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NFL Championship Sunday primer: What is each remaining team's trump card? Achilles' heel?

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he examines each remaining playoff team for potentially decisive traits ...

The NFL's postseason tournament has reached the final four, with a pair of No. 1 seeds battling No. 3s to represent the AFC and NFC in Super Bowl LVIII. Though all participants are regarded as elite teams, based on regular-season and playoff success, each one has strong suits and shortcomings. These factors will determine who wins on Championship Sunday -- and ultimately, who hoists the Lombardi Trophy in Las Vegas on Feb. 11.

Given some time to evaluate each roster ahead of the conference championship games, I've identified one key strength and weakness -- or trump card and Achilles' heel, if you will -- for each of the title contenders.

AFC Championship | 3 p.m. ET on CBS

Kansas City Chiefs
No. 3 seed · 13-6

TRUMP CARD: Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs enter Championship Sunday with a football version of Michael Jordan on their side. Mahomes is the game's ultimate winner, a two-time MVP with a pair of Super Bowl wins and three Super Bowl appearances under his belt from his first five years as a starter. He's chalked up wins in various ways as a dynamic gunslinger with the arm talent and athleticism to pick up first downs through the air or on the ground. 

Though the 2023 Chiefs' offense lacks the pizzazz that made this unit must-see TV in past seasons, when Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce were routinely lighting it up on the perimeter, Mahomes has found success utilizing a dink-and-dunk approach to drive the length of the field methodically. Whether making horizontal throws to Kelce and Rashee Rice on the perimeter or targeting running backs Isiah Pacheco and Clyde Edwards-Helaire on screens and dump-offs, the veteran has shown the ability to win shooting "twos" (ball-control offense), as opposed to always relying on "threes" (big plays). 

Given his sparkling résumé, particularly in the playoffs (SEE: 13-3 postseason record), it is hard to bet against Mahomes finding a way to win against any opponent. 

ACHILLES' HEEL: The dropsies. The Chiefs finished as the league leaders in drops with 34 dropped passes on 597 targets. That 5.7 percent drop rate explains the significant decline in the offense's overall efficiency and production, with the bobbles and gaffes prematurely ending drives. In addition, the receiving corps' inconsistencies have affected Mahomes' willingness to pull the trigger on the kind of tight-window throws that routinely produced big plays in the past. 

Though Rice and Marquez Valdes-Scantling have seemingly turned things around in the playoffs, Kansas City's receivers must be reliable targets for Kansas City to finish a back-to-back title run. How well they perform the most critical task of the position will largely determine whether the Chiefs are the last team standing. 

Baltimore Ravens
No. 1 seed · 14-4

TRUMP CARD: A mind-bending defense. Baltimore has smothered opponents this season, pulling off a rare defensive triple crown: ranking No. 1 in scoring D, sacks and takeaways. This disruptive unit was built to create chaos with clever schemes and overwhelming physicality, and the Ravens beat opponents down mentally and physically. Opposing play-callers and quarterbacks routinely struggle to adapt and adjust to the unit's tactics and tenacity. 

Savvy defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald will send extra rushers from any level, utilizing a combination of blitzes and simulated pressures to destroy blocking schemes. With a diverse collection of defenders making key contributions as opportunistic sack artists (SEE: Justin Madubuike, Jadeveon Clowney, Kyle Van Noy, Odafe Oweh, Patrick Queen and Kyle Hamilton), the Ravens' defensive brilliance is a combination of scheme and skill. Considering the unit's consistency throughout the season, Baltimore can count on the D to tilt the game in its favor. 

