NFL Conference Championship Sunday Preview: Eagles host 49ers, Chiefs host Bengals with Super Bowl 57 berths on the line

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) takes the field prior to the AFC championship NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. Cincinnati Bengals At Kansas City Chiefs Jan 30 Afc Championship 747

NFL Conference Championship Sunday Preview: Eagles host 49ers, Chiefs host Bengals with Super Bowl 57 berths on the line

San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (14-3)

Time/TV: 2:00 p.m. CT/FOX

It feels as if the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles have been on an NFC Championship collision course since halfway through the 2022 season, and now it has arrived as promised. Philadelphia arrives after a wild-card weekend bye and a divisional round blowout of the New York Giants, 38-7. San Francisco enters Sunday’s game owners of the NFL’s longest win streak, winners of 12 straight, including a 41-23 wild-card weekend win over the Seahawks and a 19-12 win over the Cowboys last Sunday night.

The big question heading into the playoffs for Philadelphia was whether quarterback Jalen Hurts would be affected by his lingering shoulder injury, an ailment that held him out of Eagles losses during Weeks 16 and 17. Hurts has now suited up twice since returning, beating the Giants in both outings – and while he looked comfortable on the field last Sunday night, some feel that he was able to easily mask any shoulder pain in a blowout win. Sunday afternoon’s challenge will be different from anything Philadelphia has encountered this season. San Francisco boasts the NFL’s top-ranked defense, allowing just 16.3 points per game. In last week’s win over the Cowboys, the 49ers surrendered just 12 points while intercepting quarterback Dak Prescott twice. Hurts will need to make timely and intelligent decisions if he is to dissect the San Francisco defense, and the Eagles’ heralded offensive line will need to live up to its billing.

Doubters of the 49ers have pointed to rookie quarterback Brock Purdy as a potential weakness, but Purdy has not blinked. Taken with the last pick in last spring’s NFL Draft, Purdy was never supposed to see meaningful game action this season – but after injuries to both Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, Purdy sprung into action on Dec. 4. All he’s done since is lead the 49ers to eight consecutive wins, passing for 16 touchdowns while being intercepted just four times. San Francisco’s offense surrounds its rookie quarterback with an absurd collection of talent, but Purdy has not just avoided driving this Lamborghini into a ditch – in fact, he’s helped it reach speeds it never really seemed to with Jimmy Garoppolo under center.

Like Jalen Hurts and the Eagles, Purdy’s 49ers offense will be running into a defense the likes of which it has yet to see since he took over under center. Sure, Dallas posed an imposing threat in the front seven last Sunday – but the Cowboys cannot hold a candle to the Eagles’ secondary, which is built to give a young quarterback fits. Philadelphia’s secondary allowed Daniel Jones to throw for only 109 yards in Saturday night’s win, despite the Giants’ signal caller throwing 27 passes. Cornerback James Bradberry IV intercepted Jones in the first quarter, setting the tone for a dominant defensive showing by the Eagles.

Part of what makes Sunday’s NFC Championship game an exciting proposition is how difficult it is to imagine either of these teams losing a game in their current form. San Francisco and Philadelphia have been well-oiled machines for months, chewing up and spitting out one inferior opponent after another. Sunday afternoon, the same physicality that has led each team to such an excellent season will likely determine the game’s winner. Whichever team can make the opposing quarterback more uncomfortable will set itself up with better scoring opportunities throughout, and is the most likely to hoist the George Halas trophy before heading onward to the Super Bowl.

Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-3)

Time/TV: 5:30 p.m. CT/CBS

The Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs will meet in the AFC Championship game Sunday night for the second straight season, and the game will once again be held at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Kansas City enjoyed a bye during wild-card weekend and punched its ticket to the AFC Championship with a 27-20 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday. Cincinnati topped the Baltimore Ravens 24-17 in an appropriately wild game two weeks ago before stomping Buffalo 27-10 on a snowy afternoon in Orchard Park last Sunday.

Kansas City’s offense has been high-flying all season, leading the NFL in points per game (29.2) and passing yards per game (297.8) during the regular season. Much of the team’s offensive success naturally falls into the lap of all-world quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has been spectacular since he entered the league. But after Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain in last Sunday’s win, a huge shadow of doubt was cast over the otherwise self-assured Chiefs.

Mahomes initially tried to play through the injury, but was in clear pain before giving way to veteran backup quarterback Chad Henne in the second quarter. To the surprise of everyone but his teammates, Henne led the Chiefs on a 98-yard drive over 12 plays to score a crucial touchdown that, at the time, moved them ahead 17-7. Patrick Mahomes returned to the offensive huddle for Kansas City in the second half and led his team to 10 points in what became a gutty 7-point triumph. Andy Reid has already announced that Patrick Mahomes will start Sunday’s game against Cincinnati, but it is difficult to predict how comfortable he’ll look on the field. Viral clips of Mahomes practicing and walking away from interview podiums have dominated the NFL news cycle all week, but no questions can really be answered until Sunday night regarding where he’s at health-wise.

Awaiting Mahomes and the Chiefs are the Cincinnati Bengals, who have been a thorn in Kansas City’s side over the past two seasons. Joe Burrow is 3-0 against the Chiefs after the Bengals’ 27-24 win on Dec. 4, and leads a Cincinnati team into Kansas City that hasn’t lost since Halloween night. The Bengals are a well-rounded outfit, ranking in the NFL’s top seven in both points scored and points allowed per game. Cincinnati’s win over Buffalo last Sunday was a dominating performance, as the Bengals totaled 30 first downs and more than 400 yards of offense behind their makeshift offensive line. The Bengals ran for more than five yards per carry, including 105 rushing yards for Joe Mixon in the win – a shockingly excellent performance for an offensive line missing three contributors (tackle La’el Collins, tackle Jonah Williams, and guard Alex Cappa). With Chiefs’ All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones on deck, the Bengals’ replacements along its offensive front will once again need to step up in a huge way Sunday.

With both teams exchanging verbal jabs on social media and in press conferences this week and a litany of questions surrounding the health of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, there are plenty of storylines to follow Sunday night. Above all else, a berth in Super Bowl 57 is on the line – and an opportunity for two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks to build on their already-noteworthy legacies.

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