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Inside the Matchup
Conference Championships

By: Bill Andereson | Sal Marcoccio | Nick Caron | Kyle Smith

 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
1 Caron 47 18 72.3
2 Anderson 45 21 68.2
3 Smith 44 22 66.7
4 Marcoccio 38 26 59.4

49ers at Falcons - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: It’s no secret that the bread and butter of the 49ers is their running game. That said, they do have the ability to move the ball downfield via the pass, and Colin Kaepernick is the catalyst. He threw for more than 250 yards just once during the regular season, but was near that mark in nearly every contest. Kaepernick tossed for 263 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week against the Packers, with each of his touchdown throws going to Michael Crabtree. Crabtree was 15th among wide receivers in fantasy scoring during the regular season, and is the team’s only fantasy-worthy pass catcher. Forget about Vernon Davis, who had a terrible regular season after Week 3, has completely disappeared from fantasy relevance, and we don’t think he’ll be showing up this week against Atlanta either.

Though the Falcons allowed the fewest passing scores in the league during the regular season, they were 23rd in pass defense. That statistic showed last week when they allowed 385 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Russell Wilson. And though they did well in holding wideouts down in terms of fantasy points, Atlanta struggled all year to contain tight ends, which we saw against the Seahawks as the usually quiet Zach Miller racked up 142 receiving yards.

Running Game Thoughts: Not only did Kaepernick rush for 181 yards and two scores last week against Green Bay, he was barely touched in the process, with the image of Clay Matthews being completely turned around in confusion probably sticking in the heads of anybody who saw the game. And though the young quarterback gets most of the attention, fantasy owner surely haven’t forgotten about Frank Gore, who ran for 119 yards and a touchdown against the Packers, and was 12th in fantasy scoring among running backs this year. Both players should have success this week against the Falcons.

Atlanta was well below average in run defense during the regular season, ranking 21st or lower in rush defense, YPC allowed and touchdowns given up, but they did well against Marshawn Lynch last week, holding him to 46 yards on 16 carries. Yet the Falcons did have trouble stopping quarterbacks who run, as only four teams gave up more rushing yards and touchdowns on the ground to opposing signal callers, which bodes well for Kaepernick.

Colin Kaepernick: 240 pass yds, 2 TD, 1 INT / 65 rush yds, 1 TD
Michael Crabtree: 90 rec yds, 1 TD
Randy Moss: 40 rec yds, 1 TD
Delanie Walker: 25 rec yds
Ted Ginn Jr.: 20 rec yds
Vernon Davis: 15 rec yds
Frank Gore: 105 rush yds, 1 TD / 20 rec yds
LaMichael James: 25 rush yds / 20 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Matt Ryan threw three touchdowns last week against the Seahawks, and racked up 250 passing yards, but fantasy owners can’t be blamed if they don’t particularly trust him. He didn’t perform well overall in the fourth quarter, at least until the end when he made a pair of great throws to get Atlanta into position to kick the winning field goal. And though we aren’t overly confident in Ryan at the moment, we do have plenty of faith in the team’s three-headed receiving monster of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, even against a tough San Francisco pass defense.

The 49ers were fourth in the league against the pass and tied for seventh in passing touchdowns allowed during the regular season. They gave up the fourth-fewest fantasy points in the league to quarterbacks, the seventh-fewest to wideouts and the 10th-fewest to tight ends. San Francisco did a good job against the Packers last week, holding Aaron Rodgers to 257 passing yards and two touchdowns, and allowing just one receiver to gain at least 55 yards, despite Green Bay’s plethora of weapons.

Running Game Thoughts: We’re not exactly sure what got into Michael Turner last week, but he showed signs of his former self and ran for 98 yards on 14 carries. He scored plenty of touchdowns at the end of the regular season, which masked the paltry yard totals he was putting up, and the fact that Jacquizz Rodgers was getting more snaps. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, we suspect Turner will come back down to earth this week against the 49ers, who are used to shutting down opposing running backs.

