Conference championship previews
49ERS AT FALCONS
Matchups for the NFC championship game Sunday between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome:
When the 49ers (12-4-1) have the ball:
A year ago, the idea was to stop RB Frank Gore and force the 49ers to throw. While Atlanta still will key on Gore in the running game with OLBs Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas, the Falcons are extremely aware of San Francisco's other running threat: QB Colin Kaepernick.
The second-year pro comes off a record-setting postseason debut in which he ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns. By the way, he also threw for 263 yards and two more TDs.
The Niners will be varied and aggressive with the ball, although they want Gore to get 20 or so carries behind a line led on the left side by All-Pro guard Mike Iupati and tackle Joe Staley. If the blockers can control the trenches against DTs Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters, it will free up Gore, rookie LaMichael James and Kaepernick to take off.
Atlanta wants to keep Kaepernick in a box so he can't break anything like the sensational 56-yard sprint to the end zone he made against Green Bay. DE John Abraham is the main sacks threat, but he's nursing a sprained left ankle. If he isn't effective, the Falcons could be in trouble; they'll need DE Kroy Bierman, Babineaux and DT Vance Walker to be sharp and disciplined in their rushes.
Where the Falcons believe they match up well is with their aggressive secondary against WRs Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss and tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Crabtree has blossomed into a star, but Atlanta's cornerbacks, Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Robert McClain, practice against the likes of Roddy White and Julio Jones, so they won't be awestruck. And safeties Thomas Decoud, William Moore and Chris Hope face Tony Gonzalez, only a Hall of Fame quality tight end.
DeCoud had six picks this season and veteran Samuel, who won two Super Bowls with the Patriots, had five.
Atlanta must improve its tackling, especially against the running game, and not let Gore, Crabtree, Davis and, especially, Kaepernick get lots of yards after being hit.
When the Falcons (14-3) have the ball
White and Jones are as dynamic a pair of receivers as any in the NFL. Throw in the wily Gonzalez in likely the final season of a record-setting run and the Falcons can make all the plays in the passing game.
That is, if QB Matt Ryan gets enough time to find them against the NFL's third-ranked defense. DE-LB Aldon Smith had 19½ sacks and must get extra attention in protection.
Ryan released the demons of past playoff failures against Seattle, particularly with that scintillating last-minute drive to victory. He's precise, leading the league in completion percentage, and gutsy.
He can't allow himself to get rattled — something Ryan should be beyond now — by Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, who is playing with an injured triceps, and the best group of linebackers in football: All-Pros Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and some solid backups.
Ryan will try to go deep to Jones and White, and have Gonzalez patrol the middle along with WR Harry Douglas, who made a huge late catch against Seattle. That might be the best matchup of the entire NFC title game: Atlanta's pass catchers versus San Francisco's secondary and LBs.
As strong as the Falcons' secondary might be, the Niners probably are better with CBs Carlos Rogers, Terell Brown and Chris Culliver, and safeties Dashon Goldson, an All-Pro, and Donte Whitner.
For Ryan and the Falcons to win that encounter, the line must be stout. Center Todd McClure leads a generally experienced unit on which RT Tyson Clabo is the top blocker. Of special interest will be how RG Peter Konz, a rookie, matches up with SF's interior defensive line of Ray McDonald, Ike Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois.
The Niners are difficult to run against — Green Bay didn't really try — and Falcons RB Michael Turner did not have an outstanding season. But Turner looked very good against the Seahawks with 98 yards on just 14 carries, and even broke away for a 33-yard gain.
Jacquizz Rodgers could be a key weapon for Atlanta out of the backfield. His speed and elusiveness might work well on screen passes and reverses. Rodgers gained 64 yards rushing to keep Seattle off-balance.
After making a 49-yard field goal to lift the Falcons over Seattle, Matt Bryant should be able to shrug at pressure. Bryant has good range and hit 33 of 38 field goals, including all four from 50 yards and beyond.
Punter Matt Bosher is solid, but wasn't used a lot, kicking only 60 times.
Rodgers is the main kick returner and has breakaway capabilities.
San Francisco PK David Akers has gone from All-Pro in 2011 to slumping this season. But the Niners have stuck with him and he made his only try against Green Bay; it helps when you are kicking extra points, on which he was 6 for 6 last week.
Andy Lee is among the top punters in the NFL. James' kickoff runback late against New England turned that game back around after the Patriots staged a huge rally.
Two opposites man the sideline.
Jim Harbaugh, a former pro quarterback and high-profile college coach, can be acerbic and sarcastic, but boy can he coach. In both seasons with the 49ers, he's led them to the title game, revitalizing the offense, making the tough decisions such as keeping Kaepernick behind center.
His coordinators, Vic Fangio on defense and Greg Roman on offense, match Harbaugh's willingness to take risks, and it has worked.
Mike Smith learned the coaching trade on defense. He is well-spoken and patient with his explanations, and avoids controversy. The Falcons never had consecutive winning seasons before he arrived in 2008. They've not had a losing record under Smith.
He brought in Dirk Koetter to oversee the offense and Mike Nolan, a former 49ers head coach, to handle the defense this year. And now the Falcons might be Super Bowl material.
Now that the Falcons finally got that first playoff win — albeit in an excruciating way — much of the pressure of being postseason flops has dissipated. They believe they justified their top seed in the conference and will prove it even more Sunday.
San Francisco knows all about excruciating losses, particularly last year's overtime defeat to the Giants at this point of the postseason. You can bet it's a motivating factor.
