NFL News & Analysis

NFL Conference Championship: Key factors and why each team can win or lose

2T1BCDP Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

• Never count out Patrick Mahomes in the postseason: His 87.3 passing grade through two playoff games is the highest of his career.

• The 49ers continue to field the NFL's most lethal offense: San Francisco’s offense has been the most efficient in football, comfortably leading the NFL in EPA per play

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And then there were four. After a wild two weeks of playoff football, the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers remain for a shot at the Super Bowl.

For each team, we'll look at why they could hoist the Lombardi Trophy, a potentially fatal flaw and a key factor that could swing things either way.

Kansas City Chiefs

Why they will win: Patrick Mahomes keeps up his run of postseason dominance

Mahomes is a two-time Super Bowl champion and has never missed the AFC championship game since becoming a full-time starter in 2018. Yet, this postseason may be Mahomes’ best work.

His 87.3 passing grade through two playoff games is the highest of his career. His 90.5 rushing grade in those games has led to a 91.8 PFF overall grade, just a couple of ticks behind the 92.0 mark he put up during his first Super Bowl run in 2019.

Mahomes has never had a bad playoff performance by PFF’s grading scale, with his worst game leading to a 63.0 grade — around average — in the 2021 AFC championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Mahomes has played in 16 playoff games, going 13-3 with 4,561 passing yards, 43 total touchdowns and a 92.9 PFF grade. An MVP-caliber season on playoff games alone.

Why they will lose: Receiving woes come back to haunt them

The Chiefs’ issues at receiver have been well-documented throughout the season, and their tendency to drop passes has been their Achilles heel. They finished with the third-most drops in the regular season (34) and have dropped another three in two playoff games. Every player targeted for a pass this season has dropped at least one ball.

Leading the way in drops is Travis Kelce, with six, though his 6.1% drop rate isn’t bad. However, the Chiefs have four wide receivers with a drop rate of over 12% — Justin Watson, Kadarius Toney, Mecole Hardman and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Outside of rookie sensation Rashee Rice, the highest-graded wide receiver on the team is Watson at just 63.7.

Key Factor: Ground game lightens the load

Running the ball well could alleviate some of the Chiefs' receiving struggles. The rushing attack has just been average in 2023, ranking 12th in expected points added play, 17th in rushing yards and 18th in first-down runs.

The Chiefs’ ground game was also stuffed frequently in the regular season, as their 23.9% rate ranked sixth worst in the NFL. They forced just 66 missed tackles, placing 27th. But Kansas City's postseason has been a different story. In their two playoff games, the Chiefs have forced 13 missed tackles, which is tied with the Bills and Packers for most in the playoffs. Their 5.0 yards per carry trails only the Ravens on 15 more rushing attempts. They also comfortably lead all playoff teams in explosive runs (11).

Baltimore Ravens

Why they will win: Elite defense swarms high-flying offenses

The Ravens once again have a dominant defense, a calling card of their previous championship teams. They graded out as the third-best defense in football, earned the seventh-best pass-rush grade and trailed only the Jets in coverage grade.

Baltimore's -0.142 expected points added allowed per play trailed only the Browns for tops in the NFL. They led the league in total pressures at 417, converting a league-leading 64 into sacks. The pass rush was particularly impressive in the divisional round against Houston. Despite not recording any sacks, the Ravens pressured C.J. Stroud a whopping 27 times, seven by Justin Madubuike alone. In coverage, they allowed the lowest passer rating during the 2023 regular season and ranked second in first-down rate.

Why they will lose: Inconsistent tackling allows for big plays

With all the praise we just heaped on the Ravens, there is one glaring flaw: they aren’t great tacklers. While their 167 missed tackles on the season ranked 16th, right in the middle of the league, it is by far the most of the four teams remaining. The 49ers are next closest, at 153. Including the playoffs, their 50.7 tackling grade ranks 19th.

Key Factor: Getting healthy

The Ravens have dealt with injuries to a couple of key players who may be returning to action in the AFC championship game, most notably tight end Mark Andrews and cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Andrews went down with what many believed to be a season-ending ankle injury in Week 11 against the Bengals, but many signs point to him making his return against Kansas City.

