By: Lucas Kochevar
The final four in the NFL sees three familiar teams and one new one as the championship round is here. The AFC has a rematch between two of the best quarterbacks in the league, while the NFC features two very talented teams that have loaded rosters. The San Francisco 49ers come into Lincoln Financial Field after an ugly win over the Dallas Cowboys, while the Philadelphia Eagles man-handled the New York Giants. MVP candidate Jalen Hurts didn't have to exert his shoulder too much in the win, but he will have his hands full this week against a tough 49ers defense. Rookie quarterback Brock Purdy will also have battle against a very stout Eagles defense, especially at cornerback with Darius Slay and James Bradberry. In the AFC, Joe Burrow will take his stellar play into Kansas City for a rematch of the 2022 AFC Championship Although Patrick Mahomes suffered a brutal high ankle sprain in Saturdays win over the Jaguars, he plans to play through the pain.
"X-Rays were negative, they haven't diagnosed anything yet," Mahomes said to Melissa Starks, "I'll be good to go."
Andy Reid later iterated that they would take a day-by-day approach, but it's hard to imagine that Mahomes will miss this highly anticipated matchup. In this volume LK League Notes, I'll be previewing and predicting the AFC and NFC Championship games.
NFC Championship: Philadelphia Eagles vs San Francisco 49ers
These two have only met in the playoffs once before, back in 1996, where Steve Young led the Niners to a 14-0 win in the wild card round. The intensity will be turned up a notch as the teams are vying for a spot in the Super Bowl. The Eagles have been a powerhouse all season, however, they haven't seen a team like San Francisco yet. The Kyle Shanahan-led Niners have been in big games before, but their rookie quarterback has never seen an environment like this. Purdy's success hinges big time on the run game and if the Eagles have a chink in their armor, it's their run defense. They rank in the dead middle of the league at 16th, where the Niners are ranked 7th in the league at pounding the rock. The way the Niners play with the play-action pass also needs the run game to at least be threatening. They struggled in the first half last week and their offense didn't look the same, but when they had that offense moving in the second half it was based off the run game with Christian McCaffery and Elijah Mitchell. As much as I love Purdy, the less he does, the better.
On the other side, the Eagles offensive line versus the Niners defensive line is the matchup to watch. The Eagles have three pro bowlers along their offensive line, while the Niners have Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead on the edge. Tons of talent in the trenches should make this battle between units very exciting for someone that loves watching football. How the Eagles look all predicates on how Jalen Hurts looks. The reports all state that Hurts is healthy, but I find it hard to believe. I think his shoulder slows him down from running, because he doesn't want to take big hits. Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner will be X-factors for the Niners because their speed should limit how far Hurts can go outside the pocket. If the Eagles win this game, I think it'll be a blowout and they'll jump out fast on the Niners, but to quote the great Lee Corso, 'Not so fast my friend!' I think the Niners will win this game ugly as they have the past couple of weeks. The Eagles haven't been in many close games this year and I think that experience will comeback to bite them as the Niners will be more ready towards the end of the game.
San Francisco 49ers 23, Philadelphia Eagles 16
AFC Championship: Kansas City Chiefs vs Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals are putting all the bulletin board material out there for Kansas City as they're calling Arrowhead stadium, 'Burrowhead' and Eli Apple just constantly has a elephant-sized target on his back. The Chiefs are hoping that Mahomes will be ready and the Bengals are riding some great momentum they have. The Chiefs feel like they're on their heels coming into the game and that makes me worried for how the Bengals may be preparing in to this game. If they get ahead of themselves, it could be dangerous. Even if Mahomes isn't 100%, he's a generational quarterback. The Chiefs offense will likely need to adjust how they play the game normally with Mahomes hurt. It'll be a lot of quick, stationary throws and they'll have to run the ball somewhat effectively. The Bengals have been able to slow down the Chiefs enough these past two seasons and I think they can do it again with a Chiefs team that's worse than the one they played a year ago.
The Joe Burrow hype has been mounting tremendously over the past two seasons, but honestly, I don't think we've seen his best in the playoffs yet. Last season, he wasn't a stone cold killer in those games because of how his offensive line played. These playoffs, he's been solid but it felt like he hasn't completely taken over a game for four quarters. This Sunday could be the game that really propels his legacy forward, because having two Super Bowl appearances in your first two years is a fantastic accomplishment that hasn't been done by many guys. With all that being said, I think the Bengals matchup really well on the perimeter, but the trenches is where they could lose this game. Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones is a game-wrecker and with their injury woes, the Bengals will need to be able to double him with success. In the end, I think the Chiefs will be too inhibited with Mahomes' injury and the Bengals offense will keep clicking to the Super Bowl.
Cincinnati Bengals 27, Kansas City Chiefs 13
LK's Lock of the Week: Cincinnati Bengals +1.5 at Kansas City Chiefs
For many of the same reasons I listed above, I love the Bengals this week. This line has swung back-and-fourth a ton this week as they Bengals were 3-pt favorites at the beginning and now the Chiefs are favorites. I think this latest line is because the media managed to get the video of Mahomes working out. I think the Bengals weapons on offense are all in-sync with Burrow to another level this year and even Joe Mixon looked really good last week. If they can get one of their starters back on the offensive line, I love their chances. On defense, I think defensive end Trey Hendrickson can cause enough problems for Mahomes and the Bengals secondary should be able to hold up against a decent receiving core. Travis Kelce should be the main focus for their safeties because they can't let the Mahomes-Kelce connection get going. I also have a future with the Bengals and Niners meeting in the Super Bowl, so I will be heavily rooting that way. We only have three games of football left until next season, so make sure to cherish these games.
Sources: Albert Breer, twitter.com/AlbertBreer/status/1616959967545671682, photo via Kevin Sabitus, Getty Images