So much for parity. The popular regular season buzzword has been pushed aside, as the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers all make return trips to conference championship games. The Atlanta Falcons are the only newcomer.
Last season, the Patriots were able to survive a challenge from the Ravens thanks to a late field-goal miss by Billy Cundiff. Baltimore will hope to turn the tide in its favor this time with the emotion of Ray Lewis' final playoff run leading the way.
The 49ers return to the NFC title game after falling just short against the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants last season. A key turnover by return man Kyle Williams in overtime doomed the 49ers. Now they prepare to face the top-seeded Falcons, who aren't getting much respect.
A lot has changed around the NFL since last year, but the conference championship games show that the best teams were still able to elevate their game when it mattered most. Let's take a look at Sunday's title game schedule followed by previews of both matchups.
Conference Championship Schedule
|Road Team||Home Team||Date||Time (ET)||Channel|
|49ers||Falcons||Sunday, Jan. 20||3 p.m.||Fox|
|Ravens||Patriots||Sunday, Jan. 20||6:30 p.m.||CBS|
NFC: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
Plenty of questions were asked about how 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick would perform in his first career playoff game. So when his second pass was intercepted and taken back for a touchdown, fans around San Francisco probably started getting nervous.
From that point forward, however, the rising star was unstoppable. He accounted for nearly 450 yards of offense and four touchdowns, illustrating his dynamic play-making ability. Frank Gore added 119 yards on the ground to lead the 49ers past the high-powered Green Bay Packers.
Which team will win the NFC title game?
Head coach Jim Harbaugh understood the risk when he decided to stick with Kaepernick over veteran Alex Smith, who was off to a good start before getting hurt. But when you see what the team's capable of with Kaepernick under center and the third-ranked defense, it's safe to say he made the right call.
The key to success for Atlanta is finding a way to contain Kaepernick and Gore. The Falcons won't be able to shut them down completely, but they can't allow the two to control the game like they did against Green Bay. They ranked 21st against the run during the regular season.
It will also be interesting to see how Matt Ryan will perform after getting the playoff monkey off his back. The Falcons franchise quarterback was 0-3 in the postseason before beating the Seattle Seahawks with a late field-goal drive.
Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez give him three reliable options to work with. But, as the Packers found out, it won't matter unless the defense can keep Kaepernick in check. He's by far the game's most important player.
AFC: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
In a game where it seemed like the replacement officials were back in charge, the Ravens were able to emerge victorious in a double overtime thriller against Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos. They weren't the more talented team, but they found a way to win.
Getting their defensive leader back in the form of Lewis, who's racked up 30 tackles in the two playoff wins, has helped. And his decision to call it quits after the team's run ends has given the Ravens a boost at an ideal time.
Which team will win the AFC title game?
That said, Joe Flacco continues to hold the key to success. He stole the spotlight from Manning and now must contend with Brady, who was surgical in his dissection of the Houston Texans defense. Flacco has five touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs, and he must be ready for another shootout.
The Patriots open conference championship week as a big favorite (-9.5 via Vegas Insider). They did lose to the Ravens in Week 3 by giving up 10 points in the final five minutes, but it's hard to take much from a game that long ago.
As always, Tom Brady is the main reason New England is so tough to beat in a playoff situation. His ability to put up huge numbers while still managing to limit mistakes (eight turnovers in 17 games) is why he's had so much postseason success.
In order to pull off the massive upset and keep Lewis' career alive for a couple more weeks, the Ravens must find a way to pressure Brady. It starts with Terrell Suggs, but the entire front seven must get involved. Otherwise, New England will cruise to another Super Bowl appearance.