RECORDS & AWARDS
NFL’S “FANTASTIC FOUR” READY FOR CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND
January 15, 2013By Troy Derengowski of Richmond High School
“This is playoff football,” says Baltimore Ravens linebacker RAY LEWIS. “Year after year, time after time, great competition. It really doesn’t get any better. That’s what playoff football is all about.”
For the second consecutive year, the final four teams are all division champions.
Last weekend was the highest scoring round in NFL postseason history (276 points), excluding an eight-game first round in 1982.
In the AFC Divisional Playoffs, the No. 4 seeded Ravens outlasted No. 1 Denver on the road in a double overtime marathon, earning a 38-35 win in the fourth-longest game in NFL history (76:42). Quarterback JOE FLACCO connected with wide receiver JACOBY JONES for a 70-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds remaining to force OT, and rookie JUSTIN TUCKER kicked a 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime period.
Baltimore will travel to New England to face the No. 2 seeded Patriots, who scored 40+ points in a playoff game for the third time in team history in their 41-28 home victory over Houston on Sunday afternoon.
The top-seeded Falcons advanced to the NFC Championship Game as MATT BRYANT’s game-winning 49-yard field goal provided the winning points in Atlanta’s 30-28 win against Seattle. The Falcons, who have won eight of nine games at the Georgia Dome this season, will host the NFC Championship for the first time in club history.
San Francisco advanced to their second consecutive title game with a decisive 45-31 home victory against Green Bay, with quarterback COLIN KAEPERNICK leading the 49ers to 579 total net yards, the fourth-most by any team in a playoff game in NFL history.
With each of the four remaining playoff clubs looking to capitalize on the momentum built this past weekend in hopes of advancing to Super Bowl XLVII, they’ll have their work cut out for them on Championship Weekend.
A closer look at the AFC and NFC Championship Games:
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (12-4-1) at ATLANTA FALCONS (14-3) (Sunday, FOX, 3:00 PM ET)
San Francisco and Atlanta will meet for the 76th time. The 49ers hold a 44-29-1 edge in the regular-season series, but the Falcons won the lone playoff meeting between the two clubs, earning a 20-18 Divisional playoff win en route to their Super Bowl XXXIII appearance.
Last week, Atlanta built a 20-0 first-half lead that was quickly erased by the red-hot Seahawks, who had won eight of their past nine entering the Divisional round. Seattle’s MARSHAWN LYNCH nearly capped off the incredible comeback with a two-yard touchdown run with 31 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Seahawks a 28-27 lead.
But MATT RYAN of the Falcons completed a 22-yard pass to wide receiver HARRY DOUGLAS followed by a 19-yard strike to tight end TONY GONZALEZ to set up Bryant’s game-winning kick.
“Wow. We talk all the time about playing a 60-minute game and finishing those games. That’s exactly what we did today,” says Atlanta head coach MIKE SMITH. “Our quarterback is a special player. He did a great job there on that last drive.”
Ryan passed for 250 yards and three touchdowns, both career-highs in the postseason, and earned his first playoff win.
“I think the one thing that I’ve learned in my five years, and specifically in the postseason, is that it’s hard,” says Ryan. “I thought that collectively as a team, and as a coaching staff, nobody flinched. We just kept battling, kept doing what we do, and that’s just kind of been the makeup of our team this season."
The 49ers advanced to their 14th NFC Championship Game, tying the Dallas Cowboys for the most since 1970. Only Pittsburgh (15) has more conference championship appearances during that span.
Kaepernick set the tone in the 49ers’ 45-31 victory against Green Bay, accounting for four total touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) and 444 of San Francisco’s 579 total yards. In addition to his 263 passing yards, Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards, the most ever by a quarterback in an NFL game, regular season and playoffs included.
“He’s that new-style quarterback in the NFL that can run the read option, that can pull the ball down, run it and take it the distance from anywhere on the football field. Extremely strong-armed, accurate,” says San Francisco safety DONTE WHITNER. “He’s our quarterback, he’s our leader and he did a great job out there today.”
Kaepernick’s most popular target against the Packers was wide receiver MICHAEL CRABTREE, who became the third player in club history with at least nine catches (nine), 100+ receiving yards (119) and two or more TD catches (two) in a playoff game. Pro Football Hall of Famer JERRY RICE and TERRELL OWENS are the only other 49ers to accomplish the feat.
“It doesn’t stop here,” says Pro Bowl linebacker PATRICK WILLIS. “We got a big one next week.”
BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-6) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (13-4) (Sunday, CBS, 6:30 PM ET)
New England will once again host Baltimore this Sunday in the first AFC Championship game rematch in consecutive years since Denver and Cleveland met in back-to-back conference title games following the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
The Ravens return to Gillette Stadium for the first time since their heartbreaking defeat in last year’s AFC Championship Game. New England narrowly escaped with a 23-20 victory, after a potential go-ahead touchdown catch was knocked from the grasp of wide receiver LEE EVANS and BILLY CUNDIFF missed a field goal attempt in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.
“We fought hard to get back to this point,” says Flacco. “We are definitely proud of being here. We are going to give it our all and 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. It is going to be a great game.”
Last week, Baltimore defeated Denver 38-35 and improved its road playoff record to 8-5 (.615), the highest road winning percentage in postseason history (minimum 10 games). Flacco’s unforgettable 70-yard TD pass to Jones was the longest game-tying or game-winning scrimmage touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter of an NFL playoff game.
“I had my eye on the ball, I wasn’t even looking at the safety,” says Jones, whose 70-yard touchdown was his first catch of the game. “As soon as he missed and it hit my hand, I was like, ‘Touchdown.’”
The Patriots advanced to their 10th AFC Championship with a 41-28 win over Houston in the Divisional round. New England is 7-2 in AFC Championship Games, including 4-0 at home. With the victory, TOM BRADY recorded his 17th playoff victory as a starting quarterback, surpassing Pro Football Hall of Famer JOE MONTANA (16) for the most in NFL history.
“Tom is a great competitor,” says New England head coach BILL BELICHICK. “He’s our leader and we all follow him. There’s no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady.”
Meanwhile, Belichick earned his 18th postseason win as a head coach, surpassing Pro Football Hall of Famer JOE GIBBS (17) for the third-most in NFL history. He trails Pro Football Hall of Famers DON SHULA (19) and TOM LANDRY (20) for the most wins by a head coach in NFL playoff history.
Brady passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the Patriots’ Divisional win, including two TD passes to running back SHANE VEREEN, who had only eight career receptions prior to Sunday’s game. Vereen also had a one-yard touchdown run against Houston, becoming the third player in NFL history with two TD catches and a touchdown run in a playoff game, joining ROGER CRAIG and RICKEY WATTERS.
“I think the two best teams are in the finals,” says Brady. “Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it's very fitting. We played them early in the year. They got us. We’re going to have to play our best game this week.”