It's Friday and that means it is time to pick this weekend's NFL games. Only two this week, but hey are a very important two. The AFC and NFC championship games will decide Super Bowl XLVII's matchup. The Stack is here to preview both games and make some predictions. Also, a short 2013 NHL season preview as well. Chalk full of good stuff today so let's get right to it and see what made "the stack" for today, Friday, January 18:
NFC Championship game
San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons 3:00 PM ET FOX
The Atlanta Falcons, Matt Ryan and Mike Smith in particular, got the monkey off their backs last week with the win over Seattle, their first playoff win of the Ryan-Smith era. It doesn't get any easier this week as the 49ers come to town. They romped the Packers last week and Colin Kaepernick became even more of a star with his record setting performance. Four touchdowns (two by air, two by ground) and 183 yards rushing (NFL record for a QB). The Falcons have their work cut out for them this week. They've struggled this year against teams with running quarterbacks. Cam Newton of the Panthers had a lot of success against them and we saw what Russell Wilson did to them last week. When you factor in defensive end John Abraham's ankle injury, it could be a long day for the Falcons.
Defensively, San Francisco did a good job last week against Green Bay in large part to the success the offense had in staying on the field. Justin Smith coming back from his biceps injury played well and you can expect him to play even better this week. The Falcons defense is pretty good too, but nowhere near as close as the 49ers.
The Falcons offense got a big boost last week from the running game. Michael Turner ran the ball hard and effective. He needs to be able to break out a few big runs against the 49ers to keep that passing attack at full strength. No success running the ball makes the Falcons one dimensional and the 49ers will eat them up. For the 49ers, offensively it is pretty simple. If Kaepernick plays the option offense as well Sunday as he did last week, the will run past the Falcons, literally and figuratively. And on that Georgia Dome carpet, his odds of doing that are pretty good. That is the X-factor in the game. Can the Falcons slow down/contain Kaepernick. If they do, they will win the game. Here's hoping for a good game.
Prediction: 49ers 34 Falcons 24
AFC Championship game
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots 6:30 PM ET CBS
A rematch of last year's AFC championship game, a game the Ravens very well should have won if not for a badly missed kick by Billy Cundiff and a drop by Lee Evans in the endzone late in the fourth quarter. This year though, there are a couple of big changes. One, this could be Ray Lewis' last game as a Raven and two, the Patriots will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots didn't seem to miss him much last week in putting up 41 points on the Texans, but this is a different game. The matchup mismatches that the Gronk gives Patriot opponents is very obvious. Without him, the Patriots will need to be a bit more creative. So, expect to see more Shane Vereen both in the backfield at running back and split out as a wide receiver. He is very good at catching the ball in the open field. The Ravens must keep an eye on him. The Patriots also need to have good production from both running backs Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead. Ridley is their primary running threat while Woodhead can both run and catch. He's small, deceptive and sneaky. Then of course there is Tom Brady. I think just saying his name pretty much says it all.
For the Ravens, their success on offense depends largely on Joe Flacco. So far, Flacco has played brilliantly in the postseason. He throws a mean deep ball and he is averaging well over ten yards per completion in the postseason. Closer to fifteen yards actually. Did you see that pass to Jacoby Jones last week at Denver? It was truly amazing. Then there's the fact that they need to utilize Ray Rice as much as possible in the offensive gameplan, something it seemed like former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron failed to do consistently. Add in the good duo at wide receiver in Anquan Boldin (who makes the tough catches) and Torrey Smith (who catches the deep ball) and the Ravens are equipped to match the Patriots point for point.
Defensively, the Ravens are not the same as they were in years past, but they are playing inspired in light of Lewis saying he is retiring. Corey Graham came up with two big interceptions last year. Paul Kruger is a force on the defensive line. They must get pressure on Brady and make him uncomfortable to stay in the game. The Patriots prove to be smart once again with the Aqib Talib trade. He has really worked out well for them. They'll need him and the entire secondary to play well to slow down Flacco and his aerial assault. This is going to be a great game. Revenge is on the Ravens minds and I want to pick them so bad, but when Boldin said that the Ravens would beat the Patriots earlier this week, you know that became bulletin board material in the Patriots locker room.
Prediction: Patriots 30 Ravens 27
2013 NHL season preview
For hockey fans, the wait is almost over. Though it has taken far, far too long for the puck to drop on the season, the NHL will do so Saturday night after over 600 games have been cancelled and plenty of fans fed up with the inability for two sides to come together for a common good of the game. The NHL can say they're sorry. Individual teams can say they're sorry. The NHL has even taken out full page ads in newspapers across the country. Will it help? Perhaps a little. But the NHL knows much work remains to be done in order to re-gain the trust of their consumers and sponsors. But we're not talking anymore about that today. Let's turn our attention to the beginning of the regular season and the season ahead in a season preview...
