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Four Verts: Savvy rookie picks helped Lions get to NFC championship game. So ... my bad on that 'F' NFL Draft grade

Three games left in the 2023 NFL season. There’s a lot to discuss as conference championship weekend approaches, but first, an infamous draft grade made by yours truly must be dissected.

Whoops! Sorry about that draft grade, Detroit

Time to repent.

Back in April 2023 following the 2023 NFL Draft, I, in all my infinite wisdom, gave the Detroit Lions an “F” for their 2023 draft haul. That was abhorrently incorrect and one of the few draft grades that can be labeled as horrifically wrong less than one year after a draft.

Normally, people like to wait a couple years before revisiting a draft take or a draft grade, but the Band Aid can be ripped off here. Not only did the Lions' draft not end in a catastrophe, they have several rookies show up as high-impact players to start their careers in a season the Lions made it to the NFC championship game.

Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs (26) rushes for a touchdown chased by Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) in the second half during an NFL divisional round playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Drafting Jahmyr Gibbs — a running back! — with the 12th overall pick didn't doom the Lions after all. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Jahmyr Gibbs, Sam LaPorta, Brian Branch. All studs. It’s simply not possible for that to be an “F” grade when some teams throw entire drafts down the drain.

I definitely disagreed with some of the players they selected, but my biggest point of contention was that they were in the unique spot of being a winning team that also had the draft capital to trade up for a franchise quarterback if they were interested. They originally held the sixth and 18th picks in the draft, and it was clear they were going to need to move up to the third pick if they wanted to have a chance to select a rookie QB to groom behind Jared Goff — in this case, it would have been current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson.

Goff is a quality quarterback who has now shown in two different spots that he can produce with talent around him and be a QB for teams with championship aspirations. Goff has played in a Super Bowl and has a chance to reach another with a road upset of the 49ers this weekend. I thought the Lions might want to get ahead of the cycle where they eventually look for someone better because they had the assets to make that move without taking a cleaver to their future draft picks.

Whomp, whomp, whomp. Loud and wrong. As head coach Dan Campbell recently said, “You’re good enough for f***ing Detroit, Jared Goff.”

Goff has his flaws, but he will be able to command a lucrative contract extension, stabilizing the Lions at the most important position in the sport. He’ll still need the buoyancy of a strong running game, but the Lions' ability to run the ball won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, even if offensive coordinator Ben Johnson leaves this offseason for a head-coaching job. They have arguably the best offensive line in the sport and two talented running backs — including Gibbs — to lean on.

There are plenty of arguments to be had about the merits of taking a running back with a top-12 pick, but it doesn’t matter much now because Gibbs is good and they’re within a championship window. His next contract, which could be a big one, is a subject that can be discussed a few years from now. The selection of linebacker Jack Campbell looks rough right now, but the Lions can live with a pick like that after nailing all the other premium selections.

I will probably be loud and wrong again, but it’s important to note mistakes when you’re catastrophically wrong so you can learn from your errors. I probably won’t, but it’s a nice thought to have.

49ers-Lions has legitimate shootout potential

San Francisco is back in the NFC championship game for the third straight postseason, led by its offense filled with superheroes and capable of scoring on anyone. The Lions are here for the first time in over 30 years, also led by an offense that can score points in bunches.

These teams are set to play in a game that could very well light up the scoreboard based on their offenses — and defenses that don’t appear to match well on paper with what each offense brings.

San Francisco is overwhelming on offense. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has arguably been the best play-caller in football for the past decade and his offense is full of playmakers. Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel make up the most talented group of skill players in the league. Brock Purdy is a quarterback who has shown he’s capable of executing the offense in a manner that allows these players to shine in most of their games. Even when Purdy struggled against the Packers last week, the Niners were able to lean on their playmakers to drag them across the finish line.

Samuel’s status for the game isn’t known just yet, but even without him the 49ers should be able to score because the Lions' defense isn’t all that good. According to RBSDM.com, the Lions ranked 21st in expected points added per play on defense (-0.008) and they struggled over the back half of the season. They don’t have too many defensive studs to be worried about, especially for an offense that’s as deep and talented as San Francisco. If the 49ers can survive the Lions putting Aidan Hutchinson all over the defensive line, they should have a chance to put up big points.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy (13) hands off the ball to running back Christian McCaffrey (23) during an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Expect Brock Purdy, Christian McCaffrey and the 49ers' offense to light up the scoreboard on Sunday against the Lions. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

The Lions' game plan for the week should be clear: run the damn ball.

The 49ers have an extremely talented defensive line, but they can be had in the run game. The double-edged sword of an aggressive, penetrating defensive line is that it can leave lanes wide open in its attempts to get up the field. That plays into the hands of Detroit’s dominant offensive line and the Lions' ability to run the ball in a variety of manners. Their success on the ground and with play-action will be paramount because they don’t want to be in the position of playing a dropback passing game against Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead and the rest of the 49ers’ pass rushers. Stick with the main plan.

