Championship Round: Can Challengers Oust Contenders?

Josh Reynolds celebrates a TD against Tampa Bay with Detroit fans in the divisional round. Will the Lions be celebrating a trip to Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday in San Francisco?

Alright, 3-1 for my first weekend making picks! Better late than never, right? And now we’ve arrived at Championship Weekend with the theme being “challenger vs. contender” like a young upstart trying to knock out the perennial heavyweight in boxing.

The Ravens don’t necessarily fit the “challenger” profile as much, but Lamar Jackson is seeking his first Super Bowl appearance and playing in his first AFC title game while two-time Super Bowl champ Patrick Mahomes is playing in his sixth straight title game. The Ravens have two 21st Century Super Bowl wins, but have not played on this stage in 11 years. On the NFC side, the Lions are playing in only their second NFC championship game ever against a 49ers squad making its fourth appearance in five seasons.

So can the Davids oust the Goliaths on Sunday? Let’s take a look:

Chiefs at Ravens (-4)

My goodness is this a difficult game to handicap. The simple fact is, these are two teams that just don’t get blown out. That old “two great teams automatically equals a great game” adage isn’t always true, but I believe in this case it is. Mahomes has lost exactly FOUR games in his entire career, regular and post, by two scores or more. The Ravens, on the other hand, have led in every game that Jackson has started this season.and Jackson has only suffered six two-score-or-more losses in 82 career games (reg./post. combined). So right off the bat, it feels like the points are a safe bet.

If the Ravens get a lead, it eliminates a looming question about whether Jackson can lead the Ravens from behind. He does not have nearly the comeback pedigree of his counterpart, Mahomes, who has led five comebacks of nine-points or more in his postseason career alone. Kansas City truly never feels out of a game.

The Chiefs have been incredibly lucky not only this year but in all of Mahomes’ years avoiding significant long-term injuries. The Bills were quite banged-up last week, especially on defense, and it showed in blown coverages and a massive 7.7-yards-per-play average by Kansas City’s oft-maligned (in 2023, that is) offense. The Ravens, though, are close to fully healthy themselves and could be welcoming back Jackson’s main squeeze, Mark Andrews, and possibly even Marlon Humphrey. Health is so critical in the NFL playoffs, as Buffalo learned the hard way last week.

So who has the edge? For all the explosiveness the two offenses possess, these are the top two sscoring defenses in the NFL. Baltimore led in PPG, but Kansas City is the only outfit in the NFL not to allow more than 27 in a game this year. The Chiefs surprisingly failed to produce a sack or turnover last week but won the game anyway. The Ravens co-led the NFL in turnover margin at +12, while the Chiefs were shockingly tied for fourth-worst at -11. Losing the turnover battle in Baltimore likely won’t fly for Big Red on Sunday.

Since a close game is expected, keep an eye on the two best kickers in football, Justin Tucker and Harrison Butker. Weather is not expected to be a factor with highs in the high-40’s on Sunday, and both of these kickers are no strangers to clutch postseason kicks. The Ravens need to clean up their punt coverage after Steven Sims burned them for a 67-yard score last week, and Baltimore ranked 31st in the NFL allowing 13.5 yards per punt return despite being third in punt return average themselves.

Andy Reid has never won a road conference championship game (0-2) and this is Mahomes’ first, but that shouldn’t faze the Chiefs. But I always pick the Chiefs, and while I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if they make me and many others eat our words, I’m going chalk in what figures to still be a pretty close game. Pick: Ravens.

Detroit at San Francisco (-buying to -7 at -120)

Speaking of David vs. Goliath, wow is this a chance to rewrite history. The Lions are in only their second title game ever (they fell to Washington in 1991), while this is the fourth for the Niners in five years and 19th overall. Surprisingly, San Francisco is only 7-11 on this stage all-time despite five Super Bowl wins in franchise history. Detroit, of course, has never even reached the Big Game.

While there is concern about the Lions’ defense and their ability to limit big plays, especially in the passing game, there is no longer the lingering hope of Deebo Samuel missing the game for the Niners. The offense averages nearly a yard-and-a-half less per play with he is not on the field, but now the Lions won’t get to live that reality.

Still, for Detroit, scrappiness, toughness, and grit are just three possible ways to describe this likable Dan Campbell outfit. The city of Detroit is on cloud nine and while they’re just happy to be at this stage of the season, you can’t help but feel like the Lions care deeply about just how much going to the Super Bowl would mean for the Honolulu Blue faithful.

Brock Purdy looked inconsistent as the Niners survived a scare from No. 7 seed Green Bay, and while history usually points towards a bounce-back game, my feeling is the Lions will fight and scratch and claw and do everything possible not to lose this one without a fight. I actually picked the No. 3 seed Lions to take the No. 1 seed 49ers to overtime in the championship game before the year (don’t worry I’m not patting myself on the back too hard, because I also picked the Jets to face the Chiefs at Arrowhead), but while I expect the Lions to fight hard to the finish, I’m tacking on a few extra points for San Francisco and going with the other favorite as well. Pick: 49ers.

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