Three games left, and there are four teams still vying for the Lombardi Trophy. Can Lamar Jackson and the Ravens get over the hump? Will Patrick Mahomes make us look like fools for ever doubting the Chiefs? Is this the year that Kyle Shanahan gets his ring? Or will the Lions’ feel-good story continue? Big questions, tough answers. But let’s give it a shot. On to the picks!
Lines are from FanDuel as of Friday morning. Stats are from TruMedia and Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
Divisional-round record: 2-2
Season record: 137-137-8
Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens (-3.5)
When the Chiefs have the ball: They didn’t look like themselves for most of the regular season. We’ve been over the reasons a bunch of times—their pass catchers were unreliable, and their offensive tackles weren’t great—and that left Kansas City with an offense that ranked eighth in DVOA. Patrick Mahomes’s average pass traveled 6.5 yards, which ranked sixth lowest among quarterbacks with at least 135 pass attempts this season. The Chiefs’ 52 completions of 20-plus yards in the regular season were tied for 14th. It speaks to Mahomes’s greatness that he was able to adjust to the limitations around him. Mahomes had to be more methodical because factors outside of his control limited the Chiefs’ ability to create explosive plays. The offense wasn’t as dynamic as it had been in previous seasons, but it still finished in the top quartile of the NFL.
Then something strange happened in the divisional round against the Bills. We saw a version of the Chiefs offense we hadn’t really seen before. They had seven true possessions (not counting kneeldowns at the end of the half and the end of the game) and scored on five of them—three touchdowns and two field goals. One of the two possessions on which they didn’t score ended with Mecole Hardman’s fumble near the goal line, which rolled into the end zone and out of bounds.
In terms of offensive success rate, it was the Chiefs’ best performance of the season. They had eight plays of 20-plus yards—the most they’d gotten in any game this season, and the most by any team in a playoff game this postseason. Should we have seen this coming? Was it only a matter of time before the Chiefs figured things out? Or was that an outlier performance against a banged-up opponent?
If the Chiefs are able to do it against Baltimore, we’ll know we’ve been duped. But the test this week will be significantly tougher. The Ravens had the best defense and the best pass defense in the NFL during the regular season. The beauty of the Ravens defense is it doesn’t play one specific style. Mike Macdonald’s group has shown an ability to change based on what the opponent wants to do. So what do the Chiefs want to do? For most of the season, their scheme was about getting the ball out quickly on shorter passes and gaining yards after the catch. The Chiefs have averaged 6.3 yards after the catch per reception—second only to the 49ers. The Ravens defense, meanwhile, ranks fifth in limiting yards after the catch. Will the Chiefs be able to push the ball downfield more, as they did last week? The numbers suggest that’s unlikely. Baltimore ranked first in DVOA against deep passes in the regular season.
Up front is where this matchup could be decided. The Chiefs’ offensive line strength has been the interior, but according to ESPN, All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney is unlikely to play because of a pectoral injury. Mahomes has about 4,000 elite skills. Perhaps one of the more underappreciated ones is his ability to avoid sacks. He’s been sacked on just 3.9 percent of his dropbacks this season, which is second only to Josh Allen. That skill will be tested in a big way here.
Macdonald is unlikely to go with a blitz-heavy game plan. Baltimore has rushed five or more just 20.1 percent of the time, which ranks 26th in terms of frequency. Instead, Macdonald has relied on simulated pressures and creepers. The idea behind both is simple: You rush four and play coverage with seven defenders but confuse the offense by changing up which four you rush, sending off-ball linebackers and defensive backs toward the quarterback while dropping defensive linemen into coverage. With the simulated pressures, you show blitz before the snap. With the creepers, you don’t. The Ravens have executed these strategies brilliantly and currently rank sixth in pressure rate and fourth in sack rate.
