There is an inordinate amount of storylines following the four teams playing in this weekend's conference championship games, but the most important ones may come from historical legacy.
It's very possible that Sunday will be the last game for two NFL legends, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. The former has intimated retirement after this season, while the latter has made it abundantly clear that the 2012-13 season will be his last. A loss from either Baltimore or Atlanta could see the departure of unquestionably two of the greatest players of this era and unquestioned future Hall of Famers.
Meanwhile, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will be looking to push Hall of Famers out of the record books. The two men will look to make their sixth Super Bowl appearance together, which would tie Belichick with Don Shula and allow Brady to break John Elway's record.
The San Francisco 49ers and Colin Kaepernick? Well, they already made history last week. Sunday will simply be about keeping it going.
With history in the making, no good football fan will want to miss a second of the action. For that reason, let's take a look at when and where to watch both conference championship games and preview each matchup while we're at it.
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
When: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta
If you believe the Vegas oddsmakers and the betting public, this is one of the biggest mismatches in conference championship game lore. According to Grantland's Bill Barnwell, the 49ers are the largest road favorite in conference championship weekend history since 1978—which is all the farther pro-football-reference.com's spread database stretches back.
From a purely superficial perspective, the spread makes sense. San Francisco played arguably the best three quarters of football last Saturday against the Green Bay Packers, eviscerating a team that many had selected as the NFC's Super Bowl representative. Colin Kaepernick, who started his evening with a pick-six, went on to have one of the greatest individual performances in the NFL playoffs.
Meanwhile, Atlanta's trajectory went in quite the opposite fashion. The Falcons held two separate 20-point leads against the Seattle Seahawks in the second half, only to crumble down the stretch before a brilliant last-minute drive by Matt Ryan saved them from embarrassment.
Despite both teams winning, this spread (49ers -4 at the moment) is wholly indicative of the "what have you done for me lately" phenomenon.
That's not to say San Francisco doesn't deserve to be favored this week. It wasn't just last week that the 49ers looked like the better football team, it's been nearly every Sunday since Kaepernicktook over as starter. This isn't the same conservative, score-20-point-and-hope-the-defense-wins-for-us offensive attack. Kaepernick brings a scintillating dynamic that once was so rare at the quarterback position, but now seems commonplace with the Robert Griffin IIIs, Cam Newtons and Russell Wilsons running around.
All three of those aforementioned quarterbacks played Atlanta's defense, and the ones who went all four quarters (Newton and Wilson) had rousing success. In two games against the Falcons, Newton rushed for 202 yards on a meager 18 carries and his Panthers scored 58 total points.
As for Wilson, we all saw what he did last week. There's very little reason to think Kaepernickwon't have success on Sunday, which bodes extremely well for the 49ers' chances.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
When: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
In one of the more curious decisions of the entire 2013 playoffs, the oddsmakers opened this line with New England as 10-point favorites (per Vegas Insider). By all accounts, that line ignored all historical precedent between the two teams, treating this as a contest that will be played completely within a vacuum.
Most of the time, that's a logical assumption. There is usually little use in looking at things like all-time records versus a team or even matchups that date back a year because a lot changes in 12 months.
And from a purely statistical perspective, the Patriots should win this game quite handily. Tom Brady is at the helm of his most productive offense since the record-setting 2007 season and is surrounded by an increasingly diverse set of skill-position players. New England's oft-maligned defense has ascended into the top 10 this season against the run and hasn't given up a run longer than 31 yards all season.
With Aqib Talib helping the Patriots' once-porous secondary find some footing, this game looks like a mismatch on paper. An old, battered Ravens team taking on an unmovable juggernaut in New England.
On Sunday, we'll see one of those rare exceptions. The AFC Championship game will be the third time in the past 12 months the Patriots and Ravens have lined up across from one another, with the past two games being split by a field goal or less.
It's hard to see anything other than a down-to-the-wire thriller coming this weekend, either.
The personnel has obviously changed on both sides. Rob Gronkowski will be replaced with the pu-pu platter of Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, who will try to do a poor men's rendition of Mr. Yo Soy Fiesta's all-around greatness. For Baltimore, superstar cornerbackLardarius Webb's job of handling Wes Welker will be handed to Corey Graham, a former special teams gunner who has stepped in as the Ravens' top option due to injury.
These are among the many different names you'll see in the program on Sunday. What won't change is the strategy for either side.
What's more, it's impossible to ignore Baltimore's win last week defied just about every statistical measure we had in place. By any stretch of the imagination, the Broncos were better in every facet of the game other than special teams. And surprisingly, that was the one unit that did not disappoint Denver last weekend.
One could fairly point to Rahim Moore's abhorrent coverage on Joe Flacco's game-tying Hail Mary to Jacoby Jones and say the Ravens didn't deserve to win. But what about the undeniable fluky nature of Trindon Holliday having two return touchdowns? Baltimore won because it outplayed a more talented team and could very well do the same against the Patriots this week.
Will that happen? That certainly remains to be seen. Regardless, recent history tells us it should be a whole lot closer than a 10-point difference.
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