Washington Post NFL reporter Mark Maske took a closer look at this weekend’s AFC and NFC conference championship matchups. Sunday’s first contest pits the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense against Tom Brady and New England’s prolific passing offense. With a win in in Foxborough, the Ravens would reach their first Super Bowl since they won it in 2001 while the Patriots are eying their fifth Super Bowl appearance in the last 11 seasons. In the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers hope to continue their 1980s renaissance with a win over Eli Manning and the surging New York Giants. Here’s what you need to know about each of Sunday’s games.
Sunday, 3:00 p.m., Gillette Stadium (CBS)
Why the Ravens can win: They have the sort of balance that could give the Patriots problems. The Ravens ranked third in the league in scoring defense and 12th in scoring offense during the regular season. They weren’t particularly overpowering on offense in their playoff win at home over the Texans, but turned two Houston turnovers into first-quarter TDs and held on from there. The Ravens probably will need to use the running of RB Ray Rice to control the game on offense, and mix in a few big plays in the passing game with QB Joe Flacco looking to WRs Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. The defense likely needs a significant contribution by LB Terrell Suggs, who tied for fifth in the league with 14 sacks during the regular season but had a quiet pass-rushing day against the Texans and was held without a sack.
Why the Patriots can win: They’ve won nine straight games, including their triumph over the Broncos at home in a conference semifinal when Tom Brady tied the NFL single-game postseason record with six TD passes. They’re 8-1 at home this season, and Brady and Coach Bill Belichick are one win from their fifth Super Bowl appearance together. Three of Brady’s TD passes against the Broncos went to TE Rob Gronkowski, who continued his superb season. A New England defense that ranked 31st in the league during the regular season had five sacks against the Broncos and limited Denver QB Tim Tebow to 136 passing yards on nine-for-26 accuracy.
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Sunday, 6:30 p.m., Candlestick Park (FOX)
Why the Giants can win: Four of the last six Super Bowls have been won by a team that played a first-round playoff game, and the Giants are the last club in this year’s postseason field with a chance to continue that trend. They played in the opening round of the NFC playoffs on their way to their Super Bowl triumph at the conclusion of the 2007 season. They have gotten on a roll at the right time, winning their final two regular season games to capture the NFC East title and then beating the fifth-seeded Falcons at home and the top-seeded Packers on the road in the playoffs. QB Eli Manning has six TD passes and one interception this postseason, and he’s getting help. The Giants have totaled 267 rushing yards in their two playoff games. They’ve allowed only 22 points, and they had four sacks and forced four turnovers against the Packers.
Why the 49ers can win: This is a rematch of a regular season game won by the 49ers, 27-20, on Nov. 13 in San Francisco. Manning threw two interceptions in that game, both to CB Carlos Rogers, and the 49ers stopped the Giants on fourth down in the final minute only 10 yards from a tying TD. The 49ers have won eight of nine games at home this season, including their playoff victory over the Saints. They led the league in rushing defense during the regular season, and were fourth in total defense and second in scoring defense. But as they showed against the Saints with their 36-point performance, they can rev up the offense every so often too. QB Alex Smith threw for 299 yards and three TDs in that game, and TE Vernon Davis had seven catches for 180 yards and two TDs.
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