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High stakes, higher drama

AFC, NFC title games offer familiar stories

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ONE game is a rematch. The other might feel like one -- at least to one of the teams.

For the second straight year in the AFC, the New England Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

In the NFC, it will be San Francisco travelling to Atlanta, with the Falcons defence trying to stop a versatile, running quarterback for the second straight week.

"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."

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.

Atlanta is the only team not making a repeat appearance in the NFL's final four. Last year the Giants played, and beat, the 49ers for the NFC title.

On Saturday, Kaepernick passed for 263 yards and rushed for 181 -- a playoff record for a quarterback -- to defeat Green Bay 45-31.

"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.

Though the Niners must travel cross country for the game, they opened as three-point favourites 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.

San Francisco's 20-17 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.

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."

The Ravens will have to stop the NFL's most potent offence. The Patriots put up 457 yards in a 41-28 victory over Houston, leaving them one win 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 9 1/2-point favourites 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.

Among the possible Super Bowl storylines:

--The Harbaugh Bowl. Jim Harbaugh coaches the 49ers and John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens.

--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 Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2013 C6

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