6 career passer rating on the road in the playoffs but is more than capable of a big game against a quality opponent. Tom Brady has an 89.1 career rating in the playoffs but had his worst postseason performance in a 33-14 wild-card game loss to the Ravens in 2010 (23 of 42, 154 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs, 49.1 rating). Ravens RB Ray Rice rushed for 159 yards, 2 TDs in that game.
Yahoo! sports: Two out three pick the Patriots.
Baltimore Sun staff: Five out of seven pick the Ravens.
Globe staff: Four writers split their picks (Patriots by 7.)
It says here: Patriots 31, Ravens 24. Across the country: Giants 24, 49ers 14.
And so it goes.