Highlighting the 10 Best Individual Matchups of NFL's Conference Championships

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJanuary 18, 2013

Highlighting the 10 Best Individual Matchups of NFL's Conference Championships

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    We’re almost home.

    The battle to reach Super Bowl XLVII and claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy comes down to three teams that have not been to the Big Game in more than a decade and one club that makes it almost an annual event.

    With a victory on Sunday, the New England Patriots will head to the Super Bowl for the second straight year and the sixth time in a dozen seasons.

    On the other hand, the Baltimore Ravens haven’t been to the Big Game since the 2000 season, while the San Francisco 49ers (1994) and Atlanta Falcons (1998) have been waiting even longer.

    What will it take for each of these four teams to continue playing after this weekend? We take a look at the key matchups in these settings—from veteran quarterbacks facing opportunistic defenders to a pair of signal-callers each coming off their first playoff win to head coaches who know each other and don’t know each other so well.

    Sit back and enjoy the last Sunday of the season with more than one game.

San Francisco 49ers LB NaVorro Bowman vs. Atlanta Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez

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    What a meeting between one of the young stars in the National Football League and a pro who appears to be in the final stages of his magnificent career.

    For the second consecutive season, San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman led the team in tackles (149). Throw in a pair of sacks, six passes defended and an interception, and the rangy defender showed why he’s one of the best in the business.

    Only Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice has caught more passes in the regular season than Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was finally on the winning side of the ledger in a playoff game in last week’s victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

    While there will be plenty of focus on the battle between the Atlanta wideouts and the San Francisco secondary, Gonzalez could find the going good against the 49ers’ underneath pass coverage.

    Of course, not if Bowman can help it.

Baltimore Ravens FS Ed Reed vs. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady

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    It’s a clash between two veterans who are arguably the very best at their craft.

    Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed, who ranks 10th in NFL history with 61 career regular-season interceptions, has eyes on another mark as well. His eight career postseason picks are just one shy of the record as well.

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (5,629) is less than 300 yards shy of Brett Favre’s NFL record of 5,855 career postseason passing yards, and four aerial scores away from tying Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana’s NFL record of 45 career postseason touchdown passes.

    Odds are we’ll see some sort of big play from the Baltimore defense. In seven previous meetings with Brady (including playoffs), the Ravens defense has picked him off eight times (compared to his seven touchdown passes), sacked him 16 times and forced three fumbles, two of which Baltimore recovered.

    Despite those pedestrian figures, Brady has won five of the seven encounters.

    It’s plenty of food for thought in this battle of proud performers.

San Francisco 49ers WR Michael Crabtree vs. Atlanta Falcons CB Dunta Robinson

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    It is safe to say that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and wide receiver Michael Crabtree have a rapport.

    And it’s a connection that is only getting better with time.

    During the regular season, Kaepernick started his team’s final seven games and threw 10 touchdown passes—five of those to Crabtree. Last week in the divisional playoff win over the Green Bay Packers, the duo connected nine times for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the 45-31 victory.

    In the team’s last six outings, including the win over Green Bay, Kaepernick has targeted Crabtree 67 times, and the wideout has responded with 46 receptions for 657 yards and six scores—topping the 100-yard mark in receiving in four of those contests.

    It will be interesting to see how the Atlanta Falcons secondary, specifically cornerback Dunta Robinson, fares against Crabtree. While the hard-hitting defender picked off just one pass during the regular season, he was third on the team with 80 tackles and will make his presence felt one way or another.

Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco vs. New England Patriots SS Devin McCourty

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    It’s been an impressive postseason for Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who has his team within a game of the Super Bowl for the third time in five seasons.

    And it’s a certainty that the strong-armed signal-caller is hoping the third time is the charm.

    Of course, Flacco can play a big role as the team looks for its first Super Bowl appearance since its legendary 2000 season.

    During these playoffs, the Ravens quarterback has thrown five touchdown passes without an interception in two games. Last week, he threw scoring passes of 70, 59 and 32 yards in the team’s double-overtime surprise of the Denver Broncos. During this postseason, Baltimore has 11 pass plays of 20 or more yards.

    New England Patriots cornerback-turned-safety Devin McCourty excelled at his new position, finishing third on the team with 82 tackles while leading the club with five interceptions and 13 passes defensed. Flacco would be wise to keep an eye on the Patriots playmaker all afternoon.

San Francisco 49ers ROLB Aldon Smith vs. Atlanta Falcons LT Sam Baker

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    It’s been quiet…too quiet.

    Perhaps these are the sentiments of San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who has gone from NFL household name to just another name as of late.

    Don’t get me wrong. The name Smith is very prominent here. Teammate and defensive tackle Justin Smith returned to the lineup last week against the Green Bay Packers and totaled five tackles. Aldon Smith had a pair of stops and a forced fumble in the 45-31 victory.

    However, while the latter did total 19.5 sacks this season—the second-highest total in the league—he did all of that damage during the team’s first 13 games. Aldon Smith hasn’t had a sack in his last four contests; perhaps the result of missing the elder Smith. But both were in the lineup last Saturday and Aldon’s sack slump continued.

