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January 18, 2013

NFL Championship preview

— Although the Indianapolis Colts fell from the playoffs in the first round, NFL action did move on. This weekend marks the arrival of the AFC and NFC Championship, coming with great anticipation as the season winds down and the Super Bowl teams are revealed.

But first, two games must be played this Sunday to determine who will stay home and who moves on to New Orleans, home of the 47th Super Bowl.

Three of the four teams playing in this weekend’s championship games were in the same position last year, with New England the only one to make it to the Super Bowl.

San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons, 3 p.m. Sunday

San Francisco heads to its second NFC Championship game in consecutive seasons as they travel to Atlanta. Last year, the New York Giants bounced the 49ers from the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl win over New England.

Unlike the AFC match up, these two teams do not have a significant postseason history. The Falcons and 49ers have met just once in the postseason, a 20-18 Falcons victory in 1999.

The two squads do have significant regular season history though, with San Francisco holding a 44-30-1 edge over Atlanta. The teams last met in 2010 with the Falcons taking a 16-14 victory.

This is the first time the 49ers have been in back-to-back NFC Championship games since their three-year run from 1992-94 against the Dallas Cowboys. It’s the first NFC Championship game for the Falcons since losing to the Carolina Panthers in 2004. Atlanta has also been to one other NFC Championship game in 1998.

Statistically, San Francisco looks a bit better with its No. 3-rated defense and 11th-ranked offense compared to Atlanta’s eighth-ranked offense and No. 24-rated defense.

On paper, this game looks like it should boil down to Matt Ryan and the Atlanta offense versus the 49ers defense, but it could be Atlanta’s defense against San Francisco’s offense. The Falcons could have a difficult time stopping the read-option look from the 49ers’ Colin Kapernick.

The 49ers come into the contest red-hot offensively after blistering the Green Bay Packers last week for 579 yards of offense. In that win, San Francisco became the first NFL postseason team to have two rushers over 100 yards (Kapernick, Frank Gore) and a 100-yard receiver (Michael Crabtree).

Atlanta boasts an offense led by Ryan and a tandem of the NFL’s most productive receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones along with tight end Tony Gonzalez.

A win by the 49ers would put them into their first Super Bowl since the 1989 season — San Francisco is 4-0 in franchise history in Super Bowls — and it would be Atlanta’s second Super Bowl appearance. The Falcons lost to Denver, 34-19 in the 1998 season.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots, 6:30 p.m. Sunday

In a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship game, there is no love lost between these two teams or their respective fan bases. That alone makes this an interesting match up.

But it goes deeper than just that as this should prove to be a great contest. Tthe Ravens are on a roll heading into Foxborough and have given the Patriots fits in their past few meetings.

The two squads have met seven times in the regular season with New England taking all of them except for the last one, a 31-30 thriller on Sunday Night Football in Baltimore this season. The Ravens came back from nine points down in the fourth quarter to seal the win.

The two teams have met twice in the postseason, resulting in a 1-1 split. In the 2009 season, Baltimore came into New England and laid down a dominating 33-14 win over the Patriots. Last season, New England escaped with a 23-20 victory as Baltimore receiver Lee Evans dropped a sure touchdown pass in the closing seconds, followed by a missed field attempt by Billy Cundiff that would have sent the game into overtime. Neither player is with the Ravens this season.

Statistically, it looks as if New England has the upper hand. The Patriots bring the No. 1- ranked offense into the game against the No.17-rated defense. Baltimore’s offense is ranked 16th while its defense is 17th.

Baltimore is riding a hot streak through the playoffs, seemingly inspired by linebacker Ray Lewis’ retirement announcement. The Baltimore defense has fought injuries all season, but has recovered over the last six games, giving up the fourth fewest yards during that span.

This game pits the second best red zone touchdown defense (Baltimore, 43.7 percent) in the league against the No. 1 touchdown scoring offense (New England, 69.74 percent).

Whatever the outcome, this game should have its share of fireworks pitting Tom Brady and the high-powered New England offense against Lewis and the Ravens’ defense.

It is Baltimore’s third trip to the AFC Championship in the last five years and New England’s sixth in the last 10 seasons.

With a win, the Patriots will advance to their eighth Super Bowl. Dallas and Pittsburgh are the only other franchises with eight appearances to the big game.

This is the first time since Dallas and San Francisco met in consecutive championship games from 1992 to ‘94 that two divisional teams have met in consecutive seasons.

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