AFC, NFC championships, Super Bowl bids on the line

Associated Press Published:

Associated Press

49ERS VS. FALCONS

NFC Championship

ATLANTA -- The Falcons are well aware of just how desperate this city is for its first Super Bowl championship.

Mike Peterson sees and hears it everywhere he goes.

"The city is hungry," the Atlanta linebacker said. "You can feel it when you're in the grocery store. Everybody is saying, 'Go Falcons.' Everyone is wearing red and black. The city is painted red and black."

The Falcons will be playing in the NFC championship game for only the third time when they host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, a matchup of teams that come into this game from very different historical perspectives.

For the 49ers, this is a chance to rekindle the franchise's 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.

The Falcons? They've never won even a single Super Bowl. Heck, they've only gotten that far one time, during the 1998 season when a charismatic bunch known as the "Dirty Birds" shockingly made a run to the big game -- and was promptly blown out by the Denver Broncos in John Elway's finale.

"They're trying to recapture greatness," Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. "We're trying to break the ceiling on it."

While the Falcons (14-3) are the NFC's top seed and playing at home, they opened as a three-point underdog against the 49ers (12-4-1), who looked unstoppable in last week's rout of the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round.

The most dynamic player on that field was a quarterback who began the season as a backup. Colin Kaepernick took over the starting job when Alex Smith was injured, and coach Jim Harbaugh made the bold decision to keep it that way even when Smith healed. Never mind that the former starter had led San Francisco to the NFC title game a year ago and was one of the top-rated passers in the league this season.

Harbaugh looked like a genius when Kaepernick ran all over the Packers in a 45-31 victory, turning in one of the great performances in playoff history.

It wasn't so much that he passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns. What really stood out was what he did when he kept the ball himself. Kaepernick scored two touchdowns -- including a 56-yarder in which he looked more like Michael Johnson than a football player -- and finished with 181 yards rushing, a postseason record for a quarterback.

He also showed plenty of flare, celebrating his scores by flexing his right arm and kissing his biceps -- a move that quickly became a social media sensation known as Kaepernicking.

"He's super fast, athletic and he can throw the ball," 49ers running back LaMichael James said. "But once he takes off, he's faster than a lot of running backs and linebackers. He's an incredible athlete."

"If we could break that ceiling," DeCoud said, "it could usher in a great new era of professional sports in Atlanta."

RAVENS vs. PATRIOTS

AFC CHampionship

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- You again!

Ray versus Tom.

Tom versus Ray.

Oh yeah, the Ravens and Patriots, along for the ride. Ray Lewis' last ride, one Tom Brady hopes to cut short on Sunday in the AFC championship game.

A year after a brutal last-minute loss in Foxborough, Baltimore is back, looking for a reversal of fortune and a spot in the Super Bowl for the first time since winning it in 2001. If the Ravens fall again, Lewis' superb 17-year career as the NFL's best linebacker of his era will end as he retires.

Brady, the most successful quarterback of his time, has no thoughts of retirement -- or of failing to make his sixth Super Bowl in the last dozen seasons.

That Lewis and Brady will bring a mutual admiration society to Gillette Stadium adds some flattery to what has become an intense rivalry.

"Both sides understand the game of football," Lewis said. "There have been some great, great rivalries and we have one of those going on with New England now."

Adds Brady: "It's really a pleasure to play against him. He's really been so consistent over the years and durable and tough. He's so instinctive."

At the forefront in this rematch, naturally, is Brady, who has won three NFL titles and would be only the second player to reach six Super Bowls by leading New England (13-4) past Baltimore (12-6). And there's Lewis, the most dominant inside linebacker the league has seen since the heyday of Mike Singletary.

Brady is all about composure, accuracy and even sophistication. Lewis brings aggression, ferocity and mayhem to the field.

An odd couple, indeed, but one that appreciates the attributes of the other.

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