RAVENS AT PATRIOTS
Here's a brief list of match-ups to watch during the AFC championship game Sunday between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:
When the Ravens (12-6) have the ball
For most of his five pro seasons, RB Ray Rice has been the main man on offense for Baltimore. He still is a key player, leading the team in rushing and scoring 10 TDs. But he's not the only option, making the Ravens far more threatening with the ball than in previous years.
Indeed, when Rice struggled holding onto the ball in the wild-card win over Indianapolis, rookie Bernard Pierce rushed for 103 yards.
Rice is a breakaway threat whether running or receiving, and the rapid development of WR Torrey Smith has added a dimension to the passing attack of QB Joe Flacco. WR Jacoby Jones caught the 70-yard pass to tie last week's game at Denver at the end of regulation and provides another deep threat.
Flacco also has rekindled his connection with WR Anquan Boldin, who has been sensational in the playoffs with 11 receptions for a 19.6-yard average and a TD.
Baltimore will try to mix the quick-striking runs of Rice and Pierce with shorter passes to Rice, Boldin and TEs Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. It's the most effective, balanced offense the Ravens have had under John Harbaugh.
Flacco, the only quarterback to win playoff games in each of his first five pro seasons, has gotten exemplary protection from his line of late, led by left guard Marshal Yanda. If he gets it again, he'll surely take shots against New England's mediocre secondary. Boldin and Smith could give fits to CBs Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, and safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory.
A DB probably will have to deal with Rice in passing situations because LBs Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower are not particularly quick. But they are smart and sound fundamentally.
New England's best defenders are DT Vince Wilfork, who requires two blockers, and DE Rob Ninkovich, who seemingly always winds up by the ball.
When the Patriots (13-4) have the ball
New England led the NFL with 557 points, often using a no-huddle attack that tires out defenses, while also confusing them. In two games against Houston, which supposedly has one of the league's top units, the Patriots ran several plays in which receivers were uncovered.
You think Tom Brady took advantage?
Baltimore - and anyone else - has no chance against New England if it doesn't get pressure on Brady. The way the Giants handled the Patriots in their two Super Bowl meetings is the blueprint. That means Ravens pass rushers Terrell Suggs, underrated Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee, and even blitzing backs such as star safety Ed Reed and CBs Cary Williams and Corey Graham must get to the two-time league MVP. Or at least force him to get rid of the ball when he doesn't want to.
The onus for protecting Brady falls on a line that has solidified as the season wore on, led by guard Logan Mankins. The other big chore is neutralizing Baltimore's man-mountain NT, Haloti Ngata, in both the running and passing games.
Given time, Brady will pick apart anyone. WR Wes Welker is almost guaranteed to gain 100 yards, as is TE Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots will miss outstanding tight end Rob Gronkowski, gone with a broken left arm, so Brady will get others involved, particularly WR Brandon Lloyd deep, and RBs Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen on shorter patterns.
Ridley is a 1,000-yard rusher, something very rare for the Patriots, and third-stringer Vereen scored three times against the Texans.
Charged with slowing down the run will be Ngata and, of course Ray Lewis. The brilliant linebacker's 17-year career will end when the Ravens' season concludes, and don't think Baltimore won't be stoked to get him to one more Super Bowl.
And don't think the Patriots won't attack Lewis, who missed 10 games with a torn right triceps, but has 30 tackles in the two playoff games since returning.
Lewis and Brady love the chess match that goes on between them. At its finest, it makes for intriguing football.
Baltimore's Jones is an All-Pro who led the league in kickoff returns with a 30.1 average and scored twice. He also ran back a punt for a TD.
The Ravens were solid on coverages during the season - Harbaugh made his reputation working with special teams - but fell apart against Denver as Trindon Holliday ran back a punt and a kickoff for scores.
Rookie Justin Tucker has been a stud, making 30 of 33 field goals, including the winner in double overtime in Denver. P Sam Koch is steady.
So is Patriots PK Stephen Gostkowski, who hit on 29 of 35 field goals. But New England showed vulnerability on kickoff coverage against Houston.
P Zoltan Mesko is inconsistent. Against the Texans, he rocketed several kicks beyond 50 yards, and also had a couple of near-flubs.
There are no true game-breakers on New England's kick return squads, with coach Bill Belichick emphasizing ball security over everything.
Two of the best in the business.
Harbaugh has taken the Ravens to the postseason in all five of his years as a head coach. Not even Vince Lombardi managed that.
Harbaugh put his faith in Flacco, has filled out the offense around him, and will make the tough call when things don't pan out. He fired coordinator Cam Cameron in December when the Ravens were stagnating.
He's been fortunate to have a strong defense during most of those five seasons, and his coaching staff has gotten the D back on track, for the most part, in the playoffs.
Belichick would reach his sixth Super Bowl as a head coach with a win Sunday, matching Don Shula's mark. A defensive wizard early on, Belichick recognized what he had in Brady and turned the QB loose. Now, the Patriots are one of the great offensive teams in NFL history.
He also could tie Chuck Noll for most Lombardi Trophies if New England takes home its fourth prize in February.
Both Harbaugh and Belichick are sons of football coaches, and Harbaugh's younger brother, Jim, is San Francisco's head man.
Simple for both teams:
The Patriots haven't won an NFL title since the 2004 season and have lost the last two Super Bowl trips. They are determined and not a little bit ticked off.
The Ravens haven't won an NFL title since the 2000 season, have lost two of last four AFC championship games, and know their emotional leader is about to retire.