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Four teams enter the NFL's Conference Championship with the Super Bowl in sight


One newcomer and three familiar franchises - that's who's left fighting for a trip to the Super Bowl in this Sunday's NFL conference championships. The Detroit Lions are the new guys. They face the San Francisco 49ers. And the Kansas City Chiefs meet the Baltimore Ravens. Neil Greenberg is a sports analytics reporter for the Washington Post, and he joins us now for a preview. Welcome.

NEIL GREENBERG: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So, Neil, I mean, how did we get here? Can you quickly recap the playoff paths of the four remaining teams that we're going to be watching on Sunday?

GREENBERG: Yeah, absolutely. We have two of the best teams in the NFL this year in the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens. They look like the league's top Super Bowl contenders for most of the season. You have Detroit. They had a very strong year fueled by their quarterback play, their running game. And then, you know, the Kansas City Chiefs are really the - I don't want to say head-scratcher, but they had a lot of struggles, especially on the offensive side of the ball, which is unusual for them, but their defense is much improved. But the offense has been clicking for the Chiefs, and, you know, you never want to count out Patrick Mahomes 'cause he seems to find another gear once the postseason starts.

SUMMERS: All right, I want to break down both of these championship matchups, and I want to start in the AFC. And before we dive into the ins and outs of this game, I am from Kansas City. I am a lifelong Chiefs fan. But I also live in Baltimore, and I'm married to a lifelong Ravens fan, so I have a very complicated Sunday coming up.

I will set aside my personal feelings about this game and let you give us your thoughts. I take it this might be a lower-scoring game.

GREENBERG: The defenses for both teams are very strong. They seem to match up well at stopping what the other team likely will want to do. You have Kansas City who likes to pass the ball to tight end Travis Kelce and take advantage of the linebacking matchups, but Baltimore has a very good linebacking corps, especially in pass coverage.

And then, obviously, Baltimore's defense is good at getting at the quarterback, but Kansas City's pass protection is one of the best in the league. And to keep Patrick Mahomes in a clean pocket, he will find opportunities to pick apart the defense.

I think it's going to be a low-scoring game. I also think it's going to be a close game, so, you know, your household may be on pins and needles throughout the whole matchup.

SUMMERS: Yeah, someone should really check in on me on Monday.

All right. Setting that game aside, there is the NFC Championship game. Lions and 49ers - what is the big story there?

GREENBERG: It's going to be Detroit's running game. They have one of the most efficient running games in the NFL. Will they be able to use it? If San Francisco is able to get out to a lead early, Detroit's going to be forced to play catch-up, which likely means more passing. They may not be able to lean on that run game as much as they'd like to.

And on the other side, San Francisco has one of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen in the game. Everybody knows Pro Bowl edge rusher Nick Bosa, but it's the guys in the middle - Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead - who can create successful pass pressure in the middle. So I think that that is going to give San Francisco a pretty significant edge in this one.

SUMMERS: You are an analytics guy, so I want to ask you, is there something particularly surprising or interesting that you're seeing in the numbers that maybe people aren't talking about? Take us behind the headlines.

GREENBERG: Yeah, I really do think that it's this Ravens defensive package. I mean, the defense, after you adjust their efficiency for strength of schedule, is not only good this year, but it's among some of the best we've ever seen. And if Kansas City doesn't play a perfect game, like, if we see their wide receivers have the drops that we've seen over the past couple of weeks, I just think it's going to be tough for them to overcome Baltimore's overall balance on both sides of the football.

SUMMERS: All right, Neil, last thing - I'm going to ask you to do something sort of uncomfortable and make a prediction. If you had to say today who you think we see facing off in the Super Bowl next month, who have you got?

GREENBERG: My gut tells me Kansas City is going to play a really good game, so I'll say San Francisco, Kansas City in the Super Bowl.

SUMMERS: That's Neil Greenberg, staff writer with The Washington Post. Thank you.

GREENBERG: Thanks for having me. Enjoy the games, and hopefully, it's not too turbulent in your house.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWILIGHT TRIO'S "NFL THEME SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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