Published: Jan 23, 2023 at 01:12 AM
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — We’ve arrived at the doorstep of determining who’s playing in Super Bowl LVII, and there are some familiar faces involved in this coming weekend. All four teams left in the postseason — Kansas City, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and San Francisco — have played in the Super Bowl within the last six seasons. The Eagles won Super Bowl LII in the 2017 season, the 49ers lost to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV in the 2019 season, the Chiefs returned to Super Bowl LV in the 2020 season and the Bengals represented the AFC in Super Bowl LVI last season. It’s not often that you get that many teams who understand how pressure-packed this round can be. It also speaks to how effectively those franchises have built their rosters and hired good coaches.
The really cool thing about that dynamic is that there’s no need to worry about these games disappointing. All these teams have talent, but even more so, they bring legitimate swagger to Championship Sunday. The Bengals and Chiefs are defined by the charisma of their quarterbacks, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. And a collective attitude speaks to what makes the Eagles and 49ers so special, as they’re both deep and diverse on both sides of the football.
If you’re into numbers, Championship Sunday will feature an ample amount to heighten the excitement. The Bengals have won 10 straight, while the 49ers are riding a 12-game win streak. The Chiefs, 49ers and Eagles all have won 15 games this season, including the playoffs, while Cincinnati is 14-4 after Sunday’s Divisional Round win over Buffalo. There are no upstarts in this bunch. Everyone is legit.
That is why this Championship Sunday edition of The First Read is going to be so much fun. There are several things to ponder before the 49ers face the Eagles in the NFC title match (3 p.m. ET) and the Bengals take on the Chiefs in the battle for the AFC (6:30 p.m. ET). But here are my most compelling initial thoughts about what’s about to go down …
1) It doesn’t seem to matter who is blocking for Joe Burrow: The Bengals played their Divisional Round game against Buffalo without three starting offensive linemen and somehow managed to look even better. That unit beat up on the Bills defensive front from the minute that game started, as Cincinnati rushed for 172 yards and Burrow was sacked only once. Sure, it certainly helped that Burrow has enough vision, savvy and poise in the pocket to offset such issues up front. It also was apparent that Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan have an impressive ability to adjust to what they’re given. The Bengals pounded the ball more behind a unit that was confident in its potential to maul.
Burrow bought time when he had to and continually found holes in the Bills’ coverage. If this was how he performed with a collection of reserves blocking for him, it’s hard to see the Chiefs’ front causing him problems. The Bills, for one, have a better defense than Kansas City, ranking sixth in the regular season, while the Chiefs finished 11th. Burrow also has never lost to the Chiefs, and he led Cincinnati to a win over Kansas City in last season’s AFC Championship Game. The Bengals’ offensive line was supposed to be a huge problem in that contest, as Cincinnati allowed the third-most sacks in the league in 2021 — but Burrow found a way to win that game when he was dealing with constant duress. Of course, pressure became a problem in Super Bowl LVI, when the Rams sacked Burrow seven times. But this Sunday, there’s a good chance Burrow figures out Kansas City again, after the way the Bengals ran through the Bills.
2) Brock Purdy isn’t going to wilt: We’re past the point of wondering when Purdy will start playing like a rookie quarterback who was selected with the final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. He’s started seven games for San Francisco. The 49ers have won all seven of those games. If a hiccup or stumble was coming, it would’ve happened by now. In fact, Purdy has played so well after replacing the injured Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 13 that it’s fair to wonder if Purdy hasn’t become this team’s starting quarterback for the foreseeable future (since this season started with the 49ers expecting big things from second-year pro Trey Lance, who went down with a season-ending injury in Week 2, while Garoppolo is headed for free agency). Purdy didn’t do anything mind-blowing against the Cowboys in Sunday’s Divisional Round victory. He just continued to deliver the very things that have made him so productive during this stretch: efficient decision-making, accurate throws and an eerie calm in critical moments. Purdy now has two playoff wins under his belt, and he has yet to look like a player who can’t handle the big stage. A road trip to Philadelphia with a Super Bowl slot on the line isn’t likely to change that one bit.
