The improbable last-second comebacks of Baltimore and Atlanta in second-round playoff games were another reminder that there is never absolute certainty in the NFL.
Even so, FOXSports.com is going to try and give you the next closest thing heading into this weekend’s conference championship matchups.
We’ve ranked all four remaining teams — New England, Baltimore, Atlanta and San Francisco — in 10 categories and rewarded points ranging from best (four) to worst (one). Based upon this, the final totals should reveal which squads will be playing in Super Bowl XLVII
Emphasis on should.
So who do we think is headed to New Orleans? Continue reading to find out.
New England (4): No quarterback has won more postseason games (17) or posted a higher winning percentage (.739 – minimum 15 starts) than Tom Brady. Already the NFL’s all-time postseason leader in completions, Brady is now 227 yards away from surpassing Brett Favre’s all-time postseason mark of 5,855 passing yards.
Baltimore (3): When it comes to deep passing accuracy, there is nobody hotter right now than Baltimore’s Joe Flacco. He is averaging a ridiculous 10.8 yards an attempt in two playoff games. A 38-35 double-overtime win over Denver marked Flacco’s fifth career road playoff victory, which is tied with Eli Manning of the New York Giants for the most in NFL history.
Atlanta (2): Matt Ryan took a big step toward securing that vaunted “elite” quarterback status with his first playoff win last Sunday against Seattle. Ryan also continued his penchant for clutch play. He has led 22 fourth-quarter/overtime comeback victories in his first five seasons.
San Francisco (1): Yup, Jim Harbaugh made the right decision switching from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick at midseason. Kaepernick couldn’t have had a better postseason debut than in last Saturday’s 45-31 win over Green Bay. He set the NFL’s all-time single-game rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards and two scores. Kaepernick added another two scores and 263 yards passing.
San Francisco (4): Kaepernick gives San Francisco a running dimension like no other team remaining in the postseason. For meat-and-potato carries, the 49ers have one of the NFL’s most consistent rushers in Frank Gore. He is coming off a 119-yard, one-touchdown effort on 23 carries against the Packers. LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon play complementary roles.
New England (3): After having morphed into a pass-first team – and who could blame them with Brady under center – the Patriots are fielding their best rushing attack since Corey Dillon had a 1,600-yard campaign in 2004. Stevan Ridley, who had 1,263 rushing yards in the regular season, continues to lead the way. He is complemented by Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, who scored three touchdowns (one rushing, two receiving) in last Sunday’s 41-28 win over Houston.
Baltimore (2): Ray Rice rebounded from a two-fumble performance in Baltimore’s playoff opener against Indianapolis by plowing for 131 yards and one touchdown on 30 attempts against Denver. Getting him on track against New England would bode well. The Ravens have a 6-0 playoff record when fielding a 100-yard rusher. Expect a larger role Sunday for swift rookie Bernard Pierce, who had only five carries against Denver after gaining 103 vs. the Colts.
Atlanta (1): The Falcons rediscovered their running game against Seattle with Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers combining for 162 yards on 24 carries. Atlanta’s 167 total rushing yards marked the team’s highest output of the season. Turner provides the power; “Quizz” adds speed and shiftiness.
Atlanta (4): It’s a pick-your-poison nightmare when trying to slow Atlanta’s plethora of targets. Roddy White (1,351 yards) and Julio Jones (1,198) combined as the NFL’s most productive receiving tandem on one team during the regular season. Tight end Tony Gonzalez remains a matchup nightmare and Harry Douglas is a productive fourth option. If that isn’t enough, the Falcons have rediscovered the screen pass under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Baltimore (3): Torrey Smith’s emergence as a lethal deep receiving threat continued against Denver as he embarrassed a future Hall of Fame cornerback in Champ Bailey. Jacoby Jones also has wheels – his 70-yard touchdown catch in the waning seconds sent last Saturday’s game into overtime – and Anquan Boldin may be the NFL’s most physically strong possession receiver. Tight end Dennis Pitta doesn’t post monster numbers but he’s good for two or three catches a game that move the chains.
