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NFC championship preview: Peppers and Freeney are in no rush to quit

Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers (56) celebrates after winning a divisional playoff football game against the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 15.
(LM Otero / Associated Press)
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While the spotlight will be squarely trained on the two star quarterbacks in the NFC championship game, the pass rushers chasing them down are worthy of some attention too.

Green Bay’s Julius Peppers turned 37 last week, and Atlanta’s Dwight Freeney turns 37 on Feb. 19. Each has had a spectacular career, and neither is presently mulling retirement.

“We’re trying to keep the focus on the game, that’s all,” Peppers told reporters, referring to the Packers and not to Freeney. “We don’t want the picture to get too big just yet. We want to focus on the preparation, keep it about this game, not a bunch of extra stuff.”

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For Peppers, he’s one win away from reaching his second Super Bowl. He played in the last one at Houston, at the end of the 2003 season, when his Carolina Panthers narrowly lost to New England.

Freeney, a seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end, went to two Super Bowls with Indianapolis, and was a key member of the teams that beat Chicago and lost to New Orleans. He said he doesn’t even let the thought of retirement enter his mind during the season.

“It usually happens a month or two after the season,” he said recently, according to ESPN. “I sit there, feel this leg, feel this arm, feel this knee and see where I am mentally.… Holler at me in a couple months.”

Something that keeps Freeney coming back is he wants to surpass the career (regular-season) sack total of former Colts teammate Robert Mathis, who retired after this season with 123. Freeney is right on his heels at 122.5.

Help wanted

San Francisco is the only team that has yet to hire a head coach, and the 49ers have their sights set on Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has already interviewed with them. He plans to meet with the 49ers again this week.

New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable have withdrawn their names from consideration by the 49ers, who fired coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke at the end of their 2-14 season.

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Meanwhile, Shanahan’s skills as a play caller were on display in last weekend’s divisional victory over Seattle. He said he’s looking forward to speaking to the 49ers again.

“I think I will get that opportunity next week, whatever happens, and I plan on doing that,” he told reporters, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But besides that, the NFL keeps it pretty simple for you because you are not really allowed to talk.”

Three’s a charm

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has had three touchdown passes in each of his last three playoff games, and has a chance to become the first quarterback in NFL history to stretch that streak to four games.

As it stands, he’s tied in the record books with New England’s Tom Brady, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Arizona’s Kurt Warner, and Cleveland’s Bernie Kosar.

By the numbers

How teams compare statistically. All stats are per-game averages, except for sacks and turnover differential, which is for the season (league rank in parentheses):

Category | GB | ATL

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Points scored | 27.0 (4) | 33.8 (1)

Points allowed | 24.3 (21) | 25.4 (27)

Pass offense | 262.4 (7) | 295.3 (3)

Rush offense | 106.3 (20) | 120.5 (5)

Pass defense | 269.3 (31) | 266.7 (28)

Rush defense | 94.7 (8) | 104.5 (17)

Sacks | 40 (T6) | 34 (T16)

Penalty yards | 51.7 (5) | 52.9 (8)

Turnovers | -2 (T21) | +11 (T4)

Farmer’s pick

This one figures to be a shootout and features leading MVP candidates in Rodgers and Ryan. Injuries in the Packers secondary are troubling, and Ryan can take advantage. This might come down to whoever has the ball last.

FALCONS 34, PACKERS 31

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