Matt Ryan is an underdog heading into the NFC Championship.
The 2012 NFL Conference Championship games are on the horizon after a wild Divisional Round weekend, and there are several key underdogs to keep an eye on heading into the games.
There are underdogs on each team in the Conference Championships who could surprisingly have big games for their teams when they need it most.
It is also only natural to have a team labeled as the underdog in each contest, and it is easy to define which teams deserve that label heading into the contests.
In the following slideshow we will label the players who are underdogs and dissect why. Then, we will examine why one team in each contest deserves the label.
Let's take a look.
Aqib Talib has been a great comeback story this year and could have a big impact in the AFC Championship.
Aqib Talib was traded to the New England Patriots earlier this season as a result of various legal issues and serving a suspension.
New England head coach Bill Bilichick obviously saw something of value in Talib—and he was right.
Talib has brought a new attitude to the Patriots secondary. In the Divisional Round against the Houston Texans he recorded 10 total tackles and was solid in pass coverage. It was just the latest example of how physical Talib can be in all aspects of the game.
Talib has the ability to be a game-changer for the Patriots against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship. He certainly is not the biggest name on either side of the ball, and flying under the radar could help.
Corey Graham has stepped up in a big way for an injury-riddled secondary.
The Baltimore Ravens were thought to have a weakened secondary after a variety of injuries hampered the unit this season, but Corey Graham has stepped up and softened the blow.
In fact, Graham played a huge role in the Ravens defeating the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round. He recorded two interceptions—one that he returned for a touchdown and another that sealed the game in overtime.
Graham is nowhere near the biggest name on the Ravens defense, but he has held strong despite opposing offenses attempting to pick on him.
Tom Brady is going to be targeting Graham in the AFC Championship, but if he continues to play this well, the Ravens should be just fine.
Joe Flacco is under the microscope in the AFC Championship as he nears contract talks with the Ravens.
The stigma that Joe Flacco cannot win the important games has followed the Baltimore Ravens quarterback for quite some time despite his resounding success.
Flacco will never be truly appreciated until he can elevate his play in an important game such as the upcoming AFC Championship against the New England Patriots. He has played exceptionally well in the postseason thus far, but out-dueling Tom Brady could be a difficult task.
It has been a great run so far for Flacco this postseason. In two contests he has thrown for 613 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Despite his outstanding play, Flacco is still flying under the radar. He is an underdog going into the game against New England, but if he can manage to play better than Brady, he will have officially arrived in everyone's eyes.
Matt Ryan is another quarterback in the Conference Championships that needs to prove himself.
Matt Ryan finally notched his first playoff victory last week in the Divisional Round against the Seattle Seahawks, but he didn't exactly turn in the most impressive performance.
Ryan mustered 350 yards and three touchdowns in the contest, but also threw two interceptions. The important takeaway is that Ryan looked great on the final drive which led to the game-winning field goal.
It appears Ryan and the Falcons have finally moved on from their reputation of struggling in the postseason, but the path does not get much easier in the NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers.
Ryan needs to play at an exceptionally high level for the Falcons to have a fighting chance. He has finally moved past one barrier, but now he has to prove he can carry a team all the way to the Super Bowl.
Vernon Davis has been quiet lately, but that could change in the NFC Championship.
San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis is one of the NFL's best, but he has not been accumulating eye-popping statistics by any means over the last few games he has played.
Davis is an elite athlete who can create mismatches all over the field. He displayed just that in the Divisional Round against the Green Bay Packers when he hauled in a 44-yard reception. Unfortunately, that was Davis' only contribution to the victory.
Part of the reason for Davis' lack of production is the switch at quarterback. With Colin Kaepernick now under center, the 49ers run more often than not and the emphasis of the passing game has been on receiver Michael Crabtree.
Davis has not scored since Week 11 of the regular season. Expect that to change, especially under the spotlight of the NFC Championship Game.
Michael Turner is peaking at the right time and could play a major role in the NFC Championship.
It was not long ago that most had written off Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner as too slow and unproductive.
That all changed quickly with the arrival of the playoffs.
Turner played a large role in a dominant run game that allowed the Falcons to propel past the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round. He racked up 98 yards on just 14 carries, giving him an outstanding seven yards per carry average.
While Turner is splitting carries with the explosive Jacquizz Rodgers, he has more than shown he has the ability to eat up many yards on a single carry. This could allow the Falcons to control the clock in the NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers.
Ray Lewis is intent on leading the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl in what is his final season.
The Baltimore Ravens are riding a wave of momentum now, one part emotional with the knowledge that Ray Lewis is retiring after the offseason, and one part mental with the team having won two playoff games in a row.
That being said, the Ravens are the underdog in the AFC Championship when they travel to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots.
The Ravens have to be gassed at this point, especially after a victory in the Divisional Round over the Denver Broncos, which made it into a second overtime period.
Joe Flacco and Ray Rice are playing at a high level, as is the defense. Their opponent, Tom Brady and the Patriots, are also playing at an extremely high level after embarrassing the Houston Texans.
Lewis and the Ravens enter Foxborough as the underdogs with most of the odds stacked in the Patriots' favor. Luckily for Baltimore, that was the same story last week as well.
Tony Gonzalez is playing shockingly well for a man set on retiring after the season.
The Atlanta Falcons finally have the monkey off their back after defeating the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round.
Quarterback Matt Ryan finally got his playoff victory, albeit in dramatic, last-second fashion. The road does not get any easier as the team welcomes the San Francisco 49ers to the Georgia Dome for the AFC Championship.
The Falcons are playing at home, but have to be considered the underdog against a team in the 49ers that is simply steamrolling anyone in their way.
Defensively the Falcons showed weaknesses against the Seahawks, such as a lack of pass rush. This could be exploited by the 49ers, who have a versatile quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, who just set the NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a game.
Atlanta's task of gaining respect is far from over. This is not the first time the Falcons have been labeled as the underdog, but it is a chance to put the naysayers to rest for a long time.
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