NFL playoff conference title games: Lions-49ers, Chiefs-Ravens

ByStephen Holder and Seth Walder ESPN logo
Sunday, January 21, 2024

All fourdivisional round games are in the books as the NFL playoffs keep rolling along, and next weekend's conference championship game matchups areset. In the NFC Championship Game, the Lions will play the 49ers in the San Francisco Bay Area for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. On the other side of the bracket, the Ravens will host the Chiefs in theAFC Championship Game.

To get you ready for thetwo-game slate, Stephen Holder picked out the biggest thing to watch in both matchups, and Seth Walder explored how all four teams can win to reach Super Bowl LVIII. Game lines are via ESPN BET.

Jump to a matchup:

Chiefs-Ravens | Lions-49ers

AFC Championship Game

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

When:Sunday, Jan. 28 at 3 p.m. ET (CBS)

Opening line: BAL -3 (44.5)

What to know: The ideal ingredients for winning in the postseason would seem to be an elite quarterback and an elite defense. That brings us to the Ravens, just the fourth team since the 1970 merger to have a first-team All-Pro quarterback and the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL. The three previous teams to do so -- the 1972 Dolphins, 1978 Steelers and 1996 Packers -- all went on to win the Super Bowl.

That's the combination of factors working in the Ravens' favor next Sunday. With quarterback Lamar Jackson coming off a historic performance against the Texans (two rushing TDs and two TD passes) and the Ravens' defense limiting Houston to its second-lowest yardage total of the season (213), this seems like a truly complete team.

But don't expect the Chiefs to be the least bit fazed by any of this after overcoming the Bills on the road in another memorable matchup between the budding rivals. After being treated to one premier quarterback matchup in Patrick Mahomes vs. Josh Allen on Sunday, the AFC playoffs will serve up another in the championship game, when Mahomes and the Chiefs visit Jackson and the Ravens.

The Chiefs are 3-2 in AFC title games with Mahomes under center. But there's a key difference this season: The Chiefs have arguably the best defense in the Mahomes era. They finished the season second in scoring defense and yards allowed. No Kansas City team has been higher than seventh in either metric in Mahomes' tenure. -- Holder

Why the Ravens will win:Both sides of the ball are on fire for Baltimore. Let's start with the defense, where the Ravens allowed zero offensive touchdowns in the divisional round against the Texans. The Ravens' defense didn't blink against Houston the way the Browns did in the wild-card round, and the unit was dominant, particularly against the run, where Baltimore allowed negative-0.29 EPA per play. It's nothing new for the Ravens' defense, which now ranks first in EPA per play over the course of the season, playoffs included.

Despite the name brand of the Chiefs, the reality of this matchup is that Baltimore's defense has been much, much better than the Kansas City offense. The Chiefs were ranked 10th in EPA per play entering Sunday.

Offensively, the Ravens are on almost as strong of a roll. They were good all season, and they kicked it up a notch in the playoffs. Jackson posted a 94 QBR against Houston, and on his run plays or dropbacks, the Ravens accrued 0.41 EPA per play. In other words, every five of Jackson's plays added two full points to the Ravens' expected scoring margin. The Chiefs' defense will provide more resistance than Houston's did, but Kansas City ranked 11th in EPA per play allowed against opposing QB scrambles or runs. And overall, the Chiefs are simply weaker against the run, ranking 26th in EPA per opponent designed carry. It could be another big day for Jackson.-- Walder

Why the Chiefs will win:It's still Mahomes with the best defense he has ever had. The Chiefs still have Andy Reid calling plays, a breakout receiver in Rashee Rice and an offensive line that protects Mahomes. And tight end Travis Kelce just had two touchdowns in the divisional round.

Despite all that has gone wrong this season -- most notably the receivers' league-worst 5.7% drop rate entering Sunday and their inability to support Mahomes and the offense at an elite level -- all of the above means the Chiefs have a chance to score plenty of points in the AFC Championship Game. Plus, while the Ravens led the league in sacks in the regular season, Mahomes simply refuses to take them. His 3.9% sack rate and 13.8% sack-to-pressure rate rank second in the NFL behind Allen.

And while Buffalo moved the ball at will at times against the Chiefs, the long view of the defense is it is still one of the best groups in the league, ranking fourth in EPA per play allowed. In the end, Kansas City kept the Bills out of the end zone, too.

The Chiefs are underdogs and deservedly so, but they just beat Baltimore's biggest challenger in the AFC. They can beat the Ravens themselves, too.-- Walder

NFC Championship Game

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

When:Sunday, Jan. 28 at 6:30 p.m. ET (Fox)

Opening line: SF -7 (51.5)

What to know:The 49ers haven't won a Super Bowl since 1994. To put that in perspective, quarterback Steve Young threw three touchdown passes to Jerry Rice in that Super Bowl XXIX win over the Chargers. Still, the Niners will be making their seventh appearance in the NFC Championship Game since 2011. San Francisco has gone 2-4 in those games, three of which have come under coach Kyle Shanahan since 2019. Shanahan has a chance to pass Bill Walsh for the best postseason win percentage in club history with a win over Detroit.

As for quarterback Brock Purdy, he's trying to build a legacy of his own, and winning this game would go a long way after he was knocked out of the conference title game with an elbow injury last season. But the Lions are also trying to rewrite the history books. By winning two playoff games for the first time since 1957, they've already done something most Lions fans have never personally witnessed. And the Lions are doing it with an explosive offense that figures to test the 49ers' elite defense.

Orchestrating it all is quarterback Jared Goff, who is one of the best stories in this NFL season. After powering the Lions with 287 passing yards and two touchdown passes in Sunday's win over Tampa Bay,the Rams castoff has a chance to go to his second Super Bowl. If he takes the Lions to Las Vegas, they might just build him a statue in the Motor City. -- Holder

Why the 49ers will win:Yes, Purdy's performance in the divisional round against the Packers -- when he posted a negative-6% completion percentage over expectation, per NFL Next Gen Stats -- caused concern. But the best way to judge a team is with a long lens, and when we do that the 49ers still look plenty menacing.

And let's think about the matchup here. The 49ers have the most efficient passing offense in football. What is the Lions' big weakness? Defending the pass. Entering Sunday, the Lions ranked 30th in EPA allowed per opposing dropback. San Francisco's plethora of offensive playmakers will be a nightmare for Detroit, and while the Lions' offense is also effective, they don't have near the same firepower.

Plus, the 49ers have stars galore on defense to counter. Edge rusher Nick Bosa and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave lead a pass rush that can get pressure on the quarterback despite blitzing only 20% of the time (sixth lowest), and cornerback Charvarius Ward and linebacker Fred Warner should be able to at least mitigate Detroit's Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta.-- Walder

Why the Lions will win:The Lions have two major factors working for them in the NFC Championship Game. First, a shaky Purdy. Until his game-winning drive against the Packers, Purdy looked plenty fallible. He has led an ultra-efficient offense over the course of the season, but if he's rattled at all, that gives Detroit hope.

Second, one thing you can do against the 49ers is run on them. That plays right into the Lions' strength, as they rushed for 114 yards against Tampa Bay. They lean run-heavy, with the 11th-highest run rate over expectation, per NFL Next Gen Stats, and yet they are the sixth-most efficient running team in the league in terms of EPA per play, thanks to strong play from David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs.

Finally, the 49ers are one of the most efficient pass defenses because of their ability to defend deep throws, ranking third in EPA per play allowed on attempts of 20 or more air yards. But that's a wasted skill against Detroit, which throws deep just 7% of the time, the lowest rate in the NFL. The Lions will need the ball to bounce their way a few times, but they certainly have hope.-- Walder

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