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PLAYOFFS
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           === Extra Points: Ayanbadejo gives Pats an easy target ===
 
 By John McMullen, NFL Editor
 
 (Sports Network) - Baltimore special teams star Brendon Ayanbadejo really
 stepped in it this past weekend when he started talking trash in advance of
 Sunday's AFC Championship Game in New England.
 
 In a series of Tweets, Ayanbadejo called the Patriots' extremely effective up-
 tempo offense a gimmick, needled them for ultimately failing in their near
 perfect 18-1 season back in 2007, and even brought Spygate before finishing up
 by ripping the organization for releasing wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a day
 before the Super Bowl last year.
 
 It was the kind of needless rant which makes coaches wish Twitter accounts
 came with breathalyzer tests or at least a simple I.Q. hurdle.
 
 As a significant 9 1/2-point underdog, Ayanbadejo's nonchalance on TweetDeck
 was the equivalent of one of us drunk-dialing an old flame at 2 o'clock in the
 morning -- no good can come of it.
 
 Few give the Ravens much of a chance of stopping New England's latest march to
 the Super Bowl, what would be the franchise's sixth appearance on the big stage
 in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.
 
 Baltimore has often been a speed bump during the Pats' recent success dating
 back to the aforementioned 18-1 season when New England needed a late Brady
 touchdown pass to fend off the Ravens.
 
 Two years later, Baltimore did knock out New England with an emphatic 33-14
 first-round upset. But, in 2010, the Patriots returned the favor in overtime
 in the regular season, and then survived last year in the AFC Championship
 Game when Lee Evans dropped what would have been a game-winning touchdown for
 the Ravens and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that could have
 deadlocked things.
 
 The tables turned early in 2012 when Belichick was the one frustrated after a
 last-second 31-30 setback, chasing after and eventually bumping a replacement
 official who ruled Ravens kicker Justin Tucker made a 27-yard game-winner
 which flew directly over the right upright.
 
 No matter how close this rivalry has been at times, though, more often than
 not the Patriots have gotten the best of Baltimore when it has counted and New
 England seems to hold a number of significant advantages going into Sunday's
 contest.
 
 The Pats had the league's top offense during the regular season, producing
 427.9 yards per game, and 34.8 points per game, the sixth-highest single-
 season average all-time.
 
 Brady, who is one of five players to be named Super Bowl MVP multiple times,
 enters this contest with a 17-6 playoff record, the most wins by a starting
 quarterback in postseason history. Meanwhile, his .739 winning percentage is
 now ahead of Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw (.737) and Troy Aikman (.733) for
 the top spot in league lore.
 
 The All-Pro has been even better at home, amassing an 11-2 mark and the
 Patriots as a whole are 14-3 all-time as the host in the playoffs. In AFC
 title games, New England is an impressive 7-2 and a perfect 4-0 in Foxboro.
 
 The last thing the Ravens needed on top of all that was a Pats team being
 fueled by the words of a special-teamer, albeit a very good one.
 
 To his credit, Ayanbadejo tried to back off on Monday.
 
 "I made selfish comments on Twitter last night that reflected poorly upon
 myself, my teammates, and the organization. For that I apologize," Ayanbadejo
 Tweeted.
 
 The damage, however, was already done.
 
 A Patriots source told CBS' Mike Freeman that Ayanbadejo's quotes had already
 been circulated through the New England locker room and that "players who are
 aware of the quotes are furious and feel it is one of the most disrespectful
 things ever said about the franchise."
 
 That's probably a stretch, but why give Belichick any added ammunition?
 
 While no player should need motivation for a championship game, human nature
 is human nature and playing this week has become somewhat of a birthright for
 this Pats group.
 
 Baltimore's best bet was to surprise the sleeping giant, one which would have
 been looking ahead toward the Super Bowl after reading a week's worth of press
 clippings about how great it was.
 
 Instead the Ravens will be facing a fired-up bunch ready for battle.
 
 
 AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
 
 Baltimore (12-6) at New England (13-4), Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
 
 LINE: Patriots by 9 1/2
 
 THE SKINNY: The Pats will once again host Baltimore in the first AFC
 Championship Game rematch since Denver and Cleveland met in back-to-back
 conference title games following the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
 
 The Ravens return to Gillette Stadium for the first time since their
 heartbreaking defeat in last year's AFC Championship Game when New England
 narrowly escaped with a 23-20 victory, after a potential go-ahead touchdown
 catch was knocked from the grasp of Evans and Cundiff missed the gimmee field
 goal attempt in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter.
 