3) Patrick Mahomes faces the biggest challenge of his career: It wasn’t that long ago that Mahomes was perched high above the other young quarterbacks in the league, all of whom aspired to the kind of success he immediately attained as a starter. Now he has more competition from his peers, and nobody has become more formidable than Burrow. Mahomes has faced the Bengals three times over the last two years and lost every game. The first loss, in Week 17 of the 2021 season, seemed mystifying. The second one, in last season’s AFC title game, was humbling. The third defeat, which came in Week 13 of this season, was revelatory. That loss told the world that Cincinnati wasn’t just on the same level as Kansas City — the Bengals actually were superior.
A fourth consecutive loss will only further strengthen the narrative that the kryptonite for Mahomes wears orange and black jerseys and resides in southern Ohio. This game is even more daunting because the Chiefs’ All-Pro quarterback is nursing a high ankle sprain that he sustained in Kansas City’s Divisional Round win over Jacksonville on Saturday. Mahomes valiantly played in the second half of that victory, all while limping noticeably at times. As much as he tried to sell the notion that he’ll be close to 100 percent when this AFC Championship Game kicks off, the reality is that high ankle sprains typically don’t heal that quickly for anybody. The Bengals have bamboozled Mahomes quite a bit lately. They’ll try to do it again while he’s likely to be less mobile than he’s ever been in his games against Cincinnati.
4) The trenches take center stage in the NFC: If you caught Philadelphia’s Divisional Round win over the Giants on Saturday, you saw how the Eagles want to get down. They ran for 268 yards in that victory, marking the fifth time this season they’ve surpassed the 200-yard mark on the ground. The Eagles are simply at their best when they can fire up that rushing attack, both because they have a multitude of dynamic backs and because they have a quarterback in Jalen Hurts who thrives on designed runs. You put that kind of talent behind an exceptional offensive line, and good things are bound to happen. Philadelphia’s opponent on Sunday knows a thing or two about that as well. Only once during the 49ers’ current 12-game winning streak have they failed to surpass the 100-yard mark on the ground. They ranked eighth in the league in rushing in the regular season, and San Francisco’s Christian McCaffrey will be the most explosive player in either backfield. Like the Eagles, San Francisco’s offensive line can maul with the best of them. So, get ready to get physical with this one. Both teams like to impose their wills with their running games, and whoever does that better is winning.
5) Lou Anarumo is the most creative defensive mind in football right now: For all the hype that will hover around the quarterbacks in the AFC Championship Game, the contest will pivot on the machinations of Anarumo, the Bengals’ defensive coordinator. The Bills averaged 28.4 points this season. They scored 10 against Cincinnati. Mahomes, as noted earlier, has taken a flame-thrower to opposing defenses for the past five seasons. Put Anarumo on the opposing sideline, and there are moments when it almost looks like the Chiefs superstar has forgotten how to play quarterback. It says something when you can frustrate signal-callers as electric as Mahomes and Josh Allen. But that’s what Anarumo does. He’s not afraid to rush three and drop eight. He makes sure his pass rushers stay disciplined when attacking the quarterback, and he sells his defensive backs on the importance of tackling.
The Cincinnati defense doesn’t have the star power of the units in San Francisco, Philadelphia or Dallas. It’s a group that relies heavily on simpler aspects of the game, like every man being accountable to what’s being asked of him and not taking the smaller details for granted. The Bengals’ defense has made some plays — and forced some huge turnovers — in those three previous wins over the Chiefs. It will need more of those game-changing moments from Anarumo’s troops to repeat as AFC champs.
6) Defense is going to trump offense next Sunday: There are plenty of big names on every one of the four offenses left in the postseason. That’s not going to matter nearly as much as what those teams do on defense next Sunday. We’ve already mentioned Anarumo’s penchant for flustering talented quarterbacks, but Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has some tricks of his own. His unit made some critical plays in the Divisional Round win over Jacksonville, especially after Mahomes hurt his ankle. As for the NFC side of things, get ready for a full-scale cage match with Philadelphia and San Francisco. The 49ers have had the best defense in football this season, and they shut down the Cowboys’ ability to run on Sunday. The Eagles have a strong pass rush to go along with a ballhawking secondary led by Darius Slay, James Bradberry and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Purdy faced a significant task against the Dallas defense on Sunday. Philadelphia will present even more challenges, largely because it can match up with all the weapons the 49ers can throw at most teams. So, while most fans love offense, don’t be surprised if both contests end up with lower scores. For the record, this particular writer is going with Philadelphia and Cincinnati to advance.