In the upcoming conference championship games, there is one area of the game where each team can lay the foundation for them to take over the contest and advance to the Super Bowl. Of course, if they fail in this area, it will clear the path to the offseason.
For my money, championship weekend is the greatest day of the NFL season. This year should only reinforce that, as we have two great matchups that both feature teams with distinctly different styles.
Here is the key to victory for each team.
New England Patriots
Key: Good Offensive Line Play
The Patriots offensive line suffered some growing pains early in the season, but as the season rolled along, it progressed into a solid group.
Last week, going against J.J. Watt and the tough Texans defense, the Patriots surrendered just one sack and rushed for 122 yards at 5.1 yards per carry.
The offensive line must turn in another stellar performance this week. The Ravens defense has been revamped in the playoffs, and that starts in the trenches. Last week, the Ravens limited the Broncos' rushing attack to 3.0 yards per carry on 41 carries, and it registered three sacks.
The Patriots must slow the Ravens' front seven down in the pass rush—paying special attention to be solid in the "A" gaps, as Tom Brady is more susceptible to pressure on the inside.
Also, the Patriots have been excellent running the ball and that only makes the passing game a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare. If the offensive line consistently opens up holes in the running game, Brady will be free to pick apart Baltimore's defense.
Key: Establish the Run Game
Since the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and the promotion of Jim Caldwell, the Ravens have recommitted to the run game, and the offense has flourished as a result.
Last week, Ray Rice set a season high in carries with 30, and he gained 131 yards on those carries. You can rest assured that Rice will be a featured part of the offense in this one.
When the Ravens beat the Patriots in Week 3, Rice ran for 101 yards on 20 carries. He needs more than 20 carries this time around, and he needs to find some success.
The Patriots have been solid against the run and they finished ninth in rushing yards allowed. This is world's better than the 29th ranking they carry in passing defense.
Still, the Ravens can't let that lure them into going with a pass-heavy attack.
Baltimore must get the Patriots defense thinking run and then burn it with deep passes, which plays to the strengths of quarterback Joe Flacco.
San Francisco 49ers
Key: Bring the Heat on Matty Ice
The 49ers bring the league's third-best scoring defense into this matchup, but if you give Matt Ryan time with the talented weapons he has at his disposal, the Falcons can put up points on anyone.
The 49ers have been able to get to the quarterback at key times, but there are stretches where that rush disappears. For the season, the Niners ranked 17th in sack percentage.
Now, they will have to beat a group that has been strong all season—the Falcons finished seventh in sacked percentage.
For San Francisco, the pass rush begins with Aldon Smith, as his 19.5 sacks are 13 more than anyone else on the team.
Atlanta's left tackle Sam Baker moves his feet well, which sets up nicely to stifle the speedy Smith. If he can handle Smith by himself, the 49ers' susceptible secondary is in for a long day.
Key: Slow Down the Run Game
The 49ers have had a powerful run game working for them for the past two seasons, but the maturation of Colin Kaepernick into the starter's role has taken this attack to an almost impossible to game-plan-for level.
Frank Gore is excellent running between the tackles, and with the threat of Kaepernick pulling down the ball on a read option, the Falcons will not be able to pinch the line to stuff him.
The good news for the Falcons is that the Seahawks team they beat last week has a strikingly similar rushing attack, so the defensive ends and linebackers should be disciplined to maintain the edge.
Last week, the Falcons did a great job of bottling up Marshawn Lynch, he had just 46 yards with a 2.9 yards per carry average. However, Russell Wilson had 60 yards on seven carries. Also, Cam Newton ran around nearly unimpeded during his two regular-season matchups with the Falcons.
Atlanta must consistently force the Niners into passing situations to control the flow of this game.
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