Three most valuable players heading into conference championship games

Jackson, Purdy and McCaffrey have a lot to prove on Sunday; who is MVP worthy?

Lamar Jackson drops back to pass against the Texans in an AFC Divisional Playoff game.
Lamar Jackson drops back to pass against the Texans in an AFC Divisional Playoff game. / Kirby Lee/GettyImages
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The five finalists have been announced for the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award. Three of them are playing in conference championship games on Sunday. Lamar Jackson will lead the Baltimore Ravens against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game, while Brock Purdy and Christian McCaffrey and their San Francisco teammates play host to the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game.

Jackson had a superstar year for the Ravens, who are the number one seed in the AFC and who finished with a 13-4 record. Jackson, who hails from Florida, but played collegiately and won a Heisman Trophy at Louisville, threw for 3,678 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also ran for 821 yards and scored an additional five touchdowns.

He is the odds on favorite to win the MVP award in two weeks in Las Vegas at the annual NFL Honors event.

McCaffrey, who the 49ers obtained last season from Carolina, led the league with 1,459 rushing yards and also accumulated 2,023 total yards from scrimmage. He tied Miami's Raheem Mostert with a total of 21 touchdowns on the season.

As McCaffrey goes, so goes the 49ers. When McCaffrey can run the ball successfully, or catch the ball out of the backfield, it draws the defense in and often finds eight defenders in the box. That allows Purdy to victimize the defense with weapons like Deebo Samuel on the flank.

Look for the 49ers to feed the ball to McCaffrey early and often to draw in the Lions defense and allow Purdy to beat you with ball control and be the game manager that many members of the media have referred to him as.

Brock Purdy
San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy against the Packers last week in an NFC Divisional Playoff game at home / Ryan Kang/GettyImages

Purdy comes into the game as a longshot to win the MVP award, but it does not discount his importance to the 49ers offense. Purdy is in his second year as a starter, but this was the first season that he came into training camp as "the guy".

He came in last season as Mr. Irrelevant when he was the last pick in the NFL Draft out of Iowa State and was amazed just to make the roster. When Jimmy Garoppolo went down with an injury against the Miami Dolphins, he took over the reins to the high-powered 49ers offense. When the 2022 season was over, Garoppolo was sent packing and Purdy was anointed as the incumbent starter.

Purdy amassed 4,280 yards throwing the ball and tossed 31 touchdowns to lead San Francisco to the number one seed in the NFC. Purdy relies on the short passes into the flat and on the edges to set up the long ball. It is no surprise that Purdy got better, statistically, when McCaffrey came over from the Panthers mid-season in 2022.

McCaffrey must be able to run the ball effectively against the Lions early, to take the long vertical game away from Purdy and allow him to be the reliable short pass, game manager that he really is.