There are only four teams left in the 2022 NFL season playoffs as we head into the Conference Championship round. After a win over the Cowboys on Sunday night, the 49ers face the Eagles, who dismantled the Giants on Saturday, in the NFC Championship Game. And after beating the Bills on Sunday, the Bengals will look to return to the Super Bowl for a second straight year against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. Kansas City held off against Jacksonville on Saturday to get the divisional round rolling despite an injury to Patrick Mahomes’ right ankle.
Let’s look ahead to this exciting conference championship schedule. To prepare you for next week, Brooke Pryor dug out what to look for in every game and Seth Walder explored how every team can win to advance to Super Bowl LVII. Let’s start with the NFC.
Note: Odds and game lines are via Caesars Sportsbook. Game predictions are made using ESPN’s Football Power Index.
SF-PHI | CIN-KC
NFC Championship Game
Sunday, Jan. 29 at 3 p.m. ET (Fox)
opening line: PHI -2 (45.5)
FPI projection: PHI, 64.4% (down four points)
What to look out for: It should be so. We have the two most dominant teams in the NFC meet with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. The 49ers and the Eagles haven’t met this season, so it will be a clean slate for both sides. Philadelphia has the advantage of a more experienced quarterback in Jalen Hurts, who has a great supporting cast that includes wide receivers DeVonta Smith and AJ Brown, tight end Dallas Goedert and running back Miles Sanders. But he’s still recovering from a right shoulder sprain he sustained more than a month ago.
And while the 49ers have their third starting quarterback in Brock Purdy (the Mr. Irrelevant of the 2022 draft), Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback-friendly system and abundance of offensive playmakers are the 49ers’ tight end George Kittle, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and running back Christian McCaffrey among them — makes San Francisco’s offense very strong even with a rookie quarterback. There’s a chance quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo could also be ready for the NFC Championship Game, but Purdy has helped the 49ers get this far after the veteran went down with a broken foot in Week 13. Purdy, however, hasn’t faced a defense like Philadelphia’s unit — one that has kept teams at a league-low of 5.5 net yards per pass attempt and 3,057 passing yards in the regular season.
Meanwhile, the 49ers’ defense allowed 6.4 yards per pass attempt and a league-low 3.4 yards per carry, and they had 20 interceptions for the Eagles’ 17. In a game this even, it could boil down to experience, and while the 49ers were in a Super Bowl recently than the Eagles, Hurts’ relative experience to Purdy’s could be the difference.
Why the Eagles will win: The 49ers have the only roster that can even rival the Eagles, but in terms of the overall 53-man roster, Philadelphia still has the edge. This is particularly evident in the trenches. The Eagles have the superior pass block win rate and pass rush win rate, and Haason Reddick (17.5 sacks, including the postseason) should be set for another big day. He faces Mike McGlinchey, not Trent Williams. And while the 49ers’ offense has been great for the most part with Purdy at the helm, there’s no doubt about who’s the better quarterback in this matchup. It’s Hurts, and that’s going to matter.
Why the 49ers will win: The unique characteristics of the San Francisco offense will limit the effectiveness of the normally dominant Eagles defense. That so much of the 49ers’ production is coming from McCaffrey, Samuel and Kittle will see the impact of the superb cornerback duo of James Bradberry (who led all corners in the fewest yards per coverage snap allowed, according to NFL Next Gen Stats) and Darius weaken slay . And edge rusher Nick Bosa can beat Jordan Mailata, who ranks 56th of 64 in pass block win rate this season.
AFC Championship Game
Sunday, January 29 at 6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
opening line: KS -2.5 (49.5)
FPI projection: KC, 65.2% (down five points)
What to look out for: bosses Bengal. Patrick Mahomes. Joe Burrow. Arrowhead Stadium. Super Bowl mooring on the line. It feels a bit like deja vu, doesn’t it? But while circumstances are similar, these two teams are hardly the same groups that met a year ago in an overtime thriller that saw Cincinnati rally down from 18 points to make its first Super Bowl trip in 33 years to win. Including the Bengals’ 27-24 win in Week 13, these two teams have played three times since the start of the 2021 season, and Cincinnati has won by three points each time.
Mahomes, who is 1-3 in his career against the Bengals, has a high ankle sprain (confirmed by an MRI), according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Even with limited mobility, he still went 22-of-30 for 195 yards and two touchdown throws in the second half of Saturday’s divisional round win against the Jaguars, and he said he expects to play the Bengals. In December’s Cincinnati-Kansas City clash, the Bengals’ defense held Mahomes on 16 completions on 27 attempts (223 yards and a touchdown pass), his fewest completions of the season.
Burrow, meanwhile, completed 25 of 31 attempts for 286 yards, two passing TDs and a rushing TD — and he became the first quarterback to beat Mahomes three straight games. Burrow got a big boost that game with a 106-yard rushing performance running back to Samaje Perine. Against the Bills in the divisional round, Joe Mixon was the hot Bengals rusher with 105 yards and a touchdown. But we also need to challenge the Cincinnati defense, which kept the Bills to just 10 points and 8 yards in the first quarter.
Why the Chiefs will win: A battered Mahomes is still a top-10 quarterback. Yes, the injury will limit him. But Mahomes will still have an elite pass protection line to help him, along with head coach Andy Reid’s playcalling and tight end, Travis Kelce – who caught 14 passes against eight different defensemen in the Chiefs’ playoff win over the Jaguars -, who is seemingly invincible at the moment.
With a two-high-heavy defense, the Chiefs are able to limit the threat from Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who intercepts deep shots on the touchline. But the real defensive key will be defensive tackle Chris Jones, who recorded 79 pass rush wins in the regular season, 26 more than any other defensive tackle. Can he blow up the Bengals’ lackluster offensive line, which ranked 31st in pass block win rate this year on Sunday?
Why the Bengals will win: The Bengals have an advantage no one expected — the better quarterback. Burrow is superior to an injured Mahomes and that shifts the offensive edge towards Cincinnati. Chase and Tee Higgins also have the advantage over the Chiefs’ corners. Chase had 97 receiving yards in the Bengals’ win over Kansas City in December. And in Sunday’s win against the Bills, Burrow again proved he can break his offensive line by getting the ball out quickly (2.5 seconds on average, according to NFL Next Gen Stats).
And if the Bengals are the better offensive team with a limited Mahomes on the opposite touchline, they would have the advantage in all three phases. The Bengals ranked ninth in the EPA per defense game before shutting down Josh Allen and the Bills while the Chiefs are 15th. And Kansas City had the worst special team efficiency of any team that season.