New England (2): The loss of Rob Gronkowski (broken forearm) eliminates the two tight-end coverage nightmare that his pairing with Aaron Hernandez provided. But it’s not like Brady is bereft of weapons. Wes Welker extended his postseason streak of games with at least six receptions to eight with an eight-catch, 131-yard showing against Houston. Welker and fellow wideout Brandon Lloyd both had 100-yard efforts against Baltimore in Week 3 of the regular season.
San Francisco (1): Season-ending knee injuries suffered by Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams thinned out San Francisco’s wide receiver unit, but Michael Crabtree has picked up the slack with a breakthrough campaign. Crabtree had nine catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Just like last season, the 49ers have re-discovered tight end Vernon Davis during the playoffs. Davis gashed the Packers down the seam for a 44-yard grab that led to a touchdown.
San Francisco (4): This is the nastiest unit left in the playoffs. All three first-round picks – left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis – are living up to their lofty draft status. Despite playing with an injured right arm, Staley did an outstanding job keeping Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews in check. At 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, right guard Alex Boone is a load when he pulls.
New England (3): Long-time position coach Dante Scarnecchia has worked his magic once again with this unit. Nate Solder (left) and Sebastian Vollmer (right) have emerged as one of the NFL’s top young tackle combinations. Although hampered by injuries for a good chunk of the regular season, Logan Mankins is still a top-flight left guard.
Atlanta (2): Like Scarnecchia, new Falcons offensive line coach Pat Hill deserves praise for Atlanta’s improvement in 2012. Left tackle Sam Baker has made the most strides. Albeit the Seahawks were playing without their best pass-rusher, Chris Clemons (knee), it was still surprising that the Falcons didn’t surrender a sack and rushed so effectively against one of the NFL’s most physical defenses. One player to watch Sunday is Falcons rookie right guard Peter Konz. He held up well against Seattle but could get targeted for one-on-one matchups against 49ers stud defensive lineman Justin Smith.
Baltimore (1): A unit that was a liability in mid-December is a strength after several personnel changes. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who has squandered Hall of Fame potential by being too undisciplined off the field to control his weight, is again playing at a high level now that he’s back in shape. Jah Reid’s season-ending toe injury led to Baltimore substituting McKinnie and shifting Michael Oher to right tackle where he is better suited. The return of right guard Marshal Yanda (ankle) also provided a huge boost. The Ravens have surrendered only two sacks and rushed for 325 yards in two playoff games.
San Francisco (4): Even with a partially torn triceps, Justin Smith still sets the pace for San Francisco’s defense. It wasn’t an accident that outside linebacker Aldon Smith’s sack numbers dropped when Smith was sidelined during the final two regular-season games. The 49ers also have the capability to rush star inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. A-gap blitzes gave the Packers fits.
Baltimore (3): Terrell Suggs, who missed the first six games with an Achilles tendon injury, finally started looking like his old self against the Broncos. Suggs was a terror with 10 tackles and two sacks. Fellow outside linebacker Paul Kruger has emerged as a nice pass-rushing complement. Kruger had a team-high nine sacks during the regular season and added another 2.5 against the Colts.
New England (2): Pressuring the quarterback remains a collective effort for the Patriots. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich, a one-time journeyman whose penchant for big plays is reminiscent of Tedy Bruschi, led the team with eight sacks. Rookie end Chandler Jones ranks second with six, although his health entering Sunday’s game is in question after he was forced to leave against Houston with an ankle injury.
Atlanta (1): How much John Abraham means to Atlanta’s pass rush became evident again vs. Seattle after the NFL’s active sack leader was forced out when he aggravated an ankle injury late in the second quarter. The inability to affect Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the second half almost cost the Falcons the victory. Even if not completely healthy, Abraham is expected to play Sunday. No other Atlanta defender had more than four sacks during the regular season.
San Francisco (4): The 49ers had the best regular-season ranking among the remaining playoff teams, having surrendered an average of 94.2 yards a game and a mere seven touchdowns. But San Francisco wasn’t nearly as dominant as last season when only three opponents posted 100-yard rushing games, none more than 124 yards. The 49ers were gashed for 136-plus yards five times in 2012 and had a 1-3-1 record in those contests.
