Conference Championship Takeaways for the 2023 NFL Season

Coming off last week’s divisional round action, the Super Bowl is anyone’s for the taking. Both 1 seeds made it through to this round, and the pair of 3 seeds joining them have looked like they belong among the league’s best teams the past few weeks. Baltimore showed its true colors against the defending champs, while the Niners made it one step further than they did last year. Both games ended as one-score contests, but they reached those endings very differently. If you want to see how this week’s critical games played out in my conference championship takeaways, continue reading!

AFC

(3) Kansas City Chiefs 17, (1) Baltimore Ravens 10

I tried to warn you. I really did my best. While everyone was fawning over QB Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ offense, I consistently voiced my considers about this team’s playoff performance. A game against an overmatched Houston team (that was tied 10-10 at the half by the way) didn’t prove anything. Baltimore had its chance to prove me wrong immediately though, as they received the opening kickoff. They went 3 and out. Kansas City nearly stalled themselves, but on 4th and 2 at the Baltimore 41, QB Patrick Mahomes hit TE Travis Kelce (yes, Taylor Swift was there) for a 13-yard gain.

Kelce finished the drive on a 19-yard back-shoulder TD while S Kyle Hamilton interfered with him. The new most popular Chief had a great game, particularly in the first half, catching 11 passes for 116 yards and a TD on the day. Baltimore had some TE news of their own; Mark Andrews made his return from what seemed to be a season-ending ankle injury. His impact was limited though, with 2 catches for 15 yards. Down 7-0, the Ravens nearly went 3 and out again, but they went on 4th and 1 at their own 34 and converted. The drive ended in a 30-yard TD catch for WR Zay Flowers after LB Leo Chenal horribly missed a sack.

At that moment, I thought the absence of Chiefs LB Willie Gay loomed large. He surely would’ve converted the sack, and I envisioned him and Nick Bolton as the perfect spies for Jackson. Little did I know that Baltimore’s offense would hibernate until late in the 4th quarter. Conversely, the Chiefs hummed right along for a while. Mahomes went 11/11 to start the game. Their second drive was even better than the first. He hit Kelce for a magician play, and RB Isiah Pacheco (24/68/1) blasted the line through behind G Nick Allegretti, who was subbing for the injured Joe Thuney, and scored a TD to cap a 9:02 drive.

KC had a 15-minute advantage in time of possession, mostly because of a grinding first-half offense and a full-game masterpiece by Steve Spagnuolo‘s defense. On Baltimore’s next drive following Pacheco’s TD, Jackson held the ball too long, and DE Charles Omenihu strip-sacked him. Fellow DE George Karlaftis recovered, but the Chiefs did nothing with the turnover. Kelce was stopped short on 3rd down, and the team’s 4th-down run failed. That didn’t matter though because the Ravens had no offense for multiple drives. The only thing that went their way was Jackson catching his own batted pass.

Despite all the other defenders I’ve mentioned, this game wouldn’t have been won without star DT Chris Jones. On two consecutive plays, he whacked Jackson to force an incompletion and then swatted his pass away to make the Ravens punt. His interior pressure was game-changing and also kept Baltimore to just 81 rushing yards. The Ravens’ defense was game too though, and after a KC field goal before the half, neither team scored for the entirety of the 3rd quarter. Pacheco had just 2.8 yards per carry, and Mahomes had only 6.2 yards per attempt.

Baltimore appeared to be breaking through at the start of the 4th, as Jackson found a wide open Zay Flowers for a 54-yard gain. CB L’Jarius Sneed whiffed on the coverage, but Flowers taunted him to bring the ball back to the KC 25. Flowers (5/115/1) was most of the offense and nearly scored on this drive, but Sneed got his revenge by punching the ball out at the 1. The Chiefs recovered, and it felt like the Ravens were out of chances. KC had trouble putting the game away though, and DT Justin Madubuike even had the first sack on Mahomes this postseason.

Kansas City got completely shut out in the second half, but their defense stepped up the way it has all season. Jackson (20/37, 272 yards, TD, INT, 54 rushing yards, FUM) had garbage time production, but he only mustered a field goal in the second half himself. He overthrew pretty much every deep pass he attempted aside from the 54-yarder, and the game practically ended when he fired a lob into triple coverage in the end zone. I don’t know what he was thinking there. KC still needed a first down to ice the game, and coach Andy Reid trusted his QB to throw a game-sealing 32-yard bomb to WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

Mahomes (30/39, 241 yards, TD) didn’t have his most flashy showing, but it was an efficient day. Kelce surpassed Jerry Rice for the most postseason receptions in a career. This team might be more dangerous than past iterations because this is the best defense of the Mahomes era. Underestimating them has proven foolish the past few weeks, and I wouldn’t discount their chance to win another Super Bowl, even against San Francisco. Will Baltimore get another chance? This was the best team Jackson has ever had, and it still couldn’t carry him. I don’t think it ever will. Either way, I guess we can officially say: script over.