Fans will see several big names in new sweaters this year. Rick Nash was traded from Columbus to the New York Rangers, making them a perenial Stanley Cup favorite in the eyes of many. Jaromir Jagr continues to play (did you know that?) He's taking his talents to Dallas to try and help get the Stars into the postseason. But by far the two biggest names to move in the offseason were Zach Parise and Ryan Suter who each signed identical thirteen-year, $98 million contracts with the Minnesota Wild. The top two free agents landed on the same team, sending Wild fans, some of the most passionate and smart fans in the game, into a frenzy. It's almost like the Minnesota Wild have become the Miami Heat of hockey. Hey now. Don't be going there quite yet. Those are just a few of the big names you'll see in different places this coming year.
Possible season headlines
This year, unlike in any other year, it is going to be very difficult to predict who will make the playoffs. With only a week of training camp and no preseason games before the start of the regular season, chemistry becomes even more important than it has before. That's why you may see some teams that should be good because of their roster struggle a little bit early on, like Minnesota who just signed Parise and Suter in the offseason. They have not had a chance to skate and build chemistry with their teammates in the offense that head coach Mike Yeo has put together. Not saying they can't get it together in a hurry, but when you add new parts and have little time to put the right parts together, it will make for some challenging times early on.
Also, we will probably see some teams make the playoffs during this shortened 48-game season that we would not see in if a full season was played. Hate to use Minnesota again as an example, but last year, the Wild was hockey's best team in December with a 20-7-3 record. What happened? They fell apart the second half of the season and missed the playoffs. This year, we could see a team or two come roaring out of the gates early and build a big enough lead that will allow them to make the playoffs despite going through a small slump. Not saying it will happen, but it wouldn't surprise me if it did.
Then you have momentum heading into the playoffs. This year, we are going to see a fantastic playoff race as teams will be far more healthy and rested headed into the postseason. With only 48 games, the wear and tear on the players body will be considerably less and they will have more than enough juice to build up momentum headed into the postseason and carry that forward in the playoffs.
Western conference projections
The west this year appears to be wide open. There are four or five really good teams that will be battling it out. The defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings certainly should be considered favorites with goalie Jonathan Quick and a slew of good players on multiple lines. They'll be ready to defend their crown.
Some teams I don't think have a shot at the playoffs include the Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche. Sorry guys, better luck next year. Just don't like how these teams look. The rest of the conference though is fair game.
*1. Los Angeles Kings
*2. St. Louis Blues
*3. Vancouver Canucks
4. Minnesota Wild
5. Chicago Blackhawks
6. Dallas Stars
7. Detroit Red Wings
8. Edmonton Oilers
I know, this is probably not going to happen, especially with the Oilers, a team that hasn't made the postseason in sometime, but you know, three number one overall draft picks have to provide dividends at some point. That's why I think Edmonton can sneak into the playoffs. It wouldn't surprise me if Phoenix made it in ahead of them though barely anyone in the desert will notice. The loss of Suter is bad for Nashville and I think they will have a hard time in this lockout shortened season to build momentum and make a run at the playoffs. Really, it is tough to pick who makes the playoffs. In the end, the western conference representative in the Stanley Cup finals will be the Los Angeles Kings again. Perhaps that is just the safe pick. Maybe it's the dumb pick. The Blackhawks could make it. Wouldn't surprise me if the Wild made it either. St. Louis has really good goaltending with Jaraslov Halak and a strong defense so that wouldn't surprise me either, but the Kings have a fantastic goalie and good guys like Dustin Brown who will ride the wave of success from last year into the playoffs and another Stanley Cup Final. After all, Los Angeles is going to have to have a team to cheer for with the Lakers not looking good. The Clippers have a shot though!
Eastern conference projections
It really, in my mind, comes down to two teams in the eastern conference...the Rangers and the Penguins. Sidney Crosby should be back and 100 percent healthy. The Rangers with the Nash acquisition surely should be favorites as well. The rest of the conference, good luck to you. The Washington Capitals are always fun to watch because of Alex Ovechkin. You never can tell what he is going to do. Don't think he or the Capitals have enough this year to make a serious run at the Penguins or Rangers.
A few teams can probably already feel that their season will be in some trouble. Toronto, maybe Winnipeg, Carolina, but really it is so tough to tell this year. We don't know if New Jersey will be reeling with the loss of Parise or how bad it is going to be. Certainly there will be surprises. The picks will sure surprise me if over half of them pan out right.
*1. New York Rangers
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
*3. Washington Capitals
*4. Buffalo Sabres
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. Boston Bruins
7. Florida Panthers
8. Ottawa Senators
These are extremely difficult to pick. I do think New Jersey will be close, but in the end they just won't have enough to make it to the playoffs. Montreal may make it too. At this point, it really is anyone's guess. But again, it's going to come down to NYR and Pittsburgh and if Marc Andre-Fleury can rebound from the nightmare playoff series he had against the Flyers last year, I really like Pittsburgh out of the eastern conference.
That sets up the Los Angeles Kings against the Pittsburgh Penguins and assuming Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy, I think they have what it takes to dethrone the Kings and be Stanley Cup champions. It is going to be a fast, intense and very exciting season. Hockey is here! Let the puck drop and let's play hockey! Enjoy the season everyone.
Coming up Monday: NFL championship game reaction plus latest on Manti Te'o if more news comes out