Three of four NFL conference finalists back from 2012
One game is a rematch. The other might feel like one — at least to one of the teams.
For the second straight year in the AFC, the New England Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
In the NFC, it will be San Francisco traveling to Atlanta, with the Falcons' defense trying to stop a versatile, running quarterback for the second straight week.
“Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are mobile quarterbacks who throw the ball at extremely accurate levels,” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We can use this game as a cheat sheet to prepare for next week.”
Atlanta is the only team not making a repeat appearance in the NFL's final four. Last year, it was the Giants playing, and beating, the 49ers for the NFC title.
On Saturday, Kaepernick passed for 263 yards and rushed for 181 — a playoff record for a quarterback — to defeat Green Bay, 45-31.
“We're one step closer to where we want to be,” Kaepernick said.
Though the Niners must travel cross country for the game, they opened as 3-point favorites in a meeting of teams that played twice a year until 2003, when Atlanta was moved from the NFC West to the NFC South. Their only previous playoff meeting was a 20-18 win for the Falcons in the 1998 divisional playoffs. Atlanta won at Minnesota the next week to make its only Super Bowl.
San Francisco's 20-17 overtime loss last year to the Giants was part of a tense day of football that began with New England's 23-20 victory over the Ravens in the AFC title game.
In that game, Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would have tied the game with 11 seconds left.
This season, Justin Tucker beat out Cundiff for the kicker's job. Tucker hit a 47-yarder against Denver on Saturday to lift the Ravens to a 38-35 win in double overtime, extending Ray Lewis' career for at least one more week.
“We fought hard to get back to this point, and we're definitely proud of being here,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We feel like it's going to take a lot for somebody to come and kick us off that field come the AFC championship game.”
Lewis and the Ravens will have to stop the NFL's most potent offense. The Patriots put up 457 yards in a 41-28 victory over Houston, which left them one win away from their sixth Super Bowl in the 2000s.
“I think the two best teams are in the final,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “Baltimore certainly deserve to be here and so do we.”
These teams met in the regular season and that game was also decided by a kick — Tucker's 27-yard field goal that sneaked through the right upright for a 31-30 victory. Or did it?
While the Ravens were celebrating, Pats coach Bill Belichick ran to midfield and grabbed a replacement official's arm as he tried to exit the field. The NFL fined Belichick $50,000 for the gesture.