No matter what, Super Bowl LIV will have some fun new stories.
None of the four teams remaining in the playoffs have been in the Super Bowl since the 2012 season. The Green Bay Packers won a championship at the end of the 2010 season, and none of the other three teams in the conference championship round have a title this century.
That makes these conference championship games quite interesting. There’s no shortage of star power, iconic franchises or surprising stories. It’s a fascinating field.
With that backdrop, let’s take a look in this week’s NFL Power Rankings at the top 10 storylines for conference championship weekend:
10. New blood with the Patriots eliminated
Amazingly, this weekend will be the first time since Jan. 23, 2011 that an AFC championship game will be played without the Patriots.
The last time the AFC championship game didn’t include Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger was all the way back at the end of the 2002 season. The Raiders beat the Titans in that game.
The Patriots’ dynasty has been impressive, but many fans grew tired of seeing them. Monster TV ratings for the Chiefs-Texans divisional playoff game reflect that. No matter who wins the Chiefs-Titans showdown, there will be some new players and stories from the AFC’s side of the Super Bowl equation for the first time in a while.
9. Jimmy Garoppolo can prove his worth
Garoppolo has had an odd path. He was gifted to the 49ers in a weird trade by the Patriots, played well at the end of the 2017 season when San Francisco finally let him start, then signed a massive $137.5 million contract. In 2018, he tore his ACL and fell a bit out of our consciousness.
The 49ers can’t have many regrets about Garoppolo’s contract now. Garoppolo wasn’t asked to carry the offense but came up big in a few spots when needed, and is now a win from the Super Bowl. He has been a part of a Super Bowl before as Tom Brady’s backup, but he has a chance to carve out his own history with a Super Bowl trip as a starter
8. Is the Chiefs’ defensive improvement for real?
Last year, the Chiefs couldn’t get a stop on third-and-10 in the AFC championship game when they needed it. We all knew the drill: The Chiefs had a world-class offense and didn’t have a defense to match.
That has turned around. The Chiefs allowed 10.2 points and 292.2 yards per game in their final five regular-season games. After a horrendous first quarter Sunday, the Chiefs held a Texans offense with Deshaun Watson to seven points in the final three quarters. The Chiefs aren’t elite on defense, but maybe they can get the stops they need in this AFC title game.
7. Young coaches look to make a name
Andy Reid has a ton of experience, and that makes him the outlier among the final four coaches.
Matt LaFleur is 40 and in his first season as a head coach. Kyle Shanahan is also 40, in his third season. Matt Vrabel is 44, in his second season. At least one of them is going to be coaching in a Super Bowl, and it will be two if Vrabel’s Titans win on Sunday.
It’s always good to see new stars among the coaching ranks, and Shanahan, LaFleur and Vrabel have already proven to be great hires.
6. Packers look to solve 49ers defense
The 49ers reminded everyone last week how good their defense is. The Niners demolished the Vikings offense, holding Minnesota under 100 yards until the fourth quarter. Nobody on the Vikings could find any room to run once they got the ball.
The 49ers also had a great regular season on defense, and one of their signature performances came in a 37-8 win over the Packers. Green Bay had 198 total yards. Aaron Rodgers had just 104 yards passing. Rodgers had the fewest yards of any quarterback with 20 completions in a game in NFL history. It was bad.
The Packers’ offensive adjustments will be crucial. The 49ers are coming into the NFC championship game peaking on defense.
5. Patrick Mahomes can regain supremacy
Mahomes was the story of the 2018 season. We moved on to Lamar Jackson in 2019.
Jackson was deserving of all of the attention he got in his record-breaking season. But Mahomes can finish the season as the talk of the NFL yet again.
Mahomes had a good season but didn’t reach 5,000 yards or 50 touchdowns like he did in 2018. An ankle injury suffered in the season opener and a dislocated kneecap that happened at Denver slowed him. But he’s obviously still one of the best players in the NFL and had a good season. If Mahomes is able to get the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl in 50 years, we might end up remembering 2019-20 as Mahomes’ season as well.
4. Derrick Henry strikes a blow for running backs
We’ll see if it translates when Henry becomes a free agent in a couple months, but he has made a good argument that running backs still do matter.
Henry has put the Titans on his back, rushing for 180 or more yards in three straight games. Nobody in NFL history had ever done that before. It’s a passing league, and the Titans are a throwback to a simpler time. It’s working.
Henry, a former Heisman Trophy winner who somehow wasn’t featured by the Titans until his third season was almost over, has had a phenomenal season. It’s rare this century to see a Super Bowl team whose marquee player is a running back, but Henry is writing a story we haven’t seen in a while.
3. Can Aaron Rodgers make it back to a Super Bowl?
There’s nothing wrong with finishing a career with only one Super Bowl championship. Ask Jim Kelly, Dan Marino or Dan Fouts about that.
Still, one Super Bowl for Rodgers feels light. The Packers have been to the conference championship round twice since they won Super Bowl XLV, and lost both. The loss to the Seahawks, after leading 19-7 in the final minutes, was particularly heartbreaking.
Right or wrong, quarterbacks are judged on championships. Rodgers getting a second ring would change his legacy in a big way. Especially if he does it immediately after the Packers fired Mike McCarthy, the coach who was criticized for holding Rodgers back.
2. Andy Reid’s quest for a ring
Aside from any fan of a team still left in the playoffs, who isn’t rooting for Andy Reid to finally win a Lombardi Trophy?
When Reid’s Chiefs fell behind 24-0 on Sunday, it seemed like another playoff failure. But the Chiefs came all the way back, outscoring the Texans 51-7 after that terrible start. Maybe that’s the sign this season will be different for Reid.
Reid is arguably the greatest coach to never win a championship. He has the most career wins for any coach without a title. Every coach who has won more games than Reid in NFL history has multiple championships. With one Super Bowl ring, Reid’s legacy will look a lot different.
1. Ryan Tannehill possibly starting a Super Bowl in the Dolphins’ stadium
Of all the possibilities for this NFL season, nobody thought Tannehill would end up starting a Super Bowl. And the fact that the Super Bowl will be in South Florida, after the Dolphins dumped him in the offseason? That’s too rich.
Anyone who thinks Tannehill is just along for this Titans’ ride didn’t watch Tennessee in the regular season. He had a fantastic season after taking over for Marcus Mariota and the Titans would not be in the playoffs without him. He has thrown for less than 100 yards in each of the Titans’ wins because Tennessee didn’t need more out of him. But his two touchdown passes against the Ravens set the tone for a major upset.
The NFL can be unpredictable; that’s part of the beauty of the league. And there would be no more unbelievable tale than Tannehill ending up starting a Super Bowl in South Florida this season.
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