Pile into the Kaep crusader
David John previews Sunday's Conference Championships and likes San Francisco and Baltimore on the handicap.
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San Francisco at Atlanta (2000GMT)
Colin Kaepernick emerged from behind the curtain and on to the stage in front of a national audience last week and went from promising young quarterback to household name in 60 minutes.
His sensational performance for the 49ers against Green Bay - after throwing an early pick too - left veteran Packers defensive co-ordinator Dom Capers with his head in his hands and simply unable to to do anything to stop the opposition offense.
Mike Nolan has the problem now in Atlanta and is an interesting piece of the puzzle in this contest as he was head coach for the 49ers between 2005 and 2008 so should have at least a bit of an inside track into how the visitors will gameplan with nine current starters acquired during his rein.
- 2.75pts San Francisco (-3.5) to beat Atlanta at 10/11 (general) - Can prevail again behind Kaepernick and reach the Super Bowl.
- 2.75pts Baltimore (+9) to beat New England at 10/11 (Betfred, totesport) - Have the belief they can take down the Pats and big start on the handicap.
- 1pt San Francisco and Baltimore to reach the Super Bowl at 5/1 (Sky Bet) - The Harbaugh Bowl is on and worth a small interest.
The 49ers are favourites by three and a half points after such an eyecatching display and as tough as travelling on the road at this time of the campaign to the NFC's top seeds is, you would have to fancy them to put the heartbreak of last season's loss at this stage to the Giants behind them and punch their ticket for New Orleans next month.
Not only do I think that Kaepernick will thrive taking on an undersized defense which has best pash rusher John Abrahams struggling with an ankle injury, I also think they will be able to dominate on the other side of the ball.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan still perhaps does not get quite the credit he deserves and his offense totally dominated for three quarters against Seattle last week.
But a sloppy interception on a pass thrown into double coverage that he did not have to make with his side 20 points up remains a real headscratcher and is the sort of error that the 49ers will punish.
It sparked a whacky finish to the game which saw the Seahawks take an improbable lead with 31 seconds left before Ryan was somehow able to drive his team back into the winning field goal range.
The victory left veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez in tears such was the emotion as Mike Smith's players finally got over the hump with a victory in the post-season.
It could well be the making of them in terms of belief to come out on the right side of such a close finish. But I just don't see them getting away with it when facing a team as good as the 49ers and they are where my cash will be going.
Baltimore at New England (2330GMT)
If emotions ran high in Atlanta then they were off the charts in Denver as Baltimore defeated the AFC's top seeds in one of the most incredible games I have witnessed.
Some decent judges wrote off the Ravens as early as Trindon Holliday's first kick-off return for a touchdown with Peyton Manning then expected to lead an offensive onslaught.
But Baltimore hung tough so they were still in position to tie the game with Joe Flacco's unlikely connection to Jacoby Jones over the top of Denver's secondary for a 70-yard touchdown with seconds left to force overtime - then some more overtime - and finally the win.
It sets up a repeat of last year's AFC Championship clash in Foxboro which the Patriots won after Billy Cundiff fluffed a field goal as time ran out to force another period of extra time and by my reckoning the Ravens look well worth following with a hefty start on the handicap.
I suggested backing Houston seven days ago with a similar sort of advantage from the bookmakers but that bet never really looked like paying out as Tom Brady and his offense always had the upper hand.
But their rivals this week are a hard-knocking, play-off team who won't be shoved around quite so easily - and whereas Atlanta may find it tough to find that emotional edge again in the first game after last week's heroics, I can only see the Ravens thriving on it.
There were numerous shots last week of veteran linebacker Ray Lewis sat on the bench draped in a snow jacket as he perhaps contemplated whether his illustrious career was about to come to an end in a frigid Colorado.
But he gets another shot and his return for the post-season along with another couple of key players on defense like Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard seems to have got this team - which may not be togthether as a unit for much longer - believing they can go and do it all.
Part of the equation will be the performance of quarterback Joe Flacco but he outplayed Manning as he threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns after Lewis had told him in the tunnel that he was "the leader now".
Flacco has been able to make every throw in the book from day one since he entered the league but perhaps it finally became clear to him last week that he now has the belief in his own ability to come up with the big plays under intense pressure.
Take the Ravens and the points and I am also tempted by the possibility of head coaching brothers John and Jim Harbaugh standing on opposite sidelines in the Super Bowl - go for a San Francisco v Baltimore showdown in the Big Easy as well.