New England (3): A strong front seven led by defensive end Vince Wilfork and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo paces the Patriots. Mayo notched a whopping 184 tackles during the regular season. New England also has benefitted from the continuing development of young defensive linemen Kyle Love and Justin Francis. After getting trampled for 180 rushing yards by San Francisco in a Week 15 loss, the Patriots held their next three opponents (Jacksonville, Miami and Houston) to a 77-yard average.
Atlanta (2): The Falcons were up for the challenge presented by Seattle’s read-option attack, holding All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch to 46 yards on 19 carries. Kaepernick, though, presents a much greater threat than Wilson, whose 60 rushing yards last Sunday came on scrambles rather than keepers out of the read-option. Kaepernick will be trying to duplicate the regular-season success of Carolina dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, who accounted for 703 yards from scrimmage (201 rushing and 502 passing) and six touchdowns in two games against the Falcons.
Baltimore (1): A streak of nine consecutive seasons with a top-nine ranking against the run came to a screeching halt in 2012. The Ravens surrendered 1,965 yards, which is the most in the franchise’s 17-year history. But as some key defenders like inside linebacker Ray Lewis and defensive end Haloti Ngata got healthier, the Ravens began showing significant improvement. Dannell Ellerbe emerged in Lewis’ absence.
Atlanta (4): The offseason acquisition of cornerback Asante Samuel from Philadelphia for a seventh-round draft pick was a steal in several ways. Not only did he rebound from a disappointing 2011 campaign, Samuel provided an outspoken form of veteran leadership that was lacking until his arrival. Safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud fed off that energy and came into their own, combining for 151 tackles and 10 interceptions during the regular season. The unit was able to weather the loss of cornerback Brent Grimes, Atlanta’s 2012 franchise player who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the season-opener.
San Francisco (3): The only postseason safety tandem playing as well as Moore and DeCoud are San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. Goldson’s nose for the football earned him his “Hawk” nickname. Whitner is playing better than he ever did with Buffalo, where he spent five seasons after being the No. 8 overall pick in the 2006 draft. Another player who has improved under 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is cornerback Tarell Brown, who had a 39-yard interception return against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers that helped lead to San Francisco’s second touchdown.
Baltimore (2): The Ravens survived the loss of top cornerback Lardarius Webb (ACL) thanks to strong seasons by Cary Williams and Corey Graham. Graham’s interception of Denver quarterback Peyton Manning led to Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal. Free safety Ed Reed hasn’t provided the type of big plays lately that will ultimately land him in the Hall of Fame. Strong safety Bernard Pollard is a hammer but sometimes gets into trouble for being too aggressive.
New England (1): The midseason trade with Tampa Bay for cornerback Aqib Talib upgraded the secondary. Devin McCourty also has excelled since shifting from cornerback to free safety. Three of McCourty’s team-high five interceptions during the regular season came in the end zone. This unit remains prone to miscommunication and breakdowns, although far less than earlier in the season.
Atlanta (4): There’s another “Matty Ice” on the roster besides Ryan. Matt Bryant connected on the 49-yard field goal that gave Atlanta a 30-28 victory over Seattle. Bryant has proven himself one of the NFL’s most clutch kickers during his 11-year NFL career. Falcons punter Matt Bosher, who also handles kickoffs, must rebound from a poor showing against the Seahawks. Special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong has drawn consideration for head coaching vacancies.
Baltimore (3): If Sunday’s game comes down to the wire again, the Ravens won’t be worrying about another choke from their kicker thanks to Justin Tucker’s emergence. Since supplanting Billy Cundiff – the goat of last season’s AFC title game for shanking a 32-yard field goal – Tucker has connected on 32 of 35 attempts. His 27-yard kick as time expired helped Baltimore defeat New England, 31-30, in September. Baltimore, though, must shore the coverage errors that allowed Denver’s Trindon Holliday to return a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns. Jacoby Jones earned Pro Bowl honors after returning an NFL-high two kickoffs for touchdowns.
New England (2): Matthew Slater’s special-teams prowess has earned him two straight Pro Bowl berths. The honor is well earned. New England’s opponents had meager averages in punt (6.7 yards) and kickoff returns (20.5) during the regular season with no touchdowns scored. But like the Ravens, New England must rebound from a shaky showing against Houston. The Patriots yielded a 94-yard kickoff return to open the game and a 32-yard Zoltan Mesko punt gave the Texans good field position just before halftime. Houston converted both possessions into field goals. Mesko did have two punts of 60-plus yards and was consistent throughout the regular season. The Patriots are one of nine teams to have registered a punt and kickoff return for touchdowns in 2012. After missing six of his first 25 field goals, Stephen Gostkowski has now connected on 10 consecutive attempts.
