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Conference title games have familiar faces
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 as the Niners look to take the next step after falling 20-17 in overtime to New York when hosting the NFC title game last year.
''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.''
Good luck with that one.
On Sunday, the Falcons barely got past Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, who overcame a 20-point deficit to take a one-point lead, but gave it up after Matt Ryan drove Atlanta into field goal range and Matt Bryant made a 49-yard kick with 8 seconds left.
The Falcons struggled to stop Wilson, who had a big day with both his arm and feet, similar to what Kaepernick did for the 49ers in their 45-31 rout of Green Bay in the other NFC divisional game.
Atlanta is the only team not making a repeat appearance in the NFL's final four, and Falcons will face a 49ers team that has a different kind of weapon at quarterback this time around.
On Saturday, Kaepernick passed for 263 yards and rushed for 181 – a NFL record in any game for a quarterback – to dump the Packers.
''We're one step closer to where we want to be,'' said Kaepernick. San Francisco hasn't been to the Super Bowl since 1995, when Steve Young led the 49ers to their fifth Lombardi Trophy during a MVP season for San Francisco's last Hall of Fame quarterback.
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 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.
Cundiff now plays for San Francisco, which signed him two weeks ago to compete with a struggling David Akers for the team's kicking duties. Akers held on to that job and kicked for the 49ers in their playoff game Saturday.
In Baltimore 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 and putting the 17-year veteran one win away from his second Super Bowl.
''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.''
The Patriots were made early 9½-point favorites against the Ravens.
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.
New England is the even-money favorite in Vegas to win the Super Bowl. San Francisco is next at 2-1, followed by Atlanta (5-1) and Baltimore (8-1).
Among the possible Super Bowl story lines:
-- The Harbaugh Bowl. Jim Harbaugh coaches the 49ers and John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens. A Harbaugh Bowl almost became a reality last season when both of Jack Harbaugh's sons took their teams to the Super Bowl precipice before both lost by a field goal.
-- A rematch of San Francisco's 41-34 win at New England on Dec. 16 – one of the most entertaining games of the regular season. The 49ers bolted out to a 31-3 lead in the third quarter of that game, only to see the Patriots reel off four consecutive touchdown drives for 28 unanswered points to tie the game before the 49ers recovered to score 10 points in the final six minutes to put the game away.
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