If the Lions can stay ahead of schedule, run the ball efficiently and pick up chunks off of play-action, they’ll have the chance to keep up with a 49ers offense that has a major talent advantage over their defense. Easier said than done, but this is a legitimate avenue for the Lions to score.

A shootout is on the horizon, which should make for a compelling end to intraconference play for the 2023 season.

Patrick Mahomes may be facing the toughest test he’s faced all season

This season is all about climbing mountains for Mahomes. He figured out how to make an unsteady offense have an explosive outburst at the perfect time to advance to the AFC championship game. He now faces what might be the toughest test of his career. Going to Baltimore is no joke, especially with the defense that coordinator Mike Macdonald has built over the past two seasons. There isn’t much that Mahomes can really add to his legacy at this point outside of Super Bowl titles, but a road win in Baltimore en route to another Super Bowl appearance would be quite the feat.

Just ask the Houston Texans how different the Baltimore defense is. Houston absolutely shredded the Cleveland Browns’ stingy defense in the wild-card round before scoring three offensive points against the Ravens last weekend. They struggled to run the ball, play on schedule in any manner and they would have suffered an immense amount of negative plays if they didn’t have C.J. Stroud under center. This is a different beast than what Mahomes and the Chiefs faced last weekend against the Buffalo Bills. The Ravens are just about as healthy as they can be on defense and have an overall talent level that dwarfs their Kansas City counterparts.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (24) in action during the second half of an NFL football AFC divisional playoff game against the Houston Texans, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Ravens linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (24) is a key contributor for Baltimore's ferocious defense. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Based on what has been displayed this season, the Chiefs are at a severe offensive disadvantage, but they have the magic elixir of Mahomes magic that has kept them Super Bowl-relevant in a season when things looked dicey at many points. It’s a testament to how insanely dominant Mahomes is as a player that they have a chance to score on a defense like Baltimore’s. Mahomes has earned a reputation that’s impossible to doubt at this point, even when the circumstances are unfavorable.

Luckily, Mahomes has a fantastic defense of his own to take into this game, and that group will have its hands full trying to keep soon-to-be two-time MVP Lamar Jackson under wraps. The Chiefs might be able to slow Jackson down, but it’s up to Mahomes to execute enough on offense to make sure the Chiefs can win and advance to their fourth Super Bowl since Mahomes took over as the starter in 2018.

Mahomes won his first road playoff game of his career last weekend and now has the chance to do something more incredible. Take down the MVP. Take down the best defense in football. Advance. This is a legacy moment for Mahomes that can only add to the mythmaking that he has deservedly earned.

One more game for the titan of the AFC to show everyone that this is his conference and his league. If he can lead the Chiefs past the Ravens, it’ll be impossible to ever had doubt in him for the foreseeable future.

The Bills are facing an offseason of change, but it shouldn’t include Sean McDermott

Another loss to the Chiefs in the playoffs, another season for the Bills cut short. As the Chiefs and the Ravens fight for a chance to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, the Bills are heading face-first into an offseason that’s going to feature a fair amount of change and turnover.

According to Spotrac, the Bills are projected to be $43 million over the allotted 2024 salary cap, which means some significant changes are coming to become cap-compliant. That may come at the cost of several talented veterans as they tweak the roster. Stefon Diggs, Tre’Davious White, Von Miller and others will be discussed in the coming weeks, but the head man running the show, head coach Sean McDermott, should be safe.

It’s easy to understand why some Bills fans might be upset with McDermott. They’ve been stuck in the divisional round for several years with some terrible gaffes against the Chiefs in the playoffs. There have been coaches who lose their jobs over playoff failures, but McDermott has managed to stay employed throughout the struggles. This makes sense, as it’s difficult to find coaches who are as good as McDermott at piecing together a team.

Think about all the injuries that the Bills had to power through to get to this moment. White, Matt Milano, Daquan Jones all either missed the season or significant time. They had other defenders deal with ailments to the point where the defensive depth chart became jumbled toward the end of the season. Still, the Bills played some quality defense until they ran into the Chiefs. That’s a very difficult thing to coordinate and that mostly falls back on McDermott’s abilities.

There have been blunders along the way. The offensive coordinator switch from Ken Dorsey to Joe Brady largely ended up fine, but it’s hard to not feel like the Bills left some juice to squeeze from their passing game later in the season. They could probably stand to go for some outside voices as far as offensive coordinator is concerned, unless they keep things rolling with Brady.

It might help the Bills to have stability on their coaching staff as they deal with the next iteration of what this team looks like with Allen at the helm. McDermott should keep his job, but he’s going to have to put together a deep playoff run soon enough. Josh Allen is good enough at QB and needs to deliver in the next postseason. It would just be hard to find someone who has done as good a job as McDermott in adverse situations.