AFC & NFC Conference Championships Preview

Two's company and four's a crowd.

Four teams remain and 28 others, just like the rest of us, are merely spectators in America's most popular spectator sport.

And as the NFL prepares to determine the two teams that will compete at Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas on February 11, the NFL can point to one fact underlining a brilliantly bright future.

Just like last season, all four starting quarterbacks in the NFL's Championship Games -- Jared Goff, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Brock Purdy -- are under 30 years old. Prior to this week, that's happened in consecutive seasons only once since the 1970 merger, 2003 and 2004.

Over the previous 53 seasons from 1970-2022, all four starting quarterbacks in Championship Games were under the age of 30 on only seven occasions

1984, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2010 and 2022.

Plus, Sunday's AFC Championship Game featuring Mahomes (2018) and Jackson (2019) is the first postseason gane in NFL history involving former MVP quarterbacks under 30 years of age.

So welcome to the NFL's Championship Sunday, and welcome to the future.


The 49ers Are Sitting Purdy

The 49ers' BROCK PURDY will join BEN ROETHLISBERGER and MARK SANCHEZ as the only quarterbacks in league history to start conference Championship Games in each of their first two NFL seasons. That's especially impressive considering Purdy was the last selection in the 2022 NFL Draft while both Roethlisberger (11th overall) and Sanchez (fifth overall) were first-round choices. Since 1994, when the NFL reduced the draft to seven rounds, Purdy is the only quarterback drafted in the seventh round to start a conference Championship Game.

Over a longer stretch, 16 quarterbacks have started a conference Championship Game who were either undrafted or selected in the seventh round or later. Included in that group are Purdy in 2022 and an undrafted ERIK KRAMER, the last Lions quarterback to start the NFC Championship Game, in 1991.

Lions quarterback JARED GOFF is attempting to become only the fifth starting quarterback in NFL history to lead multiple franchises to Super Bowl appearances. Only TOM BRADY (New England and Tampa Bay), CRAIG MORTON (Dallas and Denver) and Pro Football Hall of Famers PEYTON MANNING (Indianapolis and Denver) and KURT WARNER (St. Louis Rams and Arizona) have done it.


The number of postseason wins Kansas City's PATRICK MAHOMES would own as a starting quarterback with a victory on Sunday. In NFL history, TOM BRADY (14-3 from 2001-07) is the only starting quarterback to win 14 of his first 17 postseason starts. Mahomes is 13-3 over his first 16 postseason starts (2018-23) with 4,561 passing yards, 38 touchdown passes and a 106.7 passer rating. What's more, with a win on Sunday, Mahomes would surpass BEN ROETHLISBERGER (13) and Pro Football Hall of Famer BRETT FAVRE (13) to become one of only six all-time quarterbacks to win 14-or-more postseason starts, joining Brady (35) and Pro Football Hall of Famers JOE MONTANA (16), TERRY BRADSHAW (14), JOHN ELWAY (14) and PEYTON MANNING (14).


In last week's win, Baltimore's LAMAR JACKSON became the first player in NFL history to rush for two touchdowns, record 100 rushing yards, pass for two touchdowns and compile a passer rating of 100-or-higher in a postseason game. With a minimum of five playoff games, his 93.4 career rushing yards per postseason game ranks fifth in NFL history among all players, trailing Pro Football Hall of Famers TERRELL DAVIS (142.5) and JOHN RIGGINS (110.7), DERRICK HENRY (104.6) and Pro Football Hall of Famer ERIC DICKERSON (103.4).


Two players recently named to the Associated Press All-Pro team will go toe-to-toe on Sunday when Lions wide receiver AMON-RA ST. BROWN meets 49ers cornerback CHARVARIUS WARD. In 2023, St. Brown has an NFL-leading 10 100-yard receiving games, including the postseason. Four of those efforts have come over the Lions' last six games, including the Wild Card victory over the Rams. He also has a touchdown reception in five of his past six games, including last week's 31-23 win over Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, Ward during the regular season led the NFL with a career-high 23 passes defensed, including a career-best five interceptions. In 15 career playoff games, Ward has 13 passes defensed.


Defensive coordinator AARON GLENN led a Lions unit that allowed just 88.8 rushing yards per game during the regular season, the second fewest in the league. Including the postseason, the only opposing player in 2023 who has topped 70 rushing yards against the Lions is Chicago quarterback JUSTIN FIELDS, who had 104 on Nov. 19. Meanwhile, the 49ers' offense during the regular season ranked third on the ground (140.5 rushing yards per game), led by the NFL's rushing champion CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY (1,459 yards). A 49ers player has rushed for at least 70 yards on 13 occasions this season, including the playoffs.


