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AFC Championship Game: San Fransico 49ers at Atlanta Falcons

How They Got Here:
Regular Season Record: 10-6
AFC Wild-Card Round: Defeated Indianapolis Colts, 24-9
AFC Divisional Round: Defeated Denver Broncos, 38-35

Offense: While many would rather have Tom Brady at the helm than Joe Flacco, Flacco did outplay Brady during last season’s Conference Championship. When Flacco is on his game, he’s as good as any elite NFL quarterback. Also the Patriots will have to face a new offensive line. Over the past two weekends, Baltimore offense has averaged 459 yards and has been the backbone of Baltimore’s success in its first two playoff matchups.

Defense: Against the Indianapolis in the Wild Card Round, the Ravens were excellent, holding the Colts to only three field goals. While less effective against the number one seed Denver Broncos, the Ravens locked down when it mattered most, including a huge interception that led to the eventual game-winning field goal. New England’s league-leading offense isn’t going to be easy for the Ravens to contain, especially when Tom Brady gets going. Ravens will be depending heavily on their defense to keep New England out of the end zone and avoid silly defensive miscues.

Special Team: Justin Tucker is certainly an improvement over Billy Cundiff (who actually tried out for the San Francisco 49ers prior to the playoffs as a possible replacement for kicker David Akers). Also with Pro Bowler Jacoby Jones as kick returner, the Ravens special teams should be adequate, especially considering they surrendered two return touchdowns last weekend.

3 Players to Watch For:
Ray Rice, Running Back – During the Wild Card Round against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, Rice fumbled the ball twice; however, the fifth year running back bounced back against the Denver Broncos. Rice had 30 carries for 131 yards and recorded a rushing touchdown against one of the best rush defenses. Look for Rice to continue his hot streak against New England and keep the Ravens’ offense moving.

Joe Flacco, Quarterback – Victory over the Broncos gave Flacco a better total quarterback ranking than his foe for this weekend, New England Patriots’ Tom Brady. Despite Flacco’s fantastic performance last weekend, in two conference championship games the Ravens’ quarterback has completed only 53 percent of his passes to go with two touchdowns and four interceptions. To make matters worse, the game will be on the road in New England. In eight regular season road games, Flacco went 4-4 with a completion rate of 56.9 with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

Terrell Suggs, Linebacker – Like fellow teammate, Ray Rice, Suggs had a subpar outing against the Colts; however, against the Broncos, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year came back to life. Despite nagging injuries, Suggs still racked up 10 tackles, two sacks, and had a forced fumble against the Broncos offense. Ravens will have to rely on Suggs and linebacker Ray Lewis to keep the Patriots offense at bay and out of the end zone. If the defense can keep the game close, look for an upset by the Ravens.

New England Patriots (AFC East Champion)

How They Got Here:
Regular Season Record: 12-4
AFC Divisional Round: Defeated Houston Texans, 41-28

Offense: Quarterback Tom Brady is having another MVP season with over 4800 yards and 34 touchdowns during the regular season. Brady doesn’t shy away from the spotlights and with an NFL record 17 playoff victories, it will be hard to stop him. While both running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen have been effective this season, they will have to step it up now. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez should still be Brady’s two favorite targets.

Defense: The Patriots are offense heavy, but their defense also got them to the Conference Finals. Of the four remaining playoff teams, New England should have one of the better defensive lines especially with the presence of Vince Wilfork. On linebackers, Jerod Mayo was named to Pro Bowl after recording 147 tackles in 2012, along with Rob Ninkovich, who had an interception and an onside kick recovery, the Patriots should be able to contain the Ravens’ offense.

Special Team: Punter Zoltan Mesko and kicker Stephen Gostkowski combined for the best one-two punch in the playoffs. Experience and late game clutch performances are specialties for these two. Despite some coverage lapses against the Texans on Sunday may concern some, Mesko and Gostkowski should provide the Patriots a stable special team unit.

3 Players to Watch For:
Tom Brady, Quarterback – When will someone brand the slogan, “Brady Being Brady”? Combine his past experience, along with his NFL record of 17 playoff victories, and the Patriots’ quarterback has a solid resume. Brady completed 25 of his 40 passes for 344 yards and recorded three touchdowns with no interceptions. Despite the loss of Rob Gronkowski due to a broken forearm, Brady is more motivated than ever. A victory on Sunday will give him his sixth Super Bowl visit, another NFL record.

Shane Vereen, Running Back – Vereen has shown flashes of brilliance as he slowly emerges as new weapon for the Patriots offense with the ability to run the ball or make spectacular catches. His performance last Sunday was quite impressive, as he made three trips to the end zone, two via air and another on the ground. The running back combined for over 120 yards of total offense against the Houston Texans’ defense. Vereen will provide the Patriots another potent offense option, especially with Gronkowski out with an injury.

Wes Welker, Wide Receiver – Tom Brady’s favorite target excelled on Sunday against the Texans. Welker did drop some catchable passes, but he also managed to stay effective. The wide receiver made eight catches for 131 yards, a pretty good night, despite a few lapses in concentration. When Brady and Welker are in sync, Patriots have an unbelievable offense. Welker’s ability to get open and his seamless chemistry with Brady makes him the most consistent weapon on New England’s offensive playbook.

Prediction: Patriots 38 – Ravens 28

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