Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 12:10 AM
The stage is set for a pair of monster NFL Championship Games this weekend but when you get past the marquee names like Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Ray Lewis and Joe Flacco on the AFC side and Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Patrick Willis and Colin Kaepernick on the NFC side of things, you begin to understand that there could - indeed - be X-factors at work here this Sunday afternoon/evening. Here's one name from each of the four teams that could well be the X-factor types here:
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NFC Championship Game - San Francisco at Atlanta (3 p.m. ET)
SAN FRANCISCO (13-4-1) - Andy Lee, P
The 49ers Pro Bowl punter boomed two kicks inside the 20-yard line and boomed a 52-yarder in last weekend's 45-31 win against Green Bay in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. If Lee is "on" here than he could force Atlanta to go 80-plus yards on offense and that's a always a tricky proposition against this stingy San Fran defense. Look for Lee to be a major factor here - even if he only has to punt it four or five times in all.
ATLANTA (14-3) - Sean Weatherspoon, OLB
No doubt that the single-biggest factor on defense for the top-seeded Falcons is to set the edge against run/pass read-option Niners QB Kaepernick here and the always-active Weatherspoon must make his presence felt here and probably needs to force a turnover or two along the way. Note that Weatherspoon - the club's second-leading tackler in the regular season despite the fact he missed three games - cannot allow this bulky/brutish San Francisco O-line to run roughshod over him en route to his personal pursuit of Kaepernick and friends.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME - Baltimore at New England (6:30 p.m.)
BALTIMORE (12-6) - The Ravens' numero uno X-factor here is the special teams coverage units.
In a word, this group was awful last weekend in Denver while allowing a 90-yard punt return and a 104-yard kick return for touchdowns by the Broncos' Trindon Holliday and any major bring-backs here by the Patriots could short-circuit upset hopes. Look for Baltimore to kick/punt more towards the sidelines in this game and don't be surprised if Baltimore boss John Harbaugh - a special teams whiz - has a couple of defensive starters added to this unit.
NEW ENGLAND (13-4) - Stevan Ridley, RB
One week after RB Shane Vereen splashed his way onto the scene by scoring three touchdowns in the 41-28 win against Houston in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, we'll opt for the Patriots' other running back to play out as our Jim Sez X-factor here. Keep in mind that Ridley - who gains a lot of yards after contact - rushed it 15 times for 82 yards and scored on an eight-yard TD in that win and now here look for Ridley to get lots of inside handoffs and a few draw plays too against a hard-charging Ravens' front seven that could have their aggression used against 'em.
THE COLLEGE HOOPS WEEKEND REPORT
Hey, would you "sign up" right here and right now for a Final Four this year that pitted Louisville versus Kansas and Indiana vs. Duke?
No doubt that would be a college basketball junkie's dream - yes, they are the top four teams in the current Associated Press Top 25 rankings - but be sure that none of the above are without at least some blemishes and #1 Louisville (16-1, 4-0 Big East) goes into Saturday's home game against Syracuse knowing that the 71.4 percent accuracy rate from the free-throw line could be better.
The Cardinals rank a respectable fourth in the Big East in free throw percentage but F Chane Behanan (33-of-59 from the foul line for 56 percent) and freshman Montrezl Harris (17-of-29 from the charity stripe for 59 percent) both better perk it up in this area or it could come back and haunt Rick Pitino's team somewhere along the way ...
Don't look now but the only unbeaten team in the Atlantic Coast Conference is the Miami Hurricanes. It's true!
The 'Canes (13-3, 4-0 ACC) don't play again till Wednesday night when Duke comes calling on South Beach and few folks would argue the point that point guard Shane Larkin (12.2 ppg and 3.9 assists per game) is one of the few people in college hoops who makes all his teammates better. The son of Cincinnati Reds great and baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin has given Miami a major mental/emotional energy boost lately and note that he's only turned the ball over eight times in all in the last five games - now that's hot stuff! ...
Prior to all the great NFL Championship Game action on Sunday, you might want to take time out to watch #2 Indiana at Northwestern (a 1 p.m. ET tip on the Big 10 Network).
The visiting Hoosiers (15-2, 3-1 Big 10) - who've already won at Iowa and at Penn State in league play this season - come off that rather shocking 64-59 home loss against 10 ½-point underdog Wisconsin this past Tuesday night and among the things that really should have bothered Indiana head coach Tom Crean is the fact the Hoosiers shot a season-low 37 percent from the floor (that's 20-of-54 made FGs) and don't forget Indy totaled up just 7 assists in that loss. Disturbing stuff, indeed!
No doubt that Indiana will have a peppier step here but now let's see if this three-guard attack can rev it up after those three guards - that's Yogi Ferrell, Jordan Hulls and Victor Oladipo -- combined to shoot just 7-of-23 from the floor against the plucky Badgers ...
Finally, let's head out West and take the proverbial pulse of a Pac-12 that sports three league unbeatens as we head into weekend play:
No doubt UCLA (5-0 inside the Pac-12) has turned the beat around and thanks in large part to a stepped-up defensive mindset but don't sleep on either Oregon (4-0 in Pac-12 play) or Washington (also 4-0 in league action).
The Ducks (15-2 overall) - who play at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon - will look to snap the Uclans' 10-game winning streak and keep in mind Oregon's lost seven of its last eight games at UCLA. In Thursday's 76-74 non-cover win at 4-point home pup USC, there were five Ducks that scored in double figures with freshman Damyean Dotson now averaging a whopping 19 ppg in four road games this year.
Meanwhile, Washington (12-5 overall this 2012-13 campaign) has - as one beat writer said - "re-invented itself" this year and no longer looks to play at a high-flying, up-tempo rate of speed.
The Huskies are off to their best conference start since 1912 even though they entered this season without last year's top scorers Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten. Nowadays, head coach Lorenzo Romar looks to C.J. Wilcox as his go-to guy and now -- off Wednesday's pull-away 64-54 win against Colorado -- the Dawgs look to hold the fort against Utah and keep eyes peeled on Washington C Aziz N'Diaye whose 11 ppg and 9.4 rebounds-per-game numbers might not grab you but keep in mind he's blocked 10 shots in the team's last four games and he could wind up being Washington's X-factor the rest of the way this year.
Jim Hurley and his Network of Handicappers and Bloggers will bang out NFL Championship Game Side/Totals winners this Sunday as 49ers-Falcons and Ravens-Patriots battle it out plus we take you right thru Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, February 3rd -- plus get all the NBA and NCAA Basketball Winners each and every day too. So don't you get left out in the cold this wintertime! Check in with us on Game Days either right here online or at our exclusive toll-free telephone # of 1-800-323-4453 for all the winners and note the check-in times are after 1 p.m. ET for weeknight action and after 10 a.m. ET on Saturdays and Sundays.
NOTE: Get our NFL Championship Games re-cap and lots more in the next edition of Jim Sez.