Sizing up Sundays NFL conference championship games:
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
(Sunday, 3 p.m., FOX)
Key stat: The 49ers rolled up 579 total yards, a franchise postseason record, in their 45-31 win over Green Bay. They gained 323 yards on the ground and controlled the ball for more than 38 minutes, which kept Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense off the field.
Hot and cold: 49ers tight end Vernon Davis has just seven catches in the last seven games but he is a freakish talent 6-3, 250 pounds with 4.4 speed who holds the team record for touchdowns by a tight end (35). After seeing how much damage Seattle tight end Zach Miller did to the Atlanta defense (eight catches, 142 yards, one touchdown) the 49ers might expand Davis role in this game.
Momentum: The 49ers have lost their last five playoff games on the road. The last time the 49ers won a playoff game on the road was 1988 when they knocked off the Bears in Chicago, 28-3. Jim Harbaugh (now their coach) was a quarterback with the Bears.
Xs and Os: Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was head coach of the 49ers from 2005 until 2008. He is familiar with most of their personnel but he wasnt there to coach Colin Kaepernick, and the young quarterback is the key to this game. Nolan will have to find a way to contain him. Kaepernick ran for 181 yards against Green Bay (most ever by an NFL quarterback). Nolan will play primarily zone coverage so his linebackers and defensive backs can keep their eyes in the backfield.
Intangibles: Matt Ryan finally won his first NFL postseason game against Seattle. He had an up and down game (three touchdown passes, two interceptions) but he made two clutch throws on the final drive to set up the winning field goal. With that burden off his shoulders now, "Matty Ice" may be looser and better against the 49ers.
Injury factor: Atlanta defensive end John Abraham reinjured his ankle last week and played only 15 snaps against Seattle. With Abraham on the bench, the Seahawks' Russell Wilson ran wild in the second half. The Falcons need Abraham at full strength or close to it if they hope to contain Kaepernick.
Player to watch: Safety Donte Whitner is the most underrated player on a very good and very physical 49ers defense. He will be responsible for covering Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. The future Hall of Famer is Ryans go-to receiver.
Prediction: The Falcons could not stop Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who totaled 704 yards (502 passing, 202 rushing) and six touchdowns in two games this season. They didnt have much more success with Wilson last week. Now here comes Kaepernick fresh off his record-setting performance against the Pack. This is a very tough matchup for the Falcons, even at home.
49ers 27, Falcons 17
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
(Sunday, 6:30 p.m., CBS)
Key stat: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has 40 postseason touchdown passes, five behind his boyhood idol Joe Montana.
Hot and cold: The Ravens scored 17 or fewer points on the road five times this season. That wont get it done against the Patriots, the NFLs highest scoring offense.
Momentum: Ravens QB Joe Flacco has stepped up his game in the postseason. In the wins over Indianapolis and Denver, Flacco threw five touchdowns with no interceptions. He had an efficiency rating of 120.0 compared to 88.1 in the regular season. Flacco outplayed Brady in last seasons AFC title game, passing for 306 yards and two touchdowns.
Xs and Os: Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith has developed into a game-changing deep threat. He had two touchdown catches against the Broncos, burning veteran Champ Bailey in the process, and he scored three touchdowns in the last two games against the Patriots. The threat of his deep speed creates space underneath for tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, who have combined for nine catches in the postseason.
Intangibles: The Ravens have rallied around linebacker Ray Lewis, who will retire after this season. The desire to win it for Ray is a strong motivator for the team and the future Hall of Famer is doing his part by playing inspired football (17 tackles against Denver). The Ravens also remember last seasons bitter 23-20 loss to the Patriots in the conference final. This is their chance for payback.
Injury factor: The Patriots are without tight end Rob Gronkowski (broken forearm) and may be missing running back Danny Woodhead (thumb), so that takes away two of the teams best receivers, but Brady still has plenty of weapons in Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd (who had nine catches for 108 yards against the Ravens earlier this season).
Player to watch: When the Ravens have beaten the Patriots three years ago in the playoffs and again this season Ray Rice was the key. He had an 83-yard scoring run to open the playoff game and he ran for 101 yards and a touchdown in the 31-30 win this season. When the Ravens lost to the Pats in the conference final last season, Rice was a non-factor (67 yards). They need to get him going in both the running and passing game.
Prediction: The Ravens play the Patriots tough, even in Foxborough, but you have to wonder how their aging defense will hold up this week. Denver had success running a hurry-up offense against Baltimore last week and the Ravens' defense has played 184 snaps the last two games. With Brady cranking up the tempo, it will be hard for Lewis and company to keep pace.
Patriots 30, Ravens 20
E-mail Ray Didinger at firstname.lastname@example.org