 "We fought hard to get back to this point," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said.
 "We are definitely proud of being here. We are going to give it our all and we
 know what it felt like last year. We walked off that field without that win. We
 know what we've put in to get back to this point. It is going to be a great
 game."
 
 Last Saturday, Baltimore defeated Denver, 38-35, and improved its road playoff
 record to 8-5 (.615), the highest road winning percentage in postseason
 history. Flacco's unforgettable 70-yard TD pass to Jacoby Jones was the
 longest game-tying or game-winning scrimmage touchdown in the final minute of
 the fourth quarter of an NFL playoff game.
 
 The Patriots, meanwhile, advanced to their 10th AFC Championship Game with a
 41-28 win over Houston behind Brady, who surpassed his boyhood hero, Joe
 Montana, to become the winningest QB in NFL playoff history.
 
 "Tom is a great competitor," Belichick said. "He's our leader and we all
 follow him. There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady."
 
 Brady passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns in the Patriots' win over the
 Texans, including two TD passes to running back Shane Vereen, who saw
 extensive playing time in place of the injured Danny Woodhead. Vereen also had
 a 1-yard touchdown run against Houston, becoming the third player in NFL
 history with two TD catches and a touchdown run in a postseason contest.
 
 Woodhead, who injured his thumb on the first offensive series against the
 Texans, is expected to play against the Ravens, but All-Pro tight end Rob
 Gronkowski is done for the season after breaking his left forearm for the
 second time.
 
 "I think the two best teams are in the finals," Brady said. "Baltimore
 certainly deserves to be here and so do we, so it's very fitting. We played
 them early in the year. They got us. We're going to have to play our best game
 this week."
 
 PREDICTION: Patriots 24, Ravens 20
 
 
 NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
 
 San Francisco (12-4-1) at Atlanta (14-3), Sunday, 3 p.m.
 
 LINE: 49ers by 4
 
 THE SKINNY: The top-seeded Falcons got the playoff monkey off their back this
 past Sunday and are one step away from a Super Bowl berth as they host the NFC
 Championship Game for the first time in franchise history against the dynamic
 Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers.
 
 Atlanta built a 20-0 first-half lead which was quickly erased by Seattle. The
 Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch nearly capped one of the greatest comebacks in NFL
 history with a 2-yard touchdown run with 31 seconds remaining in the fourth
 quarter.
 
 Matt Ryan, however, finally lived up to his nickname, "Matty Ice," when it
 counted. The Pro-Bowler whipped a 22-yard out to Harry Douglas followed by a
 19-yarder up the seam to Tony Gonzalez, setting up a 49-yard field goal by
 Matt Bryant, which sailed through the uprights with eight seconds to play.
 
 "Our quarterback is a special player," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "They
 call him 'Matty Ice,' but I feel like we've got two 'Matty Ices.' There's
 'Matty Ice' Ryan and 'Matty Ice' Bryant."
 
 Ryan passed for 250 yards and three touchdowns, both career highs in the
 postseason, and earned his first playoff win.
 
 "I think the one thing that I've learned in my five years, and specifically in
 the postseason, is that it's hard," Ryan said. "I thought that collectively as
 a team, and as a coaching staff, nobody flinched. We just kept battling, kept
 doing what we do, and that's just kind of been the makeup of our team this
 season."
 
 San Francisco advanced to the franchise's 14th NFC Championship Game, matching
 the Dallas Cowboys for the most since 1970, thanks to a 45-31 thrashing of
 Green Bay.
 
 Kaepernick set the tone, accounting for four total touchdowns (two rushing,
 two passing) and 444 of San Francisco's 579 total yards. In addition to his
 263 passing yards, Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards, the most ever by a
 quarterback in an NFL game.
 
 "He's that new-style quarterback in the NFL that can run the read option, that
 can pull the ball down, run it and take it the distance from anywhere on the
 football field. Extremely strong-armed, accurate," said 49ers safety Donte
 Whitner.
 
 Kaepernick's top target against the Packers was wide receiver Michael
 Crabtree, who became the third player in team history with at least nine
 catches (nine), 100-plus receiving yards (119) and two or more TD catches
 (two) in a playoff game, joining superstars Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens.
 
 PREDICTION: Falcons 27, 49ers 17
 
 
 
 
 
 
 01/16 12:26:29 ET