NFL Nation: 2012 Conference Championship Rapid Reaction


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- My thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 28-13 win over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game:

What it means: The Ravens' magical championship run continues as they head to their first Super Bowl in 12 years. One week after knocking off Peyton Manning, the Ravens beat Tom Brady as the AFC's No. 4 seed crashed the party in New Orleans and set up a family reunion in the Bayou. Welcome to the Harbaugh Bowl, where John Harbaugh's Ravens will play Jim Harbaugh's 49ers for the Lombardi Trophy. Just like the AFC divisional playoff game, quarterback Joe Flacco once again came through with a big game and the defense came up with three clutch turnovers to deliver another big upset. It's a fitting sendoff for linebacker Ray Lewis, whose final game will come in the Super Bowl.

Flacco not denied this time: Last year at Gillette Stadium, Flacco was one failed catch by Lee Evans from leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl. He wouldn't be stopped Sunday. After going 1-of-6 in the first quarter, Flacco completed 20 of his next 28 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns as the Ravens took a commanding 28-13 lead in the fourth quarter. It didn't hurt that the Patriots' top cornerback, Aqib Talib, injured his thigh with about five minutes left in the first quarter and didn't return.

Crushing blow: Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who is known for injuring Patriots (Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski) in his career, hurt the Patriots in a different way Sunday. His hard fourth-quarter hit on running back Stevan Ridley forced a fumble at midfield. It was Pollard's first forced fumble of the season. The Ravens converted that into a Flacco-to-Anquan Boldin touchdown pass to put the Ravens up by 15 in the fourth quarter.

Big-play Boldin: After not getting one catch in the first half, Boldin was a red zone monster in the fourth quarter. He scored on touchdowns of 3 and 11 yards. He has scored five touchdowns in seven postseason games for the Ravens.

Tip of the day: Once again, the Ravens made Tom Brady not look like Tom Brady. That was apparent in the fourth quarter when the Patriots were in Ravens territory with less than seven minutes to go. Defensive end Pernell McPhee deflected Brady's pass at the line and it was intercepted by linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, which essentially sealed the victory.

Tough tight end: Even though Gronkowski was out, there was still another tight end who made an impact. With the Ravens trailing 13-7 in the third quarter, Dennis Pitta held onto a pass in the red zone despite taking a vicious shot from Jerod Mayo. On the next play, Pitta caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Flacco.

Temper, temper: The Ravens took a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter on Ray Rice's 2-yard touchdown run. But they couldn't hold on to the momentum because they couldn't control their temper. Two plays after the score, Ellerbe slapped a Patriots player in the head after getting shoved. That 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty jump-started New England's 79-yard touchdown drive.

Bad field position: All five of the Ravens' first-half drives started inside their 15-yard line, and their average drive start was been at their own 11-yard line. Baltimore’s average drive started at its own 28 during the regular season, the third best starting field position in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

What's next: After coming up short in their previous two AFC Championship Games, the Ravens got it done this time. They head to New Orleans next, where they will face the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the New England Patriots' 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game:

What it means: The AFC title game was the end of the road for the Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick were 3-0 in this round at home, but Baltimore did a good job of controlling the pace of the game, then pulling away in the fourth quarter with timely plays to advance to the Super Bowl. New England was swept by the Ravens in two meetings this season. Brady also fell short of his goal of a sixth Super Bowl appearance. That would have set a record for a starting quarterback. Time is running out for Brady to win another championship. He will be 36 at the start of next season.

Secondary struggles: The Patriots suffered a huge injury in the first quarter and never recovered. New England No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib strained his hamstring and was knocked out of the game. Talib is New England's best cover corner, and his absence changed the way the team played defense. Without Talib, Baltimore’s offense took advantage and made plays against rookie corner Alfonzo Dennard and inconsistent teammate Kyle Arrington. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had another good outing. He threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns against New England's poor secondary.

No filling in for Gronkowski: The Patriots needed other players to step up for injured Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. New England got good contributions from tight end Aaron Hernandez (nine catches) and receivers Brandon Lloyd (seven catches) and Wes Welker (eight catches), but it wasn't enough. None of these players was able to make the big plays, especially to get in the end zone. Welker had a big drop on third down that had a chance to change the momentum of the game. New England's 13 points was its lowest total of the season.

