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NFL conference championship game picks: is a Ravens-49ers Super Bowl inevitable?

AFC Championship Game: Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens (Sunday 3pm ET/8pm GMT)

Story of the season: A new hierarchy has been established in the AFC. The Ravens dethroned the Chiefs in the regular season by cooking up a 13-4 record that is even better than it looks when an excusable loss from Tyler Huntley and the backups to Pittsburgh in Week 18 is taken into account. The Chiefs will care little for all that though. Their scratchy run to January still delivered victory in the AFC West as they scraped by thanks in large part to their defense picking up the considerable slack from Patrick Mahomes’ down year. The master quarterback can turn it on like a tap though, and he was close to his best when the Chiefs knocked off the Bills last weekend. He will have to do it all over again if he wants to show the Ravens who the kings of the AFC really are.

What the Chiefs need to do to win: Andy Reid needs to figure out how to maintain offensive efficiency in the face of the NFL’s best defense. Mahomes helped Travis Kelce pop off the stat sheet last week: he scored for the first time in eight games. But Mahomes’ job was made easier because he was targeting the Bills’ depleted linebackers. He will have no such luxury on Sunday. Reid has to be creative in his play calling while leaning on the explosive Isiah Pacheco to keep Mahomes from having to win the game on his own. If the quarterback is improvising to beat the Ravens from the get-go then Mike Macdonald’s defensive scheme, based on confusing the opposition through showing blitz but dropping into coverage and vice versa, could well thrive.

What the Ravens need to do to win: Baltimore have to maintain their defensive ferocity. They smothered CJ Stroud last week, pressuring the quarterback on 51.4% of his dropbacks as he completed 7 of 17 passes for 62 yards under duress. Yes, they recorded zero sacks but the intensity was enough to keep Stroud under lock and key. Even the defensive backs were shutting down trick plays behind the line of scrimmage. Mahomes is unlikely to be as fazed as a rookie like Stroud but if the Ravens direct heat at Kelce then the quarterback will have to go looking for significantly less dangerous receivers. The man who can lead the fight for the Ravens is safety Kyle Hamilton. He has the size at 6ft 4in and 220lbs to stand up to Kelce while positionally he excels at the line of scrimmage. Perfect for covering the tight end’s hunting ground in the middle of the field.

Key player for the Chiefs: Jason Kelce, beer drinker. Forget Taylor Swift, the Chiefs have a new mascot. Travis balled out with big bro in the stands, 40 beers deep, sticking it to Bills fans. Give this man a megaphone, five well-stocked fridges and let him go to work in Baltimore. Kelce, Kelce, KELCE.

Key player for the Ravens: Lamar Jackson, quarterback. “We can’t keep trying to get deep and developing routes because our guys can only block for so long. I gotta move, just gotta get the ball out,” said Jackson to his quarterback coach Tee Martin at half-time after Houston rocked him with two sacks before the break. An average time to throw against the blitz of 3.44sec dropped to 2.02sec in the second half while he pitched a 24-0 shutout. Running, passing, elite reading of the game. MVP.

Prediction: Ravens over Chiefs. The Ravens feel like a team that still have not had to push to the extremes Kansas City had to find to overcome Buffalo, so they should have plenty in the tank to match a Mahomes-led onslaught. Tight end Mark Andrews’ return could be the tipping point. Jackson will reportedly have his red-zone monster back to further split the Chiefs’ defensive priorities, a big boost if the Ravens are pushed into a shootout.

NFC Championship Game: Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers (Sunday 6.30pm ET/11.30pm GMT)

Story of the season: Dan Campbell took over the Lions with a fiery speech centred around biting kneecaps. It was a mantra that came across as faintly ridiculous at the time, but it has led to a total shift in culture, a first NFC North title, and Detroit’s first back-to-back home playoff wins. Now, they are one game from their first Super Bowl. The Lions are this season’s vibes champions, a tantalising juxtaposition with the cool, calm and ultra-calculating San Francisco 49ers. A historically destructive offense powered the Niners straight back to this stage, their fourth visit in five seasons, as the No 1 seed. Kyle Shanahan will feel his team are long-since due a place in the Super Bowl but the underdog will still be hungry for a kneecap or two.

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What the Lions need to do to win: Ben Johnson’s offense needs to race out the blocks. Detroit’s defense – which has given up more than 400 yards in both postseason wins this year – is not good enough to stare down San Francisco. The Lions shouldn’t be too proud to crib from Green Bay. The Packers demolished Dallas by scoring on the opening drive after electing to receive and almost knocked off the 49ers in the same fashion. What is most helpful is that the Lions have already done it – in Week 4 to the Packers at Lambeau Field – with a win based on a 17-3 lead at the top of the second quarter. Detroit should take the initiative then exploit the 49ers’ tendency to get tight when under scoreboard pressure. Shanahan finally winning a game last week when trailing by five or more points (to produce a 1-30 overall record when needing a comeback) may be the exception that proves Detroit’s path to success.

What the 49ers need to do to win: Detroit’s premier pass rusher needs to be stopped. Green Bay pressured Brock Purdy five times through right tackle Colton McKivitz and another five past right guard Aaron Banks. The 49ers have to help out their men given the considerable assignment of stopping game-wrecking defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. Soft fouls need to be eradicated too: San Francisco have given up the second-most penalty yards this season.

Key player for the Lions: Frank Ragnow, center. Detroit’s keystone. Ragnow embodies Campbell’s last man standing mentality. A sprained knee against the Bucs, he kept blocking. A sprained ankle on top of that, no problem. Jared Goff and Jahmyr Gibbs are shining because of this ironman.

Key player for the 49ers: Deebo Samuel, wide receiver. San Francisco are said to be “cautiously optimistic” about Samuel’s availability to face Detroit. If he suits up they should be cautiously confident of making the Super Bowl. The 49ers are 12-2 this season – and score an average of 31.4 points – when Samuel plays a full game, compared to a 1-3 record with an 18.8 average without him. Shanahan needs his Swiss army knife back.

Prediction: 49ers over Lions. Detroit’s deficiencies on defense are too much to overcome, specifically against the pass. Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, Christian McCaffery and Samuel, if he takes the field, are too strong. The forecasted dry weather should assist Purdy’s accuracy too.

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