The 2013 NFL playoff schedule has already dwindled down to four teams. Three of these franchises were playing on conference-championship weekend a season ago but failed to capture the ultimate prize.
Every one of these teams has so much at stake, which makes this particular slate of games one of the hardest to predict of the year. Legacies will loom large, and two storied franchises have opportunities to reestablish themselves in the "dynasty" conversation.
Here is a breakdown of the remainder of the postseason slate, with predictions and more from what is sure to be a great Sunday of football ahead.
San Francisco 49ers (2) vs. Atlanta Falcons (1)
Date: Sunday, January 20
Time: 3:00 p.m. ET on FOX
Location: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Colin Kaepernick Will Continue to Defy Traditional Perception of NFL Quarterback
The second-year 49ers QB has exploded in his first taste of action as a starter. No one at his position had ever run for 181 yards in a single game, but that's what Kaepernick did to the Green Bay Packers this past Saturday.
Equally as explosive from the pocket as with his feet, the heavily tattooed physical specimen that is Kaepernick has even produced a new meme, thanks to his end-zone celebration (h/t CNN).
After abruptly ending his first playoff drive with a pick-six, Kaepernick was simply phenomenal. That has been the case for the majority of the time since he took over for Alex Smith under center.
One of the big X-factors is whether his favorite receiver, Michael Crabtree, will play. He is being questioned in connection with a sexual assault that occurred after the team's victory last weekend, according to a report by the San Francisco Chronicle
Even without Crabtree's services, though, Kaepernick is too versatile for Atlanta to handle.
The Falcons give up a ton of yards and stiffen their defense at the goal line. But that won't work against a player of Kaepernick's caliber, just as it didn't work against dynamic Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson.
Tight Ends Will Prove to be Nightmare Matchups for Both Teams
Speaking of Seattle, the Falcons couldn't stop TE Zach Miller. So how exactly do they expect to stop Vernon Davis?
Particularly with the possible absence of Crabtree and the inexperience of rookie A.J. Jenkins, Davis should become a much bigger factor in the passing game.
On the other side, Tony Gonzalez has to be considered the best tight end of all time at this point.
His longevity speaks for itself, as evidenced by his 1,242 career receptions—second only to Jerry Rice. With the defense keying in on receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, the 'Niners are going to have a hard time accounting for Gonzalez, as well.
Ailing Pass-Rushers Will Result in a Shootout
Even if the Falcons' John Abraham and 'Niners sack specialist Aldon Smith can take the field, neither are particularly healthy.
Abraham had to leave in the second quarter of the divisional round; Smith has fought through a shoulder injury but hasn't registered a sack in four games.
Both quarterbacks in this game had plenty of time to throw in their respective opening victories.
Falcons QB Matt Ryan was not sacked once, as the Seahawks were without DE Chris Clemons. Meanwhile, Kaepernick was only taken down once by Green Bay's Clay Matthews, as left tackle Joe Staley definitely got the better of that matchup.
Should each be afforded the luxury of that kind of pass protection once again, this should be a high-scoring affair in the vein of how the divisional playoffs went. The 'Niners secondary doesn't match up favorably with the likes of White and Jones in the first place and won't be able to sustain coverage without QB pressure.
Atlanta's defensive backfield snags a lot of interceptions, yet the unit also allows far too many yards.
The gambling style of Falcons CB Asante Samuel won't work well against Kaepernick if he has time to survey the field—or even if he extends plays with his feet. He's too accurate on the deep ball and could easily burn Samuels on a double move.
Final Score: 49ers 41, Falcons 31
The big difference in this one will be the running game of the 49ers.
Although it was the Falcons who had the shocking advantage on the ground against the Seahawks last week, the 'Niners have LaMichael James as a change-of-pace back, while Seattle leaned primarily on Marshawn Lynch.
Plus, there's the extraordinary athleticism of Kaepernick, who can run away from defenses. After last week's explosion on the ground, it's going to be nearly impossible to game-plan for him.
Even with the raucous Georgia Dome crowd behind them, the Falcons will fall a little short of the Super Bowl stage.
Baltimore Ravens (5) vs. New England Patriots (2)
Date: Sunday, January 20
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS
Location: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
Tom Brady Continues to Be Terrific—Even Against Baltimore
The past two postseason outings that Brady has had against the Ravens haven't been pretty, to say the least. In those contests, he posted passer ratings of 49.1 and 57.5, respectively, with a combined two touchdowns and five interceptions (h/t Pro-Football-Reference.com).
