Image by: Keith Allison
By Thomas Stone
It is championship weekend in the NFL, folks. No, it is not THAT championship, but the championship games before the final championship game, if that made any sense.
Four teams – one from each conference – will vie for a chance to represent their conferences in February’s Super Bowl game in New Orleans, which promises to be one hell of a party if anything else.
The San Francisco 49ers will square off against the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC crown, while the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots battle to represent the AFC in the biggest single American football game in the U.S., the Super Bowl. It will be watched by more than 100 million people in the U.S alone.
Both games will be fun to watch as all four teams have exciting quarterbacks and stout defenses. But outside of each team’s flashy record, there are a few things to look out for when watching this weekend’s AFC/NFC Championship Games.
San Francisco 49ers
Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick is an emerging star in the NFL. He replaced quarterback Alex Smith midway through the season and has led San Francisco to its second consecutive NFC championship game appearance.
Watch for Kaepernick’s ability to run the zone-read against the Falcons. He rushed for an NFL playoff record 181 yards against the Green Bay Packers last weekend, and will look to continue that success versus Atlanta.
If the Falcons are unable to keep Kaepernick inside the pocket, the 49ers are looking at their first Super Bowl appearance since 1994.
The Falcons may be without defensive end John Abraham, but he has vowed to play in this weekend’s game. Abraham was a quarterback menace this past season as he recorded 10 sacks and knocked down seven passes.
Watch for how strong Abraham plays. He’s injured and will probably be just 60-70%, and that is being generous. If he has to come out because he’s to hurt or cannot get to Kaepernick, the Falcons are in for a long day.
Image by: msbhaven
The Ravens lost to the Patriots in last year’s AFC title game by just three points. If not for a dropped pass and a missed field goal, it would have been the Ravens playing the Giants, and not the Patriots.
Baltimore’s veteran linebacker Ray Lewis is playing in his last AFC Championship. He announced his retirement right before the playoffs, so this will be his swan song.
Watch for Joe Flacco’s confidence and ability to complete the deep ball. During their regular season’s match-up, Flacco completed five passes of 20-yards or more against the Patriots.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith averaged 21 yards per catch and had two touchdowns. Baltimore is hoping he can duplicate that success.
New England Patriots
The Patriots have made the playoffs for nine straight years, making the AFC title game six times during that span. That is nothing short of amazing in today’s NFL.
The Pats and Ravens have tangled three times in the playoffs with each team winning a game. Sunday’s rumble will break that tie.
Watch for how New England’s offense adapts without tight end Rob Gronkowski. He re-injured his forearm last weekend and will miss the remainder of the playoffs.
He is one of quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite targets and caught 11 touchdowns in 2012. Brady will lean heavily on receiver Wes Welker and his other tight end option Aaron Hernandez.