The Ugly Final Fight for the Super Bowl

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Both the 49ers and Ravens prevailed Sunday with two late-game comebacks in enemy territory.

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AP/Stephan Savoia

If you followed the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens for the last few seasons, you had the feeling going into yesterday's conference championship games that this was the last chance that both teams had to win the big one. Both teams had endured heartbreaking losses in last year's finals: the Niners to the New York Giants in a game in which they fumbled away two punts, and the Ravens to the New England Patriots in a game in which the receiver dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone and their kicker missed a chip-shot field goal that would have sent the game into overtime. You don't lose the conference final two years in a row and then go on to win the Super Bowl in the third year—or so the pundits say.

In any event, the path to the Super Bowl for both teams in 2013 was on the road, in the opponent's home stadium. And both won ugly, with second-half comebacks that hint at a very intriguing Super Bowl. Sunday's matches showed that when the 49ers and Ravens square off against each other, they'll face opponents who in terms of style are radically different—San Francisco features sped and finesse on both sides of the ball while Baltimore has a more old-school approach—but who, in terms of effectiveness, are uncannily similar.

The Niners' comeback was bigger than the Ravens' because their first-half performance was worse. In fact, San Francisco played so poorly in the beginning of the game that it looked like their season was over early in the second quarter. The Atlanta Falcons did their usual thing of streaking off to an early lead—10-0 in the first quarter, 17-0 in the second. It seemed like there was no way they could lose. As it turned out, there was a way, and it was the same way they nearly lost last week to the Seattle Seahawks: sitting on the ball in the last two quarters and allowing a desperate opponent the opportunity to get up off the ground.

The Falcons, with Julio Jones and Roddy White, have faster wide receivers than any team in the league. The 49ers probably have the best defense in the league, but in the first half they simply had no solution to Jones, who four minutes into the game sped past SF's defensive backs for a ridiculously easy 46-yard touchdown. In the second quarter, the Niner defensive backfield for their assignments straight, and it still did no good as Jones outleapt his defender in the left corner of the end zone for a 20-yard pass that made it 14-0 Atlanta.

Jones is probably the most dangerous receiver in the league, and about the only way to beat him is the way San Francisco did it: Pray that the Falcons choose to run the ball on the round instead of throwing to Julio. Coolly, and almost with a sense of inevitability, the Niners clawed their way back from a 17-point deficit (an all-time record for an NFC championship game) with QB Colin Kaepernick, mixing passes and runs. At the half they were down by 10 points, 24-14, and then, taking the ball on the opening kickoff in the second half, they gouged out 82 yards in seven plays to make it 24-21.

As Sunday showed, when the 49ers and Ravens square off against each other, they'll face opponents who in terms of style are radically different but in terms of effectiveness are uncannily similar.

Even though Atlanta led by three points and were playing in front of their fans, it seemed like something in them gave way at that point and that they expected to lose. Falcons QB Matt Ryan had been nearly perfect in the first half, completing 18 of 24 for 271 yards and TDs. But in the last half, with the heat on, the man who had come to be known as Mattie Ice turned to slush. This was partly because the Falcons began waiting for obvious passing situations, i.e., third and long, before throwing the ball.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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