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NFL Playoffs - Championship Sunday Preview

And then there were four. 


Championship Sunday is widely considered the greatest single day of football on the NFL calendar, with this year’s matchups providing tons of storylines and intrigue. 


On both sides, we have the #3 seed on the road to challenge the #1 seed, with the Chiefs traveling to Baltimore to take on the MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, while the Detroit Lions play in their first conference title game in 33 years on the road against the 49ers. 


We’re likely to have a wet day in Baltimore, which could mean we can throw away all the trends and tendencies of both teams. As we saw last week in San Francisco, rain can change everything, acting as the great equalizer. 


In San Francisco, it should be a bluebird day, with temps in the 60s as the 49ers look to avenge back-to-back NFC Championship losses over the last two years and advance back to the Super Bowl for the first time in five years. 


In this article, we’ll preview both matchups in chronological order, beginning with the matchup in Baltimore between the defending Super Bowl champs and the best team in football this year, the Baltimore Ravens. 

 

AFC


(3) Kansas City Chiefs @ (1) Baltimore Ravens


Nuts & Bolts 

  • Date: January 28, 2024

  • Time: 3:00 p.m. ET 

  • Venue: M&T Bank Stadium - Baltimore, MD

  • Weather Forecast: 49 degrees, winds 10 mph N, 60% chance of rain

  • How to Watch: CBS

  • Matchup History: Kansas City leads all-time series 7-5

  • Last Meeting: Baltimore def. Kansas City 36-35 on 9/19/21

  • Betting Lines: Via DraftKings

  • Spread: Baltimore -3.5

  • Over/Under: 44.5

  • Prediction: Baltimore 27, Kansas City 26

  • Follow Along on Twitter 

  • Zach Penrice - DMV Sports: https://twitter.com/Zach_DMVSports

 

  • Head Coach: Andy Reid (11th season, 130-51 record in Kansas City) 

  • Record: 11-6 (4-2, 1st in AFC West)

  • Last Time Out: Won @ Buffalo 27-24 on 1/21/24

  • Highlights HERE

  • Player to Watch: Patrick Mahomes


Seriously, how are the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game again? 


For the sixth straight season, and every season since Patrick Mahomes became the starting quarterback, the Chiefs have made it to the conference title game following a back-and-forth 27-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night. 


Mahomes’ six straight conference championship game appearances is the second longest such streak in NFL history, trailing only Tom Brady’s eight straight appearances. 


For the first time, however, just as he was last week, Mahomes will be on the road against the team that has been the league’s best all season, the Baltimore Ravens. 


This run to the conference championship game has been unlike years past. 


KC’s 11 regular season wins is the fewest ever for a Patrick Mahomes-led team, as the Chiefs struggled all season across the board. 


The wide receiver issues have been well-documented, the rushing offense ranks 19th in the league, and the teams best pass catcher, Travis Kelce, has shown his age for the first time in his career, leading to his lowest receiving yard and touchdown totals since Mahomes became the starter. 


The defense, meanwhile, has been the best in the six years of the Mahomes era. 


Led by Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Chiefs surrendered the second fewest yards of any team in the league, ranking 4th against the pass and 2nd in points allowed per game (17.3). 


Where they have struggled throughout the year has been consistently stopping the run, ranking 18th in the league. 


On Sunday night in Buffalo, in Mahomes’ first ever road playoff game, all those narratives from the regular season changed. 


Mahomes completed 74% of his passes for 215 yards and 2 touchdown passes to Travis Kelce, while Isiah Pacheco rushed for 97 yards and a score on 15 carries, including two rushes to ice the game in the closing moments. 


Meanwhile, the defense surrendered 368 yards, including 182 on the ground and was on the field for 78 offensive plays from Buffalo, compared to just the 47 plays the Chiefs ran. 


The Chiefs offense hummed like it has in its championship years, only facing five third downs all game and opening the day with five straight scoring drives, if you eliminate the kneel down at the end of the first half. 


As strange as it is to say about a defending Super Bowl champion, it feels like Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are playing with house money. 


They weren’t supposed to make it to this point, and the fact that they’re here once again is a testament to just how much a game-changing quarterback can carry a franchise year after year. 


If the Chiefs offense can move the ball on Baltimore the way it did against Buffalo, and the defense can play more like it did in the second half in Buffalo as opposed to the first, KC will have a very real chance to shock the Ravens in Baltimore and advance to their fourth Super Bowl in six years.

