Championship Sunday was a reminder that professional sports -- specifically the NFL -- continue to be the greatest reality show on television. Most observers believed the San Francisco 49ers would represent the NFC, but who would have imagined that they would need to come back from an early 17-0 deficit to do it? Or that a quarterback making just his ninth career start could rally his team in a hostile road environment?
And then there was the AFC...
Sure, Ray Lewis has been an inspirational leader for the Baltimore Ravens on the field and in the locker room, but few believed Tom Brady could be beaten at home. Never underestimate the power of a highly motivated group playing for its leader.
Of course, that all factored in to this weekend's studs in the NFL Playoff Challenge. This week's list featured a few expected stars and a couple of big surprises.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons (23 points): Matty Ice came out on fire against the 49ers' secondary on his way to a 271-yard, three-touchdown first half. Things weren't quite as stellar in the second half as Ryan was limited to 125 yards with an interception and a fumble. But it was still good enough to make him the top quarterback of the weekend. Unfortunately he won't be available for the final week of the Playoff Challenge, but it's a reminder of how productive "The Mattural" and his receivers can be -- especially if Tony Gonzalez decides to return for another campaign.
Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers (21 points): With so much focus on Colin Kaepernick's ability to run the football, holes opened for Gore to re-assert himself as San Francisco's top rusher. The veteran from "The U" had a game-high 90 yards on the ground with a pair of touchdowns. Look for Gore to see plenty of work in the Niners' read-option scheme against a Ravens defense that was simply mediocre against the run in 2012.
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens (12 points): Rice wasn't the leading rusher in the AFC Championship Game -- that was Stevan Ridley. He wasn't even the leading rusher on his own team. That honor went to Bernard Pierce. However, Rice did have 70 combined scrimmage yards (48 rushing) and found the end zone on a two-yard run, to make him the weekend's second-most productive back. He'll likely find it tough sledding against the 49ers' defense in two weeks.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons (30 points): Jones was the high-point man of the weekend -- and did most of his damage in the first quarter. The second-year stud caught five passed for 100 yards and a touchdown in the opening frame and went on to finish the day with 11 receptions for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Too bad Sunday's loss makes him unavailable for the ultimate week of the Playoff Challenge. But he'll certainly be one of the first five receivers off the board in most fantasy drafts next season.
Anquan Boldin, WR, Baltimore Ravens (18 points): Every week of the postseason has featured a couple of surprises, and Boldin certainly fit that category on Sunday. The veteran snagged five passes for 60 yards and a pair of touchdowns, stealing the show and continuing a remarkable postseason. Boldin has 16 catches for 276 yards and three touchdowns during Baltimore's playoff run. That makes him hard to overlook in two weeks during the big game in New Orleans.
Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers (16 points): Plenty of fantasy owners were wondering where this Vernon Davis was during the regular season. The dynamic Niners tight end had five receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown. Maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise considering the way Zach Miller torched the Falcons the week before, but few would have counted on such big numbers. If you took the chance, you'll be hard pressed to go away from him, but the Ravens allowed the fewest fantasy points to tight ends during the 2012 season.
Stephen Gostkowski, K, New England Patriots (7 points): There were no pressure kicks or late-game heroics for Gostkowksi in Sunday's championship game loss. But the veteran kicker did his job, making both of his field goal attempts and converting his only extra point. As long as New England's offense stays mostly intact over the offseason, Gostkowski will remain a viable fantasy kicker option. However, that won't include the final week of the Playoff Challenge.
Baltimore Ravens defense (15 points): For the second straight week, the Ravens defense was the top-scoring unit in the Playoff Challenge. Baltimore failed to register a sack, but snagged a pair of interceptions and recovered a fumble to top the list. If you rolled with the Ravens in the championship game, there's no reason to go away from that. If you're looking to replace a defense, you'll have a tough call between Baltimore and San Francisco.