Biggest Winners and Losers of NFL's Conference Championship Weekend
Well, after 17 weeks of regular-season action and three weeks of playoff games, it's come down to two teams. In two weeks, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will battle for the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
This week's conference championship games brought with them plenty of excitement, big performances and a surprise or two, including a wild back-and-forth affair at the Georgia Dome and a stunner at Foxborough.
With that in mind, here's a look at some players who made the most of their opportunity to play for a chance to participate in the Super Bowl, as well as some that would probably like a do-over in that regard.
And no, I'm not mentioning the Harbaughs. There will be enough of that over the next two weeks to last 10 years.
Winner: Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers
Since Colin Kaepernick took over at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, tight end Vernon Davis has been the odd man out in the Niners offense. Over the second half of the 2012 season, you were more likely to find the seventh-year veteran on the side of a milk carton than in the end zone.
With that said, after San Francisco fell into a 17-point hole in the NFC championship, Kaepernick apparently remembered that Davis was still, in fact, his teammate, and the result was a huge second quarter against an Atlanta defense that has struggled mightily defending tight ends as of late.
Loser: Dashon Goldson, FS, San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson had a solid season, tallying 69 tackles and three interceptions while being named a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.
However, the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game likely won't be making its way onto Goldson's career highlight reel. Goldson was repeatedly abused in coverage, including a blown assignment that led to the Falcons' first touchdown.
Those coverage woes extended into the second half as well, which included one sequence where Goldson once again let Julio Jones run right past him before being bailed out by a late throw and good play from cornerback Tarell Brown.
Winner: Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
The 2012 season was a coming-out party of sorts for second-year Falcons wideout Julio Jones, who hauled in 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns en route to his first Pro Bowl selection.
If the regular season was his coming-out party, then the NFC Championship Game was the icing on the cake, as Jones caught two first-half scoring passes (including a filthy play in the back of the end zone) on his way to a gaudy 182 yards in the Atlanta loss.
Jones also became the first player in conference championship game history to rack up 100 receiving yards in the first quarter and set a franchise record for receiving yards in a playoff game.
Loser: Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers
First off, San Francisco 49ers defensive end Justin Smith is an incredibly tough athlete, and his willingness to play through a partially torn triceps muscle is laudable.
Smith played about as well as you can reasonably expect a man effectively playing with one arm to play last week against the Green Bay Packers, but it was a different story in Atlanta.
Clearly limited by the injury, the 33-year-old end was a complete non-factor in the game, which led to star linebacker Aldon Smith's impact being affected as well. Aldon Smith failed to notch a single sack this season after Justin Smith's Dec. 16 injury against New England.
Prior to it, he had 19.5 in 13 contests.
Winner: Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Much will no doubt be made of the play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and I think it's now safe to say that head coach Jim Harbaugh made the right choice in sticking with the youngster under center.
With that said, however, the NFC championship was won with the run game and tailback Frank Gore.
The Falcons did a good job of containing Kaepernick. That, however, opened up the middle of the field for Gore, who responded with 21 carries for 90 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.
Loser: Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
Entering the playoffs, Matt Ryan had a reputation as a good regular-season quarterback who folded like origami in the postseason.
The fifth-year pro exorcised some of those demons when he led the No.1-seeded Falcons on a frenetic last-second drive that culminated in Matt Bryant's game-winning field goal against the streaking Seahawks last week.
However, much like the antagonist in a horror movie, those demons came right back against the Niners.
Yes, Ryan set a franchise record for passing yards in a playoff game, and he threw three touchdown passes in a masterful first half.
However, he also turned it over twice in a second half where the Falcons didn't score a point.
Winner: Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Joe Flacco has had an up-and-down 2012 season, but heading into Sunday's AFC title game, Flacco had the chance to not only solidify his status as one of the NFL's top signal-callers with a trip to the Super Bowl, but also add a zero or two to his new contract this offseason.
After an uneven first half, the Ravens basically handed the ball to Joe Flacco and said, "Win this game."
Flacco's response? A score and 123 passing yards in the third quarter, two more touchdown passes in the fourth, and a trip to New Orleans to face the 49ers.
Get that checkbook out, Baltimore.
Loser: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
Well, folks, much to the joy of a rather large segment of the population who has grown sick of seeing him in the NFL's showcase, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will not be headed to his sixth Super Bowl just yet.
The Baltimore Ravens, whom Brady has struggled against more than any other NFL team, once again held "The Golden Boy" in check. And after the Baltimore offense got things going in the second half, Brady and the Patriots were unable to answer.
Winner: Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens
Ray Lewis has already announced his intentions to retire after this season, but it appears that those plans are on hold for at least two more weeks.
After chipping in double-digit tackles for the third consecutive playoff game, Lewis and the Ravens are off to New Orleans and the 17-year veteran will get the opportunity to pull a John Elway and ride off into the sunset on top.
Loser: Vince Wilfork, DT, New England Patriots
In last year's AFC Championship Game victory over the Baltimore Ravens, one of the big factors for the New England Patriots on defense was defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who had his way with center Matt Birk and was a disruptive force all game long.
It was a much different story this year, as Birk, with help from guards Marshall Yanda and Kelechi Osemele, was able to completely neutralize Wilfork, especially in the fourth quarter while the Ravens worked on the clock.
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