I’ve hit you with the numbers and the X’s and O’s, but let’s be real: This will just come down to whether Mahomes can do enough Mahomes things. On paper, there’s no secret formula to attack the Ravens. Mahomes will be forced to make a bunch of 1 percent plays. But guess what? He’s shown over and over again that he’s capable of making them. The best comp for a quarterback going into superhero mode against Baltimore is probably the Ravens’ Week 14 game against the Rams. Matthew Stafford was terrific in that one, as the Rams piled up 410 yards and scored 31 points in an overtime loss. I really think that’s the type of performance it will take from Mahomes for the Chiefs to win. If the Chiefs offense plays well in this game, we won’t be talking about a special Andy Reid wrinkle or flaws in the Ravens defense. We’ll be talking about Mahomes adding another impressive chapter to his Hall of Fame career.
When the Ravens have the ball: Last week’s performance against the Texans was a great reminder about how important it is to have a problem-solver at quarterback and offensive coordinator. Houston came out with a surprise game plan, blitzing Lamar Jackson and the Ravens over and over again. In the first half, Baltimore looked shaky. In the second half, it adjusted. Per Next Gen Stats, Jackson got rid of the ball in 2.25 seconds against the blitz in the second half of that game, compared to 3.51 seconds in the first half. Jackson used his arms and legs brilliantly, as the Ravens strung together three straight touchdown drives after halftime en route to a 34-10 victory.
So what will Baltimore’s offensive game plan be against the Chiefs? It will start with the most efficient rushing attack in the NFL. The Ravens ran 42 times for 229 yards (5.5 yards per carry) last week against the Texans. They finished the season first in rushing DVOA. The Chiefs gave up 182 yards on 39 rushing attempts (4.7 YPC) last week against the Bills. They finished the regular season 27th against the run.
The Chiefs probably can’t play the way they did defensively against Buffalo last week and beat Baltimore. The Bills went up and down the field on them. Buffalo’s 58.2 percent success rate was the seventh best by any team in a game this season. We’re talking about a 99th-percentile offensive performance, in terms of efficiency. But for the first time all season, the Chiefs held their opponent to zero plays of 20-plus yards. Some of that was due to the Bills’ missed opportunities, none bigger than Josh Allen’s beautiful moon ball hitting Stefon Diggs in the hands, and some of it was due to the Chiefs’ execution. The defensive performance was good enough because of how well the Chiefs offense was playing. But Kansas City will need more from its defense this week.
We last saw Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s game plan for Jackson in Week 2 of 2021. He went blitz-heavy in that game, sending five or more rushers at Jackson on 44.4 percent of his dropbacks. Jackson cooked the Chiefs, completing 18 of 26 passes for 239 yards. He threw two interceptions, but, in terms of dropback success rate, it was the sixth-most efficient start of Jackson’s career.
This defense—and specifically this pass defense—is the best that Spagnuolo has had in his time with the Chiefs. They finished seventh in defensive DVOA and fifth against the pass. No other team is better at limiting explosive plays. The Chiefs gave up 46 plays of 20-plus yards in the regular season—the fewest in the NFL. And against deep passes, they ranked fourth in DVOA. In other words, it will be hard for Jackson to pick up big chunks in the passing game.
Two specific areas to keep an eye on: Jackson vs. man coverage, and Jackson vs. the blitz. The Chiefs have played man at the ninth-highest rate and rank eighth in success rate when they do so. This is something they major in—and their corners have held up well. Among the 25 quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks vs. man this season, Jackson ranks 11th in success rate and 16th in expected points added per pass play. It hasn’t been a weakness, but the Ravens’ passing game has been more mediocre than great against man.
The Chiefs blitzed at about a league-average rate (28.6 percent of the time) in the regular season. It’s a small sample, but in two playoff games, they’ve been less aggressive (18 percent). Among 25 quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks against the blitz, Jackson ranks 14th in both success rate and EPA per pass play.
