The Baltimore Ravens will meet the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
The Ravens simply will outmuscle the New England Patriots to win the AFC championship on Sunday. Like New England's 23-20 AFC title win over Baltimore last year, it's going to be close again.
The 49ers are the NFL's best team. Two weeks from now they will win the Vince Lombardi Trophy. This week San Francisco will dispatch the overrated Atlanta Falcons to take the NFC championship.
The final four aren't much different from last year, with the Falcons replacing the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. So much for NFL parity. Somebody new will win the title, but the elite have largely remained the same.
Baltimore has the tougher challenge, though New England -- an 8?-point favorite -- seems like a sucker's bet for Ravens backers. In the six previous AFC championships pitting the same teams for a second straight year, five won both games. New England is the best home team ever in the playoffs at 14-3, but Baltimore is the greatest road team at 8-5.
The Ravens blew a chance to beat the Patriots last year when Lee Evans dropped a potential game-winning touchdown pass. Baltimore then missed a chance to force overtime when it botched a field goal with 15 seconds remaining. The Ravens managed a little redemption Sept. 23 when they beat the Patriots 31-30 as quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 382 yards and three touchdowns, including two to receiver Torrey Smith. Baltimore managed 503 yards against New England. This game won't be a defensive showdown no matter how often TV cameras show Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who is trying to extend his career one more game before retiring.
This is about Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the greatest passer of his generation. He has three rings, which are as many as the Manning brothers combined. Brady has been vulnerable lately, losing the Super Bowl last year, but there's no smarter passer in the game. He will beat Baltimore's defense at times.
The question is whether Flacco can counterpunch. The undervalued Ravens quarterback has five touchdowns and a 120 passer rating in two playoff games, so it should be an epic game even if the opposing passer isn't Peyton Manning.
The 49ers will roll over the Falcons, who were lucky to survive the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. San Francisco is a 41Ú2-point favorite and will cover easily.
At this point, changing quarterbacks at midseason has proved to be a genius move by Jim Harbaugh.
If this is a showdown between quarterbacks -- and it always seems that way now in the NFL -- then the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick vs. the Falcons' Matt Ryan is a big mismatch. Kaepernick is the latest combination of legs and arms whom defensive coordinators will spend the offseason figuring out. The NFL always neutralizes an advantage over time, but for now Kaepernick gives the 49ers an edge.
Figure on a dizzying seven hours of football, but ultimately Baltimore and San Francisco will meet in New Orleans for more than a good time on Bourbon Street.