In January 2012, we watched two thrilling championship games. One was decided in the final seconds of regulation while the other needed OT. The Pats escaped the Ravens and the Giants squeezed by the Niners. Those memories are still fresh now, but as time goes on we tend to forget the losers in the championship games. Remember who the Steelers and Packers beat to get to Super Bowl XLV? Or how about who the Saints and Colts beat before XLIV? If we are lucky enough to remember the Super Bowl loser after a few years, the conference championship losers are almost impossible to remember after enough time.
A year later and three teams who made it this far in 2012 are back. The one different team is the Atlanta Falcons, who (in a way) are replacing the champion New York Giants, thus guaranteeing we will have a new Super Bowl champ. For as different as these four teams’ seasons have been, they have a lot in common this weekend. Their toughest test this season will be Sunday and they all know that losing this game will mean being forgotten in a matter of 2-3 years. I could spend a lot of time talking about all the minute details of the game, like matchups, weather, home field advantage, playmakers, x-factors, etc. While I’ll still cover those briefly in my predictions, I feel that these games are more about what it would mean for each team if they could just win a couple more games.
NFC Championship Game, San Francisco 49ers (12-4-1) at Atlanta Falcons (14-3)
January 20 2013, 3:00 PM ET, FOX
A new era: From 2003 through 2010, the San Francisco 49ers suffered through an eight-year playoff drought. In this span, they had seasons ranging from sub-par to positively dreadful. By the end of 2010, they hadn’t won the NFC West for as long as they could remember and talk of a Super Bowl was laughable. It was finally enough when they fired Mike Singletary and hired Jim Harbaugh from Stanford. For a 6-win team in 2010, Harbaugh couldn’t have asked for a better first year. They cruised to the NFC West title and a spectacular 13-3 year. Their magical season ended at the hands of the Giants in the NFC Championship. That season didn’t look like a fluke then and it certainly doesn’t now, because here are the 49ers right back where they were last year. The Giants are out and the Falcons are in. Alex Smith is out and Colin Kaepernick is in. Could Kaepernick be the QB the Niners have been longing for? San Francisco has a golden opportunity to take it a step further this year and continue what looks to be the start of a new and exciting era for the San Francisco 49ers.
Super Bowl victories change the way we look at QBs.
First Super Bowl? Out of the 32 NFL teams that exist now, only a little more than half (18) have won Super Bowls. Atlanta is one of those 14 teams remaining who are without the ultimate prize. Where they find themselves now is the closest they have been to winning a Super Bowl since 2004, when they lost to the Eagles in the conference championship. Since then, Atlanta has become infamous for its impressive regular seasons but lack of playoff success. Last Sunday, they finally got over that hump but a loss to San Francisco would simply become the “fourth playoff loss in five games.” They would return to that same team we’ve known; the team who can’t get it done. A lot of pressure hangs on Matt Ryan, a quarterback who knows how to win and put up great stats, but whose lack of playoff production has prevented him from being considered one of the NFL’s elite QBs. A win this Sunday would mean new hope for a hurting franchise, one that has seen its playoff competition use Atlanta as a path to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: While I don’t expect Atlanta to play like they did in the second half against Seattle, I still feel the San Francisco is too hot to stop. You can point to the defense, Kaepernick, Harbaugh, or whoever, but it’s the combination of San Francisco’s threats that will stop the Atlanta Falcons. If Atlanta wants to stop San Fran, they absolutely cannot turn the ball over and need to find a way to stop Kaepernick from running wild. I don’t see Kaepernick having as good a game as he did against Green Bay, but surely a good enough performance to win. I predict he passes for over 200 and runs for over 70 as San Francisco pulls away late. 49ers win, 34-24
AFC Championship Game, Baltimore Ravens (12-6) at New England Patriots (13-4)
January 20 2013, 6:30 PM ET, CBS
Unfinished business: Less than a minute remaining, Baltimore was just a touchdown away from taking the lead over New England and sealing their first Super Bowl birth in a decade. The next 30 seconds went as bad as any Ravens’ fan could have imagined. A Lee Evans drop for the win was bad enough. For a second it looked like they had knocked off the Pats, but then the ball hit the turf in the next second. But hope was not lost, not by a long shot. Billy Cundiff was sent out to kick a 32-yard field goal, not much more than a chip shot, to send the game to overtime. The nightmare continued as Cundiff shanked the kick wide left and sent New England to the Super Bowl. Here we are, a year later, and the Ravens have earned a second chance. The same team, the same quarterback, and the same coach all stand in their way. Cundiff and Evans are no longer a part of the Ravens. Ray Lewis has announced his retirement after the season. Baltimore couldn’t have asked for a better situation to be in. They can only hope that their nightmare from last year doesn’t pick up where it left off.
Tom Brady could join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only QBs with four Super Bowls.
Building on the legacy: New England had its share of heartbreak last year, losing its second Super Bowl in five years, both to the Giants. But nobody will think of New England as the team needing that “special” win. This is a team that has been to the playoffs seven times in the 2000s and three times in the 2010s. New England has been the dominant force in the NFL, never mind the AFC. Those last two Super Bowl losses have tainted the Belichick-Brady reign slightly, but a Super Bowl win this year will prompt talks of the greatest coach-QB combo ever and best QB ever, among others. A loss to Baltimore on Sunday could mean the start of New England’s dominance slipping away, making way for rising NFL powers. Whatever happens Sunday, the effect on New England will be significant.
Prediction: As well as the Ravens played at Denver and as well as they defend against Brady, I have to go with New England in this one. Belichick and Brady are just so good in these championship games and as close as this one might be, I find it hard to imagine the Ravens coming out on top. Baltimore will have to pressure Brady effectively to throw him off rhythm. Even with Gronk out, I see Brady finding enough weapons to exploit the Ravens’ secondary. I’m looking forward to another classic as Brady finds another way to escape to the Super Bowl. Patriots win, 24-21