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NFL Playoff Preview – AFC and NFC Championships

AFC-NFC Championship
Jim Rogash, Jamie Squire, Chris Trotman, Otto Greule Jr / Getty Images

Four teams remain alive in the NFL playoffs. The winners of this Sunday’s conference championship games will meet in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on Sunday, Feb. 5. Here’s a preview of the two title games scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 22:

AFC Championship

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, MA; 3 p.m. (ET); TV: CBS

The AFC title game pits Baltimore’s ferocious defense, which ranked third in the NFL this year, against the prolific offense of New England, which scored an AFC-best 32.1 points per game during the regular season. New England quarterback Tom Brady threw a post-season-record six touchdown passes in last Saturday’s 45-10 rout of Denver. Brady would like to control the pace against Baltimore by making first downs through passes to receiver Wes Welker and tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Hernandez also ran the ball out of the backfield last week. The Ravens’ talented linebackers, including Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, want to hit Brady and his receivers often to get them out of rhythm. Baltimore safety Ed Reed is expected to play after suffering a knee injury late in the win over Houston last Sunday.

Offensively, the Ravens figure to use running back Ray Rice to maintain possession of the ball and keep Brady off the field. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco should be able to pass against a Patriots’ defense that was the AFC’s worst, allowing 411.1 yards per game. New England did record five sacks against Denver’s Tim Tebow last week. Expect Patriots’ defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love to stuff the run and pressure Flacco up the middle. All four of the Ravens’ losses this year have come on the road.

NFC Championship

New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers

Candlestick Park, San Francisco; 6:30 p.m. (ET); TV: FOX

The NFC championship is a rematch of a Nov. 14 game won by San Francisco, 27-20. The Giants were not playing nearly as well then as they are now. No team has more momentum than New York. Much of the Giants success is due to the spectacular play of quarterback Eli Manning, who missed a practice this week with a “stomach bug,” but is expected to play Sunday. Manning guides a New York offense which ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards. If Giants running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs can’t establish the run against the 49ers’ NFL-best run defense, they may be used on screen passes. Niners cornerback Carlos Rogers picked off Manning twice in the earlier meeting. He may draw the assignment to cover Hakeem Nicks, who has four touchdowns in the Giants’ two post-season games.

San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith faces a fierce Giants defensive line led by Jason Pierre-Paul. New York’s defensive front has the best pass rush Smith will have seen since the team’s Thanksgiving night loss to Baltimore. However, 49ers running back Frank Gore is the biggest rushing threat the Giants have had to defend since LeSean McCoy of the Eagles on Nov. 20. San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis should have an advantage against the Giants linebackers. The New York secondary benefited from several dropped passes by Green Bay receivers in the upset victory over the Packers last week. The 49ers have won seven straight home games.

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