The Ravens offense has been able to find answers all season, but this won’t be an easy matchup. Baltimore’s biggest advantage is with its run game, but it’d be no surprise to see the Chiefs’ impressive pass defense give the Ravens problems. Kansas City will force Baltimore to string together long drives and avoid mistakes.
How I see it: I have gone back and forth on this pick all week. The “keep it simple, stupid” part of me wants to take the Chiefs. Mahomes has been an underdog 11 times. The Chiefs are 9-1-1 against the spread in those games and have won eight of said games outright. Their path to a victory (or even a cover) here is not that complicated. The Chiefs are unlikely to get gashed by the Ravens’ passing game. And on the other side, they have Mahomes. He doesn’t need to throw for 350 yards, but can he make enough plays to position the Chiefs to steal the game? Of course. We’re talking about a guy who could go down as the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and he’s healthy and in his prime.
But I can’t shake how impressive this Ravens team has been. They have gone 7-3 with an NFL-best plus-138 point differential against playoff teams this season, and that includes a Week 18 loss to the Steelers where they were resting their starters. Their point differential against playoff opponents is 54 points better than any other team. They can win with their run game. They can win with their in-structure passing game. They can win with Jackson creating out of structure. They can win with defense. And they can win with special teams.
I’ve said all season long that the Chiefs’ supporting cast on offense isn’t good enough. That didn’t show up against the Dolphins or Bills, but this Ravens defense is on another level compared to those teams. It’s terrifying to go against Mahomes—especially when he’s an underdog—but I think the Ravens get it done here.
The pick: Ravens (-3.5)
Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers (-7)
When the Lions have the ball: Their offense was a little shaky in the first half last week against the Bucs, but in the second half, the Lions strung together three straight touchdown drives of 60-plus yards. It’s another example of a team being able to problem-solve on the fly—something the Lions have done consistently this year.
Detroit has one of the most balanced offenses in the NFL. It finished the regular season ranked fifth in offensive DVOA—seventh in passing and fourth in rushing. This is a spot where they should be able to run the ball. Rookie Jahmyr Gibbs was electric last week, carrying the ball nine times for 74 yards against Tampa Bay. The 49ers defense ranked 15th against the run in the regular season, and last week the Packers ran 28 times for 136 yards (4.9 YPC) against them.
The passing game is where it could get a little dicey for Detroit. Jared Goff typically feasts on throws to the middle of the field. The 49ers rank first in DVOA against those throws. As we saw last week with Jordan Love, opposing quarterbacks need to be able to attack the 49ers on the outside. The Lions are also a heavy play-action team. But again, defending play-action has been a strength of the 49ers defense. They rank fourth in success rate on those throws.
One area where Goff has been excellent this season is sack avoidance. Pro Football Focus has a stat called pressure-to-sack rate. It’s exactly what it sounds like: How often do pressures result in sacks? For Goff this season, it’s been just 13.9 percent, which is a top-five rate among starting quarterbacks. The Lions offensive line has been a strength, but it’s banged up. It will likely be without guard Jonah Jackson, and center Frank Ragnow is dealing with a plethora of injuries. If this game gets ugly for Detroit, it will most likely be because the 49ers pass rush is taking over and forcing Goff into negative plays.
When the 49ers have the ball: The 49ers did not have their sharpest offensive game last week against the Packers. Brock Purdy had issues in the rain, but the Packers let him off the hook by dropping multiple interceptions. San Francisco still put up 356 yards of offense, and Purdy came through on the game-winning touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. Bigger samples are more useful than smaller samples, and during the regular season, the 49ers had easily the best offense in the NFL. In terms of DVOA, the difference between them and the no. 2 Miami Dolphins was roughly the same as the difference between the Dolphins and the no. 8 Kansas City Chiefs.
San Francisco goes up against a Lions defense that has been up and down. Detroit finished the regular season 13th in defensive DVOA—16th against the pass and first against the run. But that run defense didn’t look like a strength last week as the Bucs averaged 5.9 YPC in the divisional-round game.
