Is there anything more riveting than late playoff-round football? The best of the best have been distilled down to four contenders, who have ground it out all season and vanquished contenders and pretenders alike to reach this lofty arena. These games are decided by the smallest of errors, or the biggest of breakout performances, often by role-players who reach above their normal capabilities to find another gear. For pundits, these are hard games to pick because the margin of difference between these combatants is measured in microns. So I just smile and say ‘Who cares if I’m right or wrong this weekend, because the level of play is going to be off the charts!’ Football fans are the winners. These four teams are amazing, have great back stories, incredible talent and competitive drive, and the hotter the kitchen gets, the better they cook. Bon Appetit!
This Eagles team is one of the best teams I have ever seen in 50 years of watching pro football. Their balance in every direction is atypical, and speaks highly of the talent selection group that put this juggernaut together over the last several years. They are the definition of versatility, being able to defend against whatever offense you prefer and beat you with whatever offense you struggle against. It is just rare to see a team this dominant at all phases of the game.
All this will be called upon to overcome the winning machine that the 49ers have been this year. It speaks volumes about a team when they don’t rely on a superstar quarterback to reach this depth of the playoffs, in a league where that has been a given for the last 30 years. If defense truly wins championships, here is your top contender. But Shanahan’s gold-diggers can also score and explosive players like Kittle, Deebo Samuel and CMC are going to get their yardage and points. Let’s dig in.
Passing game: This will be interesting, because Philly is predominantly a superb run-first offense facing the league’s best run defense…which means the passing game will come prominently to the fore. Hurts has excellent targets in Smith, Goedert and Brown, and while Brown was quiet against the Giants, he is due for a bounceback game. A guy like Quez Watkins could also have a big game with some key catches while the other receivers occupy Frisco’s prime defenders. For the Niners, they boast 9-td Brendan Aiyuk, Jauan Jenkins, George Kittle and Samuel. Deebo needs to have a huge game or at least draw enough cover to open things up for others, because he has been quiet this season, averaging 60-yds or less in 8 of the last 9 games. Kittle needs to be huge against poor Eagles TE defense, one of Philly’s few weaknesses. It is hard to imagine Purdy being Purfect in such a pressure cooker game, especially facing this monstrous Eagle rush. Advantage: Eagles.
Running game: Here is where the friction in this match originates. The Niners’ top run defense has allowed no 100-yd games to any player this season. You got it, bupkis. Philly can press for weaknesses in that line, but their efforts are better spent elsewhere. We know that Miles is ahead and Kenneth Gainswell, along with Boston ‘Don’t Call Me Beantown’ Scott, and how Jalen Hurts other defenses when he takes off. Means nothing if you get stuffed behind scrimmage all game. Over in the red jerseys, we have the prophet Elijah Mitchell grinding the yards, and one Onward Christian McCaffrey, who not only has a nose for the end zone by is a double threat to run or catch a pass. Philly is not great against rushers this season. Advantage: Niners.
Defense: The league’s #2 defense against #3. The razor’s edge here, although there are opportunities for each team. As mentioned above, Philly is not great against rushers, allowing Barkley 6.2 ypc last week. This won’t matter if the Eagles get up early and force San Fran to play catch up by passing more, which then snowballs as the Eagle pass rush gets going. Those carnivores were tied for best overall with Dallas, and ALL of them are dangerous. The Eagle linebackers are tough and versatile, and their d-backs are smothering. As mentioned, the Niners are best at run-stopping to the point of ridiculous. They have quick linebackers as well that can drop into coverage, and any receivers that get downfield will do so sharing the inside of their jersey with either Charvarius Ward or Deonmodore Lenoir (say THAT 5 times fast). Talk about “I can’t breathe..” Again, #2 D against #3 D. Offense or special teams is going to decide this game. Advantage: Eagles.
Special teams: Jake Elliott is a reliable booter Philly can trust to hit when they need him. Across the field, they don’t call him Robbie ‘Solid’ Gould for nothing. Kick returns against Philly’s runback defense might be a slight edge. Advantage: Niners.
Coaching: Shanahan is highly respected as a great offensive mind, and here you have DeMeco Ryans putting such a great defense on the field. What else do you need to say? In Philly, Sirianni brings a swagger to his style that his record justifies. This is certainly a wash. Advantage: Even money.
Philly is at home, with a very rowdy crowd. It will be cold. They have that pass rush. Oh, about sacks, I thought this was an interesting stat that I will include in the game permutations. Brock Purdy has won every game where he got sacked 3 or more times, and in a 4-sack game his QB rating was 141.2. Rattled? Not Mr. Irrelevant. If he wins this game, they may be calling him Mr. Irreplaceable. By the slightest margin, more a feeling than a calculation since these teams are so close, I’m getting that Fly Eagles Fly feeling. Philly stakes their cheese on the big matchup in two weeks.