Other injuries: In addition to Talib, the Patriots had key injuries to starting running back Stevan Ridley and defensive tackle Kyle Love. Ridley suffered a concussion after taking a devastating hit by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. Love injured his knee in the first quarter and didn't return.

What’s next: The Patriots' season is over. New England will now enter the offseason trying to improve in several areas. The Patriots are in pretty good shape with the cap and in free agency. The biggest question is: What will they do with pending free agents Welker and Talib?

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 28, Falcons 24

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
6:11
PM ET

ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The 49ers are heading to a Super Bowl for the sixth time in franchise history. They will seek their sixth Super Bowl title when they face the winner of the Baltimore-New England game in New Orleans on Feb. 3. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick will lead them there, further validating coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to make Kaepernick the starter over Alex Smith.

What I liked: The 49ers' defense recovered from a brutal start to make key second-half plays, none bigger than the fourth-down pass breakup NaVorro Bowman made on a pass to Roddy White with 1:09 remaining. That play turned over possession on downs and allowed the 49ers to run out the clock.

Kaepernick and the offense also recovered from a rough start. The offense reduced a 17-0 deficit to 17-14 late in the first half. Vernon Davis had three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the 49ers fought back. Rookie running back LaMichael James also looked good on a 15-yard option run. The trend continued in the third quarter as the 49ers moved 82 yards in seven plays to set up Frank Gore's 5-yard touchdown run.

The offense did its part, but the 49ers would not have won this game without the defense finally finding its bearings.

Chris Culliver's interception of Ryan with 7:38 left in the third quarter was exactly what the 49ers needed. Atlanta led 24-21 and the teams were trading touchdowns to that point. The 49ers' defense had not made a big play all game.

The 49ers' Aldon Smith, though ineffective as a pass-rusher for most of the game, pounced on the football when Ryan fumbled a shotgun snap. Ryan took his eyes off the ball as the 49ers appeared to show blitz. The recovery by Smith gave the 49ers' defense turnovers on consecutive third-quarter possessions.

Gore's second touchdown, this one a 9-yarder, gave the 49ers their first lead at 28-24 with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter. Fullback Bruce Miller's block was key on the play. The 49ers won at the line of scrimmage on that drive.

What I didn't like: The 49ers took a penalty for delay of game following a timeout as they were trying to run out the clock. That contributed to San Francisco facing a third-and-15 play and having to punt with 13 seconds left. The Falcons had no timeouts at that point, so a comeback victory for Atlanta was not likely. But the lost field position gave the Falcons a better chance.

The 49ers' defense appeared in over its head for much of the game. An early busted coverage allowed Julio Jones to get deep for a 46-yard touchdown, only the third time all season the 49ers have allowed a catch of 40-plus yards. They gave up another big-gainer when free safety Dashon Goldson went for an interception and couldn't quite make the play. San Francisco could not get pressure with four- or even five-man pressures. That was critical.

And when the defense finally produced turnovers on consecutive Atlanta possessions in the second half, the 49ers got no points either time. David Akers' 38-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright and bounced backward, falling short. That kept the Falcons in the lead 24-21 and returned possession to them. Receiver Michael Crabtree then lost a fumble at the Atlanta 1-yard line to prevent the 49rs from getting points off the second turnover.

Rookie watch: The 49ers got good contributions from James, their 2012 second-round choice. First-rounder A.J. Jenkins remained in the shadows. The team kept Jenkins on the sideline when it went to its three-receiver offense on a critical third down in the third quarter. Chad Hall, who had not caught a pass in an NFL game since he was with Philadelphia in 2011, was the third receiver on that play.

Crabtree's up-and-down day: Harbaugh made headlines before the season when he said Crabtree had the best hands he'd ever seen. Crabtree lived up to the talk by snatching the ball away from Falcons cornerback Robert McClain, then sprinting away for a 33-yard gain to the Atlanta 10-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter. Crabtree lost a fumble at the 1 on the next play, however, and the Falcons recovered.

Better returns: The 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game one year ago thanks largely to Kyle Williams' muffed punts in the late going. Ted Ginn Jr. had some shaky moments fielding returns this season, but his 20-yarder early in the fourth quarter set up the San Francisco offense at the Atlanta 38.

Failed challenge: The 49ers failed in challenging Harry Douglas' 22-yard reception with 3:53 remaining. The ruling cost the 49ers field position and their first timeout of the second half while San Francisco was protecting a 28-24 lead.

What's next: The 49ers face Baltimore or New England in the Super Bowl.

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