What could have been: The Super Bowl’s nearest misses
Following the Kansas City Chiefs’ 17-10 victory over the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 triumph over the Detroit Lions, much of the attention has turned expectantly to the Super Bowl itself. Can the 49ers gain vengeance for their loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54, or can the Chiefs defend their title?
While there are undoubtedly many intriguing storylines to this coming clash, the Ravens and the Lions too have their own unfolding narratives, and it would be short-sighted to lose sight of these. After all, had Raven Zay Flowers decided not to reach for the touchdown early in the fourth quarter, L’Jarius Sneed could not have forced the fumble, and perhaps we would be talking about Lamar Jackson having the change to win a Super Bowl and cement his undoubted regular season pedigree. Similarly, had Lion Kindle Vildor held onto a third quarter interception, rather than having it bounce off his helmet for Brandon Aiyuk to catch, the Lions would likely be participating in their first ever Super Bowl.
In many ways, the Ravens should never have been dependent on such small margins for a chance to conquer the AFC. Quarterback Lamar Jackson, whose dual threat running and throwing the football makes him a perennial MVP candidate, was finally operating in a system under Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken which fully utilised and maximised his unique talents. A more balanced supporting cast incorporating Zay Flowers, Odell Beckham Jr, Mark Andrews and Gus Edwards, amongst others, had all helped spread the burden to a far greater extent than previous years.
However, it was their defence which was arguably the star of the show, allowing the fewest touchdowns in the NFL regular season. Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald coxed career years from lineman such as Justin Madubuike and Jadaveon Clowney in the pass rush, while relying on linebackers such as Roquan Smith and Kyle van Noy to man the middle with star cornerback Marlon Humphrey helping lockdown the secondary.
As such, the Ravens for much of the season looked the most complete team in the AFC, especially when the Bills struggled with injuries later in the season and the Chiefs seemed unable to cure their inability to catch the football. Ultimately though, they were simply unable to deal with the Chiefs’ defence, which had allowed the second least defensive yardage during the regular season, and the magic of Patrick Mahomes, who continues to reinvent the expectations of what a quarterback should and can do.
the Ravens for much of the season looked the most complete team in the AFC
The Lions on the other hand had already exceeded all expectations by being 24-7 at half-time of the NFC Championship game. This is a team who just two seasons ago started with a 0-10-1 record before finally winning their first game 29-27 against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 13. Major scrutiny was placed on new General Manager Brad Holmes and Head Coach Dan Campbell. The latter especially had invited ridicule with his press conferences: in his introductory one, he eschewed conventional coaching cliches in favour of proclaiming ‘we’re gonna get knocked down and on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off’ before also doing one wearing a racing helmet in honour of NASCAR racing in Michigan.
However, gradually the Lions improved, finishing the season 3-3 to end with a 3-13-1 record. The nature of the American draft system meant that a silver lining of their disappointing season was their obtaining of the 2nd pick in the 2022 draft. They used this pick on Aidan Hutchinson, a Michigan native, who immediately proved his worth by winning the NFL Rookie of the Month twice in his first season. In doing so, he helped the team improve to a 9-8 record, only missing out on a playoff birth as a result of their tiebreaking loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 4.
However, gradually the Lions improved, finishing the season 3-3 to end with a 3-13-1 record
The Lions’ improvements have only continued this season. While the decision to part with the running back tandem of Jamaal Williams and Deandre Swift during the off-season was widely questioned due to their success the previous year, David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs have proved worthy replacements. Indeed, the latter was part of an extremely productive rookie class, also incorporating tight end Sam Laporta, linebacker Jack Campbell and safety Brian Branch, all of whom have made major impacts in their first seasons.
The Lions stormed into the post-season, but the question remained of whether or not they could deal with the heightened tension and pressure of elimination games. This was quickly answered in the affirmative when the Los Angeles Rams were knocked off 24-23 in the wild card round and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were dispatched 31-23 in the divisional round. These marked the Lions’ first playoff victories since 1991.
Ultimately though, the Lions did fall agonisingly short and remain one of only four NFL teams never to have played in a Super Bowl. However, there is no doubt that there future remains much brighter than it has been for many years.