Detroit Lions @ San Francisco 49ers
The mighty Detroit Lions travelled to San Francisco with a berth in the NFL Championship game at stake.
The 49ers prolific offense scored early and often, taking a commanding 27-to-7 lead. But the battle-tested Lions rolled up 24 unanswered second half points, knocking San Francisco out of the postseason with a memorable 31-to-27 come from behind win. One week later, Detroit overpowered the Cleveland Browns 59-to-14, winning their third NFL championship in six seasons!
The decade was the 1950’s—the above events all took place in late December of 1957.
Ironically, Dan Campbell’s present-day Lions find themselves in a near identical situation, needing a win against the 49ers this Sunday in California to secure a berth in Super Bowl LVIII (58), the modern era’s NFL championship game.
If we learned nothing else from San Francisco’s narrow 24-to-21 victory over the tenacious Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional round, we did observe this: San Francisco’s offense appears vulnerable when Deebo Samuel isn’t part of it. And Samuel’s shoulder injury may limit his availability and production this weekend. If Green Bay’s faulty, first-year placekicker hadn’t hooked a game-tying field goal attempt, can anyone truly say with confidence that San Francisco was destined to win in overtime? I think not.
But Anders Carlson did shank a 41-yarder, and San Francisco did find a path to victory at home against the 7th seeded Packers. And, to his credit, Brock Purdy did orchestrate a redemption drive to secure the Niners place in this week’s NFC title game. None of it came easily. But ultimately, the 49ers are still on track to do what the team intended to be before Purdy injured his throwing arm in last year’s NFC Championship game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles—namely, advance to the Super Bowl and win it!
For their part, the Lions held off a determined effort by Tampa Bay reclamation-project-QB Baker Mayfield, who fought through his own set of injuries to give the Bucs a chance. But his Lions’ counterpart Jared Goff played his best football when it mattered most, hitting a slew of late-game pass attempts to move the sticks and keep the ball out of Mayfield’s hands until Detroit had secured a hard-fought 31-to-23 win.
The last time Detroit took on San Francisco in a playoff game that mattered, Dwight Eisenhower was America’s president, the NFL boasted just 12 teams, the AFL did not yet exist, and the first Super Bowl was still a decade away from its debut.
Sixty-seven years later, NFL history just might be ready to repeat itself.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Baltimore Ravens
Kansas City’s 27-to-24 win over the Bills in Buffalo last Sunday night wasn’t quite as epic as several other Patrick Mahomes-era Chiefs’ postseason victories.
Yes, it also contained an errant field goal attempt—"Wide Right!" no less—that could have resulted in overtime. And, yes, like the Packers, the Bills definitely could have won the game in regulation. But ultimately, the injury-riddled Bills defense couldn’t stop Mahomes’ offense often enough. That’s why Kansas City will play in its sixth consecutive AFC Championship game—albeit, on the road for the first time—this Sunday in Baltimore.
Unlike San Francisco, Baltimore took care of its divisional round business against the Houston Texans in grand fashion, scoring 24 second-half points to turn a 10-to-10 tie into a 34-to-10 rout. Along the way, Ravens’ QB Lamar Jackson threw a pair of touchdown passes and ran for two more, accounting for all but 6 of Baltimore’s points.
One scoring pass in particular demonstrated to me, a former Jackson critic, just how far the Raven's QB—2023’s presumptive MVP and pro football's most unstoppable offensive force—has improved his game since capturing his first MVP award back in 2019.
Before Baltimore’s second half point barrage, Jackson tried to pinpoint a red zone pass through a tight window to rookie tight end Isaiah Likely. But he threw it too low, and the big receiver failed to corral the ball in the end zone. Likely’s reaction—which I failed to note in the moment it occurred—set the stage for the epiphany play that transpired later.
Early in the fourth quarter in Houston's red zone, the Texans again flushed Jackson from the pocket. As he rolled right, Lamar spotted Likely working against man coverage toward the goal line. This time, Lamar put some air under his pass, forcing Likely to leap for it, which he did, easily outjumping a much smaller defender. When the stadium PA piped in White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army" to celebrate Likely's TD grab” I muted my TV. Simply can’t stand that song anymore.
That’s when ESPN and ABC rolled a replay showing Likely’s earlier reaction to the low pass Jackson had thrown in a similar situation. I couldn’t hear Troy Aikman’s analysis, but I’m certain he said something like: “Watch Likely... (waving his hands over his helmet) He’s telling his quarterback to put the ball up here so I can go up and get it…” Which is exactly what Jackson did! Talk about learning from a mistake! There it was, on full display, Lamar Jackson's "Continuing Quarterback Education" for America to appreciate.
This week, Jackson’s real tight end returns from injury, and Mark Andrews definitely gives the Kansas City Chiefs defense another big problem to ponder and deal with. Ditto for the Raven’s DC, now that Travis Kelce is scoring touchdowns again and Marquez Valdes-Scantling has rediscovered how useful his hands can be in pass receiving situations.
So it’s on, baby! Two great matchups with totally different selling points and appeal. In the AFC, Kansas City, the defending Super Bowl champions—quite possibly with Tay Tay and shirtless Jason Kelce in attendance—versus the seemingly invincible Baltimore Ravens, this year’s betting favorites to win the Lombardi Trophy. Then later, a pair of old-school NFC rivals, whose stories share historical parallels, both trying to revive rich histories of success.
Hopefully, neither contest will come down to a field goal attempt—unless the Ravens “GOAT” (Greatest of All Time) kicker Justin Tucker lines up with the outcome on the line. No doubt in my mind that scenario will not resemble the tragic misfortunes suffered by the Packers and Bills.