The NFL is down to just four teams remaining in the hunt for Super Bowl LVIII.
Conference Championship Sunday will feature the Baltimore Ravens hosting the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC, while the NFC will see the San Francisco 49ers play host to the Detroit Lions.
All four teams have outstanding offenses led by franchise quarterbacks who rightfully get most of the attention.
However, they also each have at least one elite defensive player who must bring it Sunday for their team to reach the Super Bowl.
Roquan Smith was the key to unleashing Ravens defense
One of the best trades any NFL team has made in recent years belongs to the Ravens, who made a blockbuster midseason deal in 2022 to get Roquan Smith from the Bears for second and fifth-round picks in the 2023 NFL draft, as well as veteran linebacker A.J. Klein, who was later waived.
That trade turned out to be a franchise-shifting move for the Ravens, as Smith has continued to be one of the NFL’s best off-ball linebackers. They went on to make the 2022 playoffs on the strength of their season, despite Lamar Jackson being sidelined down the stretch due to injury. The Ravens were even poised to upset the Bengals in the Wild Card Round if not for Sam Hubbard’s 99-yard fumble return touchdown.
This year, the Ravens defense has been arguably the best in the NFL. Smith’s 158 tackles this season were the sixth-most of any NFL player, while his 84.1 Pro Football Focus coverage grade was the eighth-best of all NFL linebackers.
He was a big reason the Ravens finished the regular season ranked first in scoring defense and sixth in total defense. Even those numbers don’t do them justice, as the Ravens defense has been downright terrifying with Smith leading the charge.
In the regular season, the Dolphins, 49ers, and Lions finished the regular season No. 1, 2, and 3 in total offense. They also finished No. 2 (Dolphins), 3 (49ers), and 5 (Lions in scoring offense.
Against the Ravens defense, they were all completely outmatched.
In Week 7, the Ravens crushed the Lions in a 38-6 victory at home.
In Week 16, the Ravens went into San Francisco, held the 49ers to just 19 points, and forced five turnovers en route to a 33-19 win.
Then in Week 17, the Ravens held the Dolphins to just 19 points and forced three turnovers in a 56-19 victory. That included Smith making a spectacular one-handed interception that really opened the floodgates.
Against those three top-ranked offenses, Baltimore surrendered an average of just 14.7 points per game.
In the Wild Card Round, Baltimore held the explosive Texans offense to just three points and 213 total yards (Houston’s only touchdown came off a punt return). This was after the Texans racked up 356 yards and 31 offensive points on a Browns team that also made a claim as the NFL’s best defense in the regular season.
Now, the Ravens are one game away from the Super Bowl, and Roquan Smith is a big reason for that.
Chris Jones has been the unsung hero of Chiefs dynasty
It’s no coincidence the Chiefs have made the playoffs every year since 2016, the same year Chris Jones was a second-round selection out of Mississippi State. Since then, Jones has put together a career that will have him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame conversation when all is said and done.
It’s also helped the Chiefs advance to six straight AFC Championships, three Super Bowls, and hoist two Lombardi Trophies. Jones has consistently been the anchor of Kansas City’s defense. He’s such a force that the Chiefs occasionally line him up on the edge, where he nearly made a game-changing play in last week’s three-point win at Buffalo.
Will be lost to the sands of time bc the Chiefs didn’t recover the fumble but this was an unbelievable individual effort by Chris Jones (lined up outside the LT at the top) pic.twitter.com/oeV9Egb2Jw
— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 22, 2024
There’s no question that pass rushing is where Jones makes his money. According to ESPN Analytics, Jones was tied with Aaron Donald for first place in pass-rush win rate (20%), despite being double-teamed 72% of the time, also tied for the most.
Since 2018, Jones has 68 sacks, an astounding rate for an interior defensive lineman.
Now, Jones is set to face one of the biggest tests of his career: a Ravens offense led by NFL MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson in front of what’s going to be an electric Baltimore crowd.
Aidan Hutchinson has powered Lions resurgence
Sometimes, you need a little luck to reach the top. That’s exactly what the Lions got in the 2022 NFL Draft.
That year, Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson was widely regarded as the No. 1 prospect. However, the Jaguars, who held the top pick, were more enamored with the raw potential of Georgia defensive end Travon Walker, and that’s who they selected, leaving the Lions to quickly snatch up Hutchinson with the No. 2 pick.
While we’re only two years into their respective careers, there’s no question Hutchinson has been the best pick, as he quickly became one of the NFL’s best defensive ends.
As a rookie, Hutchinson racked up 9.5 sacks and finished with an 80.7 Pro Football Focus grade (compared to Walker’s 60.3 mark) while leading the Lions to a 9-8 finish, their first winning record since 2017, and missed the playoffs by just one game. He was tied with Myles Garret for the most double teams faced by any NFL edge player.
In Year 2, Hutchinson became one of the NFL’s best defensive players, regardless of position. His 91.0 PFF grade (compared to 53.9 for Walker) was the 11th-best of any NFL defender. His 101 total pressures (Walker had 59) were second only to Micah Parsons (103).
More importantly, the Lions finished the regular season 12-5, their most wins since 1991. That was also the season of their last playoff win until this year’s Wild Card Round, which saw Detroit beat the Rams 24-23. Hutchinson finished that game with two sacks and a game-high five QB hits.
In the 31-23 Divisional Round win over Tampa Bay, Hutchinson had another sack and a game-high three QB hits. He’s now up to 17 total pressures in two playoff games, per PFF.
This is the kind of impact Hutchinson has to make in the NFC Championship to slow down the vaunted 49ers offense.
Nick Bosa has 49ers on the verge of another Super Bowl berth
While Hutchinson has taken the league by storm over the past year, Nick Bosa is a household name who’s been among the NFL’s best defenders since entering the NFL in 2019, a year that saw the 49ers come up just short to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.
The 2019 draft’s No. 2 overall pick out of Ohio State has been a force off the edge, racking up 53.5 sacks in 68 regular-season games. And that’s with him missing most of the 2020 season due to an ACL year.
That setback did nothing to slow Bosa down, as he’s racked up 44.5 sacks in the 50 games since then. He’s finished the last three seasons with PFF grades of 88.3 (2021), 90.9 (2022), and 92.7 (2023). The latter was tied with Micah Parsons for the third-best of any defender this season.
Take away his injury-shortened 2020 season, and the 49ers have made the playoffs every year with him coming off the edge. That includes seven playoff wins, four conference championships, and one Super Bowl berth. Bosa now has the 49ers on the verge of another trip to the big game, and they’ll need him to help slow down the high-octane Lions offense to win Sunday’s matchup in San Francisco.