In college basketball, reaching the Final Four is an achievement unto itself. Teams and coaches are judged more often by whether they made it to the biggest stage, the endgame, the final contest, than by whether they hoisted the trophy at the end.
In the NFL, conference championship weekend is the great divider.
Besides quarterbacks and, to a lesser extent, head coaches, teams and franchises are judged by whether or not they made it to the "big game." The Wild Card Weekend and divisional round are nothing but preamble; nobody cares whether a team made it to the first or second round of the playoffs in any given year.
The conference championship games are the ones that matter; they are the ones that punch your ticket to the Super Bowl.
In the NFL, if you don't at least make it to the Super Bowl, you're forgotten forever: The Arizona Cardinals have been to a Super Bowl, but the Detroit Lions have not, and fans of both franchises know it well.
How did the finalists do in this last test, this ultimate entrance exam?
QB Play: B-
Matt Ryan started playing the game of his life, but he couldn't finish it. A third-quarter interception and unforced lost fumble cost the Falcons dearly, and his accurate deep passes faded into inaccurate short passes as the game went on.
The stats show a 30-of-42 performance for 396 yards, three touchdowns and just that one interception. But the game was there to win in the fourth quarter, and he couldn't do it.
Run Offense: C-
Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling and Michael Turner each had a few decent runs, but they were mostly ineffective. In the first half, the passing game was working so well the run game didn't matter, but in the second half, the failure to run the ball mattered.
It mattered a lot.
Overall Offense: B
Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez turned in outstanding performances, and Matt Ryan played nearly as well for most of the game. But for the second straight week, they sputtered in the third quarter and wasted opportunities down the stretch.
This time, they needed just a few seconds more than they had.
Pass Defense: C
Again, the Falcons defense played an outstanding first quarter. But this time, they faltered in the second, allowing Colin Kaepernick to find Vernon Davis and get into a groove. Just as they did against the Seahawks, the Falcons secondary failed to come out of the locker room for the second half.
Run Defense: B-
At first, the Falcons did a great job against Kaepernick, Frank Gore and LaMichael James. But as the second quarter wore on to the second half, they started giving up yards in chunks. They allowed 149 rushing yards on 29 carries.
Overall Defense: C+
Just like last week, the Falcons defense played great when it didn't count, and terribly when it did.
QB Play: B+
Colin Kaepernick had a slow start, but it was measured and efficient. By the end of the game, he was completing passes at will. Ultimately, Kaepernick went 16-of-21 for 233 yards and a touchdown. He also got tight end Vernon Davis re-involved in the 49ers offense.
Run Offense: B+
The 49ers running backs combined for a steady 128 yards on 27 carries. Rookie LaMichael James showed how dangerous he could be on a 15-yard touchdown scamper.
Kaepernick was very quiet in the run game, mostly because the Falcons were loading up to stop his read-option game and letting Frank Gore run away from them instead.
Overall Offense: B+
After the Falcons roared out to a 17-0 lead, it looked bad for the 49ers offense. But they never lost focus, never got away from their game, and they ground out 28 points against a Falcons defense that once again turned to wet tissue in the third quarter.
Pass Defense: C+
This grade is almost impossible to fairly assign. The 49ers allowed 120 yards and two touchdowns to Julio Jones in slightly over one quarter of play. They showed no pass rush and had no answer for the second-year wideout.
But after that initial outburst, Aldon Smith turned up the wick on the pass rush, and safety Donte Whitner and the secondary tightened the coverage.
Run Defense: A-
You couldn't ask for a much better day against the Falcons, whose fearsome three-headed running attack of Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling mustered just 74 yards on 20 carries.
Overall Defense: B-
The 49ers were shredded into ribbons in the first quarter, but they played like the second-best scoring defense in the NFL ought to play in the second half. All told, they held the high-powered Falcons offense to 24 points at home—a respectable effort.
QB Play: C+
Tom Brady came out ready to test the Ravens' downfield coverage. Brady ended up settling for short routes as the Ravens pass rush hurried him. Inexplicable clock management at the end of the first half turned a potential Pats touchdown into a field goal.
Brady also killed a crucial fourth-quarter drive with lack of awareness of the first-down marker.
Run Offense: D+
The running game was not spectacular. Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead combined for 97 yards on 25 carries, but much of that yardage came while they were trailing in the second half. They needed more big runs earlier.
Overall Offense: C
The offense took forever to warm up, got up to "tepid" and shut off the gas. They couldn't run, couldn't get open downfield and couldn't keep pace with the Ravens. Pass protection was iffy, and Brady's receivers dropped several important passes.
Red-zone problems plagued the Patriots all game, which was unexpected.
Pass Defense: C-
The Patriots secondary had some nice coverage moments, but they were repeatedly burned in the second half. They were burned in the first half too, but Joe Flacco's early inaccuracy bailed them out.
For most of the game, the Patriots pass rush was nonexistent.
Run Defense: B
Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce didn't rack up big numbers, and the Ravens switched to the passing game early. It didn't end up making a difference, but the Patriots weren't gashed on the ground like the Indianapolis Colts were.
Overall Defense: C+
Gillette Stadium is normally a fortress, but the Patriots allowed 28 at home in an AFC Championship Game. The offense didn't help the defense out, but that's just not good enough.
QB Play: B+
Joe Flacco, as usual, struggled to execute the short passing game early. With adequate protection from his line but good downfield coverage by the Patriots, Flacco struggled to hit his trademark game-breaking deep balls in the first half.
But in the second half, Flacco came alive. He beat the Patriots short, deep and in between, racking up 240 yards and three touchdowns.
Run Offense: B
With incomplete passes stalling drives, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce struggled to make an impact early.
But they were clearly at the top of their game, running with tremendous power, acceleration and change of pace. With more carries, the Ravens backs could have put up much bigger numbers.
Overall Offense: A-
The top three Ravens targets—Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta—all showed the world exactly what they do. The offensive line did a fantastic job of pass protection all night long.
Scoring 28 points in Gillette Stadium in an AFC Championship Game is as impressive as it gets.
Pass Defense: A
The Ravens defensive line managed to get after Tom Brady a little in the early going, and downfield coverage was initially great. Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker kept finding holes in coverage, though, allowing the Patriots to move the ball in the second quarter.
In the second half, the Ravens defense locked down. The pass rush turned the heat up even further, and the coverage improved.
Run Defense: B-
While the pass defense was busy holding Tom Brady and the Patriots to a single touchdown and two interceptions, the run defense didn't let the Patriots' three-member running back committee pass a single motion.
The Ravens held Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead under 100 yards, many of which came after the Ravens had put the game out of reach.
Overall Defense: A
The Ravens held Tom Brady and the Patriots to 13 points in Gillette Stadium during the AFC Championship Game. Again, that's as good as it gets.