We're down to the final four teams in the NFL playoffs, and there isn't a clear-cut favorite to take home the Lombardi Trophy. Each team can advance to Super Bowl XLVII if it's able to play on its own terms on Championship Sunday -- something that is easier said than done. Here is the path each remaining contender can take to reach New Orleans on Feb. 3:
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
The AFC Championship Game will serve as the rubber match between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens for the past calendar year. After the Patriots topped the Ravens in last season's conference title match, the two teams squared off again in a Week 3 nail-biter this season, with Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith obliterating the Patriots' secondary for a pair of touchdowns. The duo connected six times for 127 yards, exposing New England's vulnerabilities in the back end. Ray Rice also enjoyed a banner day, racking up 150 total yards from scrimmage, including 101 rushing yards on 20 attempts. Although Tom Brady had an impressive 335-yard outing, a lack of rushing production kept the Patriots from salting away a game that had appeared to be in hand midway through the fourth quarter. Given another opportunity to take on the Ravens for the right to go back to the Super Bowl, the Patriots will be primed and ready to roll in front of the home crowd in Foxborough.
The Patriots win if... The combination of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead produces great results on the ground. The Patriots fielded the NFL's seventh-ranked rushing offense during the regular season, averaging 136.5 rushing yards on 32.7 attempts, though most of those yards were accumulated with the Patriots nursing huge leads. Nevertheless, the presence of a potent ground attack allows New England to control the tempo of the game while also creating big-play opportunities through the air off of play action. Against the Ravens' blitz-heavy defense, the running game should alleviate the pressure on Brady in the pocket, forcing Ray Lewis and Co. to play honestly at the point of attack. This will be particularly important in Sunday's matchup, with Rob Gronkowski sidelined by a broken arm. The loss of the NFL's top tight end leaves the Patriots shorthanded, potentially allowing the Ravens to focus on containing Wes Welker with double-teams while bringing heavy pressure on Brady. To combat those tactics, the Patriots can hand the ball to Ridley out of their power formations (multiple-TE package) and use Vereen or Woodhead on deceptive runs from spread formations. If the Patriots can generate decent production from their ground game, Brady will eventually torch the Ravens on a series of deep passes, breaking things open. Given the number of close battles these teams have fought in the past, a few big plays could be the deciding factor on Sunday.
The Ravens win if... Coordinator Jim Caldwell continues to push all of the right buttons on offense. The Ravens' new play caller has given the unit a clear sense of direction since taking over in Week 15. The offense has been streamlined to feature the best playmakers (Anquan Boldin, Smith and Rice) while providing Flacco with the freedom to direct the attack from the line of scrimmage. Though Flacco had wanted to use the no-huddle offense in the past, former coordinator Cam Cameron went to it sparingly. Caldwell, however, is a huge proponent of the approach following his fine tenure with Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, and he has unleashed the attack on the Ravens' foes in recent weeks with great success. The Ravens have moved the ball consistently since Week 15, with the stars handling the bulk of the dirty work. More importantly, Flacco has been superb during that span, tossing nine touchdown passes against only one interception. Facing a vulnerable Patriots defense that ranks among the best at producing turnovers, Caldwell must craft a dynamic plan that allows his franchise quarterback to maximize his supporting cast while keeping the ball out of harm's way. If the Ravens can get solid contributions from Rice, Smith and Boldin and a strong performance from Flacco, the visitors could walk out of Gillette Stadium with the AFC crown.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
If it's true that contrasting styles make for good fights, the NFC Championship Game should be a blockbuster. The 49ers prefer a rough and rugged game predicated on defense and running the ball, while the Falcons want to turn every matchup into a track meet behind their high-powered offense. During the regular season, each team excelled at establishing the tempo of the game during the opening quarter; opponents routinely wilted under the pressure of playing in an uncommon fashion. With the NFC crown on the line in the Georgia Dome, the team that controls flow and tempo will become the team that represents the conference in Super Bowl XLVII.
The Falcons win if... They neutralize the dual-threat capability of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The second-year pro is coming of a phenomenal performance against the Green Bay Packers in Saturday's NFC Divisional Playoff Game that showcased his talents as a run-pass threat in the backfield. Kaepernick passed for 263 yards and rushed for 181, scoring twice through the air and twice more on the ground. That rushing total set an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in any game (playoff or regular season), creating a new dilemma for Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. If the Falcons commit too much to stopping San Francisco running back Frank Gore, Kaepernick can hurt them with the zone-read on the perimeter. If Nolan attempts to bring pressure in the passing game, Kaepernick can flee the pocket for big gains. The Falcons haven't fared well against dual-threat quarterbacks recently. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton totaled 704 yards from scrimmage (502 passing yards and 202 rushing yards) against them in Week 4 and Week 14, while the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson torched them for 445 total yards from scrimmage (385 passing yards and 60 rushing yards) in Sunday's divisional-round matchup. Nolan must find a way to mix up his coverages and pressure packages to confuse Kaepernick in the passing game. Most importantly, Nolan needs to make sure his defenders know their assignments in the running game, so that Kaepernick doesn't make big gains on designed quarterback dashes. If Nolan can keep Kaepernick from hurting them with his legs, the Falcons have a chance at slowing down the 49ers' rugged offense.
The 49ers win if... They contain the Falcons' explosive aerial attack. The three-headed monster of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez has been indefensible this season, regardless of what opposing coordinators try to do. Double-teaming or bracketing White and Jones on the outside while leaving Gonzalez in isolated matchups with a nickel corner or safety hasn't worked. When they've bracketed Gonzalez in the middle, White and Jones have killed corners on the outside on vertical routes. That's why the 49ers' secondary will be under the gun to hold up in their designated matchups on the outside, with or without assistance from the safety. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will need to vary his double-team tactics to keep Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan guessing, and he'll have to hope that Aldon Smith and Justin Smith can generate enough pressure on Ryan in the pocket. If the 49ers can win with just four rushers, they can clog the passing lanes with maximum coverage, forcing Ryan to settle for check-downs. If San Francisco takes away the big play, the Falcons will struggle to move the ball consistently, leading to a low-scoring affair that will favor the Niners.
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