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Stephen Vilardo’s NFL Conference Championship Previews

With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, which two teams will advance for one more game?

Posted on January 26, 2024

  By Stephen Vilardo, SuperWest Sports

We are down to just three more NFL games until we put a bow on the season.

The conference finals this week feature four divisional winners, the top seed from each conference and the third seed from each.

The top three scoring defenses in the NFL this season are still playing football while three of the top five scoring offenses will also be playing.

Baltimore and San Francisco were the only teams in the NFL this season to rank in the top three of both categories and, not surprisingly, they are both hosting games this week.

With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, which teams will move on for one more game, and whose season ends just short of the finish line?

I went 4-0 picking winners in the Divisional Round with a 3-1 mark against the spread (missing only on my choice of Houston to cover against Baltimore).

The point totals did not look as good last week, with a goose egg as I missed on all four games, going 0-4.

Kansas City at Baltimore

Sunday, January 28
Noon PT, CBS 

The Chiefs have advanced to the AFC Championship game for the sixth consecutive season and will be in search of their fourth Super Bowl appearance in the last five years.

If Andy Reid can lead them to a win over the Ravens, then he will become just the fourth head coach in NFL history to appear in five Super Bowls.

Baltimore owned the best regular-season record in the NFL this season and earned it with the league’s best-scoring defense, best ground attack on offense, and presumptive league MVP at QB.

The Ravens will be tough to beat as they host the AFC Championship game for the first time.

In fact, this will be the first AFC Championship game to be played in Charm City since the very first one after the merger when the Colts hosted and defeated the Oakland Raiders on January 3, 1971.

The Baltimore fans will make the task much more difficult for Kansas City and their offense. This season visitors to M & T Bank Stadium committed 19 false starts in the regular season, the most in the NFL.

Jawaan Taylor has been flagged for a false start nine times this season including the postseason, tied for the most of any player in the NFL this season.

His eight false starts in the regular season were tied for the second most and he picked up the ninth against Miami in the wildcard game.

Now, five of his flags have come in Arrowhead, so he is an uncharacteristically equal offender at home and on the road.

Ravens QB Lamar Jackson scores vs the Texans | Matt Slocum/AP

But the real key for the Ravens is Lamar Jackson and the MVP season he has put up in 2023, he can beat you in a number of ways.

Last week he became just the second QB in NFL history with at least 100 rushing yards, two passing touchdowns, and two rushing touchdowns in a playoff game.

He has had at least 100 rushing yards in three of his five career playoff starts.

The Baltimore QB can become the fifth player in NFL history with at least 100 rushing yards in four of his first six career postseason outings—and the only one to do so as a QB.

This season he had a career-high 3,678 passing yards, so he and this offense are by no means one-dimensional.

Patrick Mahomes owns a 3-1 mark in four career starts against the Ravens, averaging 369.8 passing yards per game and accounting for 13 total touchdowns in the four games.

He has been consistently good in his career against Baltimore with at least 325 passing yards and two TDs in each meeting.

With the matchup at QB in this one between Jackson and Mahomes, it will be the fifth conference championship game in NFL history featuring two former MVP quarterbacks and the first in which both quarterbacks are under the age of 30.

Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes vs the Bills | Al Bello/Getty Images

While those two rightfully get the big headlines, they will have their work cut out for them as they face elite defenses on the other side of the ball.

Sunday will mark the sixth Championship Game in NFL history featuring the top-two scoring defenses from the regular season and the first since the 2004 AFC Championship Game.

This will also be the third Championship Game all-time to feature the two teams with the most regular-season sacks.

These teams are almost mirror images of each other this season. Elite defenses with two of the best QBs in the league. The offenses are designed differently, but both—especially this season, will want to get the run game going.

Whichever offense can get the most big plays will have the leg up in this one.

Mahomes plays his best football in the postseason. Since the start of the playoffs last season, he has thrown 10 touchdown passes with no interceptions in his past five playoff games.

He can become the first quarterback in NFL history without an interception in six consecutive postseason games.

For the first time in his career, Mahomes has a truly Championship caliber defense, but the offensive weapons are just not there like they normally are this season.

At home, and with the Chiefs issues this season with self-inflicted errors, the Ravens move on to Las Vegas.

Baltimore 23, Kansas City 20

[Advice: The Chiefs are four-point underdogs on the road, I think they cover that, but the Ravens get the win outright. The total will stay under 44.5]

Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers

Sunday, January 28
3:30 pm PT, FOX

Detroit vs Everybody!! So, the slogan goes, but not in this one.

