We’re down to the final four. The top-seeded Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers will try to fend off challenges from the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs and the upstart Detroit Lions to reach Super Bowl LVIII.
Jeff Howe breaks down the conference championship matchups before The Athletic’s projection model, created by Austin Mock, reveals each team’s odds of winning the Super Bowl.
No. 1 Baltimore Ravens vs. No. 3 Kansas City Chiefs, 3 p.m. ET, Sunday
Quarterback Lamar Jackson was the best player on the field during the Ravens’ 34-10 victory against the Houston Texans, and they’re virtually unstoppable when that happens. The Ravens are 10-0 this season, including Saturday when Jackson’s passer rating is above 90, and that doesn’t even take into account his rushing prowess.
It’s hardly all Jackson, though. Head coach John Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Todd Monken and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald were brilliant in their playoff opener. Monken’s adjustments were outstanding against the Texans’ aggressive blitz packages, while Macdonald accomplished the rare feat of shutting down quarterback C.J. Stroud. It would feel like a surprise at this point if Macdonald doesn’t get a head coaching job this cycle, and it’s not inconceivable to think the Ravens could lose both coordinators.
Patrick Mahomes has reached the AFC Championship every season he has been a starter in the NFL 👑 pic.twitter.com/18EeNToCMC
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While it’s seemed like the Ravens’ year, they’ve now got to slay the reigning Super Bowl champions as the Chiefs continue to attempt to fortify their claim as a modern-day dynasty. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is coming off his first career playoff victory on the road, and he’s going to have to do it again in his sixth consecutive AFC Championship Game appearance.
Not only that, but the Chiefs just played their best game of the season by a considerable margin. The defense locked in with three consecutive scoreless possessions to close the game, but that unit has been solid all season. More impressive, Mahomes and his supporting cast delivered in several key moments, only making one pivotal mistake. If they play this well in Baltimore, the title game should be a thriller.
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No. 1 San Francisco 49ers vs. No. 3 Detroit Lions, 6:30 p.m. ET, Sunday
This game may be decided on the ground, and the Lions are going to need to tighten up in that area. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who ranked last in rushing and yards per carry in the regular season, ran 15 times for 89 yards Sunday in Detroit. That was a surprising performance against a Lions defense that ranked second in rushing yards and third in yards per carry.
The 49ers’ ground game needs little introduction with superstar back Christian McCaffrey, who was an MVP frontrunner for much of the season. If the Niners are moving the ball with McCaffrey, they might double up the Bucs’ rushing numbers.
Dre Greenlaw wouldn’t go down, and neither did the 49ers thanks to him
On the other side, the Packers ran 28 times for 136 yards (4.9 yards per carry) against a 49ers defense that ranked 14th by allowing 4.1 yards per carry in the regular season. The Lions’ two-pronged attack of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs ranked fifth in yards and yards per carry.
There will understandably be plenty of focus on quarterbacks Brock Purdy and Jared Goff, but each offense’s identity is built on the ground. Purdy struggled against the Packers before his impressive game-winning drive, while Goff has been efficient in both playoff victories. Both quarterbacks have been tough to defend when the offense stays on schedule, which is why the NFC Championship Game will likely be decided by the better team on the ground.
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(Photo of Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)