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Neil Reynolds' Wraps the Divisional Weekend

And then there were four. The two number one seeds – the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers advanced to Championship Sunday, one more comfortably than the other. And they will be joined by the ever-present Kansas City Chiefs and the Cinderella Detroit Lions.

Among the vanquished, good seasons can be savoured by the Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers once the initial pain of defeat has softened. But, the Buffalo Bills are going to take longer to digest their loss to the Chiefs as they endured further 'wide right agony' almost 33 years after Scott Norwood's heartbreaking Super Bowl miss at the end of the 1990 season.

But let's get to one of the victors first in the Detroit Lions. What a story. In his third season in charge of the perennial strugglers, head coach Dan Campbell has taken his talented team to the NFC title game for the first time since the 1991 season.

And I can use words like 'plucky' and 'Cinderella' all day long, but this fact remains… the Lions deserve to be playing for the right to reach the Super Bowl this coming Sunday. They have been among the best teams in the league since the middle of last season and put everyone on notice in 2023 when they went into Arrowhead Stadium on opening night and knocked off the Chiefs. There could still be a chance for Patrick Mahomes to gain some revenge for that defeat.

When Campbell arrived in Detroit in 2021, he was mocked for what seemed like an overly-hyped opening press conference in which the new head coach talked about biting the kneecaps of opponents. Only figuratively, of course! But what Campbell was doing was insisting that he was going to change Detroit's culture, to back down from no opponent and to put an end to the losing.

He has done just that and it hasn't taken long. The Lions went 3-13-1 in Campbell's first year and then the progress has been much quicker. A 9-8 record followed in 2022, before a 12-5 regular season and a first division title since 1993 was followed by playoff wins over the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

As I mentioned earlier, Detroit are very talented. They have two running backs in David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs who combined for close to 2,000 rushing yards and scored 23 touchdowns on the ground in the regular season. Amon-Ra St. Brown is a 1,500-yard wide receiver and rookie tight end Sam LaPorta scored 10 touchdowns. Second-year star Aidan Hutchinson is a force at defensive end.

But the man who has benefited the most from Campbell's leadership and total belief in him is quarterback Jared Goff. When the Lions traded Matthew Stafford to the Rams in the 2021 offseason, Goff was a bit-part in the deal – a financial burden L.A. wanted rid of and a fading star who was viewed as a stop-gap, bridge quarterback by those of us looking on from the outside.

That's not how Campbell viewed Goff. He believed in the former first overall pick from the 2016 NFL Draft and because of that, Goff will now play for the right to appear in the Super Bowl again, five years after losing to the New England Patriots while with the Rams.

Like many quarterbacks, Goff has some issues when his protection breaks down. But if he is standing upright in the pocket, he can slice a defense apart. The Bucs learned that during Detroit's 31-23 victory on Sunday night. Goff was very efficient in throwing for 287 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Goff's playoff form is no fluke. He was excellent during the regular season as well, ranking second in the league with 4,575 passing yards. And that means he is 60 minutes from playing on the biggest stage of all, just a few years removed from coming close to being an NFL after-thought.

That's the power of having somebody believe in you the way that Dan Campbell backs Jared Goff.

Who's Hot…

The Baltimore Ravens…

John Harbaugh's men were in a real fight against the Houston Texans on Saturday night, heading into the half with the score at 10-10. What happened next suggest this could indeed be the Ravens' year. Quarterback Lamar Jackson apparently did "a lot of cursing" to get the Ravens awoken from their slumber. And they produced a championship response, scoring the final 24 points in the game to advance to the Super Bowl semi-final on the AFC side of the draw. That 34-10 win was the largest margin of victory of the weekend and saw Baltimore flex their muscle. Jackson threw for two touchdowns, rushed for 100 yards and two more scores. And the brutal defense held the Texans without an offensive touchdown all day long. The Ravens look to be the class of the NFL as they chase down a third Super Bowl crown.

Baker Mayfield…

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were not expected to do very much in their first year without Tom Brady at quarterback. And journeyman Baker Mayfield was supposed to be a bridge to whoever their next franchise quarterback might be. Could that be Baker? He threw for a career-high 4,044 yards in the regular season and tossed 28 touchdown passes. In two playoff games against Philadelphia and Detroit, Mayfield was Tampa Bay's driving force as he threw for a total of 686 yards and six touchdowns. His season ended with an interception that ended Sunday's game against Detroit, but Mayfield has put enough on tape to suggest the Bucs sign him to a long-term deal. He was on a one-year contract this season and Tampa should get him to put pen to paper before he explores the open market as a free agent.

Dre Greenlaw…

The San Francisco 49ers were on the ropes for much of their contest with the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night and it looked, for quite some time, like they were going to get bounced out of the NFC playoffs. But linebacker Dre Greenlaw was having none of that. He made plays all over the field for San Francisco's defense, recording eight tackles and two interceptions in a hard-fought 24-21 win. Greenlaw's second pick, which came moments after Christian McCaffrey's touchdown run with 1:07 remaining, doomed the Packers and sent San Francisco to the NFC title game for the fourth time in five seasons. The only negative came on Greenlaw's obsessive desire to turn his interception into a touchdown, risking a fumble when the game was effectively over. But all is forgiven now as San Francisco continue on another bid to end a 29-year wait for Super Bowl glory.

