And then there were four.
We are fast approaching the conference championship games that determine who will play for the Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl LIV. Many will be quick to send the Niners and Chiefs to the big dance -- and their placement on this week's Power Rankings tells you that I concur. But this game will shock and humble you -- just ask the Ravens, whose run atop the NFL and these here rankings ended in an instant.
NOTE: The previous rankings referenced in the lineup below are from the Divisional Round Power Rankings.
What a dominant display by the 49ers on Saturday. The Vikings went into Levi's Stadium riding a wave of momentum after knocking off the mighty Saints the week prior, but it took less than a half to understand Minnesota was completely out of its depth against this conference superpower. The Niners allowed just 147 yards of total offense and piled up 186 yards on the ground. They tripled the Vikings in first downs (21 to 7) and held the ball for more than 38 minutes of game time. In other words, it was the perfect playoff performance, the combination of game plan and execution that has won Super Bowls for decades. Can the Niners replicate the formula against the Packers? If you're Kyle Shanahan, I imagine you're feeling pretty confident, based on the last time these two teams played. The Packers deserve respect, but the Niners are a smart pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Goodness gracious. The Chiefs spotted the Texans 24 points, then ripped off 41 unanswered in a 51-31 win at Arrowhead. People tend to throw around the word "unique" where it doesn't apply, but that descriptor fits here: The Chiefs became the first team in NFL history, regular season or playoffs, to trail by 24 or more points in the first half and have the lead entering halftime. They became the only team since the 1970 NFL merger to score a TD on seven straight drives in a playoff game. Patrick Mahomes led the offense to 51 points in 32 game minutes! Arrowhead Stadium ran out of damn fireworks! It's the most memorable blowout win since the Seahawks molly-whopped the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Credit goes to the entire Chiefs operation, coaches and players: They looked death in the eyes ... then socked it in the gut and tossed it into a volcano.
We have our Cinderella entry to the dance. The Titans become the first team since the 2010 Jets and Packers to enter the playoffs as a No. 6 seed and reach the conference championship game. They did it by bullying the mighty Ravens, who were the consensus favorite win it all when the postseason began. This was a total team effort: The defense forced Lamar Jackson into three killer turnovers, Ryan Tannehill threw two huge early touchdown passes (despite a second straight sub-100-yard passing performance) and Derrick Henry continued to rule the world with another dominant effort. Henry went off for 195 yards on 30 carries -- plus a pretty jump-pass TD -- in his role as a Mariano Rivera-level closer. If Henry keeps rampaging against the Chiefs, we'll look at his January surge as the running back equivalent of what Larry Fitzgerald did at the wide receiver position in the 2008 playoffs. Hall of Fame stuff.
It was good to see Aaron Rodgers do the damn thing on this stage again. Two money third-and-long conversions late in the fourth quarter -- the first to Davante Adams, then the game-clincher to Jimmy Graham -- was the type of magic we'll remember Rodgers for when his Hall of Fame career draws to a close. The half-glass-empty view here is that the Green Bay offense should have planted the dagger in Seattle sooner after rolling up 28 points in the first three quarters, but Rodgers -- like he has all season -- got vital help from the defense with the game on the line. Preston Smith's third-down sack of Wilson with 3:18 to play forced Seattle to punt and gave Rodgers the opportunity to close it out. The Packers don't have the firepower of the Chiefs, the defense of the Niners or the rolling momentum of the Titans, but this team finds a way. The 14-3 record is proof of that.
The Ravens' remarkable season ends with one of the most shocking early playoff exits in recent NFL history. Baltimore played like a team in complete control of its destiny for three months, then lost all jurisdiction when it mattered most. CBS cameras captured the Ravens on tilt, down double-digits before they realized what hit them, then reduced to blind hope that their young superstar quarterback could save them from disaster. Lamar Jackson had 59 pass attempts and 20 rushes -- an almost-comical level of over-reliance that generated absurd production (508 yards in total) but didn't come close to achieving the desired effect of bringing John Harbaugh's team back from the abyss. The future remains bright, but the 2019 Ravens' fate is ultimately that of a cautionary tale: Even a truly great regular-season team (and Baltimore was one of the best ever) can be rendered vulnerable, and ultimately irrelevant, over the course of 3.5 hours in January.
Seattle came close. Jacob Hollister almost scored a touchdown to beat the 49ers in the regular-season finale, and Lano Hill almost tackled Jimmy Graham short of the first-down marker against the Packers. The Seahawks lost the game of inches in both cases, and now they're sitting at home because of it. "That's how close it is sometimes," Pete Carroll said after Sunday's game. "We have to make those inches become yards on our side and do better in a lot of ways." Moving forward, the Seahawks need to get better on defense, a unit that struggled to get to the quarterback or cover in the back end (hello, Davante Adams). Will they shell out big bucks to keep Jadeveon Clowney? He's one of the only Seahawks defenders who made life difficult for Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, but he's also a constant injury risk who will command a huge payday. A significant asset-allocation decision looms for John Schneider.
There was nothing pleasant about the butt-whipping administered by the 49ers on Saturday afternoon, but at least the Vikings aren't left wondering how life could have been different if they'd made one play here or a different decision there. When you manage seven first downs in four quarters, mystery is not on the menu. Minnesota is clearly a rung or two beneath superpower status -- the crucial next step is finding out how to close the gap. Kirk Cousins was unable to build off the narrative-crushing heroics of his overtime performance against the Saints, while Dalvin Cook was stuck in the mud against a Niners defense that was supposed to be vulnerable against the run. We have no idea how Adam Thielen even played in the game with an exposed Achilles tendon (yuck). First up for Mike Zimmer is sorting out his coaching staff: Defensive coordinator George Edwards (team decision) and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski (new Browns head coach) must be replaced.
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for Bill O'Brien's postgame comments to his players after Sunday's 51-31 loss to the Chiefs. Something tells me the Texans' social team won't be parting with that footage any time soon. Houston became the first team in NFL history -- like, ever -- to build a 24-0 lead in the first half and then find itself trailing when it went to the locker room at the break. Things only got worse from there during a torrent of 41 unanswered points by Kansas City. The defense -- which needs a major facelift -- surrendered seven consecutive touchdown drives at one point. J.J. Watt -- a hero savior a week earlier -- had his lunch handed to him by Chiefs tackle Mitchell Schwartz. What does this loss mean for defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel? For O'Brien? The Texans won the AFC South and a playoff game this season -- but not all season-ending losses are created equal.