    Atlanta Falcons left tackle Sam Baker is not anxious to let either Smith get back on track. Teammate Matt Ryan was not sacked last week in the win over the Seattle Seahawks, and Baker and Co. plan on starting a streak of their own.

Baltimore Ravens RT Michael Oher vs. New England Patriots LDE Rob Ninkovich

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    The Baltimore Ravens' refurbished offensive line has certainly paid dividends in the 2012 postseason.

    Now it will have to come up big once more against a New England Patriots defensive unit that simply makes things happen.

    There’s no better example of that than former linebacker-turned-defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who will match up against Baltimore Ravens right tackle Michael Oher this Sunday.

    In two playoff games—wins over the Colts and Broncos—the Ravens have allowed only two sacks while the ground game has produced 170 and 155 yards, respectively.

    That latter numbers could be easier said than done against Ninkovich, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and a Patriots defense that ranked ninth in the NFL this season against the run.

    And speaking of Ninkovich, he totaled 58 tackles and a club-high 8.0 sacks, as well as tied for the club lead with five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. Last week against Houston, he totaled four stops, knocked down a pair of passes and picked off Matt Schaub to kill a Texans drive.

    Simply put: The Ravens must prevent Ninkovich from doing any damage.

    Oher else…

San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick vs. Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan

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    While Joe Flacco and Tom Brady prepare to meet for the sixth time overall and the third time in the playoffs, this is the first encounter between San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Atlanta Falcons signal-caller Matt Ryan.

    It’s safe to say that the second-year pro and the five-year veteran arrive at this conference championship game with totally different postseason perspectives.

    It took all of one try for Kaepernick to get a playoff win. The electrifying performer ran for a record 181 yards and two touchdowns, plus threw for 263 yards and a pair of scores in the 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers. And he made it look easy in the process.

    On the other hand, it took Ryan four attempts to get his first postseason victory via a 30-28 win over the Seattle Seahawks. It was an afternoon in which he threw three touchdown passes as well as two interceptions and also rescued his team with a game-winning field-goal drive in the final minute of the game.

    In 17 games this season, including the playoffs, Ryan ran for a total of 147 yards and one score. He may have to do his best Kaepernick impression this Sunday to avoid that San Francisco defense.

    Stay tuned for what should be an intriguing clash of styles.

Baltimore Ravens WR Anquan Boldin vs. New England Patriots CB Aqib Talib

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    Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin just keeps getting it done in his 10th NFL season.

    In the team’s 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts during Wild Card Weekend, the productive pass-catcher totaled five receptions for a team-record 145 receiving yards and a score.

    Last week in the double-overtime thriller against the Denver Broncos, wideouts Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones combined for five receptions worth 175 yards and three long touchdowns. But it was Boldin who led the team that day with six catches, good for 71 important yards.

    New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib totaled just 19 tackles and one interception in six regular-season games with the team since his departure from Tampa Bay. But the rangy defender was all over the field last week against the Houston Texans, tying for the team lead with 10 tackles, including nine solo tackles.

    Talib will have to be on his toes once again this week against Boldin and Co.

San Francisco 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh vs. Atlanta Falcons HC Mike Smith

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    Somewhat similar to their respective starting quarterbacks, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith have had different paths in the playoffs.

    While Harbaugh has taken the Niners to the postseason two times in as many tries, this is the third straight year and the fourth time in five years under Smith's guidance that the Falcons have made the playoffs.

    And while Harbaugh and Co. are in their second straight NFC Championship Game, Atlanta is coming off its first playoff win since 2004, and Smith is still savoring his first postseason victory as Falcons head coach in four tries.

    On Saturday, the Niners ran for 323 yards against the Green Bay Packers—the fourth-highest total by a team in a postseason game in league history. On Sunday, the Falcons ran for a season-high 167 yards in edging the Seattle Seahawks. While both figures were surprising, perhaps the latter takes the cake, considering Smith’s team entered the game ranked 29th in the league in rushing.

    In any case, the ground game will play a major factor in Sunday’s decision. And likely the team that makes the fewest mistakes will be packing its bags for New Orleans.

Baltimore Ravens HC John Harbaugh vs. New England Patriots HC Bill Belichick

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    This has become a tradition.

    For the third time in four seasons, the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots will square off in the postseason, meaning head coaches John Harbaugh and Bill Belichick get a chance to renew acquaintances once again.

    This also marks the second time in 2012 that these men will face each other on the field. Back in Week 3 on a Sunday night at Baltimore, the Ravens edged the Patriots, 31-30, scoring the final 10 points of the game to erase a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit.

    Of course, who could forget either of these teams’ previous playoff meetings? In the 2009 Wild Card Game at New England, Ravens running back Ray Rice ran up the middle for 83 yards and a score faster than you can say “Hey Diddle Diddle” in Baltimore’s 33-14 win.

    Last season, a dropped touchdown pass and a missed field goal were too much for the Ravens to overcome as New England advanced to another Super Bowl, courtesy of a 23-20 win in the AFC Championship Game.

    Can Harbaugh and Co. keep up their recent momentum? Can Belichick and his team make it a half-dozen Super Bowl appearances in 12 seasons?

    Tune in to the latest installment of this emerging rivalry.