Championship weekend offers a great mix of old and new, familiar and unfamiliar.
We have a rematch in the AFC title game (Baltimore at New England) and a meeting of two teams whose coaches have not met (San Francisco at Atlanta).
The Patriots and 49ers are among the most winning franchises of the past 30-plus years in NFL history, combining for eight titles. The Ravens and Falcons, with just over 60 years of combined NFL existence between the two, have a limited Super Bowl fingerprint. The Ravens won in their one appearance in 2000; the Falcons lost in their only shot, back in 1998.
All four quarterbacks left standing have different styles, experience and legacies to uphold or create. The same can be said for the head coaches, too. The Brothers Harbaugh are both back in the conference title games. Neither won last season, but if each wins Sunday they’ll meet in New Orleans for the Lombardi Trophy.
"I don't know what it says," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I'm proud of my brother and what he's accomplished and proud of our guys for being in the position they're in and ready to forge ahead."
Here are 12 fascinating story lines to follow for Sunday’s game:
1. This is the first time Atlanta will host the NFC championship game, and some are calling it the biggest sporting event in the city’s history. It’s an intriguing battle between the NFC’s top two seeds, which doesn’t often happen. And for those history buffs, it’s the second time these teams met in the postseason — the first being a 20-18 Falcons victory in the 1998 playoffs, which was the last (only) time they made a Super Bowl. That game was sandwiched between “The Catch II” and one of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history. Good times.
2. History also plays a big role in the quarterbacks who are in this game. Matt Ryan got over the hump with his first postseason victory. Colin Kaepernick, who has stormed the league after only eight NFL starts, beat the Packers in memorable fashion. One of them will make a Super Bowl. Ryan was far from perfect against the Seahawks, although he made the most of the final drive and kept attacking Seattle’s great corners. That will help him prepare for this week. Kaepernick looked fearless on the big stage. He likely won’t be rattled after having faced loud road games at New Orleans, New England and Seattle in the past six weeks. Kaepernick has Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Vernon Davis. Ryan has Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, whose career lives another day. Edge goes to the Falcons in that department, but the 49ers might be the best defense they’ve faced yet.
3. The Falcons got some good news Monday when head coach Mike Smith said that it appears DE John Abraham’s injury is not serious. Abraham re-injured his ankle in Sunday’s win and came out after only 15 plays. But Smith hinted that he expects him to play against the 49ers. “We anticipate John will be back out practicing with us before the end of the week,” Smith said. That’s huge. The Falcons’ pass rush is practically nil without him. Nothing against replacements Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi, but they can’t do what Abraham does. Kaepernick ate up the Packers’ defense with runs around the ends who failed to contain him. That will be part of Abraham’s major job in this game. The Falcons don’t want to have to blitz and rely on man coverage all day.
4. There were big field-goal attempts in the divisional-game weekend, including two game-winners. If there is a worrisome area for the 49ers now, it’s at kicker. But Jim Harbaugh, after bringing in Billy Cundiff last week, has said that David Akers is his guy. Akers hit his only FG attempt last week, a 36-yarder, and was 6-of-6 on XPs. Previously, though, he had been caught in a nightmare, having missed eight of his 23 FG attempts since the bye. Falcons PK Matt Bryant nailed a 49-yarder to win the game last week. Cundiff will remain on the roster, but Harbaugh said, "David's our kicker.” But can Akers be counted on in a game-winning situation?
5. It was crucial for the Falcons to do two things last Sunday that they had not done consistently well all season — run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense. The Falcons did an excellent job with their run game against the Seahawks by alternating deep throws and sticking with the run, which was an inspired effort from Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers and the Falcons’ offensive line. Can they do the same against the 49ers’ stout front? Surprisingly, the Packers found some holes last week. The Falcons’ defense also mostly did a good job against Marshawn Lynch, although Russell Wilson did beat them with some scrambles against a tired front four. That can’t happen against Kaepernick, with Frank Gore and LaMichael James also strong options on the ground.
6. Let’s face it: The 49ers are expected to win this. The fans outside Atlanta think so. And Vegas thinks so: According to R.J. Bell of Pregame.com, the 49ers are now favored by 4.5 points, which make the Falcons the biggest home underdog since the playoffs expanded in 1978 and the biggest home underdog of any kind in conference championship history. That likely says as much about the 49ers’ prowess as it does about the Falcons’ lack of it. Because for as many close games (all but two games came down to one score) as they’ve had at home this season, their only loss there was a meaningless setback to the Buccaneers in Week 17 with the Falcons already having wrapped up the top seed.
