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4 Downs: Reactions and Awards For NFL Conference Championships

The stage is set.

Two heritage franchises meeting for the second time with the Lombardi Trophy at stake as the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs survived a dramatic Championship Sunday to advance to the Super Bowl.

"Can you beat Michael Jordan?" An AFC scout quipped, when asked by FanBuzz his initial thoughts on the Super Bowl matchup as a vaunted 49ers defense must now take down reigning MVP and Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes to bring home a sixth Lombardi.

"All I know," the scout said. "Is that I'm done betting against Patrick Mahomes."

Mahomes essentially willed the Chiefs to victory, making some history in the process, over the Baltimore Ravens 17-10 to make his fourth Super Bowl appearance in search of his third win.

Meanwhile, 2,839 miles away in Santa Clara, the red and gold confetti didn't swirl until the 49ers overcame a three-score deficit to dispatch the Detroit Lions, who orchestrated an epic second-half collapse.

Can Mahomes further cement his status as a future First Ballot Hall of Famer? Do the suddenly cardiac, comeback 49ers have enough to close it out this time, after coughing up a 20-10 third quarter lead to lose 31-20 the last time these franchises met in the Super Bowl?

Before looking too far ahead, here's an in-depth look at the biggest storylines, and awards, from a pair of championship games that didn't disappoint.

First Down: Travis Kelce leads Chiefs to Super Bowl

The way Travis Kelce played the AFC Championship Game, it is fair to wonder if he walked into M&T Bank Stadium with months of national criticism lobbed at his girlfriend, megastar Taylor Swift, was blaring through his airpods.

Making history by surpassing Jerry Rice for the all-time record for most postseason receptions in a career, Kelce played like he and Swift's reputation depended on the outcome.

Kelce was instrumental in the Chiefs strengthening their modern-day dynasty, this time advancing to a fourth Super Bowl as a road underdog. The four-time All-Pro caught all 11 of his targets for 116 yards and a touchdown, in one of the finest postseason performances of his career.

"He's a big dude who is as savvy as it comes in terms of getting open," a long-time NFL evaluator told FanBuzz is what separates Kelce from the other top tight ends. "And, he has a lot of wiggle for a bigger dude. Maybe most importantly, he looks healthier today than he did earlier this season."

To the scout's point, Kelce's regular season was a definitive step back for the 34-year-old, who produced just 984 receiving yards — his fewest since 2015, and was charged with six drops by Pro Football Focus. However, in the Chiefs' three postseason games, Kelce turned back the clock by catching 23 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns.

"He's a special player, man," quarterback Patrick Mahomes told reporters after Sunday's game. "I always say it, but when the lights get brighter, he plays better. That's the true mark of a champion, and that's what he is."

Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense struggled mightily this season to find any real identity or consistent explosiveness with a wide receiving corps that was plagued by dropped passes and an inability to create separation.

However, it was Kelce's resurgence and the Chiefs relying on their veteran playmaker that ignited Kansas City's playoff run that knocked off the explosive Miami Dolphins, surging Buffalo Bills, and physically dominant Baltimore Ravens en route to the Super Bowl.

Second Down: Steve Spagnuolo Strikes Again

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 7: Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on the sideline during a game against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on January 7, 2024 in

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Sunday afternoon in Baltimore was Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's Magnum Opus.

Against one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in the NFL, and an offense that finished the regular season ranked sixth in total offense, led the league in rushing offense, and averaged 28.4 points per game, the Chiefs' mad-scientist of a defensive coordinator allowed 336 yards to the Ravens, but a season-low seven points.

In the chess match between Lamar Jackson - The league's likely MVP awaiting coronation on the eve of the Super Bowl - leading the team that had been the most dominant all season long, against one of the most accomplished defensive minds in postseason history, advantage Spagnuolo.

One NFC Executive whose team lined up against Spagnuolo in a Super Bowl wasn't surprised by how Sunday played out.

"He's always had really good players," the executive told FanBuzz. "But he has always been exceptional at keeping quarterbacks uncomfortable."

That trend continued in spades against Jackson.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Spagnuolo's blitzkrieg sent extra pressure on 41 percent of Jackson's dropbacks, resulting in Jackson completing a season-low 41 percent of his passes against the Chiefs' blitz.

As a result, the Chiefs forced three turnovers, including a pivotal Deion Bush interception with 6:45 remaining in the game, in the end zone, to effectively end the Ravens' last gasp comeback hopes.

"It's age old in this league," the executive said. "If you can't handle the blitz, you're done."

Spagunolo confounded and confused Tom Brady in a Super Bowl, outlasted the 49ers in a Super Bowl, slammed the door on the Eagles in a Super Bowl. His combination of scheme and understanding how to best deploy his players has been a tried and true formula for success.

Now, as the Chiefs' offense has gone through an identity crisis for the better part of the 2023 season, these playoffs might be Spagnuolo's finest hour. And, he's just 60 minutes shy of a fourth Super Bowl ring.