The KANSAS CITY CHIEFS have now advanced to the AFC Championship Game in six straight seasons (2018-23), surpassing the OAKLAND RAIDERS (five from 1973-77) for the second-longest streak of conference Championship Game appearances in NFL history. Only the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (eight from 2011-18) have a longer streak. The first five Championship Games in Kansas City's streak were at Arrowhead Stadium. Sunday marks the Chiefs' first road AFC Championship Game since a 1993 loss at Buffalo. This week also marks the first AFC Championship outside Kansas City since New England defeated Jacksonville at Gillette Stadium in the 2017 contest.

For the BALTIMORE RAVENS, Sunday's game marks the first time the franchise has hosted an AFC Championship Game. The last time the city of Baltimore hosted the contest was Jan. 3, 1971, when the Baltimore Colts defeated the Oakland Raiders, 27-17, at Memorial Stadium en route to the Colts' Super Bowl V championship. The Ravens make their first appearance in the AFC Championship since the 2012 season, when they went into Gillette Stadium and overpowered New England, 28-13, en route to a Super Bowl XLVII victory over San Francisco. Baltimore has made four prior appearances in the game as the road team. Since the Ravens' inception in 1996, they've played the Chiefs just once in the postseason, a 2010 Wild Card victory at Kansas City.

Meanwhile, the SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS have won six consecutive home playoff games, the NFL's longest active streak. The 49ers also are headed to a third consecutive NFC Championship Game. It's the fourth time in franchise history San Francisco has reached three straight Championship Games (also 1988-90, 1992-94 and 2011-13 -- the 49ers were also the last NFL team to play in three straight conference Championship Games). And since the 1970 merger, no franchise has played in more conference Championship Games than San Francisco. The 49ers will make their 19th appearance in the game, three more than the next-closest team, Pittsburgh (16). Meanwhile, the DETROIT LIONS have played in one NFC Championship, a loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Washington in 1991.

Conference Championship Sunday marks the third all-time postseason meeting between the Lions and 49ers. The prior two meetings also were in the Bay Area. Detroit won the first contest, a 1957 Divisional playoff at Kezar Stadium, en route to the Lions' most recent world championship. That Lions victory also marked the last time Detroit won on the road in the postseason. Then, 26 years later, the 49ers captured the second meeting, a thrilling, come-from-behind victory in the 1983 NFC Divisional Round at Candlestick Park.


For the first time in 20 years, a pair of three seeds -- the DETROIT LIONS and KANSAS CITY CHIEFS -- has reached the Championship Games. The last time that happened was 2003, when both the CAROLINA PANTHERS and INDIANAPOLIS COLTS were among the league's final four. The last No. 3 seed to advance to and win a Super Bowl was the 2006 Colts.

While No. 3-seeded teams have lost four straight conference Championship Games since that Colts victory, No. 1 seeds haven't fared significantly better. From 2018-22, No. 1 seeds have posted a modest 4-3 (.571) record in Championship Games and they're only 12-9 (.571) overall in the postseason. And just one No. 1 seed in that span -- the 2022 KANSAS CITY CHIEFS -- won a Super Bowl.

No team since the 2003-04 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS has won consecutive Super Bowls. Kansas City is aiming to break that 18-year streak (2005-22), the longest in league history.


Baltimore's JOHN HARBAUGH launched his NFL career with the Eagles in 1998, one year before ANDY REID became Philadelphia's head coach. Reid retained Harbaugh on his Philadelphia staff until the Ravens hired Harbaugh as head coach in 2008.

Sunday's Chiefs-Ravens matchup will be the third postseason game in NFL history in which the head coaches have combined for 450-or-more wins. Including the postseason, Reid is 282-160-1 (.638) while Harbaugh is 172-108-0 (.614). The only other playoff games with head coaches accounting for at least 450 career wins were the 2018 AFC Championship between New England and Kansas City on Jan. 20, 2019 (BILL BELICHICK, 290, and Reid, 207) and a 1995 AFC Wild Card contest between Buffalo and Miami on Dec. 30, 1995 (Pro Football Hall of Famers MARV LEVY, 137, and DON SHULA, 347). That 1995 contest marked the final game of Shula's remarkable career.