NFC

(1) San Francisco 49ers 34, (3) Detroit Lions 31

Those of you who are more offensively-inclined likely enjoyed this game more than its AFC counterpart. Detroit came out readier than even I expected, pummeling the 49ers with their run game on the first drive. WR Jameson Williams took a reverse 42-yards to the house, and the crowd was stunned. San Francisco wanted to answer, but QB Brock Purdy threw a near-INT that WR Brandon Aiyuk broke up. Purdy learned from last week though and threw a good ball under pressure on the next play instead of letting the bad throw fester for multiple quarters.

The Niners stalled out and attempted a 48-yard FG, but K Jake Moody hooked it right. I wrote about Moody’s issues back in week 6, and although he settled down, his inaccuracy resurfaced from time to time. That has been especially true in the playoffs, and I wonder if that might be the difference between SF hoisting the Lombardi trophy and falling short. Old K Robbie Gould would’ve made the kick in all likelihood. Detroit got the ball back and marched down the field again. This time, RB David Montgomery (15/93/1) punched in the score. The Lions have the league’s best offensive line, but SF’s pass rush has been disappointing.

Everyone knows that Lions QB Jared Goff is great in a clean pocket but wild under pressure. A defensive line as talented as San Francisco’s shouldn’t have had such trouble this week or against the Packers last week. Down 14-0, Niners RB Christian McCaffrey (20/90/2, 4/42 receiving) cooled things down a bit. He had a bully run on a 28-yard reception and scored a TD on their 2nd drive. Detroit finally punted, but Purdy gave the ball right back. He threw an INT on a pass thrown while DE Josh Paschal was hitting his hand and the ball. The Lions scored again, with RB Jahmyr Gibbs (12/45/1) scoring their 3rd rushing TD.

Detroit added a field goal before the half and went into the locker room with a commanding 24-7 lead. SF got the ball to start the 3rd quarter, and the team scored a field goal. Moody made the 43-yard try this time. However, it was a waste of an insane catch by WR Jauan Jennings. At that point, Detroit started to unravel. Coach Dan Campbell goes for it on 4th down more than anyone else. He lives by 4th down. This time though, he died by 4th down. Eschewing a 46-yard FG, the Lions went on 4th and 2. Goff threw a good ball, but WR Josh Reynolds dropped it. Things went awry from there.

Purdy threw a deep ball that should’ve been picked off on the next drive. CB Kindle Vildor dropped it, had it bounce off his facemask, and watched as Aiyuk somehow reeled it in at the 4 for a 51-yard gain. Apparently a ladybug had something to do with it? Aiyuk (3/68/1) earned the right to finish the drive, catching a 6-yard TD. Just one play error, Detroit’s comedy of errors continued. Gibbs, never fully corralling the handoff, fumbled and set up SF at the Lions 25. McCaffrey scored again to tie the game at 24. The Lions subsequently punted again after ANOTHER Reynolds drop on 3rd down.

Even punt coverage became a struggle for the Lions. P Jack Fox bombed a 74-yard kick that checked up at the 5. His teammates failed to down it, carrying it into the end zone for a touchback. The defense stiffened on the next drive, sacking Purdy twice to force an FG. Still, the Niners had their first lead of the day. Goff and the offense calmed down and got back into field goal range. Faced with a 4th and 3, Campbell didn’t learn from his mistake. Ignoring a 48-yard FG attempt, he went for it once more, and Goff threw incomplete under pressure. Those 6 forsaken points were massive in this tight of a game.

SF scored again, buoyed by Purdy’s running. He did fine throwing the ball as usual (20/31, 268 yards, TD, INT), but he took 5 carries for 48 yards as well. That isn’t something we see often from him, but it’s underrated aspect of his game. Suddenly trailing by 10, Detroit tried to mount a comeback. Williams caught a TD (on 4th down ironically), but it was too little too late. Their onside kick failed, and the Niners walked away with the win. This game was eerily reminiscent of a 1957 playoff game between these two teams. San Francisco had a 24-7 lead in that one, and Detroit stormed back to win.

The Lions played well but were let down by their coach. Goff (25/41, 273 yards, TD) was efficient, TE Sam LaPorta (9/97) led the team in receiving despite still being injured, and WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (7/87) was good as usual. San Francisco was just too strong to make these types of mistakes against. So much for Niners HC Kyle Shanahan and his struggles with comebacks right? This team got a big boost from the return of WR Deebo Samuel (8/89), whose YAC skills were on full display. Purdy once again got hot in the second half, and the defense stepped up when it had to.

Detroit proved themselves to be legitimate contenders. They’ll have more chances, and I think they’re here to stay. I can only hope that Campbell changes his hyper-aggressive philosophy. His comments suggest that he won’t, but between this and the Dallas game, his recklessness cost his team two wins. This time, it sent his Lions home. As for San Francisco, we get a repeat of the 2020 Super Bowl, except it’s Purdy instead of Jimmy Garoppolo under center. Many believe that a QB upgrade would’ve handed the Niners the win that day. Now they can try and prove it. Both teams have changed, but they’re back, good, and hungry.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Similar Posts