The Lions pass defense has been shaky. Baker Mayfield threw for 349 yards on the Lions last week, and there are specific areas of concern with this matchup. One, the Lions ranked 23rd in DVOA when running backs were targeted in the passing game. The 49ers have a pretty good pass-catching back in that Christian McCaffrey fella. Two, the Lions ranked 24th in DVOA against deep passes. One of the big differences between Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy is that Purdy is an aggressive thrower who wants to push the ball downfield. He’ll have opportunities for explosive plays in this game.
As of this writing, it’s unclear whether the 49ers will have wide receiver Deebo Samuel available after he suffered a shoulder injury in the divisional round. When the 49ers offense has had Samuel on the field (with Purdy as the quarterback) this season, it has produced a success rate of 50.9 percent. That would qualify as easily the best in the NFL. Without Samuel, that drops to 47.3 percent. Not as good, but guess what? That would still be the best success rate in the NFL for any offense this season. The point? Yes, the 49ers struggled in the games without Samuel in the regular season (Weeks 7 and 8), but a lot of that was because of turnovers on offense and issues on defense. We can all agree that Samuel is an explosive playmaker, but on a down-to-down basis, the 49ers have still been quite efficient without him this season.
There’s no secret formula to stopping this 49ers offense. You can look at every split to try to find a weakness, and one doesn’t really exist. The blueprint is boring and cliché: Win up front and create turnovers. The Packers had a couple of chances for takeaways last week and couldn’t capitalize. That cost them the game. The Lions will need to make those plays if they want to advance to the Super Bowl. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn is an aggressive play caller by nature. I’d expect him to embrace a high-variance game plan. It doesn’t matter if the 49ers score on a 65-yard touchdown or a seven-play, 65-yard drive. It’s all about creating enough negative plays to give the offense a chance.
How I see it: There are aspects of this game that scream 49ers blowout. Their strengths against the pass match what the Lions like to do. It’d be no surprise to see San Francisco force Goff into mistakes. On the other side of the ball, the Lions will rely on turnovers. It’s just hard to see a scenario where they consistently slow down the 49ers offense.
The Lions formula, in many ways, is similar to what we saw with Green Bay last week. Be efficient on offense. String together long drives. Shrink the game. And try to win it in the fourth quarter. If they can run the ball, they have a chance to do that. The game script really matters here. If you’re Detroit, you want this to be an eight-possession game, not an 11-possession game. Invite the variance, and see what happens.
I think Dan Campbell will approach it that way too. We have two head coaches with very different in-game personalities. Campbell has cultivated an aggressive identity for his football team. They expect to play to win and take some risks. Maybe we’ll see a fake punt or a surprise onside kick in this game. I’d expect Campbell to consistently go for it on fourth downs.
Shanahan is one of the best coaches in the NFL—an elite offensive schemer who has built a tough, competitive team that is in the Super Bowl mix year after year. But he is conservative by nature and seems to make decisions out of fear of the worst-case scenarios. We saw that in the divisional round when Shanahan sat on the ball and settled for a field goal at the end of the first half.
Solak set me up to get mad at Kyle Shanahan (amazing coach!) for his in-game management of situations like the end of the 1st half last week.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) January 23, 2024
Didn’t realize I was going off and then just started laughing.
Could this cost the 49ers? Stay to the end.@ringernfl @BenjaminSolak pic.twitter.com/XGgnesGt9D
Usually, the conservative approach doesn’t matter because the 49ers are so good they win anyway. But there’s at least a chance that it will give the Lions an edge here.
I think we’re headed for a Ravens-49ers Super Bowl, but I can’t dismiss how competitive this Lions group has been. Going back to last year, they are 22-7 in their past 29 games. They’ve had just three losses by more than seven points in that span. I think this is a well-coached group that will embrace the underdog role. I’m taking the points.
The pick: Lions (+7)