 

  • Head Coach: John Harbaugh (16th season, 161-99 record in Baltimore) 

  • Record: 13-4 (3-3, 1st in AFC North)

  • Last Time Out: Won vs. Houston 34-10 on 1/20/24

  • Highlights HERE

  • Player to Watch: Lamar Jackson


The best team in football all season, Baltimore, is one win away from going back to the Super Bowl for the first time since they won it 11 years ago.


On Sunday, the Ravens will host their first ever AFC Championship Game, following a dominant 34-10 win over the Texans and a 13-4 regular season campaign. 


Baltimore looked like a team that had some rust to shake off on Saturday, with most of its key starters having not played live snaps in 20 days. 


After going into the locker room tied up at 10-10, the Ravens outscored the Texans 24-0 in the second half while going the entire game without allowing the Houston offense to enter the redzone. 


It was another typical dominant performance by a Ravens defense that has led the league all season, ranking 1st in points allowed per game, the only team ahead of the Chiefs in that category. 


The Ravens had not won the AFC North since 2019, which is the last time they had the top seed in the AFC and the last time Lamar Jackson won MVP (not that he has yet this year, but he certainly will). 


Only that year, the Ravens bowed out in the Divisional Round with a shocking loss to the Titans at home. When it was 10-10 at the half on Saturday, it looked as though a similar story may be unfolding. 


This team however, is much different. With first-year offensive and defensive coordinators in the mix who come from the college ranks, Baltimore has caught teams by surprise with their speed and physicality on both sides of the ball. 


Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken brings a pass-first offense to Baltimore, replacing the old run-heavy offense of former OC Greg Roman. 


And yet, under Monken, the Ravens are atop the league in rushing yards per game, while they sit 21st in passing yards per game, but 4th in points scored per game. With more weapons to account for at the skill positions, things have opened up for Lamar Jackson to be creative with his decision-making and for the running backs to have open running lanes. 


On defense, first-year Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald joins the ranks after a stint as the Michigan DC.


All Macdonald has done is lead a Baltimore defense that finished 6th in total defense, 1st in points allowed, and 1st in turnover differential (+12) with 18 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries.


The Ravens are the better team, they are at home, and have advantages all across the board. As the favorites, the pressure is on Baltimore to deliver in this moment, just as they have all year. 


As Lamar Jackson said, “If you want to be the champs, you gotta beat the champs.” 


Well, if Jackson and the Ravens get by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on Sunday, they’ll have one of two foes waiting in the Super Bowl in which they’ve already beaten. 


Baltimore obliterated Detroit 38-6 on October 22 and shocked the 49ers in Santa Clara 33-19 on Christmas night. 


If they get to Vegas, just as they are on Sunday, they’ll be the favorites.

 

NFC


(3) Detroit Lions @ (1) San Francisco 49ers


Nuts & Bolts 

  • Date: January 28, 2024

  • Time: 6:30 p.m. ET 

  • Venue: Levi’s Stadium - Santa Clara, CA

  • Weather Forecast: 70 degrees, winds 5 mph N, 0% chance rain

  • How to Watch: FOX

  • Matchup History: San Francisco leads all-time series 39-28-1

  • Last Meeting: San Francisco def. Detroit 41-33 on 9/12/21

  • Betting Lines: Via DraftKings

  • Spread: San Francisco -7.5

  • Over/Under: 50.5

  • Prediction: San Francisco 30, Detroit 27

  • Follow Along on Twitter 

  • Zach Penrice - DMV Sports: https://twitter.com/Zach_DMVSports

 

  • Head Coach: Dan Campbell (3rd season, 31-33-1 record in Detroit) 

  • Record: 12-5 (4-2, 1st in NFC North)

  • Last Time Out: Won vs. Tampa Bay 31-23 on 1/21/24

  • Highlights HERE

  • Player to Watch: Amon-Ra St. Brown


For the first time since 1991, the Lions are within one game of a Super Bowl.


It’s been the dream season that many were hoping for in Detroit. Last season, the Lions closed out the year 8-2 after a 1-6 start, leaving many to believe that there could be something special in-store for this year. 


Well, it’s been the best season in 32 years for Detroit, as the Lions went 12-5, won their first division title since 1993, and their first playoff game since 1991, having lost eight straight postseason games entering this year. 


It hasn’t been easy for the Lions. Head Coach Dan Campbell’s team scraped by the Rams in the Wildcard round 24-23 and followed it up with a 31-23 win over the Buccaneers last Sunday, setting up a date with the perennial favorites in the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers. 


