Ravens 28, Patriots 13
Strategy: The Ravens' winning equation in the AFC championship was provided by fast-paced no-huddle, shotgun concepts and enough runs to keep the Patriots honest. Play-action was effective, particularly in the second half when Joe Flacco delivered three touchdowns. Jim Caldwell created mismatches with three wide receiver sets, exploiting the absence of an injured Aqib Talib. With deep shots to Torrey Smith bottled up, Flacco peppered the secondary with shorter throws to Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. Adjusting to how Tom Brady targeted Cary Williams by repeatedly going to Brandon Lloyd, Dean Pees' defense employed tighter coverage techniques after halftime. The defense tilted toward Lloyd, and tight end Aaron Hernandez after having few answers for them initially.
Personnel: Boldin was a fixture, playing 65 snaps. Pitta got the bulk of the playing time at tight end with 57 snaps as Ed Dickson was limited to 29 snaps. The Ravens' ironmen with 100 percent participation: Flacco, Bryant McKinnie, Kelechi Osemele, Matt Birk, Marshal Yanda, Michael Oher, Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe and Ed Reed. Corey Graham and Williams were in for all but one defensive snap. Edge rusher Paul Kruger was up to 80 snaps while Terrell Suggs got 72 snaps. Haloti Ngata's playing time held steady as he was in for 67 snaps, similar to recent playoff games. Arthur Jones (33 snaps) and Pernell McPhee (26 snaps) platooned at left defensive end. Jimmy Smith replaced a struggling Chykie Brown in the nickel package.
What went right: Flacco was masterful in the clutch, precisely darting throws into tight spots. Boldin dominated smaller cornerbacks. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce forced the Patriots to commit extra defenders to the line of scrimmage because of their physical style. One play after being crushed by Jerod Mayo, Pitta dusted himself off for a 5-yard touchdown reception on a quick outside move. Williams and Ellerbe each picked off Brady. Lewis was a big factor in run support with a game-high 14 tackles, giving him 44 stops in the postseason.
What went wrong: Graham and Williams had a miscommunication, not bumping out fast enough to stop Wes Welker from catching a touchdown. Punter Sam Koch had a shaky game. A shifty Welker excelled on returns. Tackling was shoddy in the first half. Pollard and Lewis drew personal fouls for high tackles. Lewis' hit was fairly unavoidable due to Hernandez crouching to brace for the impact.
Turning point: Pollard knocked running back Stevan Ridley out in the fourth quarter, slamming him to the ground with one of the most forceful tackles of the NFL season. The forced fumble, recovered by Jones, led directly to Flacco's final touchdown pass to Boldin to put the game away.
X-factor: The defense was far too generous at key junctures, allowing New England to extend drives by converting 7 of 15 third-downs. Brady had plenty of time to operate as he was never sacked and only hit seven times despite launching 54 passes. — Aaron Wilson
49ers 28, Falcons 24
Strategy: Offensively, the 49ers rely on the running game, but they run the ball a few different ways, including standard handoffs under center, read-option plays, and running the pistol with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Their passing game consists of a lot of quick throws on short and intermediate patterns by their receivers, who are dangerous after the catch. Defensively, they run a base 3-4. They rarely blitzed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, instead trying to pressure him with on a stout front led by outside linebacker Aldon Smith and defensive end Justin Smith.
Personnel: The 49ers are physical on both sides of the ball. Their linebackers might be the league's best group, with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman in the middle and Aldon Smith chasing QBs. Their offensive line includes three first-round picks, including left tackle Joe Staley. Their secondary likes to throw its weight around, but it can be exploited in coverage. Michael Crabtree has really clicked with Kaepernick and is blossoming into a pretty good wide receiver.
What went right: Most importantly, the 49ers didn't panic after falling behind early. They wore down the Falcons defense with the running game, led by Frank Gore, who had 90 yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons tried to eliminate Kaepernick as a runner, and he was content to take what they gave him and hand off to his backs. Athletic tight end Vernon Davis finally became a consistent threat in the passing game again, catching five passes for 106 yards and a score. Aldon Smith has not recorded a sack in more than a month, but he buzzed around Ryan all day. They won in the red zone, scoring four touchdowns in five trips and holding the Falcons to 10 points in their three trips.
What went wrong: Ryan picked apart the 49ers secondary, particularly as the Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and finished the game with 396 yards and three touchdown passes. Their cornerbacks couldn't stick on wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, who combined for 18 catches, 282 yards and two scores. David Akers missed a 38-yard field goal in the third quarter. Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati had a rough game, allowing a sack and pressure on other plays.
Turning point: After the Falcons went up, 17-0, on the first play of the second quarter, the 49ers responded with an 11-play, 85-yard drive that took 6:46 off the clock and allowed the 49ers to settle down. During the drive, Kaepernick completed five straight passes and LaMichael James finished it off with a 15-yard touchdown run. It was a see-saw game from that point forward, but if the 49ers hadn't answered there, the Falcons might have built an insurmountable lead.
X-factor: Since taking over for Alex Smith in the middle of the season, Kaepernick has taken the Bay Area by storm. He rushed for 181 yards — the most a quarterback has had in any NFL game ever — in the divisional round win over the Green Bay Packers. The Ravens will dust off the tape from their Week 14 loss to the Washington Redskins to remember how they neutralized their pistol offense, something the 49ers also use a lot of. But Kaepernick, whose passer rating in the playoffs is 105.9, is more than a runner. He has a strong arm and is willing to take changes with it. — Matt VenselCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun