NFL Championship Sunday: Epic Must-See TV

Jan 21, 2024; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (16) brings his Detroit Lions team into Levi's Stadium, Sunday, to take on the No. 1 seed San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 21, 2024; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (16) brings his Detroit Lions team into Levi's Stadium, Sunday, to take on the No. 1 seed San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

It's safe to bet the odds in Vegas as the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds in both the AFC and NFC square off for the right to go to Super Bowl LVIII in Sin City.

 

In Baltimore, the best two remaining quarterbacks in the postseason meet as Patrick Mahomes and the defending champs visit Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. The saying goes that styles make a fight, and the innovation of the Chiefs pitted against the physically imposing Ravens should make for compelling ringside viewing.

 

Out west, Jared Goff leads the Detroit Lions into Levi's Stadium to battle Brock Purdy, Christian McCaffrey and the top-seeded 49ers. For one Sunday anyway, for one NFC Championship Game, the Detroit Lions will be most-of-America’s Team. The favored 49ers, standing in the way of the Lions playing in their first ever Super Bowl, play the heavies, the bad guys. 

 

That’s just the way it has to be.

 

Here's a closer look at Championship Sunday action.

 

 

AFC Championship — Kansas City at Baltimore, 3:00 p.m. ET, CBS

 

Mainstays though their teams were in the AFC playoffs the last five years, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes meet for the first time in the postseason. Given that the Chiefs are making their sixth straight championship game, it is easy to figure out which of the two franchises has been falling short of expectations in recent playoffs.

 

But this season's Baltimore team has a different feel, a vibe of dominance that thrummed in the second half of its win over Houston. The first half played out as has other Ravens postseason failures: uneven execution, a lack of focus on defense, a special teams breakdown, a somewhat subdued Jackson. 

 

That all changed after intermission. Baltimore’s defense shut out Houston, the offense found its punishing running game, and flames shot out the back of Jackson’s cleats. The Ravens raged for 24 unanswered points to end the fairytale seasons of C.J. Stroud and the upstart Texans.

 

The Ravens are playing peak football, have been for several weeks. But their opponent Sunday is more wicked stepmother (with a nuclear-tipped throwing arm) than Cinderella. Ask any Bills fan. The Chiefs won their 11th playoff game — and first ever road postseason game — of the Mahomes era in beating the Buffalo Bills in yet another palpitating showdown those two teams are contractually mandated to play. 

 

Unlike their postseason history with Buffalo or, for that matter, with Cincinnati, the Chiefs have logged no past January battles with the Ravens to draw from. They did have four regular-season meetings between 2018–21, with the Chiefs winning three, and Mahomes averaging 370 yards passing. However, the two teams now are different enough from the iterations of a few years ago. 

 

As usual when treading into unchartered waters, questions surface: Will the Chiefs offense build off a stronger red-zone showing in Orchard Park and score points, or will the league’s top scoring defense hold them to field goals? Can RB Isiah Pacheco rush the ball against a susceptible Ravens run defense? Can Chris Jones and the improved KC pass defense corral Lamar Jackson? And will the formidable Baltimore running game damage a Chiefs run defense pounded by the Bills?

 

Red zone could be decisive

 

The two offenses against the two defenses promise to be fascinating battles. Kansas City looked all year for an outside receiving threat to take pressure off Travis Kelce, and the recent emergence of rookie Rashee Rice seems to ending that search. After a huge game in the Wild Card win over Miami, Rice caught four passes against Buffalo, and Kelce hauled in five passes for 75 yards. As always, Kelce offers Mahomes whatever he needs at a given moment — a safety valve, a reliable third-down receiver, a big-play threat — and network TV coverage a reason to throw a camera onto Taylor Swift.

 

Against the Bills, the big Swifty helped Kansas City to one its better red-zone performances in recent games. Finishing off drives has been a problem, but the Chiefs put three of their final four trips deep into Buffalo territory into the end zone. (Actually, they put the fourth trip in the end zone too; unfortunately, it was a remarkable fourth-quarter touchback resulting from a Mecole Hardman fumble just shy of the goal line.) The Ravens were the second-best red-zone defense in the league. Sunday’s game could very well turn on whether KC scores TDs or is limited to Harrison Butker FGs.