Rematch, to no one’s surprise but Buffalo, who had to exchange hopes of playing this game for NFL refunds. Oh, the indignity! Anyway, while Kansas City started like a house afire and never really let up, Cincinnati took several games to shake off their Super Bowl hangover (unlike the Rams), and then tore off 10 straight victories. I had picked Buffalo to beat them on the basis that having two critical starting O-line guys out would leave Big Throw Joe vulnerable to the fearsome Bill defense. Well, the guys who stepped in for Cappa & Williams never lost a step, and Bills pass pressure never materialized in that game where it could have been decisive. I watched Mahomes’ ankle get cranked last week, and he sure looked uncomfortable hopping around on one foot the rest of the game. But video of him in practice this week looks like he has overcome the bulk of the problem (surprise, surprise) and gotten a lot of his mobility and most of his balance back. Non-factor, if you ask me. Kelce’s back trouble? Right….c’mon, it’s Travis Kelce in an AFC championship game. Let’s break it down.
Passing game: While Patrick Mahomes is worthy of league MVP and is a deadly passer in the pocket or on the fly, he isn’t throwing to a gaggle of top-rated receivers. The hyped hyphenaters Smith-Schuster and Valdes-Scantling are good-not-great, and if Cincy doesn’t let rookie Skyy ‘Is The Limit’ Moore surprise them, it boils down to smothering Kelce, which they did in their last contest. McKinnon gets some tosses as well on play-options. Conversely, Burrow throws to a fearsome trio of Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase, which is as good as it gets. Hayden Hurst isn’t always called upon with this trio of talent, but when he’s needed he is reliable. Mixon and Perine also haul in their share of outlet and designed passes. Advantage: Bengals.
Running game: The Chiefs rely on Ronald Jones and Jerick McKinnon, and this season the flashy running by rookie Isiah Pacheco. The run game is solid, and occasionally explosive. Mahomes is also a huge part of that ground mobility, as we have seen over his career. In this game, I believe his mobility will be significantly subdued, not only because of that painful injury but also because of his need to ensure that he minimizes the risk of aggravating it, which could take him off the field. Cincy runs reliable Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, who are both downhill runners that can pick up extra yards and crucial first downs. When you need clock control (essential against blitzkrieg teams like KC), this backfield gives you that. Burrow runs when he needs to, so his yardage isn’t a factor here. Advantage: Even money.
Defense: The Chiefs have been so-so all season. They get good pass pressure with Jones and Karlaftis, and Frankie Clark and Willie Gay chip in. Their linebackers are good not great, but that secondary has been the Achilles heel this season. I will say that they played much better in the Jacksonville game than they have been. If this team can get sacks on Burrow, that would be key to the outcome. Having said that, Cincy’s O-line as mentioned before has been solid, regardless of losing key players (La’el Collings, Cappa, Williams), and Burrow has a LOT of targets who will find spaces between the Chief defenders. The Bengals boast a top-10 defense that mauled and stuffed a versatile Buffalo offense last week. They also stuffed a Chiefs offense earlier this season, with a healthy Mahomes. Advantage: Bengals.
Special teams: Harrison ‘Buttkicker’ Butker is money, his lackluster 2022 campaign notwithstanding. Evan ‘McFearless’ McPherson has also shown that icing him down only produces more icewater in his veins. KC did not play the runback well this season, and Trayveon Williams is averaging over 20 yards per return for Cincy. Advantage: Bengals.
Coaching: As mentioned last week, both staffs are highly capable, and the more I see of Zac Taylor the more impressed I am. As mentioned before, Steve Spagnuolo is the evil genius of defense for KC, so expect the unexpected (QB pressures most likely). Still, he has to have the horses to get home, and I’m not sure KC does. Advantage: Chiefs.
The home field at Arrowhead is real if the crowd noise gets going. This is a real thing, not just chatter. The weather is supposed to be cold with chance of snow, which may not be a true factor, but Burrow is 8-0 in games 40-degrees or below, and he slaughtered Buffalo in their own house AND their own weather last week. Other than that, the Bengals are killers on the road, including a win here earlier this year and a 3-0 record against this team. Kansas City is never a team to count out, because they are as good as their record. Having said that, I’m seeing orange instead of red in this contest. Bengals book their bus for the Bowl.
Enjoy the games!
-Pigskin Pundit (Nate Clark)