Who's Not…


We live in an NFL age now where we barely get excited if we see a 50-yard field goal split the uprights. Our heart rates rise only the slightest bit if a 55-yarder gets landed. So, the bar has been raised by the kickers of the NFL. Which makes the errors of Green Bay's Anders Carlson and Buffalo's Tyler Bass all the more glaring. The Packers held a 21-17 lead over San Francisco with just over six minutes remaining when Carlson missed from 41 yards, wide left. That mean the ensuing Niners touchdown was the game-winner and not the score that sent the game into overtime. It was an even more-frustrating kick that ended Buffalo's season on Sunday as Tyler Bass pushed his 44-yard effort wide right with 1:43 remaining. That miss – which will be added to the last of postseason heartbreakers in Buffalo – allowed KC to run out the clock and advance to a sixth AFC title game in a row.

Everyone else gets a pass on the 'Who's Not' section for this week. Sure, the Houston Texans didn't score an offensive touchdown in Baltimore, but it's hard to be too critical after the season they have enjoyed under DeMeco Ryans and with C.J. Stroud at the helm. And every other team that exited the playoffs over the weekend went down fighting.

The Fast Five

  • Brock Purdy delivered a big drive at the end of the game to lead the San Francisco 49ers to victory over the Green Bay Packers, marching them 69 yards in 12 players to steal the contest on CMC's six-yard run. Purdy played a clean game, throwing for 252 yards, one touchdown and no picks. But he could easily have tossed a couple of interceptions and looked shaky at times. It was not his best outing and more points and production will likely be needed to top the Lions this coming Sunday.
  • What the Kansas City Chiefs are accomplishing is akin to the New England Patriots in their prime years with Tom Brady at the helm. The Chiefs have now reached the AFC Championship Game in all six seasons that Patrick Mahomes has been their starting quarterback. That is an incredible run that shows the true benefits of having one of the greatest quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen.
  • The Buffalo Bills may have presented the Baltimore Ravens with a game plan for attacking Kansas City's second-ranked defense in the AFC Championship Game. During their loss to the Chiefs on Sunday, Josh Allen could not muster 200 yards passing. But the Bills did run the football 39 times for 182 yards and two scores, with 72 yards and two touchdowns coming from Allen. The Ravens can replicate that outing. They boasted the NFL's number one rushing attack during the regular season, averaging 156 yards per game. And they rushed for 229 yards and two touchdowns in the Divisional Round with Lamar leading from the front. The Chiefs will need to have their big boy pants on when they face the Ravens because they're going to get tested physically.
  • It was great to speak with Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton ahead of their win over the Texans in the Divisional Round. It gave me a real insight into why Baltimore churn out one elite defense after the other, year after year. Hamilton – who is a do-it-all star – revealed that the ghosts of the past certainly inspire the defenders of today. But Baltimore's success is about much more than living up to a legendary history. Hamilton told me that he believes the Ravens place much more value on playing defense in today's offense-driven NFL than other teams around the league. He said he speaks with other players on other teams and defensive excellence is just not pursued with the same fervour as it is in Baltimore.
  • The Houston Texans fell to a more talented and more experienced opponent on Saturday night, but what a season it has been for the team that won just 11 games in the previous three seasons combined. With Stroud at the helm in 2023, these Texans won 10 regular season contests and enjoyed a playoff victory over the Cleveland Browns. They are on their way. Young talent is being added on both sides of the ball and they have 'him' at quarterback, which is everything in the NFL.

Final Thought

Everyone has their favourite weekend of the NFL calendar. For some, it is Week 1 after a long and painful offseason. Others like the tradition of Thanksgiving, the drama of the Divisional Round or the anticipation and enthusiasm of an NFL Draft. For me, this coming Sunday – Championship Sunday – is the best day of the year. You get four teams dreaming of Super Bowl glory. They are as close as close can be to playing on a stage that could define their careers. The ecstasy is heightened but, of course, so is the agony. Win and you are booking flights to Las Vegas, dealing with family ticket requests and wondering what it might be like to stand under that falling confetti as an NFL champion. Lose and the pain is about as bad as it can get. You don't even get to say, 'Hey, at least we made it to the big game!' Coming close to winning the Super Bowl and failing makes it hard to get out of the doldrums – just look at the Philadelphia Eagles this season, who at least did make it to the big game. The senses will be heightened on what is sure to be a dramatic Sunday and legacies are on the line. Will Lamar Jackson finally get to the Super Bowl after years of playoff heartache? Is Patrick Mahomes going for a fourth time to continue his pursuit of Tom Brady? Will Brock Purdy go from Mr Irrelevant to Super Bowl quarterback or will Jared Goff get back to the big dance after playing poorly in the biggest game of his life five years ago? Those questions will get answered this coming weekend in the AFC and NFC Championship games and I cannot wait!