Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws to Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins (85) to convert a 2-point conversion in the third quarter during an NFL wild-card playoff football game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati. Baltimore Ravens At Cincinnati Bengals Afc Wild Card Jan 15 211
John McClain: Eagles, Bengals picked to reach Super Bowl 57
The playoff field has been whittled to four teams – the 49ers, Eagles, Chiefs, and Bengals. It’s hard to argue against San Francisco, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Cincinnati being the four best teams in the NFL.
After 10 playoff games in the wild card and divisional rounds, on Sunday, the Eagles host the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, and the Bengals visit the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. There’s intrigue galore for the four teams competing to represent their conference in Super Bowl 57 on Feb. 12 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
No matter who wins, the Super Bowl will feature two of the league’s preeminent teams. Of the four teams remaining, only Cincinnati hasn’t won a Super Bowl.
The Eagles and Chiefs earned first-round byes and home-field advantage in the playoffs. In the divisional round, Philadelphia had the most impressive performance of the postseason with its 38-7 mauling of the Giants. Cincinnati was a close second with its 27-10 road decimation of the Bills. Kansas City won 27-20 at home against the Jaguars. The 49ers outlasted the Cowboys 19-12 at Levi Stadium.
There are a lot of reasons to get excited about both Sunday games, so let’s analyze the four teams and make predictions:
San Francisco (15-4) plus-2½ at Philadelphia (15-3): Eagles 23-20
The 49ers have a 12-game winning streak, including a 7-0 record with rookie Brock Purdy at quarterback, but the Eagles have the league’s most balanced offense and a pass rush superior to any team in the league. The rabid Eagles’ fans will do everything possible to rattle Purdy at Lincoln Financial Field. In the two playoff victories over Seattle and Dallas, Purdy has thrown for 546 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
The Eagles had 70 sacks in the regular season and five more against the Giants. Each defensive lineman reached double figures. They get pressure, but the defense has forced only five turnovers in their last seven games. Purdy, who has a terrific running game led by Christian McCaffrey, has been outstanding at protecting the ball. Expect him to run for yards and to throw on the run.
Watch the 49ers’ running backs try to get on the edges while the Eagles ends are charging up the field. The Eagles have a great running game featuring three backs, including Miles Sanders, their 1,000-yard rusher. The 49ers have the league’s best defense. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has to figure out a way for them to keep quarterback Jalen Hurts in the pocket and not hurting them on run-pass options in which he gets to the outside. Ryans and Eagles’ coordinators Shane Steichen (offense) and Jonathan Gannon (defense) are candidates for the Texans’ head coaching job. The loser can be signed at any time. Look for the Eagles to pull out a victory at home and advance to the Super Bowl.
Bengals (14-4) plus-1½ at Kansas City (15-3): Bengals 30-28
The Bengals are underdogs trying to defeat the Chiefs for the fourth time in 13 months, including a second consecutive game at Arrowhead Stadium. Joe Burrow is the league’s only quarterback to defeat Patrick Mahomes three times in a row. Mahomes’ high ankle sprain should limit some of his mobility, especially when he runs around looking for an open receiver. Still, Burrow has beaten him the last three times when Mahomes has been healthy. All three victories have been by three points.
The Bengals are 5-1 in the playoffs with Burrow as their starter. In those games, he has eight touchdown passes and two interceptions. He averages 259.3 yards and boasts a 98.4 rating. Mahomes is 9-3 in the playoffs. He has 30 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a 106.2 rating. He averages 298 yards. Burrow has the better running game led by Joe Mixon, who’s also a splendid receiver. Burrow also has the better wide receivers in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. Mahomes relies heavily on the NFL’s best tight end in Travis Kelce, who has 14 touchdown receptions in the playoffs. Mahomes has a tremendous offensive line that provides exceptional protection. Burrow is missing three starters up front, but the reserves have played well in the playoffs, especially run blocking in the Buffalo blowout. The Chiefs could get revenge in this game and advance to another Super Bowl, but there’s something special about the Bengals and their 10-game winning streak.
Last week: Straight up 3-1, against the spread 2-2
Playoffs: Straight up 7-3, against the spread 6-4
(John McClain writes four columns a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).