The Lions are more than a touchdown underdog in the game, but many, including myself, believe they have a very realistic chance at winning this game. 


Unlike last weekend in Santa Clara, weather will not be a factor, with a beautiful evening expected throughout the game. That should bode well not only for the home team, but the visitors who play their home games indoors. 


For Detroit to win, they need to take care of the ball on offense, and stop the run and put pressure on Brock Purdy on defense. 


Specifically, Quarterback Jared Goff has to take care of the football. 


In games that Goff has thrown an interception, Detroit is 4-4 this year. In games that he hasn’t, they’re 10-1. 


Goff is one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the league, and when he’s on he is on. He finished 2nd in the league in passing yards this year and threw 30 touchdowns (4th) while throwing 12 interceptions, attempting more passes than any QB in the league along the way. 


In the playoffs, he’s been fantastic, throwing for 564 yards and 3 touchdowns in two games without turning it over. 


Assuming Goff does have another great game, that’s only half of a winning recipe. The big question is: How does Detroit slow down Christian McCaffrey and this 49ers run game? 


McCaffrey led the league in rushing this year, going for nearly 300 more yards than anyone else while sitting out the Week 18 loss against the Rams. 


The defensive game plan starts with containing the best running back in the NFL.


In the Lions first two playoff games, they allowed just 61 rushing yards to emerging star Kyren Williams of the Rams and 55 yards to Rachaad White of the Buccaneers. 


They’ll need similar numbers from McCaffrey in order to have a chance on Sunday. 


If the Lions can set up the 49ers in 2nd and 3rd and long situations, putting the burden on QB Brock Purdy to make things happen, then it’ll allow their pass-rush to have the opportunity to get home and create pressure. 


Look, a lot more things have to go right for the Lions to win as opposed to the 49ers. With that said, the winning formula is there for Detroit, just as it has been all season long. 


Take care of the ball, slow down the run, and put pressure on the QB. 


Do that, and the beloved Lions will be in great position to play in their first ever Super Bowl. 

 

  • Head Coach: Kyle Shanahan (7th season, 65-51 record in San Francisco) 

  • Record: 12-5 (5-1, 1st in NFC West)

  • Last Time Out: Won vs. Green Bay 24-21 on 1/20/24

  • Highlights HERE

  • Player to Watch: Christian McCaffrey


For the third straight year, and for the 19th time overall, the San Francisco 49ers will play in the NFC Championship Game. 


In their previous 18 appearances, the 49ers fell in this spot 11 times, including each of the last two years, losing on the road against the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams two years ago and falling in Philadelphia last season.


For Head Coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers, this is a prove-it game. They have been the best team in the NFC all season and, unlike the last two years, are hosting the game to get to the Super Bowl. 


After a terrific regular season in which San Francisco earned the top seed in the NFC, they had to scrape by the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round, winning 24-21 thanks to some late-game heroics after an otherwise inconsistent performance.


The 49ers led at the half 7-6 with a George Kittle touchdown the difference at the break. In what was a wild 3rd quarter, the Packers took the lead thanks to two touchdown passes from Jordan Love to put Green Bay on top 21-14 entering the 4th. 


A Jake Moody field goal made it 21-17, before Green Bay kicker Anders Carlson had a chance to extend the lead back to 7 with just over six minutes to go, but missed the 41 yard field goal. 


After the miss, the 49ers put together their best drive of the night, mounting a 12 play drive that took over 5 minutes, resulting in the second touchdown of the game for Christian McCaffrey and giving the 49ers a comeback 24-21 win in the driving rain that lasted throughout the game. 


San Francisco survived and advanced, but there are questions remaining entering the NFC title game against Detroit. 


Is Brock Purdy good enough to win a Super Bowl? Can the defense slow down the Lions rushing attack after struggling to stop Green Bay's run game?  


For the 49ers, the winning recipe against Detroit is simple: On offense, rely on your star running back and playmakers on the outside, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. On defense, slow down the Lions rushing attack and force Jared Goff to have to make big throws on 2nd and 3rd and long. 


It’ll be a game that is largely decided in the trenches, with both defenses likely keying in on stopping the rushing attack on either side. 


The 49ers have one of the best defensive fronts in football, while the Lions boast perhaps the best offensive line in the league. 


If San Francisco can run with consistent success, they’ll stroll toward their second Super Bowl appearance in the last five years. 

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