But if there's any quarterback that can break a bad trend, it's Brady. It has been eight seasons between Super Bowl wins for Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, and that future Hall of Fame tandem should have more than three championships by now.
Matching wits with the likes of Ray Lewis at the line of scrimmage is never easy, but Brady has too many weapons at his disposal not to have figured something out by now.
What will help alleviate the pressure is the formidable running game the Pats now have. Armed with three stellar running backs in Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and third-down specialist Danny Woodhead, there isn't much New England can't do on offense.
Brady's bunch is actually filled with standout skill players, who have proven more than capable of stepping up, having been without star TE Rob Gronkowski for much of the year.
Pats Defensive Line Will Be X-Factor
The health of rookie defensive end Chandler Jones is critical. At 6'5" and 260 pounds, Jones is a load to handle on the outside and helps the Pats both as a pass-rusher and against the run.
Rob Ninkovich led the team with eight sacks during the regular season but was also banged up entering the postseason.
Now that he is no longer on the injury report, the Patriots look to be at full strength in their front seven. He even dropped into coverage to pick off Houston Texans QB Matt Schaub in New England's 41-28 divisional-round victory.
Vince Wilfork is obviously the primary impact player as an extremely nimble, 325-pound havoc-wreaking force of nature.
As strong as the Ravens running game is with Ray Rice and hard-running rookie Bernard Pierce, the Patriots actually have the personnel up front to be able to at least limit the big plays. Forcing QB Joe Flacco to be one dimensional and preventing Baltimore from holding the ball for too long will help their chances of winning significantly.
Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith Will Have Big Games
It wouldn't be surprising to see both Ravens receivers go for over 100 yards and a touchdown apiece.
Aquib Talib has been a solid addition to the Patriots secondary, and Alfonzo Dennard has been a pleasant surprise. Both corners have good size at 200-plus pounds, but Boldin and Smith have both been on tears lately.
Smith's speed has blown the top off of defenses in recent weeks, and that was on display when he caught two touchdown bombs from Flacco against the Denver Broncos. He could have had another had Flacco not slightly overthrown it, too.
That leaves Boldin to operate in one-on-one coverage, as the Patriots will try to eliminate the big play. With his physicality and strong hands, Boldin can win any of those matchups, as he did in the Wild Card Round against the Indianapolis Colts' suspect pass defense. Even in zone, he is excellent at finding the soft spot and making himself available to make plays.
Final Score: Patriots 34, Ravens 27
In another barn burner in this AFC Championship Game rematch, it will come down to the final possession. Only this time, it won't be a Ravens touchdown drop or a short missed field goal that defines the game. It will be a vintage Brady game-winning drive.
With all the disappointments in recent years, it's time for the Patriots to defend their AFC crown and get it done in the Super Bowl.
As well as the Ravens defense has played led by the inspired play of the retiring Lewis, their run will finally grind to a halt in Foxboro.
Super Bowl XLVII
Date: Sunday, February 3
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
The aforementioned talk about two historic franchises vying for dynasty status is directly relevant to this matchup.
Six Super Bowl appearances in 12 seasons with four victories would be an outstanding achievement, especially in the parity-stricken league of today.
Meanwhile, this 'Niners nucleus on defense should be intact. Other than safety Dashon Goldson, there are no pending contract issues for San Francisco this offseason. With that great of a defense year after year and the continued emergence of Kaepernick, it's hard to envision the 'Niners not being a factor nearly every year.
If the first game between these two teams were any indication, it could be an outstanding Super Bowl, should this showdown happen.
After Kaepernick helped the 'Niners jump out to a 31-3 lead in Foxboro, Brady led one of the most stirring comebacks in recent memory, although it ultimately fell short after a big kick return and a huge touchdown pass by Kaepernick.
Those rainy conditions led to a ton of points on the board, and that trend would presumably continue on the fast track of the Superdome.
So, who would win Super Bowl XLVII should these two elite teams square off?
Final Score: Patriots 34, 49ers 31
New England always seems to make a play at the right time, whether it's on offense or defense. As fundamentally sound as the Pats play, they will also have an extra week to prepare. It's hard to bet against Belichick in that scenario, especially having blown the past two opportunities on football's biggest stage.
Although both teams make very few mistakes and stick to their assignments very well, New England is a prime suspect to solve the Kaepernick read-option riddle—or at least limit it.
The moment doesn't seem too big for the 'Niners, but the Patriots need to win this title more than San Francisco does. Jim Harbaugh's team should be the unquestioned favorite for the next several years, assuming most of the team's core group stays intact.
This has been a long time coming for the Patriots, and they will avenge their past two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants by pulling out a thriller in this one.
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