NFL Championship playoffs: Major upset in our picks for Chiefs-Ravens, Lions-49ers as Super Bowl awaits

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GREG COTE’S NFL CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND PLAYOFF PICKS

King Sport flexed its muscles with an average of almost 40 million viewers (TV and digital) for the previous week’s four games, led by 50.4M for Chiefs-Bills. It was the most-watched NFL Divisional Round ever. Now the AFC and NFC Championship Games on Sunday present a great final four for the variety of club pedigrees. Kansas City is the current power, having won Super Bowls in 2022 and 2019. Baltimore is a recent(ish) one, having last won in 2012. San Francisco is your father’s dynasty, last reigning in 1994. And Detroit is your late grandpa’s team, having not won it all since pre-Super Bowl 1957. A conspiracy floating on social media is that the fix is on for No. 1 seeds Baltimore and San Fran to reach the Super Bowl since the league’s logo for LVIII happens to feature red and purple. Hmm. No matter Sunday’s results, an intriguing, ratings-gold Super Bowl matchup is guaranteed.

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

CHIEFS (13-6) at RAVENS (14-4)

Line: BAL by 4.

Cote’s pick: BAL, 24-21.

TV: 3 p.m. Sunday, CBS.

Kansas City is a trendy upset pick for some and I get it. If there is such thing as a safe upset, Chiefs may be it. Patrick Mahomes has already been in three Super Bowls and won two, while Lamar Jackson is still trying to be Mahomes and finally add a ring to an otherwise Canton-headed career. Besides that, K.C. enjoys the undeniably magical mojo of No. 1 fan Taylor Swift! But I get even more why Baltimore is favored -- and should be. Two great defenses in the AFC final, but edge to the Ravens, who expect an added boost from having star CB Marlon Humphrey back healthy. Mahomes will be facing a pass-D that led the NFL in allowing only a 74.5 opponent passer rating. Baltimore’s edge on offense is even greater, and further magnified by the hope that Pro Bowl TE Mark Andrews will play for the first time since November. That would be huge for Jackson. Andrews is Travis Kelce-good (though without the famous superstar girlfriend). Nobody has a better ground game or better balance with the ball than the Ravens, and if K.C. has an Achilles heel it is its run defense, which ranked a middling 18th this season. Chiefs’ under-performing offense will be missing All-Pro LG Joe Thuney on Sunday, and Mahomes has been hampered all season by a WR corps that led the NFL in most fumbles (10) and dropped passes (39). Ravens also arrive in top form, on a 7-0 run in games Jackson has started, and averaging 33.9 points with a winning margin of 17.3. A fast start may be key for the Chiefs, who are 8-0 this season when leading after the first quarter and 1-5 when trailing. Ravens though are well-suited to win either a defensive battle or a shootout. This feels like Baltimore’s time. And Lamar Jackson’s.

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

LIONS (14-5) at 49ERS (13-5)

Line: SF by 7.

Cote’s pick: DET, 34-31.

TV: 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox.

Upset! And a big one. Outside of giddy Motowners euphoric over the Lions’ most playoff success since 1991, I don’t have much company in predicting a Detroit win over top-seed San Fran -- an outcome that would stun the NFL. I can’t pretend to lean on irrefutable logic. Niners should be a big favorite. All I can lean on is a strong hunch and a gut feeling that logic couldn’t make go away. San Francisco has been less than dominant at home this season (5-3) and is on an 0-6 skid at home against the spread. That included last week’s fortunate and narrow Divisional escape against Green Bay, which let an upset slip in the last minutes. Also, the 49ers may be without WR Deebo Samuel (shoulder), who could be a game-time call, and whose absence would be a major blow. The team is 8-9 including 0-2 this season when Samuel does not play. San Fran also is is 2-5 in NFC title games since its last Super Bowl win three decades ago. There is little doubt Detroit’s offense can hang with the Niners in a shootout; Jared Goff has rebranded his reputation and has the weapons. The questions is the Lions’ defense. We know San Fran’s is really good. The onus is majorly on Detroit’s D. The Lions though led the NFL with 176 QB pressures and I believe will pester Brock Purdy, while Goff is facing a 49ers secondary that is not a strength. I also like the Lions signing veteran TE Zach Ertz, with Pro Bowl rookie Sam La Porta not expected to play. The first quarter figures as telling. Detroit is 9-0 when leading after the first; San Fran is 0-4 when trailing after one. Some of my upset hunch is intangible -- just the feeling Detroit is for real and, that, despite some injuries, Dan Campbell has this team believing. That matters.

[Note: Betting lines via ESPN Bet sportsbook as of afternoon Thursday.

LAST TEAMS OUT

Divisional Round losers ranked by fans left the saddest:

1. Bills (by a mile): Congrats, Buffalo, on your 30th consecutive season with no Super Bowl appearance since losing four of them in a row prior. And the cruelty of losing to K.C. on a makeable wide-right field goal!? Holy Scott Norwood!

2. Packers: Brock Purdy and San Fran’s defense were not at their best and Green Bay led 21-14 entering the fourth quarter before Niners scored with 1:07 to play. Close enough for the what-ifs to keep you awake.

3. Buccaneers: You won a Super Bowl with Tom Brady only three years ago and got this far with Baker Mayfield (!) before falling to Detroit. Get outta the Complaint Line!

4. Texans: Houston got routed by Baltimore but was just happy (and possibly shocked) to be there after going 3-13-1 the season before. Also ... C.J. Stroud is 22.

HOW THE DARTS LANDED

No complaints about 3-1 overall last week, but the washout against the spread was a plain bummer. Was just a few points from that being 2-2, but no excuses here and no blaming “bad luck.” Bank accounts have been emptied by half a point and close doesn’t count ... except in making the pain worse. Nothing left to do now but nail both of Sunday’s games and then ace the Super Bowl.

Divisional Round: 3-1, ;750 overall; 0-4, .000 vs. spread

Playoffs: 6-4, .600 overall; 4-6, .400 vs. spread.

Season: 171-101, .629 overall; 130-133-9, .495 vs. spread.