By Brandon Burnett (@B_Burnett49er)
Cold Hard Football Facts' Power Ranger
The divisional round of this year's NFL playoffs brought plenty of surprises, including the three teams that finished atop our Quality Stats Power Rankings falling to lesser-ranked opponents.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons toppled the No. 1 Seahawks in the final seconds. The No. 2 Broncos came up short in double overtime, falling to the No. 11 Ravens. The Packers, who finished the year at No. 3 and No. 1 in the all-important Passer Rating Differential, were manhandled by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers.
The Patriots were the only higher-ranked team (No. 6) to win their game in the divisional round, cruising past the No. 7 Texans 41-28.
We've prepared a chart listing the four teams competing in the AFC and NFC Championship Games and how each stacked up in our Power Rankings throughout the regular season. After you've soaked it all in, we'll briefly examine the trends that developed from the variance in ranking from week to week.
San Francisco 49ers
We'll start with the 49ers, who, as you can see, are the highest-ranked team remaining in the postseason. San Fran got off to somewhat of a rocky start in the rankings, but jumped back into the Top 3 after a Week 7 win over Seattle and never fell below No. 4 the rest of the year.
No team was as consistent as the Falcons, who tasted No. 1 in Week 3 and never dropped below No. 7 all season. Even so, it's just as impressive—if not more—that the Niners maintained their Top Four ranking from Week 7 to Week 17 despite a QB change in Week 10 after Alex Smith's concussion.
After Harbaugh opted to keep Kaepernick under center, SF actually jumped from No. 7 to No. 4 in Real Quarterback Rating. Needless to say, the 49ers' convincing win over Green Bay validated his decision in a major way.
Atlanta's win over Seattle served as the Falcons' fourth victory of the year over a Quality Opponent. This team came out of the gates red-hot, as their 8-0 record would suggest. Despite a 5-3 finish down the stretch, the impact of those losses on their standing in the Power Rankings was minimal.
Kaepernick was able to feast upon the Packers' defense, but he and the 49ers' offense will encounter a much tougher unit when they invade the Georgia Dome for the NFC Championship Game. The Falcons finished 2012 at No. 2 in Bendability after coming in at No. 18 in 2011.
After seeing the 49ers rush for 323 yards (181 from Kaepernick) in the divisional round, though, the fact that Atlanta allowed 4.8 Rushing Yards per Attempt in 2012 may concern Falcons' fans.
New England Patriots
The Pats went for a bit of a roller coaster ride throughout the first half of the regular season, ranking as high as No. 5 after Week 2 and as low as No. 15 after a Week 6 loss to Seattle. Just as we've come to expect, though, New England righted the ship and never dipped below No. 7 after Week 11's action.
The Patriots eclipsed the 40-point mark five times during the regular season, so perhaps seeing them drop 41 on the Texans shouldn't have been a big surprise. A slow start to the year set this team back considerably, but New England is clearly continuing its trend of playing dominant football during the winter months.
The big question is whether the Pats can knock off the Ravens in an AFC Championship Game rematch from a year ago. Baltimore is all-in to win, now entering game three of Ray Lewis' final postseason ride. The Ravens were at No. 1 to start things off, and had only fallen to No. 7 by Week 7 but immediately dropped to No. 14 just one game after Lewis' regular season had ended due to injury.
Baltimore managed to finish the season at No. 11 in the Power Rankings despite suffering one blow after another in terms of injuries on defense. But Lewis is back, and the next stop on this memorable journey takes him and his squad back to where the Ravens' season painfully ended one year ago.