Rice, Cruz poised for big Championship Sundays

Scott Engel of RotoExperts.com previews the AFC and NFC Championship Games from fantasy perspectives, and sets you up to gain advantages in the NFL.com Playoff Challenge.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

The key performer in this game is Ray Rice, who didn't provide the needed statistical upside in the divisional round, but will be carried over into this week by most NFL.com Playoff Challenge participants because he is easily the best fantasy RB remaining. The Patriots are formidable on the defensive line and OLB Jerod Mayo will attempt to track Rice as both a runner and receiver. But the Ravens should move the ball well enough in the passing game to set up Rice for a short yardage TD run or two, and Rice should be able to break a long run against a softened defense later in the game. Joe Flacco may actually come out throwing to loosen the defense against the run, and Torrey Smith is a key performer after being shut down last week. Expect Smith to score on a deep throw, and Anquan Boldin is a very good start against what is still a highly vulnerable secondary. Expect 250-plus passing yards and at least two scoring passes from Flacco.

AFC Championship breakdown

It will be strength versus strength when the Ravens and Patriots meet for the AFC title. We break down who has the matchup advantage. More ...

The Baltimore defense is obviously stiffer than Denver's, but the New England offensive line is playing well and Tom Brady will still try to connect with his tight ends, who present matchup issues for any defense. Brady faces a more opportunistic secondary this week, though, and could get picked off more than once. Still, you have to stick with him, as Rob Gronkowski should score at least once, and Aaron Hernandez could get his yardage. Wes Welker is becoming something of an afterthought as the TEs shine, and could still enjoy a big day if the Ravens focus too much on Gronkowski and Hernandez. Avoid the Ravens defense against the Patriots passing game. The Patriots RBs are mediocre and unpredictable and should certainly not be used.

New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers

This is a much tougher task for Eli Manning against a formidable defense that is simply much better than the ones he faced in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Still, Manning threw for 311 yards, two TDs and two interceptions when these teams met in Week 10, and likely will not perform badly, so carry him over to this week in the NFL.com Playoff Challenge. The 49ers have a good pass rush, and will have to get rid of the ball quickly to Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. Cruz should post good numbers for those in PPR formats and Manningham is a quality sleeper for this week. The 49ers will be paying extra attention to Hakeem Nicks after his monster game last week, and he should not be expected to explode again to the same levels. Manning could still get the ball to other key targets, such as Jake Ballard. The San Francisco run defense could certainly limit the output of both Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. The New York RBs should be left behind for other options if possible.

NFC Championship breakdown

With two fierce defenses

on the field, the team that best controls the line of scrimmage Sunday could win the NFC Championship Game. More ...

The Niners do have the ability to take away New York's offensive balance and register some sacks and turnovers, which makes them the best possible defensive unit left in the playoffs other than the Giants. Alex Smith soared above expectations last week against the Saints, and has done a fine job of limiting mistakes this year. But the New York pass rush is fearsome and could disrupt his timing and the ability to get the ball regularly to Vernon Davis, who caught a 31-yard TD pass against the Giants in Week 10. The Giants will certainly focus extra attention on Davis and he might disappoint this week. Michael Crabtree and the other 49ers wideouts are simply not reliable and the San Francisco passing game could sputter. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter might be swarmed often on early downs and Smith is in danger of being hit often. Steer clear of the 49ers key offensive players this week for the most part.

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