Football is a game of X’s and O’s, but the real difference gets made by the Jimmies and Joes. As we prepare for Conference Championship weekend, here are the 12 most important players to pay attention to on Sunday.
The good news for Detroit: Ragnow is completely off this week’s injury report after being absolutely battered these playoffs. The three-time Pro Bowl center left Detroit’s game against Tampa Bay with a knee and ankle injury and has previously been diagnosed with ankle, toe, knee, and back injuries over the course of the season. The bad news: Ragnow has arguably his hardest assignment of the season coming up. San Francisco boasts one of the most lethal defensive tackle duos in the entire NFL in Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead. The two have combined for 12.0 sacks on the season and rank 9th and 10th, respectively, in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate.
There is no one quite like Christian McCaffrey. Leading all running backs in rushing yards and second to only Raheem Mostert for most rushing touchdowns among running backs. A constant producer as a pass-catching back, leading all running backs in receiving touchdowns. He opens up so much potential for the Shanahan offense and acts as a bail-out for Brock Purdy. When Purdy struggled for most of the Divisional Round game against Green Bay, McCaffrey took on 24 total toches for a combined 128 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. CMC presents a unique challenge for Detroit as well. The Lions rank 23rd in defensive passing DVOA for running backs, per FTN Fantasy.
Despite being a second-round rookie on a reigning Super Bowl roster, Rashee Rice is the only reliable receiver on the Chiefs offense. He’s earned the accolade, too. Rice took over toward the end of the season, averaging 8 targets per game and 9.25 yards per target for 518 yards and 3 touchdowns through the final six games of the regular season. Then Rice opened it up against the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card round to put up a career-high 130 yards and a touchdown on 8 catches. Aside from Travis Kelce, Rice will make the difference in how effective Kansas City is through the air on Sunday.
The Ravens rushing attack has mentally taken a backseat in the public consciousness. Because of the additions of Odell Beckham and Zay Flowers and the hiring of Todd Monken, all the focus has been placed on the passing game. Plus, season-ending injuries to J.K. Dobbins and Keaton Mitchell took a ton of spotlight away from a Ravens rushing attack that is still great. The Ravens running backs – Justice Hill, Gus Edwards, and Dalvin Cook – still combined for 129 rushing yards on 31 attempts in the Divisional Round win over the Houston Texans. Baltimore will need to lean on that run game again against the Chiefs. Not only was Kansas City already weak in the run game this season (the Chiefs defense ranks 27th in rushing DVOA), but linebacker Willie Gay is also dealing with a neck injury. Gay is currently listed as questionable, serving as a limited participant in Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practices and not participating at all on Friday.
There are so many important skill position players that could make or break this game for Detroit. Sam LaPorta, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Josh Reynolds are all going to have key moments where they get called on against San Francisco. No one, however, opens up the game quite like Jahmyr Gibbs. It certainly took a while to get Gibbs his touches, but the rookie out of Georgia Tech has come alive in the postseason. He does so in short bursts – Gibbs has had just 25 touches across both of the Lions’ playoff games – but the impact is felt. This postseason, Gibbs is a perfect 8-for-8 in the passing game and averaging more than 10 yards per target. On the ground, Gibbs managed to put up 74 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries. Gibbs is the not-so-secret weapon that Detroit could break out Sunday and completely change the game.
Detroit’s run game is a massive factor in their offensive success. The Lions run the ball at the 12th-highest rate in the league and are 6th in rushing EPA/Play through the regular season, per RBSDM. The 49ers, on the other hand, have one of their biggest weak spots in the run game. They rank just 26th in defensive rush EPA allowed and give up the 9th-highest success rate to run plays. Fred Warner will be the difference between the Lions having an easy day and a nightmare on the ground. Despite the high EPA/Play, the 49ers defense is 9th in adjusted line yards. Most of that comes from an elite second-level yardage – 7th-best, according to FTN. Warner’s average depth of tackle of 1.9 yards is 13th among all linebackers in the league with at least 50 tackles, per Sports Info Solutions.
