The Top Storyline for Each Potential Super Bowl Winner

The NFL's final four teams are the 49ers, Lions, Chiefs and Ravens

January 23, 2024 7:17 am
Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens.
Lamar Jackson is hoping to lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl.
Getty Images

Eight NFL teams entered the Divisional Round with a shot at playing in Super Bowl LVIII, but only four emerged with a shot of making it to Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on February 11: the 49ers (+145), Ravens (+200), Chiefs (+350) and Lions (+750). Following this weekend’s Championship Games in the AFC and NFC, that foursome will be whittled down to the two teams that will compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy next month. Before that happens, here’s a look at the top storyline for each of the four teams that still have the opportunity to win it all.

San Francisco 49ers: A prize for the process

Dating back to the 2011 season when Jim Harbaugh, who just won a national championship with Michigan, was a first-year coach in San Francisco, the 49ers have either missed the playoffs entirely or made it at least as far as the NFC Championship game. During that 13-year stretch, San Fran has only made it to the Super Bowl twice and lost both times. If the 49ers are able to win on Sunday against the Lions and then knock off either the Ravens or Chiefs (the two franchises the lost to in their pair of Super Bowl appearances), it will be the final step in boom-or-bust championship journey that has been going on for more than a decade.

A win in the Super Bowl would provide vindication for a brain trust that has put together one of the best rosters in the league but has never really been able to pair it with a top quarterback. Football operations president John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan thought they had solved their quarterback problem three seasons ago when they traded up to select Trey Lance in the first round in the first round of the draft, but he never really panned out as a starter due to injuries and ineffectiveness and is now a member of the Dallas Cowboys. That draft-day blunder would have crippled most teams, but Lynch and Shanahan were able to paper over their mistake by making Brock Purdy, who was never supposed to be anymore more than a backup, their starter.

Now 17-4 in the regular season and 3-1 in the playoffs heading into Sunday’s game, Purdy has been excellent since taking the reins in San Fran and essentially just plays point guard for an offensive unit that has talent all over the the field anchored by all-world running back Christian McCaffrey. Purdy’s emergence as a steadying force in San Francisco is a testament to the system that Lynch and Shanahan have put in place. Now, the Niners just need a Super Bowl win to cap off becoming the first team to reach three straight NFC title games since they did so from 2011-13.

Baltimore Ravens:

Since winning Super Bowl XLVII over the 49ers more than a decade ago, the Ravens have struggled to put together a deep playoff run even with perennial MVP candidate Lamar Jackson at quarterback. Jackson was masterful as the Ravens spanked the Texans in the divisional round and became the first player in NFL history to have two passing TDs, two rushing TDs, 100 rushing yards and a 100.0 passer rating in a game. Set to play in the AFC Championship Game for the first time, Jackson will look to unseat the Chiefs, who will be playing in their sixth straight AFC title game, as the best team in the conference. If he does it, Jackson will make it possible for his coach, Jon Harbaugh, to win the Super Bowl a month after his brother won a national championship in college.

The Harbaugh brothers, who coached against each other the last time Baltimore won the Super Bowl, would be a huge story for the Ravens, but Jackson finally being able to parlay all of his individual success and talent into a win for his team on the NFL’s biggest stage would have to be the story of the Super Bowl should the 27-year-old be able to win it. Already one of the facers of the NFL, Jackson would ascend to a new level of stardom with a Super Bowl win and turn himself into a national brand.

A Super Bowl victory for the Ravens with Jackson leading the way would also be a great story when you take into account that the two sides almost parted ways during the offseason when they couldn’t come to an agreement about a contract extension. At times it seemed like the challenging negotiations were going to fall apart entirely, but Jackson and the team eventually reached a five-year deal making him the highest-paid player in the NFL at $52 million per year. If Jackson brings a Super Bowl to Baltimore, it’ll be more than worth it.

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Kansas City Chiefs: Mahomes’s meteoric rise continues

While Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce will certainly be a major story of Super Bowl week if the Chiefs are able to survive playing on the road in Baltimore to make to Las Vegas, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes continuing to cement his status as an all-time great would be a major plot in the desert. Now 2-1 in Super Bowl and 13-3 in the postseason overall (with two of those losses coming against Tom Brady) entering Sunday’s game against the Ravens, Mahomes has the chance to pick up his third NFL championship ring before he turns 29.

Should Mahomes, who has thrown 38 touchdown passes and seven interceptions in the playoffs while completing 66.8% of his passes, be able to do it, he’ll be on track to give Brady and his seven championship rings a run for his money for GOAT status. Being able to win this season would also make the Chiefs the first NFL team to win back-to-back titles since Brady’s Patriots were able to do it in the early 2000s. KC coach Andy Reid’s status as an all-time great would also gain a boost, as would Kelce’s, but Mahomes legitimately moving into the GOAT conversation alongside Brady would be a major storyline.

“It’s hard not to think about it,” Mahomes said in the fall when asked about chasing Brady. “I think about seven Super Bowls, and being in 10 of them. I mean, it seems surreal, because I know how hard it is now to even get to that game. But you take it one at a time.” If Mahomes gets another one this time around after knocking off Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Jackson before finishing off the NFC’s quarterback in the Super Bowl, it’ll truly be a Brady-esque accomplishment.

Detroit Lions: The roar is restored

When the NFL postseason began a bit more than a week ago, the Detroit Lions had one playoff win in the Super Bowl era. They were able to triple total that in an eight-day stretch with a pair of wins and will now head to San Francisco to play in the NFC Championship game for the first time since 1991. An underdog by a touchdown or more at some shops against the 49ers on Sunday, the Lions have the longest odds to make the Super Bowl, let alone win it, but they will certainly be backed by many bettors anyway as Detroit’s rag-to-riches redemption tour has been the feel-good story of the NFL season.

Just three years after Dan Campbell turned himself into a media lightning rod by saying the Lions would be “biting kneecaps off” during his introductory press conference, Detroit is a win away from getting cast-off quarterback Jared Goff, who traded to Detroit for longtime legend Matthew Stafford and had to watch his replacement in LA win a title in his first seasons with the Rams, back to the Super Bowl. A former No. 1 pick, Goff was largely viewed as a bust when the landed in Detroit but has already proved many of his skeptics wrong by joining Brady and Peyton Manning as just the third QB in NFL history to lead multiple teams to at least 14 wins. Goff pulled off the feat this year with the Lions by beating the Bucs on Sunday and also led the Rams to 15 wins back in his Super Bowl year with the Rams.

If he adds to Detroit’s win total this Sunday, Goff and his big cats will be substantial underdogs to either the Chiefs or the Ravens in Vegas, but they’ll probably garner more backing bets than either of the AFC teams. Win or lose this Sunday or on the second Sunday in February, the Lions have already come further than most people would have predicted, aside from Campbell. “I envisioned that we would have a chance to compete with the big boys, and that’s where we’re at,” he said after Sunday’s win. “All you got to do is get in. It’s about placing yourself in the very best position to where you can move.” Detroit’s mission isn’t accomplished, but it’s already a success.

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