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Sunday Scramble: Previewing Championship Weekend

A glorious two days of football leaves NFL junkies with a startling, sobering realization: There are just three more games left this season.

Next Sunday's championship games have a lot to live up to after one of the best divisional rounds in memory. These are not the championship-game matchups most of us expected, but they are stuffed with storylines. Let's take our first quick look ahead, with five thoughts on each game.

  1. In one sense, the Patriots are lucky to be getting another home AFC Championship Game. On the other hand, they face an opponent that should have no fear playing in New England. The Ravens were a contested catch away from winning in Foxborough last January. They beat the Patriots in a terrific Week 3 matchup this season. The rosters haven't changed that much. The Ravens know they can win; they've done it.
  1. The Patriots survived the injuries to tight end Rob Gronkowski and defensive end Chandler Jones against the Texans. Gronk isn't coming back this season, but Jones' presence against an improved Baltimore offensive line looms large.
  1. Fatigue has to be a concern for the Ravens. The Denver Broncos ran 87 plays in more than five quarters against them Saturday. The Patriots run more plays than any team in the NFL. New England's up-tempo approach was too fast for the Houston Texans, and that figures to be a problem for Baltimore as well.

  1. Even without Gronkowski, this Patriots team is improved from a year ago. The running game has been a huge difference. The offense is even more explosive. The defense is more sound overall and continues to make big plays. This is the best Patriots team since 2007.
  1. With that said, you beat the Patriots by getting pressure on Tom Brady and throwing aggressively against their secondary. Baltimore's pass rush has been much improved in recent weeks, and Joe Flacco never is afraid to be aggressive. I expect a close game, just like last year.
  1. Not a lot of people will pick the Falcons in this game. That's partly because the 49ers have more impressive wins this season and partly because of how each team played in the fourth quarter of their respective divisional-round games. Expect to hear the Falcons play the "disrespect" card plenty.
  1. The Falcons' offense should be in good shape. The defense is the bigger concern; it barely could stop the Seattle Seahawks and has struggled with mobile quarterbacks all season. Cam Newton totaled more than 700 yards in two games against Atlanta. Russell Wilson lit up the Falcons for 385 yards through the air and another 60 on the ground. What's Colin Kaepernick going to do?
  1. The Falcons got the playoff-win monkey off their backs. Perhaps that will help them play loose and finish better in the fourth quarter.
  1. Michael Turner came alive against the Seahawks. The Falcons had 167 rushing yards. San Francisco has been quietly susceptible to the run at times this season. It would be huge for Atlanta to keep its running game going.
  1. The 49ers are perhaps the toughest NFL team to prepare for because they can beat you in so many ways. It should serve them well to avoid playing the Seahawks, who already had seen them twice.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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