While Isaiah Likely played well in Andrews’ absence, getting the star tight end back could be a huge boost to the offense. On the other side of the ball, Marlon Humphrey is also set to return to action from a calf injury suffered in Week 17 against the Dolphins. Being at full strength heading into a matchup with the Chiefs could prove critical in the Ravens’ chances to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since winning it in 2012.

Detroit Lions

Why they will win: Offense stays hot

Last week, we dived into the Lions' success on offense under Jared Goff and Ben Johnson since Johnson’s promotion to offensive coordinator. One thing that wasn’t touched upon there, though, was the rushing attack. Their ground game, spearheaded by David Montgomery and top draft pick Jahmyr Gibbs, put up an 87.6 rushing grade while being one of just eight teams to generate positive EPA per running play in 2023.

The offensive line has been outstanding, as the Lions trailed only the Ravens in yards before contact during the regular season (891). Detroit trailed only the 49ers in run-blocking grade (77.6) and finished eighth in pass-blocking grade (71.0), placing second in PFF's final offensive line rankings.

Why they will lose: Suspect secondary

Coverage has been an issue for this Lions defense. While they graded out reasonably well in run defense and the pass rush, they finished the regular season with the fourth-worst coverage grade and EPA allowed per play mark.

It has gotten worse in the postseason, as their coverage grade in their two games sits at 48.5. If they hope to topple the excellent passing attacks of any of the other three remaining playoff teams, this unit needs to make some adjustments.

Key Factor: Pass rush

The Lions’ 75.4 regular-season pass-rushing grade ranked 16th despite the team racking up the sixth-most pressures (372). This is largely because Detroit converted only 42 of them into sacks, which ranked 26th. Aidan Hutchinson has been elite as a pass rusher, putting up a 91.2 grade in that department and recording 11 sacks. However, no other Lions defender has more than five sacks or a pass-rush grade higher than 76.2 with at least 100 rushes. Fortunately for this unit, the 49ers struggle in pass protection, which could come into play if the Lions are to pull off the upset.

San Francisco 49ers

Why they will win: NFL’s best offense keeps it rolling

The 49ers’ offense has been the most efficient in football, comfortably leading the NFL in EPA per play, at 0.168 (next closest was the Cowboys at 0.118), while half of their plays generated positive EPA.

In terms of grading, San Francisco came out first in overall offense, receiving and run blocking while finishing second in rushing and 10th in passing. Featuring the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle, the 49ers simply have too many weapons for opposing defenses to contain.

Why they will lose: Pass-blocking issues rear their ugly head

One area the 49ers have struggled in is pass blocking. While they’ve done what they can to work around this issue, recording the fewest dropbacks in the regular season (19 fewer than the next closest team, the Steelers), it has been the one weakness of an otherwise dominant offense.

San Francisco's 55.0 pass-blocking grade ranked seventh worst in the NFL this season, and only one playoff team had a worse ranking (also Pittsburgh). They have been good about avoiding sacks, though. Despite having the ninth-highest pressure rate (34.4%), they’ve given up only 18 sacks, tied for the second fewest. Trent Williams led the way with a 79.8 pass-blocking grade in the regular season — the first time his pass-blocking grade dipped below 80.0 since 2012.

After Williams, though, the offensive line has clear holes. Every other starting offensive lineman has a pass-blocking grade below 60.0. Colton McKivitz was the next best at just 56.4, Aaron Banks came in at 54.9, Jake Brendel recorded a 42.3 mark and Spencer Burford earned a troubling 28.3 figure.

Key Factor: Brock Purdy

Heading into the postseason, the only quarterback as hot as Brock Purdy since Week 9 was Jordan Love. Purdy’s 91.0 passing grade barely edged out Love’s 90.9 mark during that stretch. Perhaps the bye week halted his momentum, but Purdy did not have the same success in the divisional round against Love’s Packers. While he did lead a game-winning touchdown drive to send the 49ers to the NFC championship game, there were a few hiccups along the way, as Purdy put up just a 55.0 passing grade with a turnover-worthy play.

If the 49ers hope to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in a couple of weeks, Purdy has to be the guy he was in the second half of the season, not the one we saw last week.


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