PICK SIX – Conference Championship Games

Four teams. Two Championship deciders. One game remaining. The ever-decreasing numbers leave Sean Tyler diving deeper into the detail so this week, our scribe shines a spotlight on the Chiefs defense, a pass-and-catch by Lamar, a crucial four-minute spell that save the Niners and some costly errors by the Lions.

In Spags we trust

Much will be made of Kansas City’s offensive stars in their 17-10 win over the Ravens on Sunday night. Patrick Mahomes was successful with 75% of his passes (30 of 39), Travis Kelce caught all 11 of his targets for 116 receiving yards and a touchdown, and Isiah Pacheco barged his way to 68 rushing yards and a score. All very impressive. But in restricting the free-scoring Ravens to just 10 points, Steve Spagnuolo’s defense – even without Willie Gay, who was ruled out before the game with a neck issue – should take much of the credit for this one. The Chiefs got touchdowns on their first two possessions and that proved to be enough to win. As safety Justin Reid said postgame, “Spags is a magician. His feel for the game, his timing of the calls, when to bring pressure and when to fake it. We have a plan for everything.”

Over the last couple of months, Lamar Jackson has been superb and Baltimore have looked imperious, coming into this game as 4.5-point favourites on merit. However, KC’s Defensive Coordinator stuck to his pressure-heavy approach and his boys blitzed Lamar 20 times – and it worked. The Chiefs D came away with four sacks, three QB hits and five passes batted down, allowed only three third-down conversions and conceded just 22-and-a-half minutes of possession to their opponents.

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Jackson, this year’s yet-to-be-crowned MVP, has been slicing and dicing teams for fun of late but KC somehow managed to pen him in the pocket from all sides, put him under pass-rush pressure and cover his downfield receivers all at once. George Karlaftis, Justin Reid, Charles Omenihu and Tershawn Wharton all brought him down, with Omenihu’s strip sack resulting in a fumble recovery (before he suffered an ACL injury that ends his season). Then, deep into the fourth quarter, Jackson was hurried into a deep ball into a crowded end zone. It was intended for Isaiah Likely but found the hands of Chiefs safety Deon Bush. With Baltimore’s OC Todd Monken relying on his QB to do the heavy lifting (Justice Hill and Gus Edwards combined for just six rushes), it wasn’t a balanced display from a team that normally relies much more on the ground game. They fell short and frustratingly, Lamar couldn’t carry the team by himself.

Even Mahomes has learned that it’s OK to lean on his defensive colleagues; it’s a team game after all. Should the Chiefs beat San Francisco next weekend and lift the Lombardi once more, Mahomes and Kelce (and Taylor bloody Swift) will inevitably dominate the headlines. But the ‘In Spags We Trust’ t-shirts, donned by KC’s defensive players during the warm-up at M&T Bank Stadium, will be out in force again.

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In spats we trust

Talking of warm-ups, who doesn’t appreciate a bit of childish nonsense between opposing players before a game? During their pregame routines, Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes were seen throwing Ravens kicker Justin Tucker’s equipment away. The kerfuffle quickly went viral, adding some extra spice to the contest but alas, a day later, Tucker dismissed the interaction as a storm in a teacup.

“It’s kind of silly that we’re even having to address something that happened before the game that I really don’t see as a big deal,” he said. “But for those that don’t know the way it works, each kicker goes to the other team’s designated warm-up area. I’ve been doing the exact same thing for 12 years and never had a problem with anybody. That’s just the way kickers around the league have always done it.”

Kelce told Tucker he needed to move because Mahomes had to warm up, then took matters into his own hands by kicking his ball away and tossing his helmet to the side. As Tucker explained, “While I was on the ground stretching, Travis asked if I could move my helmet. I happily got up and moved my helmet out of the way, or so I thought. And then Travis comes over and he just kicks my stuff and throws my helmet. I thought it was all just some gamesmanship, you know? All in good fun.”

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It seems that Mahomes and Kelce were miffed by Tucker’s presence but the kicker added “Those are two of the best players that have ever played the game. Obviously, it’s an intense environment but at the end of the day, they’re just trying to get ready for a football game.”

So there you have it, right from the horse’s mouth. The spat was something about nothing. You can step away now, there’s nothing to see here.

The need for Sneed

The 10 points posted by the Ravens equalled their season low but if it wasn’t for a crucial game-defining turnover near the goal line, it could have been a different story.

Early in the fourth quarter, Zay Flowers did his best to get seven on the board for his team, reaching out for the end zone to cap a 7-yard catch-and-run. But with the tip of the ball just shy of the line, Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed punched the ball out of his grasp. The Ravens rookie receiver initially thought he’d broken the plane but replays confirmed the fumble, which was recovered by Trent McDuffie, was the correct call. Flowers was clearly frustrated after the play, throwing his helmet and apparently cutting his hand in the process. When asked if he thought he’d scored, he replied “Yeah, I thought I did, honestly. But I’ll learn from my mistakes.”

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In his defence, Flowers was being a bit hard on himself. It wasn’t a mistake, just a great play by Sneed that snatched much-needed points away from the Ravens. In fact, Flowers led his team with five receptions for 115 yards (including a 54-yarder) and a touchdown. The would-be TD appeared to have made up for a taunting penalty earlier in the drive, when he put Sneed on the deck but alas, Flowers was an inch or two away from his second score of the game.

