NFL Playoffs — Conference Championships Preview
Sunday's AFC and NFC Championship games will determine which teams will meet at Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3. Here's a preview of each conference title game:
Sunday, Jan. 20
NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
Georgia Dome, Atlanta; 3 p.m. (ET) on FOX
Atlanta hosts San Francisco for the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. The 49ers are 6-2-1 since Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith at quarterback during a tie with the Rams in Week 10. The Falcons are 8-1 in the Georgia Dome this season, losing only a meaningless Week 17 game to the Buccaneers. San Francisco is playing in its second consecutive NFC title game, losing 20-17 in overtime to the Giants last season. Atlanta is making its first NFC Championship appearance since losing 27-10 to the Eagles in 2005.
Kaepernick has outstanding running and passing abilities, as evidenced in last weekend's 45-31 dismantling of the Packers. Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore are the keys to a 49ers offense that ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing during the regular season. If Kaepernick and Gore can force Atlanta to overplay the run, it may free up their talented receiving corps, led by Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis.
The Falcons defense must stop the run — and San Francisco drives — to avoid additional vulnerability to the option offense. With 10 sacks in the regular season, Atlanta defensive end John Abraham is his team's biggest pass rush threat. He is expected to play despite a sprained left ankle. After Abraham aggravated the injury against Seattle, the Falcons' defense put little pressure on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who nearly rallied his team to victory. Atlanta's pass defense must defend Davis better than they did Seattle's Zach Miller, who caught eight passes for 142 yards in a losing effort last Sunday.
Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan is dangerous when given time to throw to receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Each receiver presents a difficult match-up for the San Francisco secondary. Atlanta running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers can be difficult to stop on outside runs. If they can make the 49ers defense respect the run, it could create single-coverage down field for Ryan's targets.
San Francisco ranked first in the NFC in total defense in the regular season. The 49ers are likely to try to confuse Ryan the way they did Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the Divisional round victory over Green Bay. San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith, who led the NFC with 19.5 sacks, has gone four straight games without recording one. If he and defensive lineman Justin Smith can put consistent pressure on Ryan, they could force him into momentum-changing turnovers.
AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.; 6:30 p.m. (ET) on CBS
Baltimore visits New England in a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game, which the Patriots won, 23-20 by the Patriots. In that game, placekicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds left that doomed the Ravens. Cundiff was replaced this season by rookie Justin Tucker, whose 27-yard field goal as time expired lifted Baltimore over New England, 31-30, in Week 3 of the regular season. Last week, Tucker's field goal in the second overtime gave Baltimore a 38-35 win over Denver.
Quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice lead the Ravens' offense. Baltimore is at its best when Rice and Bernard Pierce are rushing effectively enough for the opposing defense to overplay the run, allowing space downfield for receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Pierce may not play after aggravating a knee injury against the Broncos. Flacco has thrown five touchdowns and no interceptions in the Ravens' two playoff wins this postseason. Baltimore must keep the pressure off Flacco, who isn't very mobile.
The Patriots may try to expose the Ravens' offensive line, which is without injured left guard Jah Reid. New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is a Pro Bowl-level run stopper. Defensive backs Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty excel, but they will be challenged by Smith and Jones. The Patriots defense ranked ninth against the run during the regular season, but it allowed an AFC-high 271.4 passing yards per game.
No quarterback has won more postseason games than the Patriots' Tom Brady (17). The only time Brady seems vulnerable is when the opposition gets pressure on him. Running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are emerging offensive talents, but receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and tight end Aaron Hernandez pose the greatest down field threats. New England will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who broke his forearm in last weekend's win over Houston.
The Ravens defense has been vulnerable to the pass in its two playoff victories, but they have come up with turnovers which have led to wins. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata can be disruptive on the line. Linebacker Ray Lewis, who will retire when Baltimore's season ends, is leading the team by example. He has 30 tackles so far in the postseason. Cornerbacks Corey Graham and Cary Williams will be tested by Brady. The Ravens must generate more pressure than the Texans did on Sunday when they were picked apart for 457 yards of offense and 41 points.