7. Five times when we have had a conference title-game rematch, it fared poorly for the team that lost the first time — five lost in the chance for redemption — although we haven’t had this happen since “The Drive” and “The Fumble” in back-to-back seasons in 1986 and ’87. Last season’s game could have been called either “The Strip” (Sterling Moore knocking the ball from Lee Evans’ hands) or “The Shank” (Cundiff boffing a 32-yard FG attempt that would have forced overtime). What nickname will we have this time around? It just smells like a will-be classic considering how the past two head-to-head matchups have ended.
8. Recent history that can’t be overlooked: Joe Flacco has bested Tom Brady in the statistical department the past few meetings, including Week Three this season and the title game last year. In his past three games against the Patriots, Flacco has completed 77-of-110 passes for 973 yards, nine TDs and two INTs. In his two playoff games this season, Flacco has five TDs passes, no picks, 613 yards and a 120.0 passer rating. His five road playoff victories tie Eli Manning for the most ever. Patriots fans don’t want to hear it, but Flacco is the AFC’s counterpart to Manning, aka Patriot Kryptonite. Critics have shredded his game up and down, but he remains steadfast in his confidence — and keeps backing it up with big victories. The X-factor, as usual, likely will be Ray Rice: The Patriots stoned him pretty well in the AFC championship game but lost track of him a few times in a 101-rushing-yard game in Week Three.
9. Brady’s playoff résumé speaks for itself — his 17 postseason victories (with only six losses) are the most all time, and the bitter Super Bowl disappointments the past five seasons still linger on his tongue. But it must be pointed out that the Ravens have his number a bit. In his past four games against them, he’s only 2-2 with four TD passes and seven INTs. He couldn’t hold a 13-0 lead in Baltimore in Week Three and needed some luck (e.g. Evans, Cundiff) to beat the Ravens a year ago at home. Now Brady must accomplish the feat without star TE Ron Gronkowski, whose season is done. But Brady and Bill Belichick are the masters of adjusting, game-planning and rising up to the occasion — the bigger the stage, typically the better. They’ll be ready.
10. Ray Lewis hasn’t missed a snap this postseason — 184 of them in two games — and has racked up 30 tackles. No other NFL player in these playoffs has more than 18 (teammates Dannell Ellerbe and Cary Williams). And in a way, the Ravens’ incredible defensive effort is just as typified by players such as Ellerbe and Williams as it is Lewis. We all know that his football-playing career has only one or two games remaining. Beat the Patriots and Lewis could have the ultimate sendoff — his Jerome Bettis moment, winning in his final game. Sunday will be Lewis’ 20th playoff game, and he has gone 12-7 in the postseason up to now. Does he have one more vintage performance left in him? The Patriots might be able to take advantage of him in coverage, but if they want to run the ball, they’ll have to go through Lewis, who has been everywhere since returning from his triceps injury.
11. As good as Brady is with Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd, the run game must be respected. Shane Vereen emerged with his finest game as a pro, catching two touchdowns (both terrific plays) and running for another. Stevan Ridley, despite working less than normal, still had 82 yards and a TD on 15 rushes. That has been one of the biggest differences between this year’s running game and last year’s when Hernandez had to take some handoffs. The Ravens shut down the Broncos’ rushing attack and they did a good job against the Patriots (77 yards, 34 carries, 2.3 average) in Week Three. But things were wholly different back then. Danny Woodhead was the main option in the hurry-up in that game, and he’s questionable with a thumb injury. Vereen was inactive that game. Ridley hadn’t hit his stride. And most importantly, the Ravens were far healthier — and at home.
12. Those won’t be the only changes. The Patriots’ secondary is almost entirely new. Devin McCourty, who started next to Kyle Arrington at corner in Week Three, will be at safety. The corners will be Aqib Talib (coming off a great game against Andre Johnson) and Alfonzo Dennard. Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs (Achilles) was still hurt that game, but CB Lardarius Webb and LB Jameel McClain — who since have been lost for the season — were on the field. Ravens WR Torrey Smith, who came up so big against the Broncos, played with a heavy heart that night, less than 24 hours after the motorcycle death of his brother. Smith was the hero that night, catching six passes for 127 yards and two scores. Oh, and there will be real officials this time; back in September, replacements worked the game. Belichick last was seen that night chasing one down to get an explanation on why Ravens PK Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal was ruled good.