Last year’s NFL conference championship games were so good it seemed only natural to bring back the same cast — with one exception.
The final four for today’s conference championship games is almost the same as a year ago. Only the Super Bowl XLVI champion New York Giants are missing.
Same teams, same place. The AFC championship will be a repeat of a year ago — Baltimore at New England. The San Francisco 49ers are on the road this time at the Atlanta Falcons instead of home, where they lost to the Giants in overtime a year ago.
It’s the first time since the 1993 season that the final four included three repeat teams. That year it was the Bills, Dallas and San Francisco returning from the season before.
The Ravens-Patriots game is the first AFC championship rematch since Denver and Cleveland met in 1986 and ’87. Dallas and San Francisco played three straight NFC title games in 1992, ’93 and ’94.
There are many story lines in today’s games. First there is a possibility that the Harbaugh brothers, Jim of the 49ers and John of the Ravens, could meet in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans in two weeks.
Will New England make it to its eighth Super Bowl and have a shot at suffering a record fifth Super Bowl loss, breaking a tie with Buffalo, Minnesota and Denver?
Will the 49ers, who dominated in the ’80s with three Super Bowl wins and added another in the ’90s, end up facing the Pats, who established a dynasty in the 2000s with three Lombardi Trophies in four years?
How about the possibility that today’s outcomes would present the prospect of a traditional pocket-passing quarterback (Tom Brady or Joe Flacco) going against the new-fangled read-option running quarterback (Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers)?
A look at today’s matchups:
49ers (12-4-1) at Falcons (14-3)
TV: Ch. 29, 3 p.m.
The line: 49ers (-4)
The scoop on the 49ers: The Niners are determined not to let the championship game get away like it did against the Giants a year ago, when special teams miscues led to a New York touchdown and the winning field goal in overtime. An overlooked factor was the Niners converted only 1 of 13 third downs. That alone is a losing stat. ... Coach Jim Harbaugh made a daring move after QB Alex Smith suffered a midseason concussion. Smith had completed 25 of 28 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns in the two games before he was injured. Nevertheless, Harbaugh switched to first-time starter Kaepernick. In his seven starts, Kaepernick had 10 TD passes and only three interceptions and ran for a pair of touchdowns, a precursor to his huge game last week against Green Bay (181 rushing yards, 2 TDs and 263 passing yards, 2 TDs). The Niners were only 25th in the league in third-down efficiency, but they improved slightly in that area with Kaepernick at the controls. ... The more he played, the more Kaepernick developed a chemistry with WR Michael Crabtree, who had both TD catches against Green Bay. ... The Niners are one of only five NFL teams with more running plays than pass attempts during the regular season. They get their balance from hard-nosed running by Frank Gore. His backup is rookie speedster LaMichael James, whose 62-yard kickoff return set up the winning touchdown (Kaepernick to Crabtree) for 38 yards in the 41-34 win at New England in Week 15. ... The Niners’ linebacker group of Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith is rated the best in the NFL by some. The overall defense ranked third in the NFL.
The scoop on the Falcons: Atlanta is an underdog at home, rare in the postseason. Handicappers don’t trust the Falcons, who blew a 20-point fourth-quarter lead against Seattle last week before pulling out a 30-28 victory on a 49-yard Matt Bryant FG. That was the longest game-winner in NFL playoff history. ... Atlanta has counted on QB Matt Ryan, WRs Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglass and venerable TE Tony Gonzalez for most of its offense all season. The Falcons’ running game ranked only 29th in the league in the regular season and lacked big-play explosiveness. Yet, last week against Seattle, Michael Turner powered his way to 98 yards and a 7.0 average and Jacquizz Rodgers added another 64 and a 6.4 average. ... Mike Nolan, who once was the 49ers head coach (as was his father, Dick) is Atlanta’s first-year defensive coordinator. His job will be to concoct a strategy to contain Kaepernick’s running game while at the same time dealing with Crabtree, Gore, WR Randy Moss and TE Vernon Davis, who had both of the Niners’ touchdowns in the loss to the Giants in the last NFC title game. Seattle’s Russell Wilson shredded the Atlanta secondary (14 for 19 for 247 yards and two touchdowns) in the second half of last week’s game.
Outlook: There are good reasons Atlanta is an underdog despite a 7-1 home record this season. First, nobody’s been able to keep Kaepernick from making big plays with his feet and arm, except Seattle. Then there’s Atlanta’s history of playoff failure. 49ers, 31-20.
Ravens (12-6) at Patriots (13-4)
TV: Ch. 4, 6:30 p.m.
The line: Patriots (-8)
The scoop on the Ravens: Baltimore is one of only three teams to win a playoff game over the Patriots in Foxborough (2009). The Ravens nearly made it four in their 23-20 loss in last year’s AFC championship. Lee Evans couldn’t catch what would have been the game winner in the end zone and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard attempt to tie the game. ... Baltimore made an in-season change at offensive coordinator, relieving Cam Cameron of the duties and handing the play calling to former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. One result is more balance in play selection and letting RB Ray Rice wear down opposing defenses as he did against Denver last week when Rice ran for 131 yards on 30 attempts. QB Joe Flacco, who hit a 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left to send the game to OT, has other targets in WR Anquan Boldin and deep threat Torrey Smith. He may be the best deep passer in the league. ... Defensively, the Ravens have to be ready for the Patriots’ no-huddle offense, which they will spring on an opponent at any time. The Baltimore defense is a veteran group led by LB Ray Lewis, OLB Terrell Suggs, DT Haloti Ngata and S Ed Reed. ... The Ravens’ shaky special teams nearly cost them the Denver game, giving up scoring returns of 104 (kickoff) and 90 (punt) yards by Trindon Holloway.
The scoop on the Patriots: One thing that makes Bill Belichick a great coach is the production his teams get from down-the-line players. Every man on the roster of a Belichick team seems to be prepared and trained to make a contribution when called on. In last week’s 41-28 win over Houston, it was third-string RB Shane Vereen. He scored three of the Patriots’ five touchdowns, one on a run, two on passes from Brady. Vereen was playing because RB Danny Woodhead was injured. Vereen had only 70 touches in the regular season but scored four touchdowns. Another backup who will be counted on today will be TE Michael Hoomanawanui, who will get time because of the injury to Rob Gronkowski (broken arm). With Gronk out, the Pats will count more on Aaron Hernandez, who had six receptions against Houston. ... Brady has a 17-6 record in the playoffs with more postseason wins than any QB in NFL history. ... Belichick and his defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will have to come up with a plan to deal with the deep speed of Jones and Smith as well as the intermediate receptions of Boldin while keeping Rice contained. The Ravens, no doubt, will attempt to keep Brady and WR Wes Welker on the sidelines with a possession type game — hard to do against a defense with DT Vince Wilfork in the middle and LBs Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and rookie Dont’a Hightower.
Outlook: Ravens’ will hammer on ground until they get a shot at a deep pass or two, but they can’t contain the Brady-Wes Welker tandem and still stop the New England ground game. Patriots, 34-28.
Last week’s results: 2-2 outright, 1-3 versus spread. Season’s record: 146-96-1 outright, 109-117-6 versus spread.