The story of the 2023 Ravens offense has been their depth at wide receiver. Baltimore ranks 6th in dropback EPA and dropback success rate, the highest marks for the Ravens since Lamar Jackson’s MVP season in 2019, according to RBSDM. With the Ravens able to go four deep at receiver – plus the return of Mark Andrews – this offense is as deep as it’s ever been. That’s why so much falls on second-year cornerback Trent McDuffie. Kansas City has had an elite passing defense this season, finishing 5th in defensive passing DVOA. Their one weakness: WR2s. The Chiefs are top-10 in DVOA when covering WR1s (5th), WR3s (2nd), and tight ends (10th), but they fall all the way down to 25th when lining up against WR2s. McDuffie’s had a bit of a tougher season compared to his rookie year. His 7.4 yards per target, 60.0% completion percentage allowed, and 86.5% deserved catch rate are all worse year-over-year, while his five passes defended in 16 games are half the total McDuffie was able to rack up in 11 games last year (per Sports Info Solutions).
Last week, the Buffalo Bills allowed Kansas City to score on each of their first five drives and needed a goalline fumble to not allow touchdowns on four straight drives (excluding the end-of-half drive). Part of that came from Kansas City’s ability to generate explosive pass plays against a maligned Bills defense. Marquez Valdes-Scantling caught two game-changing, 30-plus yard balls, while Travis Kelce and Rashee Rice both hauled in 25-plus yarders. It’s one of the few times this season that the Chiefs have been able to actually air the ball out with success in 2023. According to Underdog’s Hayden Winks, Kansas City is 26th in EPA on throws 15 or more air yards downfield and only attempts the 24th-most deep passes. If Hamilton can keep a top on the defense and force the Chiefs to work underneath, they’ll play right into Baltimore’s hands. The Ravens are third in EPA on targets under 15 air yards, per Winks.
This distinction could go to Bosa, Armstead, Hargrave, or Chase Young, but Bosa has definitely been the most effective at bringing pressure this season, so let’s go with him. Getting to Jared Goff is going to be the key to San Francisco stopping this highly explosive Lions offense. Goff has been abysmal at points this season when faced with pressure. In an ESPN+ article from December, Bill Barnwell found that Goff put up a QBR of just 0.6 when under pressure over a stretch from Week 10 to Week 14. That is abysmal. The Lions have been good at mitigating pressure. Despite being blitzed on 52.2% of dropbacks (per Next Gen Stats), Goff was able to hold Tampa Bay to just two sacks and five pressures with a 2.51 average time to throw. The Lions also have the benefit of rostering two of the best pass-blocking tackles in the league. Penei Sewell and Taylor Decker finished 6th and 7th among tackles in ESPN’s pass block win rate, the only team with both starters in the top 10.
If Kansas City is going to stop the Baltimore Ravens, they’re going to have to stop Lamar Jackson. Good luck with that. Even if the secondary holds to provide good coverage, you still have to worry about Jackson’s ability to improvise in the passing game. If all else fails, the MVP-favorite also happens to be one of the most elite rushing quarterbacks in the league. That’s why Kansas City – as risky as it sounds – is going to have to bring the blitz against Baltimore. According to ESPN’s Mina Kimes, Lamar Jackson is the best quarterback by QBR this season by facing a four-man rush. When that four-man rush gets pressure, Jackson doesn’t just rank first; his QBR actually goes up. Tranquill has been effective at getting home on quarterbacks this season, leading Chiefs linebackers with 4.5 sacks.
There is no single player on Sunday more important than Lamar Jackson. It’s not an over-exaggeration to call this the single biggest game of Jackson’s career thus far. The Ravens quarterback spent the whole regular season setting new career highs in completion percentage (67.2%), passing yards (3,678), and yards per attempt (8.0). Just to remind people he could do it with his legs, too, he spent the Divisional Round putting up 100 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground. According to FTN’s Aaron Schatz, it was the sixth-best rushing performance by a quarterback since at least 1981. After likely securing his second MVP, there is nothing left for Jackson to do other than win a Super Bowl.