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NFL: Conference championship weekend primer

Conference championship Sunday is here, and the two matchups on deck - Eagles vs. 49ers and Chiefs vs. Bengals - are about as mouth-watering as it gets. 

This article was originally published on 2/1/2023.

Intriguing coaching matchups, 17 first- or second-team All-Pro selections, established veterans vs. playoff newcomers, injuries to monitor – it’ll all be on display inside two of the NFL’s loudest stadiums and under the microscope of the nation this Sunday evening. 

Here we discuss the storylines, trends, players, and coaches that will decide which two teams advance to 2023 NFL Championship.

WhatSan Francisco 49ers @ Philadelphia Eagles
WhereLincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
When3:00 ET, Sunday, January 29th 2023
How to watchFox, Streaming via FuboTV
OddsSF 49ers +130, PHI Eagles -150
WhatCincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs
WhereArrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
When6:30 ET, Sunday, January 29th, 2023
How to watchCBS, Streaming via Paramount+
OddsCIN Bengals +105, KC Chiefs -125

Mahomes’ ankle 

It is no secret the health of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes will dictate how Sunday afternoon’s AFC Championship game goes. 

Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of last weekend’s Divisional Round win vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars, forcing him to miss a drive and to wear a walking boot after the game. 

Despite a worrisome initial reaction from the media and fans, Mahomes has been practicing regularly since Wednesday and was seen walking without a limp. Injury specialists and former players – including ex-Cowboys QB and CBS color commentator Tony Romo – have voiced how ankle sprains can still hamper a player a week later, so it’s unlikely Mahomes is anywhere near 100 percent on Sunday.

The true test will be when Mahomes attempts to make plays outside the pocket. The Chiefs relied on his special playmaking ability to get to this point, and should his mobility be limited on Sunday, so will the Kansas City offense.

Look for how well the Chiefs QB is moving early on in the game – if he’s staying in the pocket, playing extra conservative, or avoiding taking off running, the injury could be enough to severely limit the offense.

The ‘trenches’

Nearly 1,200 miles east of Arrowhead Stadium, one the most talent-stacked, physical games of the 2022/23 NFL season will take place. 

The offensive firepower that will be on display in Sunday night’s NFC Championship between the Eagles and 49ers is silly. Jalen Hurts, Christian McCaffrey, A.J. Brown, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle – all considered among the top athletes at their positions in the league – will grace Lincoln Financial Field. In total, 10 first-team All-Pro selections will partake in this one.

Forget the flash, though. This game will be decided in the trenches. 

These two teams have arguably the best combination of offensive and defensive lines in the league. Per PFF, the Eagles offensive line, led by C Jason Kelce and RT Lane Johnson, was the top o-line unit in the league this season. We’ve seen them bully opposing defensive lines all year, hence the Eagles ranking fourth in the league with 154.3 rushing yards per game. 

Meanwhile, San Fran’s big men up front, including All-Pro LT Trent Williams, facilitated the 7th best rushing attack in the NFL.

Who will be on the other side of the ball for each team, trying to disrupt and dismantle the cohesion of each o-line unit? 

For the Niners, only soon-to-be Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, along with the rest of Demeco Ryans’ league-best unit that allowed just 77.7 rush yards/game this year (2nd in NFL). The San Fran defense created 30 turnovers in the regular season (10 fumbles, 20 interceptions), also the second most in the league (Cowboys – 33). 

The Eagles’ defensive line features a hugely experienced crop of players that could be participating in their final playoff run together. Brandon Graham, Ndamukong Suh, and Fletcher Cox – all age 32 or older – anchor the Philly line that also features second-team All-Pro edge rusher Haason Reddick. The Eagles’ 70 sacks in the regular season were 15 more than any other team and the third-most in league history.

It is unlikely either team’s line will dominate the other on Sunday, which makes each individual play, penalty, mistake, and inch gained matter even more than before.

‘Burrowhead’

The Chiefs’ famous Arrowhead Stadium is, per the Guinness Book of World Records, the loudest in the NFL. Bengals players and fans don’t seem to care.

Having beaten the Chiefs three-straight times, including in last season’s AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead, Cincy fans coined the term ‘Burrowhead’ this week, indicating that their QB has and will conquer the stadium once again on Sunday. Chiefs TE Travis Kelce brought up the term on ‘New Heights,’ his podcast with brother Jason, referencing it as ‘bulletin board material’ for the Chiefs.

Bengals fans will argue calling the Chiefs home turf ‘Burrowhead’ is justified, and maybe it is. In three career games against KC, Burrow is 3-0 while throwing for 982 yards, 8 TD, and 1 INT. When they meet, Burrow has simply outplayed Mahomes. 

Burrow is +160 to throw for 300+ yards and +230 to throw 3+ passing TD on Sunday.

Purdy in rarified air

49ers QB Brock Purdy – the 262nd and final selection in the 2022 NFL Draft and Kyle Shanahan’s third-choice QB heading into the season – will lead SF into one of the rowdiest environments in the NFL.

Purdy is set to become the fifth rookie quarterback in league history to start a conference championship game, joining Shaun King (TB), Ben Roethlisberger (PIT), Joe Flacco (BAL), and Mark Sanchez (NYJ). Each of the previous four lost. 

While Purdy has shown tremendous poise and accuracy in his seven undefeated starts thus far, Sunday poses a different type of challenge for the Iowa State product, given Philly’s defensive acumen and the boisterous road environment. 

Purdy is -185 to throw for 200+ yards and +140 to throw 2+ passing TD on Sunday.

Potential x-factors

The star-studded offenses and defenses on display this weekend should mean for two even championship game duels. One play, one mistake, or one inch may very well be the deciding factor, as we’ve seen in NFL playoff action so many times before. 

Keep an eye on these four under the radar players, one from each team, who can make the difference.

49ers RB Elijah Mitchell – Before going down with a knee injury in the 49ers’ Week 1 loss to the Bears, Mitchell was SF’s unquestioned number one back. Since returning to the lineup after the acquisition of Christian McCaffrey, Mitchell has been Shanahan’s secondary back and remained efficient, and at times, explosive. Don’t let CMC distract you from how good Mitchell can be.

Mitchell is +300 anytime to find the end zone on Sunday.

Eagles RT Lane Johnson – One of the most underrated players in the NFL, Johnson incredibly hasn’t allowed a sack since Week 11 in the 2020 season. He's played 30 games since. He is currently forgoing surgery for a torn adductor suffered in Week 16 vs. the Cowboys, and must block the NFL’s best defensive player in Nick Bosa on Sunday. If Johnson falls off his usual all-world level, the Eagles could suffer the consequences.

Bengals LB Germaine Pratt – Pratt isn’t well-known to the typical NFL fan, but if you’ve watched each of the last two Bengals playoff runs, his presence has been more than apparent. He picked off Derek Carr late in last season’s Wild Card win over the Raiders, and has been instrumental in Cincy’s impressive late-game defense all year. He’ll be tasked with keeping an eye on Mahomes and any other backfield trickery, all while likely having to track the best TE in the league in Travis Kelce.

Chiefs RB Isiah Pacheco – That isn’t Tyreek Hill out there wearing #10 for the Chiefs anymore, although you couldn’t tell by their speed and athleticism. Pacheco surpassed all of KC’s tailbacks to become the number one option this year, and hasn’t looked back since. He’s averaging nearly eight yards per carry over his last two games and could provide a gut punch to an unsuspecting Bengals defense if they aren’t careful.

Pacheco is +150 to score and +1000 to score two or more TDs on Sunday.

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