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Ravens rally, shock Broncos in AFC
The wide smiles in Baltimore on Saturday night might be matched by those in New England and Houston.
When the Ravens stunned the top-seeded Denver Broncos 38-35 in overtime, it meant the AFC championship game will wind up at either the Patriots' or Texans' home.
Those teams meet Sunday in the other AFC divisional playoff, and will be hard-pressed to equal the excitement and big plays provided by the Ravens and Broncos in icy Denver.
Rookie Justin Tucker's 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime of the longest playoff game in 26 years sent the Ravens into their second consecutive conference title game. They lost 23-20 at New England a year ago.
Earlier this season, the Ravens (12-6) beat the Patriots 31-30 in Baltimore. They lost 43-13 at Houston.
Later Saturday night, Green Bay was at San Francisco in an NFC matchup. On Sunday, NFC wild-card Seattle is at South champion Atlanta, followed by the game between AFC South winner Houston and East champ New England.
Ravens 38, Broncos 35, 2 OT
Joe Flacco's 70-yard heave to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds remaining forced the overtime in frigid temperatures. Flacco is the only quarterback to win playoff games in each of his first five seasons, and he heads to his third AFC championship match. He also lost to Pittsburgh in the 2008 title game.
"We fought hard to get back to this point and we're definitely proud of being here." Flacco said. "We feel like it's going to take a lot for somebody to come and kick us off that field come the AFC championship game."
The Ravens also prolonged star linebacker Ray Lewis' career. He announced before they beat Indianapolis in the wild-card round that this was the last of his 17 pro seasons.
Peyton Manning lost in his first postseason appearance with the Broncos (13-4), who had won their last 11 games to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs. They wasted it by giving up long plays, negating a record-setting performance by kick returner Trindon Holliday.
Holliday ran back the second-half kickoff 104 yards for a TD. He went 90 yards with a first-quarter punt return to become the first player to score on one of each in a playoff game.
"He's one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and for us to come in here and confuse him the way we did, and make the plays we did?" Lewis said. "We gave up two big special teams touchdowns, but the bottom line is, but we kept fighting."
Seahawks (12-5) at Falcons (13-3)
Oddly, there might be more doubts floating around the home team with the spiffy record than the visitors.
While Seattle has won six in a row, erased its reputation as a road flop with three straight away victories _ including last week at Washington _ and has the league's stingiest defense.
It's Atlanta, 0-3 in the postseason under coach Mike Smith and with Matt Ryan at quarterback, that probably faces more pressure.
"We've been disappointed a few times," said center Todd McClure, a Falcon for 13 years. "I think we've got guys in this locker room who are hungry and ready to get over that hump."
One of them is Tony Gonzalez, the career leader in nearly all receiving categories among tight ends. In 16 pro seasons, Gonzalez never has won a playoff game. And he's said this very likely is his final year in the NFL.
"I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "I really, really, really want to win this game."
To get it, Gonzalez, Ryan and star receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White must contend with the league's most physical defense, a unit that completely shut down the Redskins for three quarters in the 24-14 wild-card win.
"I expect our guys to try to play like they always play," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "They don't need to change anything because we're not doing anything different, we're going to try and hang with them, and we'll find out what happens."
Texans (13-4) at Patriots (12-4)
Houston's reward for its wild-card win over Cincinnati is a return to trip to Foxborough, where the Texans' late-season spiral began. Houston was in position for home-field advantage in the AFC before being routed 42-14 by the Patriots, then losing twice more in the final three games.
This is only the fourth postseason game in the Texans' 11-season NFL history. The Patriots began winning Super Bowls with Tom Brady before the Texans were born.
Houston must bring the fierce pass rush it often has shown with end J.J. Watt, who led the NFL with 20 1-2 sacks.
"Biggest goal of them all, Super Bowl, and this is a big step for us," Watt said, "and we're really excited about the challenge."
That challenge comes against the NFL's most prolific offense. The Texans and Patriots allowed the same number of points, 331, but New England led NFL in scoring with 557 points, 34.8 per game.
Brady would surpass Joe Montana for most postseason victories by a quarterback by beating Houston. Brady is 16-6, although he began 10-0.
He isn't looking for a repeat of the Dec. 10 romp.
"Giving us an opportunity to have this game at home, I think that's the important thing about last game," Brady said. "Other than that, this is going to be a whole different game full of our own execution, our ability to try to beat a very good football team that's played well all year."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL
By Tammy Bruce
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