Pats host Ravens for Super Bowl berth
The New England Patriots host Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens with a Super Bowl berth on the line on Sunday -- a rematch of last year's American Conference championship game.
It's the first time since Denver and Cleveland faced off in AFC title games in 1986 and 1987 that the same two AFC teams will duel for a spot in the NFL's championship spectacular.
The winner of the game will take on the winner of Sunday's National Conference championship contest -- in which the Atlanta Falcons host the San Francisco 49ers -- in the Super Bowl in New Orleans on February 3.
Baltimore haven't been back to New England since they were edged 23-20 by the Patriots in last seasn's AFC title game.
A potential go-ahead touchdown catch was knocked away from Lee Evans and in the waning seconds Billy Cundiff missed a field goal that would have tied the score and forced overtime.
Neither Evans nor Cundiff are on this Ravens team, which is seeking the club's second Super Bowl appearance.
"We fought hard to get back to this point," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We know what it felt like last year. We walked off that field without that win. We know what we've put in to get back to this point."
A victory for the Ravens would give veteran defensive star Lewis a Super Bowl swansong. Sidelined for 10 games this season with a torn triceps, he announced shortly before the playoffs began that this would be his last season.
But the Ravens will have to stop perennial contenders New England, who are aiming at a sixth Super Bowl appearance in the era of superstar quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick.
The Patriots' 41-28 second-round win over Houston made Brady the winningest quarterback in NFL playoff history.
New England had the league's top regular-season offense, producing 427.9 yards per game, and 34.8 points per game.
"I think the two best teams are in the (conference) finals," Brady said. "Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it's very fitting ... We're going to have to play our best game this week."
While Atlanta are the top seeds in the NFC, their second-round victory over Seattle was a huge relief for a team whose quarterback, Matt Ryan, had lost his first three playoff starts.
"I thought that collectively as a team, and as a coaching staff, nobody flinched," Ryan said of the roller-coaster contest against the Seahawks, in which the Falcons built a 20-point first-half lead but barely escaped with the 30-28 win.
The 49ers are in their second straight NFC Championship game, largely thanks to second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Given the starting job in the midst of the season, Kaepernick set an NFL rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards and scored twice in the 49ers' second-round win over Green Bay.
"We're one step closer to where we want to be," Kaepernick said.
A victory for San Francisco would send them to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 campaign. They lost their NFC title tilt last year to the New York Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan admitted that Kaepernick's ability to push the offense both on the ground and in the air will be a tough challenge.
"These young guys, they are athletic and they can run," Nolan said. "That creates a whole new set of problems."
That doesn't bode well for a Falcons defense that ranked 29th in the NFL in allowing 5.9 yards per play.
However, the Falcons have a better than usual home field advantage at the rollicking Georgia Dome and Ryan is a formidable weapon with strong receivers to target in Roddy White and Julio Jones.
"They've got a good quarterback, a real good quarterback," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "The team, they're fundamentally sound, have some great skill players. I feel like they have a complete offense."