Third Down: Battle Tested 49ers Take Major Step

For the better part of 18 weeks, the San Francisco 49ers were the most consistently dominant team in the NFL. But, head coach Kyle Shanahan, quarterback Brock Purdy and the rest of the Niners should send Lions head coach Dan Campbell a thank you card.

Campbell, of course, is one of the NFL's most aggressive head coaches whose dam the torpedoes persona is infused into the Lions' culture. But, Campbell's pedal to the medal at all times mentality cost the Lions a possible Super Bowl berth when he elected not to attempt a game-tying field goal midway through the fourth quarter on 4th down and 3 from the Niners' 30-yard line.

After Jared Goff's pass intended for Amon-Ra St. Brown on a crossing pattern fell to the turf, the floodgates opened and the 49ers rattled off 27 points to secure their Las Vegas residency.

For the second consecutive week, the 49ers were stunned early and taken to the brink late only to survive and advance as a testament to the talent on both sides of the ball and the culture instilled by general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Sunday, it was a 24-7 halftime deficit that made it look like the 49ers were about to be ran out of their own building, just eight days removed from falling behind 21-14 at the start of the fourth quarter against the Packers only to emerge victorious.

That formula will need to change if the 49ers are going to join the Steelers and Patriots as the only franchises with three Super Bowl victories.

"The Chiefs defense is playing really, really well right now," an NFL Scouting Director told FanBuzz. "There's no way the 49ers are going to be able to spot Kansas City 24 points, like they did the Lions."

If it's the 49ers' defense from the second half against Detroit that travels, they might have a puncher's chance. Over the final 30 minutes, San Francisco held the Lions to 162 yards and just seven points.

"The 49ers have the defense to control Kansas City's weapons," the personnel man points out. "But, can the offense be good enough against all the pressure that Spagnuolo and the Chiefs are sending lately?"

San Francisco has gone 15 rounds in each of their playoff games, after spending a season hellbent on avenging last year's NFC Championship loss in Philadelphia to the Eagles. The 49ers have two weeks to recover from a pair of brutal tests, but the biggest of all awaits against one of the most accomplished teams of this generation.

Fourth Down: Three Quick Thoughts on Super Bowl matchup

BALTIMORE, MD - JANUARY 28: Travis Kelce #87, Chris Jones #95, and Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrate following the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on January 28, 2024 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

For the second time in five seasons, it will be the 49ers and Chiefs on Super Bowl Sunday.

Here are three quick thoughts on the matchup:

  • Patrick Mahomes has played the 49ers only twice in his career, including the Super Bowl in 2020, and has the third-highest quarterback rating against San Francisco, of any team in the league, at 123.8.
  • Steve Spagnuolo may need a new script on Super Bowl Sunday. Blitzing Brock Purdy may prove foolish, as Purdy leads the league in yards per attempt, touchdowns, and passer rating against the blitz. Spagnulo's pressure clearly rattled Lamar Jackson, but Purdy has made teams pay for blitzing all season long.
  • Chiefs fighting against history. There has not been a repeat Super Bowl champion since the Patriots won back-to-back in 2004 and 2005. Kansas City has been as dominant as any team in any era, but a victory would cement the Chiefs as the NFL's first dynasty since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's Patriots, with a third win in five seasons.

Championship Sunday MVP: Brock Purdy, QB, San Francisco 49ers

Once and for all, Brock Purdy shed his Mr. Irrelevant label with one of the finest performances of his career in the biggest game he's played to date.

Purdy completed 20-of-31 passing attempts for 267 yards with one touchdown to one interception, lifting the 49ers' offense in the second half from a first half slumber that nearly ended their season.

In the first every championship game matchup between a quarterback chosen No. 1 overall in his draft class - the Lions' Jared Goff, and the last player chosen in his - Purdy, it was the 49ers' unlikely star who lit the spark.

San Francisco's 24-point outburst in the second half was a byproduct of Purdy's poise in the pocket and his ability to buy time with his legs for his playmakers to create opportunities deep downfield. The 49ers needed Purdy to be nearly flawless in order to shrug off his disappointing showing in last year's championship game, and he was exactly what San Francisco needed to advance into the Super Bowl.

Championship Sunday Breakout Star: George Karlaftis, EDGE, Kansas City Chiefs

ORCHARD PARK, NY - JANUARY 21: George Karlaftis #56 of the Kansas City Chiefs steps up to block during an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 21, 2024 in Orchard Park, New York.

Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

In NFL personnel circles, George Karlaftis is a known commodity, but the second-year pro out of Purdue introduced himself to the nation in a big way in the AFC title game.

Karlaftis was all over the field, especially playing a starring role in Spagnuolo's brilliant pressure-oriented game-plan late in Sunday's victory over the Ravens. Finishing with four total tackles, one sack and one critical fumble recovery, Karlaftis lived up to the lofty expectations of executives around the league who were so high on him ahead of the 2022 NFL Draft.

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