Breaking Down How Each Conference Championship Game Will Be Won or Lost
Conference championship weekend in the NFL can often come down to one or two critical factors in each game.
Will Baltimore again be susceptible on special teams? Will New England find an answer to Torrey Smith in the passing game?
As for the meeting between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers, everyone knows that Colin Kaepernick can win or lose this game for San Francisco, but there are other factors flying under the radar that can have a huge impact.
Let's highlight three big questions from each game. The answer to each could decide who squares off in the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Atlanta Falcons
There was a lot of potential intrigue about a Colin Kaepernick vs. Russell Wilson showdown in the NFC championship game. Instead, we see the top-seeded (and too often underrated) Atlanta Falcons welcome the 49ers to the Georgia Dome.
San Francisco beat the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round 45-31 largely because the Packers defense had no answer for the multifaceted play of Kaepernick.
If he has a similar performance Sunday, Atlanta will be in for a long day. However, the Falcons have weapons of their own.
Atlanta beat the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round because of a balanced offensive attack that made the most of opportunities.
In this contest, the trenches will be of utmost importance. Let's find out why.
3. Will the 49ers Secondary Contain the Falcons' High-Flying Passing Attack?
The Atlanta Falcons have one of the most dangerous passing offenses in the NFL. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez make up the core of a unit that gives defenses nightmares.
Will the 49ers be able to slow them down? San Francisco's secondary has been scrutinized heading into this game (including by this writer), but the defense did rank fourth in the NFL this season in passing yards allowed. The 49ers have defenders with range who can excel in man coverage.
However, there is a difference between excelling in coverage and preventing White and Jones from opening up the vertical passing game. Once White loosens up the defense, Gonzalez is free to terrorize the middle of the field and gain small chunks of yardage.
Atlanta is perfectly content methodically making its way down the field, wearing down the 49ers defense and their superb pass-rushers.
San Francisco must play sound coverage and create time to allow Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith to make plays around or behind the line of scrimmage.
2. Will the Falcons Running Game Show Up?
Will the real Falcons running game please stand up?
There are two versions of Atlanta's ground game. At times, Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers create a formidable "thunder and lightning" punch that can own time of possession and grind down a defense.
Then there are games like Week 17 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In that contest, Rodgers led the rushing charge with just 28 yards.
See the difference?
One of the best ways to limit the opportunities of Aldon Smith and Justin Smith is to rarely be in 3rd-and-long or other obvious passing situations. Consistent and stable rushes from Turner and Rodgers will achieve this goal.
1. Can Atlanta Stop the Read Option?
Colin Kaepernick stepped onto the playoff stage in a big way last week. He threw for 263 yards, but more importantly, he rushed for 181 yards in the 49ers' 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Can Atlanta's 21st-ranked rush defense slow down this suddenly high-powered 49ers running game?
The Pistol formation and read option are changing NFL offenses, and the Kaepernick-led version in San Francisco is one of the most potent.
Atlanta faced a similar offense in last week's win over Seattle. While the Seahawks had success offensively, quarterback Russell Wilson was unable to get the edge on read-option keepers and make the defense pay.
Kaepernick did this frequently against the Green Bay Packers and will undoubtedly look to do so again against Atlanta. His success or failure on this play may decide the outcome of the game.
Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriots
Tom Brady vs. Ray Lewis.
It's the matchup that everyone will focus on, but it may not be the most important one in the AFC championship game clash between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens.
Joe Flacco looked great in the divisional round as the Ravens upset the Denver Broncos 38-35 in double overtime. New England went a more dominant route in dismantling the Houston Texans 41-28.
These are teams with vastly different styles, but they did meet in Week 3, which provides a point of reference. In that game, Baltimore won a nail-biter 31-30.
Will we see a repeat performance?
These three factors will decide the outcome.
3. Can Joe Flacco Exploit the Patriots Secondary?
We know what to expect from Ravens running back Ray Rice. He is going to average more than four yards per carry and move the chains when the opportunity presents itself.
Baltimore's wild card is Joe Flacco. Usually considered the model of consistency, Flacco has been anything but for most of his postseason career. Will he be able to step up against the Patriots' weak secondary?
When these teams met in Week 3, Flacco threw for 382 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He attacked holes deep in coverage and connected with Torrey Smith six times for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
New England has a top-10 rush defense and is going to focus on Rice, so it will be up to Flacco to continue his solid play of the past few weeks.
Great play from Flacco is a must for the Ravens to compete this weekend.
2. Can Stevan Ridley Gain Traction on the Ground?
In Week 3, Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead combined for 28 carries and 71 rushing yards against a tough Baltimore run defense.
That defense remains stout, but in the divisional round against the Houston Texans, Ridley emerged as more than an ensemble player for New England. He gained 82 yards on 15 carries and found the end zone.
The Patriots do not necessarily need a run game to be successful. Tom Brady and the passing game have handled a majority of the workload on more than one occasion. However, Baltimore has a veteran defense that knows how to get to the quarterback and mix up blitz packages.
Brady is not a player who can be rattled, but a solid ground game will give him more time when he does drop back and even open up the play-action passing attack.
If Ridley does not play his best, it may not cost the Patriots the game, but a strong showing would all but ensure New England a victory.
1. Who Will Win the Special Teams Battle?
The play of Denver Broncos return man Trindon Holliday in the divisional round may end up being quickly forgotten simply because Denver lost that game.
However, Baltimore must find ways to correct its special teams coverage and make sure that a repeat performance does not occur against New England. Allowing two return scores again is a recipe for disaster against the Patriots' quick-strike offense.
Similarly, the Patriots will have to find a way to slow down the always dangerous play of Jacoby Jones. He is a Pro Bowler for a reason. Taking chances on special teams may be a great way for Baltimore to get an early advantage on Bill Belichick and company.
Neither team had a great showing in the return game in Week 3. Do not expect a similar story this time around.