If the NFL's divisional round taught us anything about the playoffs, it's that the postseason is about as predictable as an earthquake in New York City. Peyton Manning and the Broncos entered last Saturday as winners of eleven straight and 9.5-point favorites at home over Baltimore, seemingly too close to a dream AFC title game between Manning and Tom Brady. That dream is now over, as is Seattle's, who overcame the largest halftime playoff deficit since 1957, only to lose 23 seconds later in Atlanta.
For as much hype as the Super Bowl offers, traditional football fans often point to championship weekend as the league's premier date on the calendar. Teams have far more familiarity, there's no bye week(s) and far less drama. In Foxborough, Mass., despite the disappointment of not having that Brady-Manning tilt, we have a classic rematch. The Ravens were one batted pass away from the Super Bowl in this stadium last season. The NFC meanwhile, gives us two of the game's hottest offenses ... in a dome.
Let's take a look at the key matchup for each game.
BALTIMORE RAVENS at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Key Matchup: Joe Flacco vs. Pats Defense
At this point, we know what to expect from Brady; New England is 5-1 in AFC Championship Games since he became the starter. So, if Flacco is unable to deliver, the Ravens defense is put under enormous pressure. Yet even amid the inevitable question marks that seem to surround him, Flacco has been terrific thus far in the playoffs, particularly against Denver, when he tossed the game-tying 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones and averaged over 18 yards per completion for the day. Perhaps his most reliable targets are wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta, but the key in Sunday's game is whether or not he can continue to get the ball downfield to burner Torrey Smith.
The Pats are most vulnerable on the back end of their defense, where they don't have elite speed. Smith, who lit up Champ Bailey and Denver for two long scores, will draw a variety of looks, mostly from cornerback Aqib Talib, who was not on the roster when Smith caught two TDs in a Week 3 win over New England. Against a Broncos defense that had been excellent all year long in preventing the big play, Flacco went 4-for-7 with three touchdowns on throws more than 20 yards. He likes to take three or four deep shots to Smith every game; if he gets even one of those completed, the threat increases and the Pats won't be able to stack the box against Ray Rice.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS at ATLANTA FALCONS
Key Matchup: Colin Kaepernick and the read-option vs Falcons Defense
Once again, clearly Matt Ryan's play will prove vital, which is exactly why Kaepernick is listed here. After setting the all-time postseason record for quarterback rushing yards in a game, the second-year pro also helped the 49ers convert 8-13 third downs against a Packers defense that ranked 11th in total defense this season. The obvious element with him is premier speed, but what's just as important is deception. Despite his youth and inexperience, Kaepernick has been flawless in his read-option decisions and remarkably effective at disguising the ball. Almost think of it like a pitcher throwing 99 mph and hiding the ball; then, he hits you with a 79 mph changeup. That's Kaepernick in a nutshell.
The surprising element with his growth, and really, the reason he is so dangerous, comes from the ability to throw the deep ball. Per ESPN Stats & Info, he was 6-for-11 on passes thrown at least 15 yards downfield and has completed 54 percent of his throws at least 15 yards downfield this season, good enough for second in the league. Atlanta, who ranked 23rd against the pass and 21st in rushing yards allowed this year, isn't especially fast defensively and is nursing an ankle injury to its best player, defensive end John Abraham. The takeaway for the 49ers in watching tape from Russell Wilson and the Seahawks is that the Falcons will zone up with one, or even multiple spies on the quarterback. Kaepernick doesn't quite possess the patience of Wilson in the pocket yet, but he's more than willing to buy himself time and adept at throwing on the run.
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