 

The Chiefs' offensive line did not give up any sacks against a depleted Buffalo defense. This week, that line takes on the league leaders in sacks, a task that became a bit more challenging with the injury (strained pectoral) to Joe Thuney. The Chiefs' All-Pro guard is questionable for Sunday’s game.

 

The Ravens like to blitz, but Mahomes consistency beats pressure. The chess match between him and Ravens DC Mike Macdonald should be riveting. 

 

Both teams have vulnerable run defenses. Expect Andy Reid to offset Baltimore’s pass pressure by leaning on Pacheco, who ran for 97 yards against the Bills and could be primed for a big day Sunday. Though middle of the pack in stopping the run, the Ravens, led by LB Roquan Smith, stifled Devin Singletary (22 yards on nine carries) and the Texans' running game. With no ground support, Stroud and the Houston aerial game went nowhere.

 

Chiefs defense vs. Ravens running game

 

An equally interesting matchup awaits when Baltimore has the ball. Chiefs coordinator Steve Spagnuolo does well to disguise coverages and limit the big-chunk pass plays the Ravens thrive on. But that will matter little if the Chiefs’ run defense looks like it did against Buffalo. The Bills carved out 182 rushing yards, much of it coming from Josh Allen (72). Now, the Chiefs face a faster, more elusive (though less-bruising) QB, for whom designed runs and RPOs seemed be invented. Jackson rushed for 100 yards and two scores against Houston.

 

Baltimore’s offensive line took control of the line of scrimmage in the second half last Sunday and will look to wear down the Chiefs’ front seven in similar fashion. The Ravens throw less than any team in the league, but tend to get the most from their attempts. A strong day running the ball improves the chances that receivers Zay Flowers, Odell Beckham Jr. and tight end Isaiah Likely make big plays down the field. Likely shows the ability to make tough, contested catches. Since taking over for Mark Andrews, Likely has become a favorite target of Jackson, and could enjoy opportunities down the seam if the Chiefs have to load the box to slow the Ravens' running game.

 

Another facet that could be decisive is special teams. The Ravens boast the best kicker in the game in Justin Tucker. You have to like Baltimore’s chances in a close game because of him, but KC’s Butker is no slouch in the postseason.

 

Big plays in the return game could be critical. The Ravens allowed a punt return for a TD against Houston but also ignited the offense with a long kickoff return to start the second half. The Chiefs stuffed the Bills on a fake punt in the fourth quarter. 

 

Then there’s the coaching. John Harbaugh is one of the great coaches in the NFL but tends to get overlooked as such. Andy Reid is 5-0 against ex-assistant coaches — Harbaugh coached special teams under Reid in Philadelphia — and always comes armed with game plans that puts Mahomes and his skill-position mates in favorable matchups.

 

As foolhardy as it feels to bet against the magic of Mahomes and the coaching prowess of Reid, the Ravens’ time is now. It will be a close game, but Jackson’s leg-driven playmaking will prove to be too much. Justin Tucker wins it with a field goal. Baltimore 26, Kansas City 23. 

 

 

NFC Championship — Detroit at San Francisco, 6:30 p.m. ET, FOX

 

The Lions come off back-to-back wins at home, toppling the Rams in the Wild Card Round, then the Bucs this past Sunday in the Divisional Round game. Quarterback Jared Goff, who with one more win, the sentiment suggests, will surpass Henry Ford and Mark Fidrych as Detroit's most important historical figure, leads a Lions offense that produced polar-opposite performances in their two playoff wins. Against the Rams, the Lions started hot, scoring on their first three possessions, but cooled off after. Against the Bucs, the Goff and his crew didn’t show much until the second half, when it strung together a trio of TD drives.

 

If they put together the bookends of those two games this Sunday, the 49ers won’t stand a chance. 

 

The 49ers survived a close call against a dangerous and confident Green Bay team. The Packers controlled much of the first half and led 21-17 midway through the fourth.

 

One of the questions heading into the Packers tilt was whether 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy was capable of leading his team back from a deficit. His play for most of the game was a conveyor belt of grist into the mill of his critics, as he repeatedly missed open receivers and labored to find a rhythm.

