This Sunday, Jan. 28, we’re heading into the decisive weekend for the NFL Conference. The Baltimore Ravens will host the Kansas City Chiefs at the M&T Bank Stadium right here in Baltimore, Md. On the other side of the country, the San Francisco 49ers will host the Detroit Lions at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Both games are predicted to be incredibly exciting; the Ravens will be playing their first AFC Championship final in 11 years, since their win at Super Bowl XLVII. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has had an amazing season, which is a stark contrast to last January, and is “locked in” to lead the Ravens to the trophy. The Chiefs, on the other hand, are looking to defend their title, bringing in heavyweights like Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce.
In California, the Lions will be on the road to play their first NFC final in 32 years in pursuit of their maiden win. Hopes will be on quarterback Jared Goff and the star offensive line to overcome a 49ers team that is considered by many to be tactically superior. The 49ers, however, will seek to shake off the weight of the team’s last two games, when they lost to the Los Angeles Rams at home and only managed to edge out a small victory over the Green Bay Packers.
The writers of The News-Letter’s Sports section came together to come up with some predictions on the outcome of the big games this weekend.
49ers: The 49ers were the most dominant team in the league until they met the Ravens in Week 16. They looked shaky against Green Bay, but with fair weather on Sunday, they should be at the top of their game. Jared Goff and Co. run a potent offense, but they will need to bring everything for a chance at the big game.
Ravens: The Ravens are hot on both sides of the ball. Lamar Jackson is coming off his best playoff performance, while the defense held CJ Stroud and a great Houston offense scoreless. They say never to bet against Patrick Mahomes (especially with a top-tier defense), but the defending champs will have a hard time at the Bank.
49ers: The 49ers have a beautiful mix of backfield motion and talented playmakers that can make even the toughest of defenses look discombobulated. Throughout the regular season and in their divisional matchup, we’ve seen how dangerous this 49ers offense can be. Even with the abilities of Brock Purdy and the health of Deebo Samuel in question, I think the 49ers scheme is built to overcome any questions about their health and QB performance.
Ravens: This Baltimore Ravens team is unique in their ability to punish you in multiple facets of the game. Obviously, having a great defense is paramount when facing a talent like Patrick Mahomes. Thankfully, the Ravens have that. However, it’s the dynamic run-pass versatility on offense that makes this Ravens team so dangerous. I think this versatility, led by Lamar Jackson, will carry them to the Super Bowl.
Lions: There is no doubt that the 49ers are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, enough to make almost any matchup look like an easy task for them. However, I believe that this Lions team might just have what it takes to pull off the upset. Last week, the 49ers struggled to beat a less talented Packers team in a game that ultimately came down to a missed field goal from Green Bay. The most concerning metric for San Francisco was their lack of sack production on Jordan Love and an offensive line that is inferior to that of the Lions. It’s a well-known fact at this point that Jared Goff struggles when he is placed under pressure, but I fear that the 49ers won’t be able to overcome either side of the strong offensive or defensive lines of the Lions and will ultimately lose the game in the trenches.
Ravens: The trajectory that the Ravens have been on since last offseason, where there were advanced talks that Lamar Jackson might not even return to Baltimore, is quite remarkable. Since then, Jackson has played like a surefire MVP candidate while being backed by one of the best defenses the NFL has seen in quite a while. If Patrick Mahomes wasn’t on the other team, I’d be willing to put everything on the fact that the Ravens will win. However, there is always some caution when betting against the man who doesn’t know how to lose in the playoffs, even during his worst season in the NFL to date. I do believe that this Ravens defense will be able to close down on Mahomes — in a similar fashion to how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers clamped down on him in the 2021 Super Bowl. This could help cement the way to their first Super Bowl appearance since 2013.
Lions: While this may come off as a contrarian pick, I truly believe the Lions have what it takes to overcome the vaunted 49ers attack. On offense, everything revolves around the run game. Last week, the Lions faced possibly their toughest matchup in the Bucs, a team with disciplined outside corners and the talent inside with Vita Vea and others to thwart the rush. Still, the Lions put up 31 points, and Offensive Coordinator Ben Johnson demonstrated his ingenuity. I see them having little difficulty running against this overrated 49ers front (there’s a reason Chase Young was only worth a 3rd round pick), setting up their dynamic play-action game and controlling the clock. On defense, they have pivotal playmakers in Aidan Hutchinson, Brian Branch and Alex Anzalone. Coupled with timely blitzes dialed up by defensive guru Aaron Glenn, I see them doing just enough to throw Brock Purdy off his game. I’d like the Lions to pull off the upset in a 34-27 type game.
Ravens: I’ll admit, picking against Patrick Mahomes scares me. In the 11 games that he’s been an underdog, he’s an astounding 9-1-1 against the spread and 8-3 straight up. He’s coming off of outdueling a talented Buffalo Bills squad, and while the offense isn’t as potent as in past years, they do possess a more complete squad by virtue of the strong run game and stifling defense. With that being said, the Ravens have the highest weighted DVOA of any team of all time after the Divisional Round. This is one of the greatest teams of the 21st century, led by a strong rush game, a complimentary pass game and a defense with playmakers at all three levels. It’s a Lamar Jackson legacy game, and factoring in the raucous M&T crowd, I see the Ravens pulling away with the AFC title in hand.
Ravens: I’m not going to lie — I’m still a little cautious about issuing predictions on American Football in general, but I think the year that the Ravens have had has really drawn my attention to the sport a lot more. The reason why I’m bidding on the Ravens to win is honestly kind of numbers-based — they have the second-best cover rate in the NFL (66.7%), and their defense is absolutely something to be reckoned with — not to mention the season that Lamar Jackson has had. I agree with the other guys that the Chiefs’ offense, in particular Patrick Mahomes, makes me somewhat hesitant about my prediction, but I believe that players like Roquan Smith and Kyle Hamilton have a fighting chance of containing the Kansas City team.
49ers: This was a little tougher for me, considering the mixed performance we’ve seen from San Francisco this season, as well as their injury woes. Deebo Samuels returned to practice on Jan. 25 in a limited fashion, so he’s still not 100%, and I think his recovery could be a key factor in energizing a 49ers’ offense that struggled to overcome the Packers. Both sides have talented players, but ultimately, I’m going to go with the 49ers due to a strong showing of talented players like Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and Brock Purdy — though Jared Goff could present an interesting challenge.