What To Watch For In The NFL’s Conference Championship Games
If this weekend’s conference championship games feel as if they were predestined, it’s no accident. In fact, many prognosticators projected a version of this for these four teams — the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC and the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC — as the season began. That means we could be in for an outstanding weekend of games between the very cream of the NFL’s crop.
In the NFC, this is a matchup of the conference’s top offense (the Eagles) versus its top defense (the 49ers). Philadelphia played like the NFL’s best team all season behind their Most Valuable Player award finalist Jalen Hurts at quarterback. However, uncertainty crept in as Hurts injured his shoulder late in the season (and his replacement, Gardner Minshew, appeared to be in over his head). Nonetheless, when Hurts returned from injury he regained the form that made Philadelphia one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Somehow, being injured and missing games only solidified his MVP case — only in his absence did we see just how valuable he truly is.
Hurts is protected up front by arguably the NFL’s best offensive line — they ranked first in ProFootballFocus’s pass-blocking grade and third in run-blocking — led by center Jason Kelce, who could find himself in Canton when his career concludes. And when given enough time, Hurts has been able to efficiently get the ball to his dynamic wide receivers. DeVonta Smith had 1,196 yards on the season while his teammate A.J. Brown had 1,496. But the Eagles also have a well-balanced offensive attack. Running back Miles Sanders was fifth in the NFL in rushing yardage this season, eclipsing the 1,200-yard mark, and he wasn’t even the team’s leading rusher in the divisional round win over the rival New York Giants (that would be third-stringer Kenneth Gainwell, showcasing just how much depth Philly’s offense has). The Eagles also have the best defense by yards per game allowed, anchored by an elite pass-rusher in 2023 Pro Bowler Haason Reddick. And on the back end, they boast what most would consider the league’s best secondary with Darius Slay, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and James Bradberry — all considered in the upper tier at their respective positions in the NFL.
Lest you think the Eagles are alone in their across-the-board strength, the 49ers similarly boast a healthy balance of efficient offense paired with an exceptional defense. San Francisco sets the tone for its top-ranked defense by dominating the line of scrimmage. The Niners’ ability to generate pressure with their front four affords defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans great schematic flexibility. (And his ability to effectively implement his scheme is part of what has made him a hot head-coaching candidate this offseason.) It also helps to have one of the league’s premier pass rushers in Nick Bosa, who led the NFL in sacks this season. At the second level, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are a formidable linebacking tandem and compliment each other’s style of play as well as any pair in the league. San Francisco’s secondary is solid — Charvarius Ward, signed from K.C., has been their most consistent cornerback, and Jimmie Ward continues to be a leader on defense — while 2023 Pro Bowler Talanoa Hufanga has been a breakout star.
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Offensively, do-everything running back Christian McCaffrey has arguably been one of the best mid-season acquisitions in NFL history, when considering his immediate impact on a Super Bowl-caliber team. He brings another dynamic dimension for one of the league’s preeminent play-callers, Kyle Shanahan, in what will be a matchup of teams with more similarities than differences. This game might come down to how well rookie seventh-round pick Brock Purdy can continue to play under center. San Francisco’s offense hasn’t missed a beat with Purdy at the helm. Purdy is undefeated since taking over as starter. He continues to manage the game and get the ball into the hands of the team’s best playmakers.
But given how strong both teams are in all facets of the game, this is likely to be a hard-fought game. The FiveThirtyEight model gives the Eagles a 59 percent chance of winning at home and advancing to the Super Bowl, and I don’t disagree with the idea of a narrow Philly victory.
If the NFC championship is a tale of two of the NFL’s best defenses, the AFC championship could very well be a showdown between the league’s most prolific offenses.
The Bengals were the Cinderella story of 2021: In what was believed to be a “make or break” year for head coach Zac Taylor, all he did was guide Cincinnati to knock off the team that was favored to return to the Super Bowl, en route to Cincy’s own appearance in the Big Game. You’d think the Bengals would not sneak up on anyone again, but they upset another team considered the Super Bowl favorite this year — the Buffalo Bills — when Buffalo seemed poised for a huge win at home. The NFL even pre-sold over 50,000 tickets for a potential neutral-site AFC championship game between K.C. and Buffalo before the outcome of the Bills-Bengals game had been decided.
Last week’s win over Buffalo solidified the notion that Cincinnati has indeed found its franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow. Affectionately nicknamed “Joe Cool” for his unflappable demeanor, particularly in big games, he has led his Bengals to three consecutive victories over the Chiefs (including the postseason). He also has help: The Bengals’ offensive line, which has been an Achilles’ heel of sorts in the past, has played much better this season than last, when Burrow was sacked more than any QB in the NFL. The line could be missing as many as three starters heading into the AFC title game, but it has played its best down the stretch in 2022. Plus, Burrow has helped the protection some by getting the ball out more quickly to his dynamic weapons Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Ja’Marr Chase. And Joe Mixon continues to run the ball effectively, helping give this team balance offensively.
Mixon is key to the Bengals’ chances, as they will need to maintain an effective running game to ultimately keep the Kansas City offense on the sideline. Defending the prolific Chiefs offense will be a tall task for a Cincinnati pass defense that has been somewhat inconsistent this season. The Chiefs are led by a trio that are all but certain future Hall of Famers: coach Andy Reid, tight end Travis Kelce and possible two-time NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes.1 Mahomes orchestrates the wildly innovative Chiefs offense and all of their talented weapons. Rookie seventh-round draft pick Isiah Pacheco runs with a type of physicality that is a healthy complement to the Chiefs’ finesse passing game. Receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster offer a bigger physical presence, in contrast to the smaller “race car” types of Skyy Moore, Kadarius Toney and Mecole Hardman. And tight end Kelce is a matchup nightmare for defenders between the numbers.
For these reasons, the Chiefs are nearly impossible to consistently stop while at full strength. But it’s important to note that Kansas City’s most important player may not be fully healthy for Sunday’s game — Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain early in K.C.’s divisional win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. While the Chiefs’ QB says he will be “ready to go” for the game against Cincinnati, there are lingering questions about how much the injury will limit Mahomes’ trademark mobility and ability to make plays with both his arm and legs.
In large part because of those injury concerns, the Chiefs might even be considered underdogs in this game according to the Vegas oddsmakers. (The game is listed as a toss-up now, but Cincinnati had been favored earlier in the week.) With all the talk that the Bengals have overtaken the Chiefs as the prettiest girl at the AFC dance, you can be assured that Reid will have his team motivated and ready to play. Since Mahomes is expected to start,2 the FiveThirtyEight model has K.C. installed as 58 percent favorites, and I personally would not be surprised if the Chiefs win by convincing margin.
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