During the regular season, San Francisco ranked fourth in the NFL in rush defense, fourth in touchdowns yielded, and third in YPC allowed. Only the Texans gave up fewer fantasy points to running backs during the regular season, though last week DuJuan Harris did have some success, carrying the ball 11 times for 53 yards and one touchdown. Still, the 49ers are one of the best run defenses in the NFL, and it will be difficult for Turner and Rodgers to generate yards.

Matt Ryan: 255 pass yds, 2 TD, 2 INT
Julio Jones: 75 rec yds, 1 TD
Roddy White: 70 rec yds
Tony Gonzalez: 45 rec yds, 1 TD
Harry Douglas: 30 rec yds
Michael Turner: 40 rush yds / 10 rec yds
Jacquizz Rodgers: 25 rush yds, 1 TD / 15 rec yds

Prediction: 49ers 31, Falcons 27 ^ Top

Ravens @ Patriots - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: Will this finally be the year Joe Flacco gets the monkey off his back and makes it to a Super Bowl? Ravens fans are hoping so after their quarterback has led them to and won a playoff game in each of his five seasons as a pro. Flacco led the Ravens to an incredible 38-35 victory over the Broncos just a week ago, tossing the ball for 331 yards and three touchdowns. He has now gone without an interception in four straight contests if you include the Week 17 game, when he played in less than one quarter before sitting down to rest before the playoffs. Flacco’s completion percentages in the playoffs still leave something to be desired, but the leadership he has shown has been promising. He and receiver Anquan Boldin have connected on 11 passes for well over 200 yards during these past two playoff games, while Torrey Smith has remained one of the best deep threats in the entire league. Tight end Dennis Pitta has also been a valuable asset in the passing game. It seems that Flacco has truly shined under the spotlight, and another nice game from him would not be all that surprising.

Flacco is now one game away from his first Super Bowl appearance, but he will be up against the New England Patriots, the team that denied him his chance to play in the big game just a season ago. The Ravens will rely heavily on Flacco once again, as the Patriots were less than stellar against the pass in the regular season. They allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw for 4,555 yards, which was fourth-most in the league, and allowed 27 passing touchdowns on the year. While they did force 20 interceptions, which was tied for fifth-most in the league, Flacco has actually been very good at protecting the ball through the second half of the season. The only game in which he threw more than one interception came against the Texans in Week 7. Don’t look for the New England defenders to make the same mental mistakes the Broncos made last week, however. This is a Bill Belichick-coached team that prides itself on making the smart play on every down.

Running Game Thoughts: Ray Rice continues to rumble in the playoffs, just as he did during the regular season. Although he wasn’t quite the fantasy superstar this year as he was last year, he remains one of the most consistently productive backs in the game. In a league where running has become an afterthought for some teams, Rice’s productivity gives us hope that the days of the “feature back” are not yet gone. If you remove the Week 17 game, in which he was rested after the first quarter, Rice has accumulated more than 100 total yards in four of his past five games, including an impressive 131-yard rushing performance this past week against the Broncos. Unlike the wild-card round where he and Bernard Pierce essentially split workload, Rice took 30 carries against the Broncos—five more than he has in any game this season. Better yet, he didn’t seem to slow down at all despite the high number of touches.

If the Ravens hope to get revenge against the Patriots for the close loss they suffered in last year’s AFC championship game, they will need to rely plenty on the bruising rushing attack featuring Rice. Rice fumbled just once all season on 257 carries and is unquestionably one of the most trusted backs in the league when it comes to securing the football. New England hasn’t been particularly punished by the run in any one game this season, but as evidenced by the six 100-yard rushing days they allowed to opposing teams, they certainly are beatable on the ground. If you look back to Week 3 when the Ravens and Patriots first played, Rice had one of his better games of the season as he rushed for 101 yards and a score on the ground, adding another 49 yards as a receiver in the process. Baltimore won that game by just one point, largely due to their ability to keep the game close with their rushing attack. Flacco will need a big day, too, but the Ravens offense still goes as Rice goes.

