A year after a brutal last-minute loss, the Baltimore Ravens are back to face the New England Patriots in an AFC Championship rematch, looking for a reversal of fortune and a Super Bowl berth on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons will be playing in the NFC Championship game for only the third time when they host the San Francisco 49ers, who have a chance to rekindle their glorious legacy, to follow in the footsteps of those magnificent teams that captured five Super Bowls titles in the 1980s and '90s, led by giants of the game such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young.
New England is a 9½-point favorite to reach its sixth Super Bowl in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. The Patriots quarterback and coach are 3-2 together in the big game, but the last two appearances have been losses to the New York Giants.
That surely must irk the two men who otherwise have dominated the last 12 NFL seasons. The Patriots have never lost their four previous AFC title games at home in Foxborough. They came close last January when Lee Evans couldn't hold onto a pass in the end zone in the final moment that would have sent the Ravens to their second Super Bowl and first since they won it all in 2001.
New England will move the ball on Baltimore and could resort to running it more often than in the past. Not only is Stevan Ridley a 1,000-yard rusher, something very rare for the Patriots, but the Ravens aren't nearly as stout as they once were at stopping the run. With the emergence of Shane Vereen and consistency from Danny Woodhead if he is healthy, the Patriots are deep in the backfield, too.
The loss of star tight end Rob Gronkowski to a broken arm in the drubbing of Houston last weekend will be damaging for the Patriots, but not overwhelmingly so. Aaron Hernandez will pick up the slack in receptions and the blocking of Michael Hoomanawanui against Houston was exemplary.
Where the Ravens could prosper is in a revitalized pass rush. Terrell Suggs finally is approaching his top defensive player status of 2011 after returning from a partially torn Achilles tendon. Paul Kruger already is a dynamic sack guy.
With only 13 interceptions during the season, the Ravens weren't a big threat to steal the ball. But they got two off Peyton Manning in last week's upset of the Broncos in Denver, and one off Andrew Luck to start the playoffs.
Ray Lewis' pending retirement as the NFL's best linebacker of his era adds an emotional boost for Baltimore. In the end, New England's offense should be too persistent, too sharp and too deep for Baltimore to stop. Look for Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Hernandez to have strong games, and for the Patriots' defense to keep Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and Baltimore's dangerous offense from doing too much damage.
The Falcons have never won the Super Bowl. They've been there only once, when a charismatic bunch known as the "Dirty Birds" shockingly made a run to the 1999 finale and were blown out by Denver in John Elway's finale.
While the Falcons are the NFC's top seed and playing at home, they are a three-point underdog against the 49ers, who looked unstoppable in last week's rout of the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round.
Had the Falcons kept their own rout going against Seattle last Sunday, they would probably be favored this week. But Atlanta nearly blew it. They're really good, as their last-minute rally for Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal to beat the Seahawks proved. The issue: San Francisco simply is better.
Of the remaining four teams, the 49ers are the most balanced. They have the best defense by far; only Seattle's unit really challenged them among all the playoff qualifiers. Atlanta will struggle to run against Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and co. So the Falcons will take to the air, a wise decision when you have playmakers Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones.
The problem is, the 49ers' secondary is as good as any, even if the interceptions were down this season. And the pass rush, sparked by Aldon Smith, is formidable. Where San Francisco has an edge over last season, when it lost at home to the Giants for the conference crown, is in its passing game. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick has added a dynamic dimension with his strong arm, escapability and overall athletic skills. Michael Crabtree has developed into a dependable receiver with big-play abilities.
Add that to Frank Gore's running, and Atlanta's defense will be overmatched.