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Hawks in the NFL - Conference Championship Weekend

And then there was one.

NFC Championship - Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

We are through the NFC and AFC Championship Games and now it’s down to the Super Bowl. Let’s go!

Geno Stone and Tyler Linderbaum

The season comes to an end a round early for the Ravens, as they lost to the defending champion Chiefs, 17-10, in Baltimore. Stone recorded one tackle while Linderbaum started at center again. This was an odd showing from Baltimore - they had all of the energy sucked out of the building right away due to a 3-and-out to start, then an 86-yard drive that sucked nearly 6 minutes off the clock as KC took an early lead. Baltimore tied the game on the next drive, but the Chiefs seemingly kept the Ravens at arms length for the remainder of the game.

Stone had a spectacular year, as did Linderbaum. Stone finished the season with 68 tackles and 7 interceptions. His 7 interceptions were second in the NFL this year. Meanwhile, Linderbaum finished the season with a 78.3 overall grade on Pro Football Focus, while allowing zero sacks and only getting called for four penalties all season. He collected the first Pro Bowl nod of his career.

George Kittle, Sam LaPorta, Jack Campbell, and Matt Nelson

Now for the main event, as former Hawks had their fingerprints all over this game.

We’ll start with Detroit, who made their first NFC Championship Game appearance since 1991. Detroit rushed to a 24-7 halftime lead, decimating the Niners defense along the way. But some disastrous drops and curious coaching cost the Lions as the Niners staged a huge comeback to win, 34-31, and advance to the Super Bowl for the eighth time in franchise history and a shot to avenge their loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.

LaPorta, playing with a big brace on his knee, finished with 9 receptions for 97 yards. On the other side of the ball, Campbell finished with 7 tackles. Everyone is calling out Dan Campbell and the drops, but there is another side of the coin here, and that’s the Detroit defense. After bottling the 49er offense up in the first half, they had no way of stopping San Francisco once things started rolling, as the 49ers went on a 27-0 second half run to seize control of the game.

LaPorta finished his rookie season with 86 receptions for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns. In the playoffs he had 21 receptions for 176 yards and a score in the Wild Card win over the Los Angeles Rams. Campbell’s rookie season ended with 95 tackles and 2 sacks, plus another 15 tackles in the postseason.

I neglected Nelson during Detroit’s playoff run, but he’s been on IR since the early stages of the year so I didn’t mention him. He was Detroit’s swing offensive lineman early on, but injury sidelined him for the vast majority of the season.

On the other sideline, Kittle pulled down only 2 catches on 3 targets for 27 yards. His blocking was crucial though, as he frequently handled players like Aidan Hutchinson and yes, even Campbell.

Real quick on Dan Campbell and this fun as hell Detroit season. I love him and the culture he’s established in Detroit. It was a mess for decades and he (along with front office and great personnel) has turned the ship. It’s a remarkable and quick rebuild. They’ve drafted well, the Stafford trade is one of those rare deals that has gone about as well as possible for both sides - Rams win a Super Bowl so it still edges to them, but Detroit is competitive and is set up with a window of their own (I can’t believe I just wrote that the Detroit Lions have a possible championship window) - found a good coach, established a better culture...the future is actually bright in Detroit.

Campbell is hyper aggressive, brought up under Sean Payton, and as Kevin Clark of ESPN tweeted after the game, you don’t abandon who you are when things get scary. If you do, you’re just Brandon Staley. Too true! They had a fantastic conversion rate on 4th and 3 or less in plus territory all year, so a lot of the decisions to go for it instead of kicking field goals is who they are as an organization.

Incredibly, field goal decisions weren’t the worst gaffes of the day (Detroit’s success rate on 4th and 3 or less was extraordinarily high this year, so even though 3 points felt like the better call, that’s who Detroit’s been all year, plus Detroit’s kicker is shaky). The last decision is the most egregious, going for a touchdown on Detroit’s final drive instead of taking a field goal earlier in the possessions (and preserving a timeout). Calling a draw to David Montgomery on third and goal is the worst single play of the bunch by some distance, as that effectively ended the game. Detroit had to burn a timeout after the play, when they could’ve passed on third down and if they didn’t get the touchdown, they could have kicked the field goal - an actual chip shot that time. That all meant Detroit had to recover an onside kick to stay alive, a near impossibility in today’s NFL. The recovery rate on onside kicks is absurdly low - if I tailed this correctly, there were only 2 successful onside kicks in 41 attempts this year, a conversion rate of just 4.9 percent. It was highly unlikely they’d recover. Detroit didn’t recover (the kick was actually a good one but the Lions were hit with an illegal touching penalty as the ball hadn’t gone 10 yards, so it wouldn’t have mattered), and didn’t get the ball back as Brock Purdy took a knee as time expired on the final snap.

Then again, when Josh Reynolds drops a 4th and 2 with 7:03 left in the third quarter, what looks like a sure interception bounces off the facemask of the corner and right into the hands of Brandon Aiyuk and San Francisco scores immediately thereafter to make it a one-score game, your otherwise-excellent rookie running back runs to the wrong side of Jared Goff for a hand off and fumbles on your first play of scrimmage after San Francisco cut it to 7 and the game is suddenly tied 4 plays later...it’s never Detroit’s year, but when that sequence happens in 4:01 of game time? Yeah, not your year.

All of this leaves Kittle as the sole remaining Iowa player in the 2024 season, with Super Bowl LVIII coming up in Las Vegas in two weeks.