By mid-season most figured that the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers would be playing this Sunday. Both are the most consistent, well coached teams in football. Often dominant and do not have any major weaknesses. Many predicted the Lions to win the NFC North but making it to the NFC Championship Game is a little bit shocking. I did not expect the Chiefs to make it this far because they weren’t as dominant as I am accustomed to. Still, QB Patrick Mahomes gets the job done and it often feels like the Chiefs have a golden horseshoe in their back pocket.
Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens, Sunday 3:00 p.m. EST
The Chiefs offense has picked it up a bit since the playoffs started, racking up 770 yards of total offense. RB Isiah Pacheco has been solid rushing for 185 yards and 2 touchdowns. WR Rashee Rice and TE Travis Kelce took turns being stars in the passing game, making the offense a well-balanced attack. I do have a big question vs. a very good Baltimore defense. When I think about the regular season, I remember a Chiefs offense that often struggled and bogged down inside the redzone. Has their playoff success been only because both the Dolphins and Bills defenses were decimated with injury? Both teams were missing 5-6 regular defensive starters. They won’t have that luxury vs. a Baltimore defense that is solid vs. the run and tremendous vs. the pass. So, how do they get enough offense to win this game? They don’t need Pacheco to put up big numbers, they just need him to be effective and efficient in the redzone. If he can get 50-60 yards and a trip into the endzone, I think the Chiefs will be in good shape. That doesn’t seem like big numbers but that will allow QB Patrick Mahomes to do his magic and make the game manageable. Mahomes is an effective runner and will need to get first downs with his legs and scramble to get players open. I would not expect Rice and or Kelce to be running wide open like they have so that will be important if the Chiefs want to advance to the Super Bowl. A lesser named wide receiver needs to step up like a Mecole Hardman or a Marquez Valdes-Scantling to make a big play down the field. Let your solid defense keep you in the game, don’t make mistakes and make a big play or two.
As for Baltimore, their offense was a bit rusty after having a three week lay-off if you include sitting out Week 18 of the regular season. They came out dominant in the second half led by their defense and a solid three headed rushing attack led by QB Lamar Jackson. But that was against a Texans defense that has been susceptible to the run. The Chiefs defense has been solid the entire season and it’s not going be a cakewalk. Jackson is going to have to be the most dominant player on the field. He must take charge and run the ball effectively and score. Like the Chiefs offense, I don’t expect Raven receivers to be running wide open. The return of TE Mark Andrews is huge, and they can have both he and TE Isaiah Likely out there in two tight end sets which could confuse the defense and maybe a receiver like Odell Beckham or Rashod Bateman can get lost and make some big plays downfield. Like Pacheco, Ravens running backs Justice Hill and Gus Edwards just need to be effective for the Ravens to keep the offense balanced. RB Dalvin Cook did get some action and he looked fast. Could he be a spark they need if Hill or Edwards are ineffective?
I hate to pick against Mahomes, but I think the Ravens have been the best team in football for over two months now. They have the better defense and to be honest I think the Chiefs have been extremely fortunate playing two teams who were ravaged by injuries. For my money, Lamar Jackson is the biggest game changer and if they don’t make mistakes, I think the Ravens will win 23-13.
Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers, Sunday 6:30 p.m. EST
As mentioned, many had the Lions winning the NFC North including yours truly, but many did not see an NFC Title Game. Led by a dynamic offense and a defense that shows up when it counts, the Lions have won back-to-back playoff home games. Now, they face the top seeded 49ers on the road which will be a much different environment. For the Lions it all starts up front with their offensive line. Can they create running lanes and hold off an outstanding 49ers pass rush? RB David Montgomery is the pound it in between the tackles and RB Jahmyr Gibbs is the do it all type of back who can score from anywhere on the field. QB Jared Goff is efficient and has super star WR Amon-Ra St. Brown should have a solid game provided Goff has time to throw. TE Sam LaPorta officially doesn’t have an injury designation and must make some solid contributions if the Lions want to win. Receivers Josh Reynolds and Jameson Williams are wild cards. We just never know exactly what we will see from them. Saying all that, the 49ers have a very good defense. They don’t allow a ton of rushing yards and get to the passer.
As for the 49ers, they have been the best overall team and have a well-balanced offense. Yet, they must feel fortunate that they escaped with a win over the Packers last week. The Packers were able to move the football and keep the Niners offense in check for most of three quarters. Unfortunately for the Packers, football is a four-quarter sport and the 49ers offense got it going. This week figures to be a bit of a different game plan. Detroit’s defense leads the league vs. the run and is highly susceptible to the pass. I’m not saying they don’t try and run the ball with their all-world back Christian McCaffrey, but I think they may attack through the air to set up the run. Both receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel figure to have solid games with one or even both surpassing 100 yards. My money is on Aiyuk though. TE George Kittle may be asked to block more considering the Lions like to send pressure to disrupt the passing game and create turnovers. I think Kittle could become a factor if the 49ers fall behind.
I keep flipping back and forth between two scenarios. Last week I watched a Packer team control the 49ers defensive line for much of the game with RB Aaron Jones rushing for over 100 yards. To me, the Packers lost that game more than the 49ers won it. On the flip side, the 49ers have been the best NFC team, and the Lions pass defense is atrocious. I don’t know if the Lions pass rush will get to QB Brock Purdy. Ultimately, I am picking the upset here. I must go with the eye test; the 49ers must get pressure otherwise I think their back seven is extremely over-rated. I watched the 49ers defensive front struggle vs. Minnesota, Baltimore and Green Bay and all those offenses moved the ball effectively. The Lions defense forces Purdy into a turnover or two. Lions 31-27