The Ravens are 0-8 when committing three or more turnovers in the postseason and the only other time they’ve committed three this season, in Week 5 against the Steelers, also resulted in a loss. Therefore, it should be no surprise that with Lamar Jackson accounting for two others – a strip-sack early in the second quarter and a desperation throw into triple coverage – the turnover battle proved to be the difference in this closely contested game.

Lamar wins MOTY (Multi-tasker of the Year)

If you’d read the play-by-play descriptions of the Chiefs/Ravens game on NFL.com without having seen the highlights, you may have been confused by one snippet from the second quarter:

13 Yard Pass
(5:38) (Shotgun) L. Jackson pass short left to L. Jackson to BAL 31 for 13 yards (D. Tranquill).

Yes, Lamar threw a pass… to himself!

The eye-catching play happened on a 2nd-and-5 on his own 18-yard line, when Jackson the quarterback had a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage by Justin Reid. The ball deflected up into the air but Jackson the receiver ran forward and pulled in the ball himself, eventually taking it for 13 yards. The crazy play is now the longest postseason completion by a player to himself in the Super Bowl era.

Summing up how the game went, however, the Ravens couldn’t take advantage of the lucky break and four plays later, they were forced to punt the ball away.

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Niners turn tide in four minutes

After a regular season in which the 49ers didn’t have to make a single second-half comeback, the team has had to do so in back-to-back playoff games. They fought back from behind to see off the spirted Packers last week and had to dig themselves out of an even bigger hole this weekend, overcoming a 17-point deficit to beat the Detroit Lions. Trailing 24-7 at the break, Brock Purdy was struggling to push the ball downfield. But despite being down by three scores, with their season on the line, no one quit. No one panicked. No one even blinked.

The tide turned in four action-packed third-quarter minutes. Having opened the second half with a 43-yard Jake Moody field goal, the Niners defense crucially stopped the Lions on a 4th-and-2 (more on that one below). Having secured the turnover on downs with 7:03 left in the quarter, the Niners then got a bit of luck. A 51-yard pass to Brandon Aiyuk was overthrown by Purdy but the ball bounced off the facemask of cornerback Kindle Vildor as he fell backwards and into the clutches of a diving Aiyuk, just 4 yards shy of the paint (6:29).

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Three plays later, the same player connected with his QB to make it a one-score game (5:22). On the opening play of Detroit’s next possession, Jahmyr Gibbs gave up a fumble to Arik Armstead (5:15) on his own 24-yard line and the 49ers comeback was well and truly on. Much of the necessary yardage was made on a 21-yard Purdy scramble and the irrepressible Christian McCaffrey eventually punched it in from a yard out with 3:04 left in the quarter.

Those 14 unanswered points in four minutes flipped the script, with the Niners going on to right the wrongs from their last two NFC Championship games with a 34-31 victory and the Lions never recovering their swagger. In the first half, Detroit bagged three touchdowns and a successful FG but hit a wall after that, getting nothing from their first four possessions in the second half. In contrast, San Francisco’s 27 second-half points equal the third-largest comeback in a Conference Championship game so the lesson here is to never count the 49ers out, even though they’ve put together just three good quarters in the playoffs. Andy Reid, you have been warned.

Lions mistakes take their toll

You can understand Dan Campbell going for it, with the ultimate prize – a first Super Bowl appearance for his franchise – on the line. The ultra-aggressive Head Coach of the Lions has always played on the front foot, looking at achieving the best-possible outcome from any situation rather than fearing the worst. And you can’t knock it; that approach has defined his leadership over the last three years and it’s brought Detroit to the brink of the big one.

However, such a gung-ho style will inevitably fail at times and on those occasions, you’re bound to face some heat. And so it was in their loss to the Niners on Sunday, when Campbell’s decisions contributed to his team letting a 17-point lead slip through their fingers. (Yeah, the Lions couldn’t just lose in a ‘normal’ way, they had to do something spectacular.)

As referenced above, the Lions faced a 4th-and-2, within field goal range, in the third quarter. Holding a 24-10 lead at that point, many a coach would have opted to take the potential three points from a 45-yard kick and reinstate a three-score lead. But maybe having the inconsistent Michael Badgley waiting in the wings convinced Campbell to try and keep the drive alive. Alas, the decision backfired as a wide-open Josh Reynolds couldn’t haul in Jared Goff’s pass.

“I felt really good about us converting and keeping our momentum,” a philosophical Campbell said afterwards. “It’s easy with hindsight, I get it. But I don’t regret those decisions. It’s hard, because we didn’t come through, it didn’t work out. And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get. It’s part of the gig.”

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There was also another play call he may want back. Trailing 34-24 with 1:05 left, the Lions faced a 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Campbell believed David Montgomery could run into the end zone with ease and, with all three timeouts in tact, would give his team a shot at forcing a three-and-out. Instead, Montgomery was dropped in the backfield for a loss of 2, and Campbell had to cash in a timeout. Jameson Williams caught a TD on the next play but with only two timeouts left, the Lions couldn’t stop San Francisco from running the clock down.

Sure, Campbell’s decisions will get the headlines, but the blame falls wider than that. Kindle Vildor’s facemask-ricochet interception to Brandon Aiyuk. Jahmyr Gibbs’ fumble. Another Reynolds drop. A missed downed punt at the 1-yard-line. Another failed fourth down when a 48-yard game-tying FG was on the cards. And lots of missed tackles in the open field. They all played a part. In the end, Detroit were just too error-prone, on and off the field, to withstand the onslaught of the 49ers’ second-half resurrection. But rest assured, if they iron out some of those blemishes, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with again next season.

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