Posted January 13, 2013

NFL Playoffs: Early look at the conference finals

Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, NFL Playoffs, San Francisco 49ers
For the second straight year, the Ravens and Patriots will meet in the AFC title game. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

For the second straight year, the Ravens and Patriots will meet in the AFC title game. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

As is often the case, the NFL’s divisional round set a pretty high playoff bar. Even though the Patriots pulled away from the Texans in the weekend finale, the Ravens’ shocking double OT upset in Denver, Colin Kaepernick’s magnificent show and a frantic Seattle-Atlanta contest provided NFL fans with more than enough entertainment.

Will the conference finals follow suit?

The potential certainly seems to be there, what with Baltimore and New England meeting again in the AFC, and the top two NFC seeds clashing.

Here’s an early look at what’s ahead next weekend:

AFC

No. 4 Baltimore Ravens at No. 2 New England Patriots, 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday

There are a few important new pieces here — for example, Jacoby Jones, Bernard Pierce and Courtney Upshaw in Baltimore; and Chandler Jones, D’onta Hightower and Aqib Talib for the Patriots. When we get right down to the nitty-gritty, though, this matchup may look a lot like last year’s AFC title game, when New England escaped with a 23-20 win.

A couple of key subplots that figure to come up about a million times each in the next week:

• The Ray Lewis retirement tour continues. Lewis said he would hang ‘em up at the end of the Ravens’ postseason run, and his teammates would love nothing more than to send him out a winner. Already, Baltimore has taken down Andrew Luck’s Colts and Peyton Manning’s Broncos. Revenge against Tom Brady’s Patriots would punch Baltimore’s ticket to New Orleans.

• Rob Gronkowski’s injury. The Patriots’ tight end reportedly re-broke his previously injured left forearm, in New England’s win over Houston on Sunday. Without Gronk in the lineup, the Patriots will have to rework their offensive attack. No matter what they do, though, this will constitute a huge absence.

Of course, even with Gronkowski out of the lineup, everyone is aware of what Brady can do on the big stage. Brady has started six AFC championship games as the Patriots’ quarterback — he has won five.

That success raises the stakes for Joe Flacco, who answered his critics in a big way Saturday by not only beating Manning but rallying his team late to do so. He actually topped Brady head-to-head during the 2012 AFC title game, though the final score did not represent that performance.

Will this come down to the run games? Ray Rice mustered just 67 yards on 21 carries in Foxboro a year ago, but he has Pierce at his side now (and Vonta Leach blocking for him); New England has kicked its ground attack up a few notches this season, with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead grinding out yards.

New England will be favored in this one. That hardly mattered in 2012, when Billy Cundiff’s untimely miss punched New England’s Super Bowl ticket.

NFC

No. 2 San Francisco 49ers at No. 1 Atlanta Falcons, 3 p.m. Sunday

Would a San Francisco-Seattle NFC championship game, with Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick going toe-to-toe, have been a blast? You bet.

But this matchup could be pretty dynamite itself.

The Falcons finally got the postseason monkey off their backs Sunday, thanks to a late Matt Bryant field goal — not to mention a couple of key completions by Matt Ryan, whose credentials as a top-flight NFL quarterback had been questioned.

Lewis’ pending retirement has generated a great deal of buzz this playoff season, but Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez is right there with him. Gonzalez said he’s “95 percent” sure he’ll retire after this season, so every game out could be his last. He and San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis might put up a tantalizing back-and-forth in this one.

Atlanta unveiled a surprisingly potent rushing attack Sunday, with Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers gashing Seattle’s defense. The Falcons would love to repeat that success next week, plus add in plenty of Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones.

This outcome, however, could rest with how well Atlanta can formulate a scheme to slow Colin Kaepernick and his potent 49ers’ attack. Kaepernick shredded the Packers on Saturday — a record-setting performance that left Green Bay’s defense absolutely reeling.

We could be in for a shootout in this one, which should come as no surprise after a divisional round heavy on offense.

8 comments
JamesCecil
JamesCecil

Flacco vs Brady

Sing to “Get Back” by The Beatles

Jo Jo was a man who thought he was a loner

 But he knew it wouldn’t last

 Jo Jo left his mark in Denver Colorado

 Kick in Peyton Manning’s ass

 Your back. Your back.

 You’re back to where you once belonged!

 Your back. Your back.

 You’re back to where you once belonged

 

Sweet Tom Brady thinks he’s such a favored winner

 But he’s just another foe; all the guys around him say he’s got it coming

 It’s time for Joe to win the show

 Get Back. Get back. Get back to where you now belong

 Get back; Get back, Get Back to where you now belong

Get Back Tom Brady

robertjmueller
robertjmueller

I would love to see 49er's vs Ravens but New England is not going to go quietly, I have no faith in the Falcons and I'm surprised they made it this far.

bbc
bbc

Pats-Ravens is gonna be a close game with whoever has the ball last to win. In the NFC Championship game I expect 49ers to win easily.

bobmuszy
bobmuszy

9ers and the Pats in the SB...

 

9ers threw everything they had at the Pats last time including a fake punt...

 

That game was right after the Pats blew out the Texans Monday night....

 

The first half was all 49ers and the second was all Pats...

 

Expect a MUCH closer game in the first half this time, with the Pats no huddle offense putting up 42 on the dog tired 9ers Defense...

 

Pats 42- 9ers 35...

 

destin507
destin507

I'm a Saint, but I believe 49ers and Patriots coming here. I hate to say but 49ers win 34-28  Kap the  SB MVP

Ken14
Ken14

Don't expect the 49ers to go scoreless in the first half as the Seahawks did.  And don't expect to see Harbaugh squander away 6 points like Pete Carol did in the first half.  And finally, don't expect to see Tony Gonzales wide open in  the middle of the field at the end of a close game.  49ers 37, Falcons 23  And on to Harbaugh Bowl 2.

atlFalcons
atlFalcons

It will be tough, but Falcons will find a way. Go Falcons!

Edward21
Edward21

 @atlFalcons

 The only the dirty birds of atl can hopefully find is how to stop CK7 & his powerful O n D lines..9ers will not go scoreless n the 1st half..white n jones will be covered like a blanket! gonzales isn't going to run 2 away from Willis n Bowman like he did sunday! matt ryan should worry about #'s 99 n 94 in his grill all afternoon! On 2 the "Harbaugh Bowl '13"