Sports

Greg Cote’s picks for AFC, NFC Championship games

We had Patriots covering that big number last week and had ’dog Ravens with the points, but didn’t fare as well over in the NFC. There, we underestimated the Niners and fell one point shy of a cover on Atlanta. Falcons game showed how tough picking against the spread can be. Atlanta won by two. I had them winning by four. Not good enough! (Oh poor me, right?) Anyway, unlike the ousted Broncos, Texans, Packers and Seahawks, I’m alive for another week of picks. Who said life was fair?

Overall Pct. Vs. spread Pct.
Last week 2-2 .500 2-2 .500
Playoffs 5-3 .625 2-6 .250
Final regular season 166-89-1 .651 114-120-22 .488
Final 2011 159-97 .621 127-105-24 .547

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

RAVENS (12-6, No. 4 seed) at PATRIOTS (13-4, No. 2)

Line: NE by 9.

Cote’s pick: NE 34-27.

TV: 6:30 p.m. Sunday, CBS.

NFL’s Super-stakes Sunday doubleheader ends with the first AFC Championship Game rematch since Denver-Cleveland did it back to back in 1986-87. (If it involved the Browns being good you KNOW it was awhile ago!) Pats snuck by last year, 23-20, when Ravens missed a tying 32-yard field goal with 15 seconds left. Partial payback came early this season with Baltimore winning at home over New England 31-30, but this game obviously is the revenge Crows had in mind. The rematch factor gives this game some appeal, even though Pats vs. Broncos — and Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning — was the AFC title bout everybody outside of Maryland had in mind. Brady’s credentials are etched in bronze and gilded in gold, of course, while counterpart Joe Flacco still must prove he can guide his team to a Super Bowl. So, can he? Not this time. I’d play it closer than the betting line, but Brady’s league-leading offense has too many ways to attack, and that’s even with Rob Gronkowski once again out injured. The old Cane Ray Lewis has nobly been able to put off his retirement, but the long road ends here. New England is 13-4 at home in the playoffs, including 4-0 in conference title games. One of my few set rules is to never pick against Brady at home in winter, and this is no time to second guess that.

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

49ERS (12-4-1, No. 2 seed) at FALCONS (14-3, No. 1)

Line: SF by 4.

Cote’s pick: SF 24-17.

TV: 3 p.m. Sunday, Fox.

Let me emphasize that an outright upset in our Super-stakes Sunday kickoff game would not surprise much. Atlanta is 8-1 in the home-dome this season, and Falcs have won four in a row over the Niners, the last meeting in 2010. And to anyone who sees a runaway by the favored visitors, consider that the past five NFC Championship Games all have been decided by seven points or fewer — three of them in overtime. This one should be just as close. So why can’t I bring myself to ride the home ’dogs? Partly because the Niners are more physical on both lines, bring strong run D and are a bit readier for this stage, I think, after losing to the Giants in OT for last year’s NFC crown. More than that, Atlanta’s defense has struggled to handle the very type of dual-threat quarterback that Colin Kaepernick presents. Cam Newton threw for 502 yards, ran for 202 and totaled six touchdowns in two games against the Falcons this season. A week ago, Seattle’s Russell Wilson combined for 445 yards of arm/leg offense against Atlanta. I don’t know that Falcons defensive chief Mike Nolan — the former 49ers head coach — has the pieces to adequately stop Kaepernick, ageless Cane Frank Gore, blossoming Michael Crabtree, underutilized Vernon Davis and everything else SF can bring to bear.

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