Ranking the Top 12 Performances from NFL Conference Championship Games
The NFL's conference championship weekend did finally arrive despite the media storms that Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o created last week.
Both home teams had halftime leads only to see them disappear right before their fans' eyes.
The Falcons got off to another fast start only to melt like the wicked witch in a swimming pool in the second half. The vaunted Patriots offense scored just one touchdown before ending their season with no bang and plenty of whimper.
In the end, the San Francisco 49ers will meet the Baltimore Ravens in Harbaugh Bowl I.
But who were the top performers in each game?
Someone from Bernard Pollard's family must have put a hex on New England.
The Patriot killer struck again during the AFC Championship Game. Pollard was all over the field against the Patriots, recording nine total tackles and defensing a pass. But it was one gut-wrenching play he made that may have sealed New England's fate.
His vicious hit on Stevan Ridley—one that is sure to draw the league's attention, even if Ridley lowered his head into it—knocked the second-year back out of the game and caused him to fumble the ball away, a decisive moment in the game.
The 49ers got off to an even slower start than last week, digging themselves a 17-point hole thanks to some a sluggish offense.
Colin Kaepernick seemed hesitant to tuck and run—he only had two carries for 21 yards, though he did look like a gazelle on his 23-yard scamper—much like Russell Wilson did last week. Perhaps the Falcons found a way to defend the read-option by keeping their defensive linemen at home and dropping an umbrella of defenders into coverage.
No matter, Kapernick found a way to beat the defense. He may not have sizzled like last week, but he made some excellent throws and helped wear down the Falcons defense by his constant threat.
His biggest contribution came in a game-saving capacity, when he stripped Crabtree at the half-yard line when the 49ers looked like they were going to take their first lead.
The Falcons eventually blew the game anyway, but Robinson delayed the inevitable.
The way that Aaron Hernandez was playing in the first half, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would reach the end zone.
In the end, the versatile tight end could do little to snap the offense out of its malaise. He wound up with nine catches for 83 yards, but he caught just two of those in the second half.
New England's offense was stymied for much of the AFC Championship Game. Were it not for Wes Welker, the Patriots might not have moved the ball very well, much less scored their solitary touchdown.
The diminutive receiver had eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown, accounting for only touchdown the Patriots would score. Welker had some costly drops, though.
It was a quiet first half for Anquan Boldin, who didn't register a catch during the game's first two quarters.
Perhaps Baltimore's game plan had something to do with it—the Ravens seemed hell bent on running the ball in spite of themselves.
They opened things up in the second half, perhaps realizing the Patriots were missing Aqib Talib. While Boldin didn't make a ton of catches, his two touchdowns were daggers.
Boldin showcased his size and pass-catching prowess on those two scores, hauling in tough catches on pretty plays and roaring with delight in celebration.
It's no wonder Vernon Davis had a good game considering the way the Falcons cover tight ends. The patented "leave the tight end open" strategy didn't work out so well for Atlanta on Sunday.
There seemed to be a vacuum around Davis on every one of his catches, as if he would momentarily disappear before each snap and reappear with the ball in his hands.
Fantasy football owners are now prepared to draft Davis three rounds too high and be disappointed all of next season.
The 49ers didn't maul the Falcons in the ground game the way they did the Packers last week, but the running game was highly effective nonetheless.
Frank Gore had a slow start like the rest of the offense, but he picked up where LaMichael James left off after the rookie scored a touchdown in the second quarter.
The San Francisco all-time rushing leader ran for 90 yards and two touchdowns, dousing Atlanta's Super Bowl fire with his second one.
Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco had a chance to lock horns for the ultimate prize, but only one got there. At least one 2008 draft quarterback got the Super Bowl monkey off his back.
Flacco's game was nearly the polar opposite of Ryan's. The five-year veteran had a quiet first half, but lit up the Patriots for three touchdowns in the second half.
He might have earned some scorn for his comments about being an elite quarterback, but he has backed up the talk during the playoffs. For the second year in a row, Flacco outplayed Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game, throwing for 240 yards on top of those three scores.
This time, he got the victory too.
The San Francisco defense did a "180" at halftime after getting their butts handed to them in the first half. It was a team effort that shut out the Falcons over the final two quarters.
NaVorro Bowman was all over the field, whether it was blowing up Matt Ryan or slapping the deciding pass away from Roddy White.
Ahmad Brooks channeled J.J. Watt, swatting away Matt Ryan passes at key intervals. He also crunched Ryan on a sack attempt that may have affected the quarterback's play.
Chris Culliver had a key interception.
But there was no more important player than Patrick Willis on that field.
The General keyed that turnaround, notching 11 solo tackles throughout the game in the process.
Matty Ice was on fire to start the game. Unfortunately, he was put on ice at halftime.
Despite throwing for nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns, Matt Ryan and the Falcons once again fell in the playoffs. He was absolutely torrid in the first half, partially thanks to some fantastic play from Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
Unfortunately for him and his team, he had two costly turnovers in the second half.
Julio Jones had 100 receiving yards within the first 10 minutes of the game.
He was a one-man wrecking crew for the Falcons, setting the tone for the first half by blowing by Dashon Goldson and the 49ers defense for a 46-yard touchdown catch.
His second touchdown catch was absolutely gorgeous, reeling in a great Matt Ryan pass in the corner of the end zone while dragging his second foot and hanging onto the ball one-handed on his way to the turf.
Remember the end-zone catch Michael Crabtree didn't make in the second quarter? Jones was so good he would have made that catch, smiled for the cameras and eaten a sandwich on the way down.
It's too bad his quarterback cooled during the second half.