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Early thoughts on each conference title game

The once-invincible Packers went down Sunday. The unstoppable Saints? Also down for the count. Consequently, with the New York Giants facing off against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, we all get to see some defense instead of glorified Nerf football.

Meanwhile, on the AFC side, the Baltimore Ravens are tasked with containing the New England Patriots' ridiculously good offense. Unlike the Packers and Saints in the divisional round, the Pats can seemingly score at will.

Here's an early look at both the NFC and AFC Championship Games ...

NFC Championship Game: No. 4 New York at No. 2 San Francisco

When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, Fox

Last meeting: Week 10 (49ers, 27-20)

Early take: How much pressure can the Niners' defense get on Eli Manning? That's the key question in this game.

Manning was sacked just once in Green Bay on Sunday, and only once when the 49ers and Giants locked horns in November. San Francisco cannot allow Manning to sit back and go through his progressions -- he's just so locked in right now. The Niners were all over Drew Brees in the divisional playoff, and will need a similar performance from Justin Smith and friends to hold the New York offense at bay.

Not only was San Francisco's pass rush clicking against the Saints, but the 49ers corners and safeties were where they needed to be for the better part of the game. Yes, Brees threw for 462 yards, but he also failed to connect 23 times and tossed two picks. The Green Bay secondary was out of position far too often on Sunday, giving Manning huge windows to exploit.

On NFL Network
Watch the 49ers' 36-32 win over the Saints in its entirety on Tuesday, Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. ET.

» Can't wait? Watch it now on Game Rewind
» NFL Network schedule

Switching sides, the Giants' defense had its struggles in the first meeting with the 49ers. Despite losing tailback Frank Gore to a knee injury, the San Francisco offense produced because Alex Smith was able to find different receivers consistently. In fact, he completed at least three passes to four different receivers against New York, and eight guys caught balls for the Niners overall. On the day, Smith went 19-for-30 for 242 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

In Saturday's thrilling win over New Orleans, he went 24-for-42 for 299 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. There's no question the Giants' defense has improved since Week 10, but this 49ers quarterback isn't the same dude, either.

On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the Giants' 37-20 win over the Packers on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. ET.

» Can't wait? Watch it now on Game Rewind
» NFL Network schedule

This and that: If Smith is just a "bus driver," then he's pretty damn good at it. In 445 pass attempts this season, Smith has been picked off a miniscule five times. That 1.1 interception percentage is the fifth-lowest all-time. ... Give Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell a lot of credit. His unit gave up only 34 offensive points in the last three games against the Cowboys, Falcons and Packers. Those are the NFL's 11th, 10th and third-ranked offenses, respectively. ... These two franchises have met in the postseason on seven occasions, including some highly memorable bouts. There was the 1985 wild-card game when Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott was forced to amputate his finger in order to play. And of course, the 1986 divisional playoff when Giants nose tackle Jim Burt knocked out Joe Montana with a vicious blow. The 1990 NFC Championship Game sent the G-Men to Super Bowl XXV. And who could forget this play from the 2002 NFC Wild-Card Game??

AFC Championship Game: No. 2 Baltimore at No. 1 New England

When: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CBS

Last meeting: Week 6, 2010 (Patriots, 23-20 OT)

Early take: Stop Ray Rice. A pretty straightforward request, but New England has never done it. In three career outings vs. the Patriots, Rice has been extremely productive, with 437 total yards from scrimmage (eclipsing 100 yards in each game).

If New England's front line -- as well as linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo -- can keep the same lane integrity it did against the Broncos, the game will become a contest of Joe Flacco vs. the secondary. On paper, that would seem like an advantage for the Ravens. But while the Patriots give up tons of yards (31st in the NFL), they are far more stingy allowing points (15th). Baltimore needs Ray Rice to keep the pass rush honest, especially after Flacco was consistently pressured by the Texans.

All right, now let's get to the real deal: Can Baltimore's stout defense step it up a notch, like it's done in big spots much of the season? That won't be T.J. Yates wearing No. 12 in blue next Sunday ...

On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the Ravens' 20-13 win over the Texans and the Patriots' 45-10 win over the Broncos on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at midnight ET.

» Can't wait? Watch it now on Game Rewind
» NFL Network schedule

Tom Brady looks as motivated as any player in NFL history. He was nothing short of ridiculous Saturday night with six touchdown passes. (By the way, he only threw eight incomplete passes. Six touchdowns, eight incompletions -- good night.)

Ed Reed played a great game against Houston, but he and fellow safety Bernard Pollard must play smart and remain in control next Sunday. Too much freelancing, and Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez will destroy them. If the Ravens go two-deep, Ray Lewis (or another Ravens linebacker) will have to get depth and cover one of those tight ends, something Denver's D.J. Williams wasn't able to do.

This and that: Joe Flacco had another so-so game against Houston. He was bailed out by two great catches -- thank you, Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans -- and a defense that forced four turnovers. The two touchdown passes were nice, but if you take out the Boldin and Evans grabs, you're looking at a Flacco line of 12-for-25 for 118 yards. ... These two squads have met once in the postseason, with the Ravens storming Gillette Stadium after the 2009 season and spanking the Pats 33-14 in the wild-card round. Rice ran 83 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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