Joe Flacco: 280 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Torrey Smith: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Anquan Boldin: 80 rec yds
Jacoby Jones: 40 rec yds, 1 TD
Dennis Pitta: 50 rec yds
Ray Rice: 90 rush yds, 1 TD, 30 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: With tight end Rob Gronkowski out for the rest of the year after re-breaking his forearm, the pressure will be on Tom Brady to find other options in the passing game. Thankfully for him, the Patriots are overflowing with talented pass-catchers both lined up wide and at the end of the line, and out of the backfield as well. Even after Gronkowski’s injury last week, Brady continued to beat up the Houston's typically tough defense. He torched them for 344 yards and three touchdowns, taking just one sack against one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league. Early in the fourth quarter, the Patriots were up 38-13 and began to take their foot off the gas pedal, which may be the only reason Brady didn’t do even more damage. All of the usual suspects played a part in the passing game against the Texans, as Wes Welker caught eight passes for 131 yards, Aaron Hernandez pulled in six for 85, and Brandon Lloyd scored a touchdown on five catches for 32 yards.

Tom Brady is as hot as any quarterback in the league, and we all know about his history of great performances in the playoffs. Brady has thrown for multiple touchdowns in five of his past six playoff games. The one exception? Last year’s AFC championship game against the Ravens. In that game, which may very well have been Brady’s worst playoff performance, he threw for just 239 yards and no touchdowns with two interceptions. The Patriots squeaked by, winning the game by only three points in spite of Brady’s bad performance. Brady was much better in Week 3 of the 2012 season when these teams met again, but his 335-yard, one touchdown and no interception performance wasn’t enough to get the win in Baltimore. This time the teams return to Foxboro, the site of their 2011 AFC championship game, where Brady has thrown just three interceptions to 16 touchdowns this year.

Running Game Thoughts: New England has had a high-powered passing attack for years, but their running game finally got around to keeping up in 2012. That has continued during these playoffs, as the Patriots rushed for 122 yards as a team against the Texans this past week. Steven Ridley remained the team’s primary ball carrier, toting the rock 15 times for 82 yards and a touchdowns. But it was change-of-pace back Shane Vereen who did the most damage in the fantasy game, rushing for 41 yards and a score on seven carries while adding five receptions for 83 yards and two more scores as a receiver. Danny Woodhead was injured leading the way for Vereen, who should be viewed as the primary backup to Ridley going forward. According to reports, Woodhead can play this week and could have even returned against the Texans if they had needed him, but the Patriots are unlikely to rush him back, especially considering how productive Vereen was.

Whoever touches the ball out of the backfield will need to make big strides from what the Patriots did back when these teams played in Week 3. In that contest, New England was extremely unsuccessful on the ground, as none of their backs surpassed even 40 yards rushing despite both Ridley and Woodhead getting 13 and 15 carries, respectively. Woodhead and fellow depth back Brandon Bolden both scored close-range touchdowns as rushers in that game, but the 2.3 yards per carry the team managed doesn’t inspire much confidence. Still, the Patriots have been hot running the ball in recent weeks, with Ridley having rushed for at least 70 yards in six of his past seven games. He has also scored at least one touchdown in eight of his past 10 games, making him one of the most consistent fantasy backs through the second half of the season. The other backs are all very hard to predict because of the Patriots’ offensive schemes that are designed to confuse opposing defenses with personnel changes. But we do believe that it will be Ridley, Vereen and Woodhead—in that order—who get the most carries against the Ravens.

Tom Brady: 290 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Wes Welker: 80 rec yds
Brandon Lloyd: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Aaron Hernandez: 90 rec yds, 1 TD
Stevan Ridley: 75 rush yds, 2 TDs
Shane Vereen: 30 rush yds, 30 rec yds
Danny Woodhead: 10 rush yds, 20 rec yds

Prediction: Patriots: 37, Ravens 27 ^ Top