New faces add spice to familiar look
Atlanta, welcome to the club.
The Falcons are the only newcomer to this season’s four-team field in the NFL conference championship games. San Francisco, New England and Baltimore are all making return trips, marking the first time three squads are back since Dallas, San Francisco and Buffalo pulled the repeat in the 1993 season.
The Ravens and Patriots are also the first two AFC teams to meet in a conference championship rematch since Cleveland and Denver played 25 seasons ago.
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, no four-team coupling has ever made repeat appearances in the conference title games. The chances for that happening this season ended when the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants failed to reach the playoffs.
Here’s a preview of Sunday’s Falcons-49ers and Ravens-Patriots matchups.
San Francisco (12-4-1) at Atlanta (14-3)
When: 3 p.m. ET Sunday (FOX)
Reviewing the second round: With 31 seconds remaining in Sunday’s game between Seattle and Atlanta in the Georgia Dome, Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run and it appeared a third matchup this season between NFC West rivals was in the offing. The Falcons, though, drove 41 yards in 23 seconds for Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal with eight seconds remaining to seal a 30-28 victory over Seattle, meaning the 49ers would be headed to Atlanta rather than hosting the Seahawks next weekend. San Francisco didn’t have to sweat nearly as much, blowing open a 45-31 home win over Green Bay in the second half. San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick set an NFL single-game rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards and two touchdowns. He also passed for 263 more yards and another two scores. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan wasn’t as spectacular, but he did complete two passes for 41 yards on the final drive to put Bryant in position for his 49-yard kick. The win marked Ryan’s 22nd career fourth-quarter/overtime comeback and his first career playoff victory.
Last meeting: The Falcons and 49ers haven’t met since Week 4 of the 2010 season at the Georgia Dome. At that time, Mike Singletary was San Francisco’s head coach and Kaepernick was playing at the University of Nevada. The Falcons won, 16-14, when Bryant hit a 43-yard field goal with two seconds remaining.
49ers player to watch: Tight end Vernon Davis. An afterthought since Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith as San Francisco’s starting quarterback, Davis had a 44-yard catch down the seam against Green Bay that led to a 49ers touchdown. Davis was targeted five times overall by Kaepernick. He could get even more opportunities Sunday considering the damage caused by Seattle tight end Zach Miller (eight catches for 142 yards and one touchdown) against Atlanta’s defense.
Falcons player to watch: Defensive end John Abraham. The NFL’s active leader in sacks (122) aggravated an ankle injury late in the second quarter against Seattle and didn’t return. Without him on the field, the Falcons couldn’t sack Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter on his 13 pass attempts. Abraham is Atlanta’s only major pass-rushing threat, leading the team with 10 this season. No other Falcons defender had more than four sacks during the regular season.
Summary: The experience of playing a mobile quarterback like Wilson had better help the Falcons prepare for Kaepernick, who is even more dangerous running the read-option behind a bullying offensive line. Otherwise, Atlanta will be in deep trouble. The Falcons did a solid job holding Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 46 rushing yards and forcing a fumble, but San Francisco’s ground game is even more prolific. The 49ers won’t get caught off-guard by Atlanta’s rushing attack like the Seahawks did with Michael Turner pacing the team’s season-high 167-yard effort with 98 yards. If Atlanta’s offensive line can hold up as well as it did against Seattle, Ryan will have the chance to make some hay downfield with wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree continued his hot play by scorching the Packers with nine catches for 119 yards and two scores. The Falcons know they can rely upon a clutch kicker in Bryant; the 49ers have to hope that David Akers is back on track after making his lone attempt against Green Bay.
Baltimore (12-6) at New England (13-4)
When: 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday
Reviewing the second round: A regular-season win over Houston in Week 14 helped the Patriots edge the Texans for a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage in the divisional round. New England didn’t squander it by posting a 41-28 victory at Gillette Stadium. The Ravens, who lost to Denver in Week 15, were far more successful in their rematch with a 38-35 triumph over the Broncos in double-overtime. The victory, though, was improbable as quarterback Joe Flacco connected with Jacoby Jones on a 70-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left in regulation to tie the score. The Patriots had an easier time with Houston, holding a double-digit lead for nearly the entire second half. Leading the way was quarterback Tom Brady, who threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover.
Last meeting: Justin Tucker’s 27-yard field goal as time expired gave Baltimore a 31-30 home win in Week 3. Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith’s big day Saturday against the Broncos — three catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns — should come as no surprise to the Patriots. Smith was even more effective against New England with 127 yards and two scores on six receptions.
Ravens player to watch: Left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Now that he has gotten back into shape and out of head coach John Harbaugh’s doghouse, McKinnie has helped stabilize an offensive line that did a masterful job protecting Flacco against Indianapolis and Denver. The Ravens also may be catching a break as Patriots rookie defensive end Chandler Jones (45 tackles, six sacks in the regular season) suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter against Houston and didn’t return.
Patriots player to watch: Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. He was a beast in last year’s AFC title game win over the Ravens, registering six tackles (three for losses) and one sack as well as creating plays for others by overwhelming Baltimore’s offensive line late in the game. Wilfork’s play didn’t dip in 2012 as he recently earned first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his nine-year NFL career.
Summary: The spark brought by the playoff return of inside linebacker Ray Lewis from a torn triceps and Baltimore’s quest to get him to a Super Bowl before his impending retirement has helped the Ravens reach their third AFC title game in five seasons. The Ravens lost in last season’s conference championship when Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal in the waning seconds. The Ravens should feel more confident in Tucker, who has made 32 of 35 attempts in his rookie season. Flacco outplayed Brady in last year’s matchup, which may provide further motivation for the latter entering this contest. Brady will be without one of his favorite receiving targets as tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his left forearm again vs. Houston. He is out for the season. The Patriots are a much better running team now than when facing Baltimore in Week 3. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen both scored against Houston. The status of fellow running back Danny Woodhead is in question after he injured his thumb Sunday.