ACHILLES' HEEL: A vulnerable passing game. Despite the Ravens' success through the air in 2023, with Lamar Jackson playing at an MVP level, the efficiency and effectiveness of the team's aerial attack could determine whether it advances to Super Bowl LVIII. The talented WR corps features four former first-round picks (Zay Flowers, Odell Beckham Jr., Rashod Bateman and Nelson Agholor) with the speed and skill to scoot around defenders in space, but opponents have successfully challenged the group with aggressive "nose-to-nose" (bump-and-run) coverage designed to eliminate layups and free-access throws. Yes, tight end Mark Andrews -- a crucial element of the offense -- has recovered from an ankle injury and is set to play for the first time since Week 11. But even so, it's impossible to know how close to 100 percent he really is, and he might need a little time to shake off the rust.

If the Chiefs can pair tight-window tactics with an ultra-aggressive blitz plan that clogs every gap at the line of scrimmage, they could bog down a passing game that has flourished for most of the season. 

NFC Championship | 6:30 p.m. ET on FOX

Detroit Lions
No. 3 seed · 14-5

TRUMP CARD: The offensive line. The Lions are a rare team that can win utilizing force (running game) or finesse (aerial attack) on offense. Quarterback Jared Goff has the option of handing the ball off to a pair of stellar runners (Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery) or throwing to a reliable collection of playmakers with sticky hands and exceptional running skills. As dynamic offensive weapons with complementary games, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Jameson Williams and Sam LaPorta create big gains on various catch-and-run concepts over the middle of the field. 

While offensive coordinator Ben Johnson certainly deserves credit for crafting creative game plans that unlock the skills on the perimeter, the Lions' offensive line is the secret sauce that truly fuels their success. Offensive tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell and center Frank Ragnow consistently create clear running paths and fortress-like protection at the point of attack, enabling Goff and Co. to overwhelm opponents with their dynamism. 

ACHILLES' HEEL: The cornerbacks. The Lions' defensive backfield is loaded with opportunistic playmakers, but opponents have successfully attacked the unit on the edges. Quarterbacks have targeted Cameron Sutton and Kindle Vildor on vertical routes whenever they spot one-on-one coverage. Although the Lions have masked the secondary's deficiencies by featuring more zone-based schemes, the umbrella coverage cannot completely protect the unit from a barrage of throws directed outside of the numbers. 

Against the teams remaining in the playoff field, Detroit's CBs must hold their own on the perimeter. The Lions will likely need to utilize more zone blitzes to generate a pass rush, but the unit's ability to win their one-on-ones in coverage could determine whether the underdogs advance beyond Sunday.

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San Francisco 49ers
No. 1 seed · 13-5

TRUMP CARD: Kyle Shanahan. The best offensive play-caller in football resides in Santa Clara. Boasting a playbook loaded with exotic formations, shifts and schemes that befuddle defenders at every turn, Shanahan's unique approach makes the 49ers' attack nearly impossible to defend when it's humming. The combination of explosive runs and home-run throws stresses opponents ill-equipped to deal with deception, misdirection and physicality. 

With Brock Purdy routinely dropping dimes on in-breaking routes at intermediate range, the 49ers' offensive play-caller teases and torments opponents like a video gamer waxing challengers in a Madden tournament. Shanahan relentlessly attacks the defense's weaknesses, utilizing a series of old-school schemes and creative countertactics to get the job done. As a feisty tactician with a deep bag of tricks, the 49ers' head schemer gives his squad a significant advantage in the tournament. 

ACHILLES' HEEL: Run defense. The 49ers are lauded as the biggest bullies on the block due to their overwhelming physicality and toughness, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The star-studded front sets the tone with destructive pass rushers possessing high-revving motors ... but San Francisco has shown some vulnerabilities against teams committed to the ground game. Whether running to the edges or attacking between the tackles, opponents have successfully utilized ground-and-pound tactics to move the chains. 

Against the talented offensive lines remaining in the tournament, the 49ers' front seven will need to answer the bell to prevent opponents from adopting a keep-away strategy that shortens the game and turns it into a grind-it-out affair in the second half. Given the team's general lack of success in come-from-behind situations (with last week being a notable exception), San Francisco must find a way to snuff out the run to move forward as a title contender.

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