By Steve Almasy
(CNN) — The parking lots around the Georgia Dome are usually pretty empty on Sunday mornings in mid-January, but this is a different day.
The Atlanta Falcons have never hosted an NFC Championship game, and you can’t blame their fans for beginning to arrive more than six hours before game time.
Atlantans were still buzzing from the excitement of the Falcons’ first playoff win in eight years and the team’s first title game appearance since 2005.
Wanna get a hug on Peachtree Street? Yell “Rise Up!” to someone wearing a Matt Ryan or Roddy White jersey.
Local media reported that stores were running out of Falcons merchandise. One woman told CNN affiliate WSB that she had been to five stores looking for gear.
Atlanta is host to the San Francisco 49ers at 3 p.m. ET, with the winner booking tickets to the Super Bowl in New Orleans on February 3.
The Falcons, who went 13-3 during the regular season and defeated the Seattle Seahawks on a last-minute field goal a week ago, might be the favorites in their home town — but the experts are, for the most part, predicting a 49ers win. On ESPN’s and CBS Sports’ websites, 18 of 22 prognosticators are going with the Niners.
But the Falcons have a home-field advantage, said tight end Tony Gonzalez.
“It’s huge. The Dome was rocking last week,” he said this week. “It was the loudest I had ever heard it, and we’re going to need it even louder this week. It helps; it’s a huge advantage for us. Especially on defense because it just confuses (our opponents).”
If the 49ers win, it’ll be their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1995, when they won their fifth NFL championship.
And if the predictions are correct, San Francisco will face the New England Patriots and the league’s marquee quarterback, Tom Brady.
The Patriots are host to the Baltimore Ravens at 6:30 p.m ET. It’s a match-up between Brady — the only quarterback remaining in the playoffs who has played in (and won) a Super Bowl — and the Ravens’ Ray Lewis, one of the greatest linebackers to play pro football.
Lewis, 37, has announced he will retire after this season. During his career, the brash star, known for his crushing tackles and demonstrative pregame dance, was selected as an All-Pro 10 times and twice was the league’s defensive player of the year.
He said this week he has enjoyed the final days of his career.
“One day, my career is definitely going to end, and for the ride to keep going the way it’s going, it’s just awesome,” he told reporters. “I just never slowed down to really think about, ‘Will you come back?’ No, I can’t come back.”
Though one of his teammates has proclaimed the underdog Ravens are destined to win, Lewis said it’s not destiny — it’s determination.
“You know what? At the end of the day, like I always tell them, there will be one team that holds the Lombardi Trophy, and that will be the ultimate team of destiny for this year,” he said. “I think the thing that (Ray Rice) is speaking about … is how we kept fighting, how we kept keeping each other up and no matter who got hurt, next man up, next man up.”
If Lewis and the Ravens win, and the 49ers win, then one thing is a certainty about the Super Bowl: The winning head coach will be named Harbaugh. As will the losing coach.
John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens and Jim Harbaugh leads the 49ers.
It would be the first matchup in a major U.S. professional sports championship where the opposing coaches were brothers.