San Francisco (1): As if a stout defense wasn’t enough of a hindrance for opponents, the 49ers field the NFC’s top punter in Andy Lee. The situation isn’t as rosy at kicker, where David Akers missed 13 field goals during the regular season. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has decided to stick with Akers, whose struggles are believed to stem from complications following offseason surgery for a double hernia. The 49ers signed Cundiff to compete with Akers heading into the postseason. Cundiff remains on the roster, but Akers kicked against Green Bay and converted on his lone field-goal try. Backup cornerback C.J. Spillman recovered a muffed punt return deep inside Green Bay territory and registered a great solo tackle later in the game on another punt. Ted Ginn Jr. is a dangerous returner but hasn’t made as much of an impact as last season.
New England (4): If the Patriots run the table and win Super Bowl XLVII, Bill Belichick will tie the late Tom Landry for the most postseason victories (20) in NFL history. Belichick is 18-7 in the postseason with three championship rings, although he has lost in both of New England’s last two Super Bowl appearances. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is making people forget what a failure he was as head coach in Denver with the way his unit has performed.
Baltimore (3): John Harbaugh has joined Chuck Knox and Bill Cowher as the only head coaches to have ever reached the playoffs in each of their first five seasons. Baltimore’s 61 victories since Harbaugh was hired rank only behind New England (63) in that span. Harbaugh’s decision to replace offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with Jim Caldwell in mid-December is paying dividends. Dean Pees is the team’s fourth different defensive coordinator since Harbaugh arrived. Two of his predecessors – Rex Ryan (New York Jets) and Chuck Pagano (Indianapolis) – are now NFL head coaches.
San Francisco (2): Jim Harbaugh is the eighth head coach in NFL history to reach a conference or league championship in his first two seasons (the late Paul Brown holds the record with Cleveland from 1950 to 1955). Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who emerged as a head coaching candidate himself earlier this month, deserve high marks for Kaepernick’s development and salvaging Smith’s career the previous season before his benching.
Atlanta (1): Head coach Mike Smith flies under the radar, but the Falcons have posted a 57-27 overall record since his 2008 hiring. Atlanta’s .679 winning percentage in that span is the second-highest in the NFL behind New England (.729). Smith, though, wasn’t getting the respect he deserves because Atlanta lost its opening playoff game in three prior seasons under his watch. The streak ended against Seattle. The hiring of two new coordinators – Dirk Koetter (offense) and Mike Nolan (defense) – proved huge upgrades in 2012.
Baltimore (4): Like the New York Giants and Green Bay the previous two seasons, the Ravens are an example of a team floundering in mid-December before catching fire. Lewis’ return and announcement that this will be his final season provided a huge spark. The Ravens enter Sunday’s game with confidence, having defeated New England in September and pushing the Patriots to the brink of elimination in last season’s AFC title game.
New England (3): The Patriots are almost invincible at home during the playoffs. New England has a 7-1 all-time record in AFC title games, including a 4-0 mark under Belichick. Brady improved to 11-2 in home playoff games with last Sunday’s win over Houston.
Atlanta (2): The Falcons are set to host an NFC title game for the first time in the franchise’s 47-season history. Ryan has a 34-6 career record inside the Georgia Dome. There is actually less pressure surrounding the Falcons this week than entering the Seahawks game because Atlanta finally got over the hump and won in the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
San Francisco (1): The 49ers are a better team than the one that reached last season’s NFC title game. As a second-year quarterback, there were questions whether Kaepernick was ready for the pressure that comes with being in the playoffs. There are no more doubts after his brilliant performance against Green Bay. Playing inside a difficult domed environment will provide another challenge. Kaepernick is 2-2 on the road since becoming San Francisco’s starter.
Final point totals: New England 27, Baltimore 25, San Francisco 25, Atlanta 23
Super Bowl projection: New England vs. San Francisco.