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Your Guide to the NFL Conference Championships

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Who is ready for some football?

With Sunday now in full swing, visions of pizza, buffalo wings, soda and beer are probably dancing through your head as you get ready to watch the AFC and NFC Championship games. Over six hours of football await, with the winners of those contests heading to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis in two weeks.

Before you indulge yourself with hours of pregame coverage on various television networks, we’ll try to break the games down into a neat, nifty little package. Hopefully it will contain a fact or two that you can use to impress your friends while watching today’s games.

AFC Championship Game — Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots — 3 pm

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To many in New Jersey (especially the northern part of the state), this is known as “the other game.” The Patriots — who are 8-1 at home this season — welcome the Ravens, who struggled to a 4-4 record away from M&T Bank Stadium this year. This game marks a study in contrasts — the high-flying New England offense against the stalwart Baltimore defense. Which will emerge victorious?

Andy Lyons, Getty Images

Why the Ravens could win

1. The Patriots’ defense — or lack thereof –  Despite dominating Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos in last week’s divisional playoff game, New England ranked 31st out of 32 NFL teams in offensive yards allowed. While Baltimore’s offense is hardly imposing (ranked 15th in the league), the defensive deficiencies could loom large.

2. Ray Rice — The former Rutgers star running back rushed for 1,364 yards this season and 12 touchdowns. He also had a career-high 704 yards and 3 receiving TD’s, making Rice a dual-threat out of the backfield. The Patriots can expect a hearty serving of Rice today.

3. The Ravens’ defense – Baltimore allowed the 3rd-fewest yards and points in the NFL this season. Although star safety Ed Reed suffered an ankle injury at the end of last week’s divisional playoff game against the Houston Texans, he should be good-to-go against the Patriots. One can’t forget linebackers Ray Lewis (led Ravens with 79 tackles) and Terrell Suggs (14 sacks this season), along with nose tackle Haloti Ngata (5 sacks and 3 fumble recoveries). If the Ravens can pressure Tom Brady and knock him around a little bit, it could neutralize the Patriots’ offensive prowess.

Winslow Townson, Getty Images

Why the Patriots could win…

1. The home-field advantage – As previously mentioned, the Patriots are 8-1 at Gillette Stadium this year. With New England playing in its first AFC Championship game since 2008, one can expect a pretty passionate crowd in Foxboro.

2. That overwhelming offense – The Patriots ranked 2nd in the NFL in offense this season, and 3rd in points-per-game. Tom Brady passed for a career-best 5,235 yards this season, and Rob Gronkowski set an NFL record among tight ends by catching 17 TD passes. Oh, and wide receiver Wes Welker only had 122 receptions and 1,569 yards this season — Baltimore may want to keep tabs on him too.

3. Revenge — Head coach Bill Belichick probably hasn’t forgotten. In their last playoff meeting in January 2010, the Patriots were embarrassed by the Ravens in Foxboro, 33-14. Rice ran for 159 yards and 2 TD’s, while Brady threw an uncharacteristic 3 interceptions. It was New England’s 1st-ever playoff loss at Gillette Stadium.

The prediction: The Ravens looked shaky against Houston last week, while the Patriots steamrolled Denver. Baltimore needs a better performance today, but I’m not sure if they can get it done on the road. New England 30, Baltimore 17

NFC Championship Game — New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers — 6:30 pm

Ezra Shaw, Getty Images

Seeing this NFC Championship matchup conjures up images from the 1990 season, where the Lawrence Taylor-led Giants’ defense tussled with Joe Montana’s 49ers’ offense for the right to go to the Super Bowl. It was a hard-fought game at Candlestick Park, with Leonard Marshall’s crushing hit on Montana becoming the defining moment of a 15-13 victory for Big Blue.

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Why the Giants could win…

1. They’re arguably the hottest team still playing – Heading into Week 16 of the regular season, the Giants were coming off a humbling loss against the terrible Washington Redskins and sported a 7-7 record. Their playoff prospects seemed shaky, at best. Since then, the Giants have won four straight, including last week’s 37-20 thrashing of the 15-1 Green Bay Packers.

2. Multiple weapons on offense – Eli Manning is playing with more confidence than ever. He passed for a career-high 4,933 yards this season, utilizing his two best receivers — Victor Cruz (1,536 yards and 9 TD’s) and Hakeem Nicks (1,192 yards and 7 TD’s). Let’s not forget wide receiver Mario Manningham, and the running back duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs (1,230 yards and 16 TD’s combined).

3. The defense is healthy and confident – Earlier this season, the Giants were hampered by injuries — especially in the secondary. As a result, New York’s defense finished the regular season ranked 27th in the league. But now, their defensive backs are playing better, and the pass-rush combo of defensive linemen Jason Pierre-Paul (16 1/2 sacks this season) and Osi Umenyiora (12 sacks in only 11 games played, including playoffs) can catch a quarterback’s attention.

Thearon W. Henderson, Getty Images

Why the 49ers could win…

1. They’re good – Under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Niners went 13-3 in the regular season and squeezed out a dramatic, 36-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints in last week’s divisional playoff game. Their offensive struggles are well-documented, as they ranked only 26th in the NFL in total yards, but San Francisco only turned the ball over 10 times this season. Sometimes not making mistakes can make all the difference.

2. Their defense – While the players aren’t exactly household names, the 49ers ranked 4th in total defense this season. Defensive end Aldon Smith (14 sacks this season), linebackers Navorro Bowman (116 tackles) and Patrick Willis (82 tackles and 4 forced fumbles) and defensive back Carlos Rogers (6 interceptions) have given opposing teams fits this season.

3. They’ve already beaten the Giants this year – In Week 10, the 49ers hosted Big Blue, and emerged with a 27-20 win. The defense coaxed 2 interceptions out of Manning, and although San Francisco played most of the game without star running back Frank Gore, the offense exploded for 15 points in the 4th quarter to help them to victory.

The prediction: Following last week’s win over the Packers, so much attention has been given to the Giants and their Super Bowl chances. There is no question that Harbaugh is playing up these media slights to his players, giving the 49ers an “us against the world” mentality entering today’s game. It should be an exciting and close game, but I’m going to ride the hot hand. NY Giants 24, San Francisco 20

Enjoy the games!

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