AFC & NFC Championship Game Preview
The Final Four Battle for a Trip to the Big Easy
After a dramatic weekend of Divisional Playoff Match-ups in both the AFC and NFC Conferences, the NFL looks to crown its deserving Conference Champions this Sunday in a pair of contests featuring four of the most consistent franchises in the NFL.
Mistakes are of course magnified in the NFL Playoffs, so while Peyton Manning and Pete Carroll settle in for what will undoubtedly by excruciating offseasons - and the Packers try to catch a glimpse of Colin Kaepernick's fading tail lights in the far off distance - the Falcons, 49ers, Ravens and Patriots live to fight again, all with their own reasons to believe that this season is in fact their year due to their ability to limit turnovers, coaching miscues, missed tackles and other foibles that typically doom an otherwise would-be Champion.
For the Atlanta Falcons, it's the "belief of relief" as they finally secure that first much-needed Playoff Victory with this current nucleus. Could their thrilling 30-28 victory over the Seahawks be a springboard to the Superdome?
In San Francisco, it's all about the young QB who has lit the League on fire. After rushing for an unheard of 183 yards in the 9ers dismantling of Green Bay, Colin Kaepernick will need to prove that he can perform in the big spot on the road, where the going gets much tougher. But in a league predicated on the counter-punch, will Atlanta be able to adjust in time to counter this truly unique signal caller?
The Ravens point to their retiring 1st Ballot Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, a man who sits high atop the list of the greatest leaders in the history of team sports. Baltimore is as healthy as they've been all year, and with last year's brutal loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, redemption will be their theme this Sunday Evening.
Speaking of New England, the Patriots find themselves in the familiar role of the prohibitive favorite, with Tom Brady flanked by his rejuvenated running attack and a more physical defense itching to prove that they are in fact the benchmark franchise of the NFL.
Let's break down these 2 much anticipated match-ups:
49ers at Falcons - To no one's surprise, the perpetually disrespected Falcons enter this contest as a healthy underdog, this despite the fact that they are the Number 1 Seed in the NFC and with that have earned the advantageous right to play this game in the Georgia Dome. After nearly blowing a very comfortable lead last weekend at home vs. Seattle, the Falcons will have to button things up defensively if they are to keep Kaepernick from running wild. San Francisco enters this game brimming with confidence, led by their man-child quarterback and a defense that ranks 4th by land and by air. Winners of 6 of their last 8, the 49ers encounter an equally hot Falcons Team, a group that has emerged victorious in 6 of their last 8 as well. But with Atlanta coming in at or near the bottom in passing and rushing yards allowed, they certainly appear to be vulnerable to Frank Gore and the San Francisco running attack. The Falcons will of course look to establish their running game as well so as to give Matt Ryan a chance to isolate and spring what could very well be the best wide receiving core in the League. Flawless pass protection will be vital to Atlanta's hopes, whereas San Francisco can rely on Kaepernick to make a play with his legs when called upon to do so.
In the end, this 49ers team is simply too much for the Falcons and quite possibly for anyone right now. Frank Gore will have a big day rushing the football, thus allowing the tough 9er defense to play from in front while the confident young Kaepernick continues to make plays and befuddle defensive coordinators.
49ers 30 Falcons 19
Ravens at Patriots - Very few teams roll into Gilette Stadium in late January with a true belief that they can win. The Ravens don't think they can win either.
They know that can.
Armed with a 31-30 victory over these same Patriots earlier this season and the bitter memory of last year's near miss in this very game, the Ravens, galvanized by Ray Lewis, come into this game feeling as though victory is their destiny. Of course Ring Ceremonies have been the Patriots' destiny over the last decade, and having run off 10 of their last 11, the Pats won't be arriving at Gillette on Sunday Night expecting to leave with a loss either.
For New England it all begins with their future Hall of Fame QB Tom Brady, who completed over 400 passes for nearly 5,000 yards and 34 TDs during the regular season. But in addition to an improved rushing attack to complement Brady, the Patriots' run defense has stepped up this season, allowing just a shade over 100 yards/game. Although not stellar, this has kept the more physically imposing offenses from wearing down the Pats' defense and keeping the ball away from the potent Pats' Offense. That rush defense will have to come ready to play as Ray Rice looms like an angry brahma bull corralled in a small hot pen.
Flanking Rice is Raven QB Joe Flacco, who has followed up a so-so regular season with two impressive Playoff Wins. Flacco is no stranger to playoff success when the mercury plummets, but he has yet to taste success in the AFC Title Game, with 2 losses in 2 tries. Success on the ground will be vital for Baltimore, but with Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin flanked out wide, Flacco will have to exploit the Patriots' 29th ranked pass defense if he plans to keep up with the Patriots' high scoring offensive machine. Turnovers as always will play a role and in a game that promises to come down to the wire, look for the Ravens to make the key play and shock the world, setting up a Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl.
Ravens 30 Patriots 27