There is absolutely nothing unlikable about this San Francisco 49ers team. They are exciting to watch, full of star power, and aren’t clouded in scandals. But this time it seems like it is San Francisco vs Everybody!!

Detroit is the current darlings of the NFL, the team everyone wants to root for unless they are playing your team, and with good reason. America loves an underdog story here it is, historically at least.

The Lions are playing in their second NFC Championship and first since 1991. The 49ers are in this game for the third straight season and the fourth time in the last five years.

This is the 19th Championship Game appearance for the Niners, the most of any team in the NFL.

San Francisco is looking for its eighth Super Bowl Appearance. Detroit has never even sniffed the event and their last NFL title was 1957.

On Sunday, the 49ers will play in the franchise’s 61st playoff game; for the Lions, it will be number 23. Historically these teams are polar opposites.

Don’t let history fool you; this Detroit team is legitimate. Jared Goff may have been a castoff, but he has a chance to be just the fifth starting QB in NFL history to lead two different teams to the Super Bowl.

And he has a host of weapons at his disposal on offense. This season, the Lions became the second team in NFL history with at least four players with at least 10 touchdowns.

David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs were the first teammates in NFL history with at least 1,000 rushing yards and at least 10 rushing TDs in the same season.

Lions QB Jared Goff vs the Bucs | Carlos Osorio/AP

Gibbs, along with TE Sam LaPorta, became the first rookie teammates with at least 10 TDs in a season. Amon-Ra St. Brown just had a ho-hum 119 receptions for over 1,500 yards and 10 TD receptions.

In the playoffs the former USC WR has stepped things up even more. and this week he can become the first player in NFL history with at least 7 receptions in each of his first three career playoff games.

Yeah, the Detroit offense has some star power on it as well.

When thinking about the QB matchup in this one it is easy to forget which QB was taken first overall in their draft, and which was taken last overall.

Brock Purdy has gone from Mr. Irrelevant to three playoff wins in his first two seasons in the league.

Purdy led the NFL this season with a QB rating of 113.0 and was third with 31 TD passes and his 4,280 passing yards were fifth in the league.

Purdy has plenty of go-to guys on his offense as well. This San Francisco team became the fourth in NFL history with a 4,000-yard passer and four players with at least 1,000 scrimmage yards in a season.

Christian McCaffrey led the NFL with 2,023 yards from scrimmage in 2023 and has had at least 50 yards and a TD in all five of his career playoff games.

McCaffrey found the endzone an NFL-leading 21 times in the regular season and is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball.

For as good as Purdy, McCaffrey, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk are, the real difference maker on the 49ers in Deebo Samuel.

49ers receiver Deebo Samuel vs the Packers | Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group

Samuel missed most of four games this season, three in the regular season and the game against the Packers last week. In those four games, the 49ers went 1-3 with their scoring average falling from 32.8 points per game to 18.8.

Samuel’s status for the NFC Championship Game is still in doubt, but he appears to be on track to play. Obviously, as the numbers and record bear out, the 49ers are a much better team with him on the field.

This is a game that could turn into a shootout and both teams will need to produce a lot on offense. Where Detroit can match San Francisco on the offensive side of things, the Lions cannot do the same on defense.

San Francisco allowed just 17.7 points per game this season, the third-best total in the NFL. Detroit was 23rd in points allowed at 23.2 per game.

The Lions had 41 sacks this season led by Aidan Hutchinson’s 11.5, but the Niners had 48 with Joey Bosa, Javon Hargrave, and Arik Armstead all recording at least seven sacks in the regular season.

The Niners ended the season with a +10 turnover differential while Detroit was –1.

Both secondaries will be tested, but San Francisco has the edge as Charvarius Ward led the NFL with a career-high 23 passes defended and added five interceptions. In 15 career playoff games, he has 13 passes defended.

The Lions are certainly the feel-good story of the four teams that are playing this week, but the 49ers are the best team still playing.

Detroit is young and very good, and I’d bet they won’t have to wait 30+ years for their next Championship Appearance. But they will have to wait at least one more year for their first Super Bowl Appearance.

San Francisco 31, Detroit 26

[Advice: The 49ers are favored by 7.5, I look for Detroit to cover that spread but San Francisco to get the win. The point total will soar over 51.5]

—More from Stephen Vilardo—