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Lions' turnaround highlights NFL's final four, but who will reach the Super Bowl?

Jan. 22—The Detroit Lions have crashed this weekend's NFL conference championship weekend.

But, though it's been too long since the franchise was last on this stage, the Lions' presence among the league's final four can't be termed a complete surprise.

Detroit's rise has been remarkable. Its 12 wins tied a franchise record. It claimed the NFC North title for the first time since the division's inception and won its first division championship of any kind since 1993.

On Sunday, when they visit the San Francisco 49ers, the Lions will play in the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1991.

Head coach Dan Campbell's complete makeover of the franchise in just three seasons has been nothing short of astounding. But the most amazing aspect is this year's success — a level of triumph not felt by the franchise for more than three decades — was not unanticipated.

After Detroit finished 9-8 a year ago and just missed the playoffs, the team became a popular pick to win its division and make significant noise in the postseason. That says all that needs to be known about the level of respect Campbell and his players have engendered in league circles.

The fact the Lions were able to fulfill those lofty expectations in the face of historic franchise failure deserves to be celebrated. And the Motor City is more than playing its part.

Fans packed Ford Field for playoff victories the past two weekends and added color to what has been the NFL's best postseason story.

One more victory will send this fairy tale into unchartered territory. Detroit is one of just four current franchises never to have reached the Super Bowl.

However, this could be where the heart-warming tale comes to an end.

The 49ers are undoubtedly among the NFL's blue bloods. San Francisco is widely regarded to have the best roster in the league, and it will be playing in the NFC Championship Game for the fourth time in the past five seasons.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan is among the league's most respected offensive minds, and he's already building an impressive coaching tree that includes fellow 2023 playoff participants DeMeco Ryans with the Houston Texans and Mike McDonald with the Miami Dolphins — who are authoring impressive turnaround tales of their own.

The Niners spent most of the season among the favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Las Vegas on Feb. 11, and they'll have the home-field advantage Sunday.

San Francisco's also trying to end its own drought. The franchise has won five Super Bowls, but the last one came after the 1994 season with Steve Young under center.

The 49ers lost the big game following the 2013 and 2019 seasons, and an NFL title is the lone missing piece on Shanahan's glowing resume.

The contest will pit Detroit's fifth-ranked scoring offense (27.1 points per game) — led by resurgent quarterback Jared Goff — against San Francisco's third-ranked scoring defense (17.5), which made a smooth transition from Ryans to new coordinator Steve Wilks.

The mismatch appears to be when the 49ers have the ball. Running back Christian McCaffrey is arguably the league's most explosive offensive weapon, and San Francisco's third-ranked offense (28.9) could prove too much for the Lions' 23rd-ranked defense (23.2) to handle.

That's the guess here, with the 49ers picked to return to the Super Bowl for the eighth time.

In the AFC, it's a matchup of familiar faces.

Patrick Mahomes and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs are in the conference final for the sixth straight season, but this is the first time they're playing on the road.

The Baltimore Ravens have the likely MVP in quarterback Lamar Jackson and are in the AFC Championship Game for the first time since winning the Super Bowl after the 2012 campaign.

Much has been made of Kansas City's warts this year. Its six regular-season losses are the most of the Mahomes era, and the offense has looked extremely mortal while averaging 21.8 points — the 15th-best total in the league.

Without consistent targets for Mahomes in the passing game, the Chiefs went just 2-3 in December and didn't clinch the AFC West until Week 17.

The offense has looked closer to its old self in the postseason, however, putting up 53 total points in wins against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills.

And the defense is better than it has ever been since Mahomes' dynastic run began. KC ranks second in the NFL, allowing an average of just 17.3 points.

Baltimore had far less drama with a healthy Jackson under center.

The Ravens posted the league's best regular-season record at 13-4 and haven't lost a game with a majority of the starters playing since Nov. 12. They won an AFC North division in which no team finished with a losing record and have the league's fourth-ranked offense (28.4) and top-ranked defense (16.5) — a lethal combination.

This could be a crowning moment for Jackson, defeating Mahomes to reach the Super Bowl for the first time. That's the pick here, setting up a big game matchup between both conference's No. 1 seed for the second straight season.