San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has taken his team to the NFC Championship for the second time in as many seasons as he has been at the helm. This time he has to travel across the country as the No. 2 seed and try to knock off the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons.
Later that same evening, John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens will look to derail the New England Patriots from reaching their sixth Super Bowl in 11 years in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship. This is the third time in the last five years that Harbaugh has gotten his team to within a game of the Super Bowl.
Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis announced that he is retiring whenever this postseason run comes to an end, so his matching wits with fellow future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady will be the most talked about storyline of the day. Here are five things to keep a close eye on for the last round of games before the world looks to New Orleans.
Five Things To Watch:
1. What will Lewis and the Baltimore defense do differently this time around to slow down the high-powered New England offense and Brady – The Patriots actually were stymied to a degree in the 2011 AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium and needed a missed field goal by the Ravens’ Billy Cundiff to survive. Their luck ran out two weeks later in Indianapolis as they lost Super Bowl XLVI to the New York Giants, and then fell at Baltimore in Week 3 this season, 31-30. Brady has that offense running on all cylinders now and put up 41 points last week on a tough Houston Texans defense, while Lewis and company surrendered 35 points to the Denver Broncos. Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and the rest of that unit needs to be at the top of their game and possibly throw some trickery into the game plan if they want to extend Lewis’ retirement tour.
2. How will the Falcons put last week’s fourth-quarter collapse against Seattle behind them and stay on top of the Niners’ defense – As tough as the Seahawks were playing down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs on defense, they didn’t have the speed and athleticism in the front seven that San Francisco has. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan nearly crumbled late in that 30-28 thriller in the Georgia Dome, but he rose to the challenge when it mattered most and completed two huge passes to set up the game-winning field goal. If the two Smiths (Aldon and Justin) can get to Ryan and force him to hurry his throws like they did Aaron Rodgers last week, that could be the opening Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick needs to place the onus on Atlanta’s defense.
3. Will Ravens running back Ray Rice be able to exploit the Patriots’ defense on the ground like he did in 2009 – Rice was in just his second season and first as a full-time starter when he stunned New England on the road in a 2009 AFC Wild Card game to the tune of 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns. His 83-yard scoring run up the middle quieted the home crowd, and though he has yet to have anything close to that kind of yardage in the postseason since, his combination of speed, strength and quickness could be a problem Sunday. Temperatures were much colder three years ago than they are predicted to be Sunday evening, so if Rice can establish himself early and keep Brady and the Patriots offense on the sideline longer he could heighten the chances of another upset.
4. Can Atlanta’s suspect defense shut down San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis – Crabtree shredded the Packers for 119 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches in the Niners’ 45-31 victory and Davis caught one pass for 44 yards to set up another score. The Falcons’ ranked 24th overall on defense during the regular season and allowed Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson to complete 24-of-36 passes for 385 yards and two touchdowns. Kaepernick is a more dangerous runner than Wilson and showed off a strong arm against Green Bay, so if he has time to survey the field and Atlanta’s secondary allows Crabtree and Davis to run free, the Falcons might find themselves facing too big of a deficit late to mount another dramatic comeback.
5. New England head coach Bill Belichick versus Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh – Belichick represents the gold standard among all NFL head coaches with his six Super Bowl appearances and three rings, but Harbaugh hasn’t gotten enough credit for what he’s done with the Ravens since taking over in 2008. His teams have never missed the playoffs and have won at least one playoff game each year, with Harbaugh sporting a 7-4 record in the postseason headed into Sunday’s showdown. He has gotten this far despite firing his offensive coordinator (former Dolphins head coach Cam Cameron) back on December 10th with just three games left in the regular season and his quarterback, Joe Flacco, has taken his game in the playoffs to another level. Flacco has thrown five touchdown passes and zero interceptions in Baltimore’s two wins, so if Harbaugh can win the chess match with Belichick and get inspired play out of Flacco, Rice, Anquan Boldin and the defense he just might finally reach his first Super Bowl.
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