Also this week, Reid will appear in his 11th Championship Game as a head coach and surpass Pro Football Hall of Famer TOM LANDRY (10) for second most in NFL history. Only BILL BELICHICK (13) has more.

Meanwhile, when the Lions visit the 49ers in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, Detroit quarterback JARED GOFF will return to his roots. Goff grew up just north of San Francisco and graduated from Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield, Calif. He went on to start at Cal in Berkeley, Calif., before the Rams selected him No. 1 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Another former Bay Area quarterback, TOM BRADY, also grew up a 49ers fan before starting for two seasons at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif. Brady and Goff faced each other in Super Bowl LIII. Goff has started four career games at Levi's Stadium -- all with the Rams (wins in 2017 and 2018 and losses in 2019 and 2020).


Since 2018, when both PATRICK MAHOMES and LAMAR JACKSON became full-time starters, the Chiefs and Ravens own the NFL's best winning percentages, including the postseason. Kansas City during that stretch is 88-27 (.765), No. 1 in the league, while Baltimore is 68-37 (.648), second in the NFL. Also since 2018 and including the postseason, Kansas City leads the league with 28.9 points per game while Baltimore (25.82) ranks second. On the other side of the ball, the Ravens lead the NFL in scoring defense during that period, allowing just 18.80 points per contest.

Since the 1970 merger and including the postseason, Mahomes (.777) has the best winning percentage among starting quarterbacks (minimum 50 starts). Second on that list is TOM BRADY (.751) and third is Jackson (.732).

Detroit defensive end AIDAN HUTCHINSON has eight sacks over his last four games, including Weeks 17-18 of the regular season.

Since Week 15 and including the postseason, Lions quarterback JARED GOFF has shined in the fourth quarter. In the final stanza during that stretch, Goff has compiled a 116.9 passer rating (843 passing yards, six touchdown passes) and the Lions are 5-1. In last week's 31-23 win over Tampa Bay, Goff in the fourth quarter completed 16 of 21 attempts (76.2 percent) for 188 yards and a touchdown.

In three of the four Divisional games last week, the team that won the coin toss opted to receive. That happened in less than 5 percent of regular-season games this year (13 of 272).


Since 2018, including the postseason, Baltimore's LAMAR JACKSON has 14 touchdown passes on designed rollouts without play action. Only Kansas City's PATRICK MAHOMES (23) has more in that period. No other quarterback in that span has more than six.


The NFL's final four includes arguably the league's best four tight ends, including University of Iowa products GEORGE KITTLE and SAM LAPORTA, the respective first- and second-team tight ends on the 2023 Associated Press All-Pro list.

While Kittle and LaPorta have had impressive 2023 seasons, Kansas City's TRAVIS KELCE has had an impressive career, especially in the postseason. Kelce enters this week with 145 career receptions in 20 postseason games. He needs seven receptions against the Ravens to surpass Pro Football Hall of Famer JERRY RICE (151 receptions in 29 postseason games) for the most in NFL history. In last week's 27-24 win at Buffalo, Kelce caught five passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns, reaching five receptions in a 12th consecutive postseason game, the second-longest streak in league history behind JULIAN EDELMAN (13). Kelce also reached 50 receiving yards in an 11th straight playoff game and trails only Edelman (13) in that category.

Kittle in last week's 24-21 win over Green Bay led the 49ers with 81 receiving yards, including a 32-yard touchdown reception. During the regular season, he led NFL tight ends with 1,020 receiving yards, helping San Francisco become the first team ever with a running back, two wide receivers and a tight end to eclipse 1,000 scrimmage yards in the same season.

LaPorta in Detroit's 31-23 win over Tampa Bay posted nine catches, the most single-game receptions ever by a rookie tight end in a playoff game (surpassing KEITH JACKSON and JEREMY SHOCKEY, who previously shared the mark with seven). During the regular season, LaPorta caught 86 passes to establish the NFL's single-season rookie record among tight ends. And, with 10 touchdown receptions, LaPorta joined running back JAHMYR GIBBS as the first pair of rookie teammates in league history to each score 10 touchdowns.

Baltimore's MARK ANDREWS caught six touchdowns in 2023 and joined Kelce as the only NFL tight ends with five-or-more touchdown receptions in each of the past five seasons. Andrews has 40 regular-season touchdown receptions since he entered the league in 2018. Only Kelce (52) has more in that period. What's more, Ravens tight end ISAIAH LIKELY has five touchdown receptions over his last six games, including playoffs.


NFL 2024 - AFC & NFC Conference Championships