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The NFL playoffs: down to the final four

Surviving teams brace for action

Jimmy Myers
The NFL playoffs: down to the final four
The Baltimore Ravens will play against the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC championship in Baltimore, and the San Francisco 49ers will host the Detroit Lions for the NFC title game.

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As the NFL playoffs move toward their ultimate destination — the 58th playing of the Super Bowl contest — the remaining four participants are bracing for upcoming action on Sunday, Jan. 28.

Top seeds, the Baltimore Ravens of the American Football Conference and the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football Conference, are breathing sighs of relief following victories that some feel should not have been as difficult as they turned out to be. The Ravens and the 49ers had byes through the opening round of the playoffs. 

Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens PHOTO: All Pro Reels

The “Rust Factor” was evident as both teams did not look as sharp as they did during regular season play, coming off roughly two weeks of non-contact activity. The time off has been a sticking issue for the powers that run the NFL since they decided to reward the teams with the best records in their respective conferences with a week off while lower seeds play. The league and the NFL Players Association have wrestled with this issue since this current playoff format was adopted.

The NFL will say that the system works and that the top seeds deserve the time off for rest and recovery from the grind of the regular season. The league also wants to protect itself from the possibility of top seeds getting upset in the playoffs’ first round, which would be bad for television viewership and advertising revenues. The Players Association comes to this issue from a different perspective. Even though both entities claim they favor protecting their players, I doubt the NFL owners have the genuine sincerity for their player’s safety that they constantly put out to the media. On the same line of thinking, the Players Association claims it worries about the “Rust Factor” with players falling out of the rhythm of game action with time off. 

San Francisco 49ers kick off after a score PHOTO: All Pro Reels

Players’ health should be more of a concern to their representative union. 

And there is the dilemma, with NFL owners and the players union saying one thing while their actions lean to the contrary.

I use the following to illustrate my point:

In AFC action, the Ravens, with the top overall NFL record, had to rally from a 10-10 tie at halftime before taking down the upstart Houston Texans, 34-10. The Ravens’ special teams gave up a 67-yard punt return — a score rarity for a team that prides itself on solid special teams’ play.

In NFC action, the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers had their hands full with the young and talented Green Bay Packers, needing a 12-play, 69-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter and an interception by 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw — his second interception of the game — in the final minute to secure the win.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Brock Purdy, the 49ers signal caller, needed significant support from their defenses to pull out wins. The 49ers received the biggest break when Packers’ placekicker Anders Carlson missed a 41-yard field goal, which would have given the Packers a 24-17 lead midway through the 4th quarter. Carlson’s miss set up the 49ers game-winning drive.

Jared Goff calling plays for the Detroit Lions PHOTO: All Pro Reels

In other NFL playoff games, the Detroit Lions withstood a gallant effort from the lower-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers before emerging with a 31-23 triumph. The Lions advanced to the NFC championship game against the 49ers in Santa Clara.

Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs PHOTO: All Pro Reels

The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs survived a tough road test, beating back the challenge of the Bills by a final score of 27-24 in Buffalo. The Chiefs prevailed in a game with twists and turns mixed with both teams’ dropped passes, fumbles and questionable play-calling. Much was made of the fact that this was the first road playoff game for Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes road playoff debut improved his postseason record to 13-3 (Super Bowls count as neutral site games), following his star-studded performance at Highmark Stadium in a match that involved five lead changes. His two touchdown passes to favorite receiver, All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, put the duo at the top of the NFL playoff list for touchdown connections.

The other side of this scenario deals with the current failure of the Buffalo Bills on their all-time list of failures. Bills receivers missed three long pass attempts that could have dramatically changed the outcome of this contest. Bills quarterback Josh Allen failed to see a wide-open Stefon Diggs on a crossing pattern and two other shots to the end zone on what could have been a game-winning drive.

But as bad as that was, the game still came down to a missed field goal attempt by Tyler Bass that could have tied the contest. His kick was wider right than Scott Norwood’s historic miss against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV.

While Bills fans attempt to get through the psychological trauma of another postseason setback, Mahomes and the Chiefs head to Baltimore. It is the sixth straight AFC title game for the 28-year-old Mahomes while Allen and his teammates ponder their third postseason setback to these Chiefs.

The race to Super Bowl LVIII now has four teams left.

The Ravens will play against the Chiefs for the AFC championship in Baltimore, and the 49ers will host the Detroit Lions for the NFC title game.

football, NFL playoffs, Sports, Super Bowl