 

But after the Packers’ Anders Carlson missed a field goal with 6:43 left, Purdy dug deep and completed 6-of-7 passes to set up Christian McCaffrey’s six-yard game-winning run. 

 

At least that will be one misguided criticism of Purdy deprived of oxygen this week.

 

Another Purdy talking point that could find legs is weather-dependent. The quarterback scuffled throwing a wet ball against Green Bay. At one point in the fourth, a replay showed Purdy wiping his throwing hand on his pants during his dropback. As of Tuesday, the forecast is for clear skies on Sunday. But if that changes, expect Purdy-averse pundits to write “hand size” next to “rocket arm” and “height” as attributes you can’t coach up with this guy.

 

Samuel's availability is key

 

Another factor that hindered Purdy last Saturday was the loss of Deebo Samuel. The star wideout exited the Packers game with a shoulder injury in the first quarter. Reports on Monday indicated that Samuel does not have a fracture — he did suffer a broken shoulder bone back in Week 5, missing two games as a result — and that he’s “50/50” to play.

 

Samuel himself says he’s going to play. If he doesn’t, then Jauan Jennings, who performed admirably in place of Deebo, will again be asked to step up.

 

If a relatively healthy Samuel is in the lineup, then he and McCaffrey present a unique challenge for Detroit’s defense. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan loves to line up both players all over the formation, looking to create mismatches both in the running and passing games.

 

The Lions have trouble defending the pass — one of the curiosities of the Tampa game was why Baker Mayfield and Mike Evans did not attack the Lions deep more often — so expect a more substantial impact from receiver Brandon Aiyuk than the three catches and 32 receiving yards he put up against Green Bay. Lions corners Cameron Sutton and rookie Brian Branch have their hands full, as does strong safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who must contend with buzzsaw All-Pro tight end George Kittle. And be sure to keep an eye on passing plays when Kittle locks horns with Lions LB Alex Anzalone. The hair could by flyin' and pullin’ when they go at it.

 

Both teams bring physical running games to the table. For Detroit, even more so than the 49ers, stopping and establishing the run is its bread and butter, on both sides of the ball. The Lions' run defense finished No. 2 in the NFL, and will be greatly challenged by McCaffrey. On offense, the Lions’ running game is sparked by one of the league’s elite offensive lines. 

 

And it’s the matchup between this unit and San Francisco’s high-priced but low-performing defensive front that could determine the game's outcome.

 

The sprained knee and ankle of Lions’ center Frank Ragnow are concerns, though the fight he showed in successfully battling Tampa nose tackle Vita Vea — as unmovable as a water-logged upright piano — stands to take on a Rockne-esque myth among Detroit fans.

Both teams bring physical running games to the table. For Detroit, even more so than the 49ers, stopping and establishing the run is its bread and butter, on both sides of the ball. The Lions' run defense finished No. 2 in the NFL, and will be greatly challenged by McCaffrey. On offense, the Lions’ running game is sparked by one of the league’s elite offensive lines. 

The Niners’ run defense finished right behind Detroit (allowing 89 yards rushing per game), but playing in front most weeks skewed that ranking. At various points in the season, the interior of the 49ers’ DL broke down, and if the Niners DL fails at the point of attack Sunday, then dominoes fall: the thunder-and-lightning RB tandem of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs moves the chains, which leads to the threat of play-action, which means WR Amon-Ra St. Brown and tight end Sam LaPorta work the open areas behind 49ers linebackers.

 

LaPorta vs. Kittle: Former Iowa Hawkeyes and perhaps the two best receiving tight ends in the NFC. Both could leave sizable imprints on this contest. 

 

The head and the heart may be at odds at picking a winner. The Lions going to the Super Bowl is the narrative most fans cling to. Dan Campbell's caution-to-the-wind style might be the perfect approach for pulling off a road upset.

 

But the Niners are the better team. Expect San Francisco to play more relaxed Sunday, having worked out the tightness from three weeks of inactivity. As seemed to be the case in the Green Bay game, foul weather is often an equalizer, so the Lions will catch a break if the conditions at Levi’s Stadium resemble those of last Saturday. 

 

We’re betting on good weather and a bad (well, at least disappointing) ending to an otherwise impressive Lions 2023 season. San Francisco 31, Detroit 20.

 

 

 

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