NFL Playoffs: Early look at the conference finals
As is often the case, the NFL's divisional round set a pretty high playoff bar. Even though the Patriots pulled away from the Texans in the weekend finale, the Ravens' shocking double OT upset in Denver, Colin Kaepernick's magnificent show and a frantic Seattle-Atlanta contest provided NFL fans with more than enough entertainment.
Will the conference finals follow suit?
The potential certainly seems to be there, what with Baltimore and New England meeting again in the AFC, and the top two NFC seeds clashing.
Here's an early look at what's ahead next weekend:
No. 4 Baltimore Ravens at No. 2 New England Patriots, 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday
There are a few important new pieces here -- for example, Jacoby Jones, Bernard Pierce and Courtney Upshaw in Baltimore; and Chandler Jones, D'onta Hightower and Aqib Talib for the Patriots. When we get right down to the nitty-gritty, though, this matchup may look a lot like last year's AFC title game, when New England escaped with a 23-20 win.
A couple of key subplots that figure to come up about a million times each in the next week:
• The Ray Lewis retirement tour continues. Lewis said he would hang 'em up at the end of the Ravens' postseason run, and his teammates would love nothing more than to send him out a winner. Already, Baltimore has taken down Andrew Luck's Colts and Peyton Manning's Broncos. Revenge against Tom Brady's Patriots would punch Baltimore's ticket to New Orleans.
• Rob Gronkowski's injury. The Patriots' tight end reportedly re-broke his previously injured left forearm, in New England's win over Houston on Sunday. Without Gronk in the lineup, the Patriots will have to rework their offensive attack. No matter what they do, though, this will constitute a huge absence.
Of course, even with Gronkowski out of the lineup, everyone is aware of what Brady can do on the big stage. Brady has started six AFC championship games as the Patriots' quarterback -- he has won five.
That success raises the stakes for Joe Flacco, who answered his critics in a big way Saturday by not only beating Manning but rallying his team late to do so. He actually topped Brady head-to-head during the 2012 AFC title game, though the final score did not represent that performance.
Will this come down to the run games? Ray Rice mustered just 67 yards on 21 carries in Foxboro a year ago, but he has Pierce at his side now (and Vonta Leach blocking for him); New England has kicked its ground attack up a few notches this season, with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead grinding out yards.
New England will be favored in this one. That hardly mattered in 2012, when Billy Cundiff's untimely miss punched New England's Super Bowl ticket.
Would a San Francisco-Seattle NFC championship game, with Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick going toe-to-toe, have been a blast? You bet.
But this matchup could be pretty dynamite itself.
The Falcons finally got the postseason monkey off their backs Sunday, thanks to a late Matt Bryant field goal -- not to mention a couple of key completions by Matt Ryan, whose credentials as a top-flight NFL quarterback had been questioned.
Lewis' pending retirement has generated a great deal of buzz this playoff season, but Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez is right there with him. Gonzalez said he's "95 percent" sure he'll retire after this season, so every game out could be his last. He and San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis might put up a tantalizing back-and-forth in this one.
Atlanta unveiled a surprisingly potent rushing attack Sunday, with Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers gashing Seattle's defense. The Falcons would love to repeat that success next week, plus add in plenty of Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones.
This outcome, however, could rest with how well Atlanta can formulate a scheme to slow Colin Kaepernick and his potent 49ers' attack. Kaepernick shredded the Packers on Saturday -- a record-setting performance that left Green Bay's defense absolutely reeling. We could be in for a shootout in this one, which should come as no surprise after a divisional round heavy on offense.