NFC Review - 49ers 28 @ Atlanta 24
The San Francisco 49ers led the weekend assault of the away teams, punching their ticket to New Orleans in stunning fashion. This was achieved despite falling into a gaping 17-point chasm during the first half, where the Atlanta Falcons were briefly blessed with the Midas touch.
It all seemed a bit too much for the Niners to contend with but they didn't panic and had worked their way back into the game by halftime with a poised mixture of pass and run plays. Even a missed field goad from David Akers and a goal-line fumble by Michael Crabtree failed to foil their fight-back, and it's fair to say that the 49ers were value for more than their four-point supremacy.
The blend of potential running lanes provided by Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and LaMichael James bamboozled the Atlanta D. However, it was the Niners' own defence which finally restored its former glory, shutting out Matt Ryan in the second half before preventing two pivotal passes with the game on the line.
That solidity will have arguably given San Fran fans most encouragement, as they advance to their first Bowl since 1995. As they were before this game, they will go there as worthy 1.584/7 favourites.
AFC Review - Ravens 28 @ Patriots 13
The New England Patriots had all the championship pedigree of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era to draw on. But Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh emerged as best in show, wresting top-dog status from the Pats in a second-half performance which also showcased the sort of defensive lockdown that took the Baltimore Ravens to Super Bowl XXXV.
While Ray Lewis' emotionally charged D hurried and harried Brady into mistakes (premised on two picks), Flacco added some cool flair with 21 unanswered points via three touchdown connections. Wideout Anquan Boldin is clearly Flacco's go-to guy, but with Ray Rice adding some offensive balance with his solid ground gains, the Ravens were flying on both sides of the ball.
Three highly physical encounters in the play-offs would suggest a drop-off in performance but the Ravens' emotional surge towards the Jazz Capital still continues to build in pace and conviction. They overturned odds of 5.14/1 in this encounter, so current quotes around 2.6613/8 for the Super Bowl won't deter them one iota. A two-week break will come in handy to rest the weary limbs of their seized-up secondary.
Road to the Super Bowl
So Ray Lewis' Magical Farewell Tour does get its grandstand finish in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII. Yet the Cinderfella story of Baltimore's retiring linebacker has suddenly been superseded and surpassed by a more compelling tale of sibling rivalry.
Coaches Jim and John Harbaugh have been slugging it out since the sandpit days, but now the Super Bowl offers these brothers the definitive chance to settle bragging rights once and for all in The Bro Bowl. Jim the younger is at the helm of the San Francisco 49ers, while John the elder takes the controls of the Baltimore Ravens. Their 15-month gap in ages, so divisive at high school, seems immaterial now.
On the pitch, there's also a fascinating clash of contrasting styles in the Niners' Colin Kaepernick and the Ravens' Joe Flacco. Both men have had their doubters this term, but both have risen above the naysayers to prove themselves bona fide Most Valuable Player contenders - albeit in very different ways.
Flacco is the much-maligned seasoned campaigner, who has struggled to earn the plaudits in the regular season. However, it's a different story in the play-offs where Flacco has registered an impressive 8-4 career playoff record, featuring six victories on the road (a better away record than even the storied likes of Brett Favre and Joe Montana). Furthermore, two of those wins have arrived in the past fortnight in the back yards of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, surely the two greatest QBs of the current crop. A Vince Lombardi trophy would therefore see Flacco join their elite company.
Another to have thrived against the odds in the rarefied air of the postseason is Kaepernick, who has particularly impressed with his maturity for one so inexperienced. Although he is a second-season quarterback, he is essentially a rookie with only nine starts under his belt for this climaxing campaign.
Nonetheless, Kaepernick has shown the speed and laser-accuracy of a better-known CK - and accordingly earned the nickname "Superman" - with his dual-threat versatility of foot-speed outside the pocket and a canon delivery. He is one of the most exciting prospects around and showed composure and patience in rallying the Niners from a three-score deficit to triumph 28-24 on a hostile environment at the weekend.
So whether you want to cue the violins with Ray, or trust Colin to orchestrate things, this is likely to be one of the most hotly anticipated and contested Super Bowls in living memory. Throw in a temper tantrum from one of the Harbaugh brothers and the drama could even exceed that of a Shakespeare play.