Welcome to Championship weekend! After a divisional round that had a few more one-sided affairs than expected, we’re left with what is certainly the best 4 teams of the 2022 season: the Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals, and San Francisco 49ers. Besides Philadelphia’s two losses in Week 16 and Week 17 when quarterback Jalen Hurts was injured, none of these teams have lost a game in a very long time. Kansas City’s last loss was against their championship opponent Bengals in Week 13, Cincinnati’s last loss was to the Cleveland Browns in Week 8, San Francisco hasn’t lost since Week 7 versus Kansas City, and Philadelphia hasn’t lost with Hurts playing since Week 10 against Washington.
All of these teams have either a top 10 offense or defense, and for all teams except the Chiefs, they have both. Even San Francisco’s 7th-round rookie quarterback Brock Purdy has been mostly fantastic since being named the starter, his worst game coming last week against Dallas, where he was lifted to victory by a defense more than prepared to win a Super Bowl.
Patrick Mahomes’ high-ankle sprain injury he suffered in Kansas City’s victory over the Jaguars puts their Super Bowl chances in serious risk. But fortunately for him, Kansas City’s 7th-round rookie, running back Isiah Pacheco, showed up in the second half and won the game with some crucial big runs. Kansas City won’t be quite as deadly in the Championship game, but their rushing attack and defense appears poised to shoulder the burden entering their matchup against their new playoff rival: the peaking Cincinnati Bengals.
Cincinnati is coming off arguably their most impressive win of the season, a 27-10 defaming of the Buffalo Bills (there goes my Super Bowl pick). Buffalo, to the astonishment of their fans and spectators across the country, gave up some early touchdowns and never recovered. Josh Allen sprinted around the snowy landscape, summoned playoff Gabriel Davis, and threw in desperation to Stefon Diggs, but all moments of hope were quickly drowned by a powerful Bengals defense. There’s plenty of reasons to believe Cincinnati will be returning to the Super Bowl, but with either San Francisco or Philadelphia waiting for them in the big game, Joe Burrow will almost certainly be put to the test.
Speaking of Philadelphia, they certainly made that game against the Giants sure look easy! Jalen Hurts’ recovery from a shoulder injury suffered in Week 15 versus the Chicago Bears has clouded the Super Bowl dreams of the Eagles, but his performance a spicy New York team in the divisional round puts a lot of speculation to rest. He’s said himself that he’s “…felt better,” but his lingering injury didn’t stop him from being a major element to his team getting a big, early lead.
Jalen Hurts on how he feels: "I've felt better, but it doesn't really matter. Gotta get it done."— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) January 25, 2023
Early passes to Devonta Smith and Dallas Goedert set up touchdown passes to both by the end of the 1st quarter, and a touchdown run of his own to end the half ensured Hurts could cruise into the championship game. But, New York isn’t the only NFC East team that came up short last weekend; Dallas did, too!
San Francisco put on a defensive clinic versus the Cowboys to end the divisional round, forcing 2 interceptions in the first half, and keeping Dak Prescott under a 70 passer rating. It was good timing, as well, since Brock Purdy had his first game he started with a passer rating under 90. It was also his first game without a touchdown pass, and his worst adjusted yards per attempt (7.38) since his first game versus Miami. It was still statistically a good game, but it was his first where he wasn’t making highlight-reel plays. For San Francisco, this game was won with field goals and points off of turnovers. Next week, their defense will need to just as suffocating in order to beat the Eagles.
Here’s my personal rankings entering the AFC and NFC Championship games this weekend:
- Philadelphia Eagles - Now with Hurts playing at full speed again, this is the best team in football. I don’t know how you stop a backfield as good as Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders/Boston Scott/Kenneth Gainwell and offensive line full-to-bursting with pro-bowlers and Hall of Famers, but two more teams are going to have to try. They’re going to score, and if Jalen Hurts can make a few more beautiful passes to Devonta Smith and A.J. Brown, they’re going to score a lot.
Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, and Dre Greenlaw can make Hurts’ life difficult if they can scheme up a few pressures and keep him in the pocket, but that’ll require a fantastic game from the entire San Francisco defensive line. Although, with players like George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Christian McCaffrey, it’s not impossible for the 49ers to drive up the score, as well. However, with Brock Purdy coming off a bad game and preparing to face an even tougher defense, Philly’s chances of keeping the 49ers’ offense under control are pretty high.
3 total TDs for Jalen Hurts— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) January 22, 2023
259 yards in the first half
2. Cincinnati Bengals - The divisional round matchup between Cincinnati and Buffalo was the game I was personally anticipating the most, as both came into the game as either Super Bowl winners or contenders. Both had beaten Kansas City this season, will likely do it again because of Patrick Mahomes’ injury, and both have MVP-caliber quarterbacks that can take over a game at a moments notice. However, Cincinnati proved me wrong! In this matchup, only one quarterback truly dominated the game from start to finish, and it wasn’t Josh Allen, it was Joe Burrow.
After numerous injuries to their offensive line, Cincinnati miraculously didn’t miss a beat against the Bills defense, and Joe Burrow cooked them over and over again with long, suffocating drives. Even more impressive, Lou Anarumo’s defense held Josh Allen and the Bills to 10 points (!!!) in the entire game, a completely unfathomable total just weeks ago.
Cincinnati appears to have to have complemented their three-headed offensive monster of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd with another three-headed monster on the defensive line with Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, and Joseph Ossai. On top of that, Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt have continued their fantastic play into the postseason for a second straight year, and tight end Hayden Hurst and wide receiver Trenton Irwin have become vital third-down targets for Burrow. If Cincinnati keeps playing like this, rolling over Kansas City again shouldn’t be much of a challenge.
3. San Francisco 49ers - The bad Brock Purdy game finally arrived, but it still wasn’t enough for the 49ers to lose. Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, and the oft-targeted Deommodore Lenoir kept Dak Prescott sloppy and ineffective for the vast majority of the game, and completely eliminated the rushing attack after Tony Pollard’s injury. Against a team as good as the Eagles and a quarterback as good as Jalen Hurts, however, will be a tall task for San Francisco. Brock Purdy will be facing an even better defense and scarier pass-rush, and will almost certainly need to score more than 19 to secure victory against Jalen Hurts.
Warner, Greenlaw, Jimmie Ward, and former Texan Tashaun Gipson will have the challenge of diagnosing all of the bootlegs and RPOs Philadelphia loves to run with Hurts, and the receiving trio of Devonta Smith, A.J. Brown, and Dallas Goedert will have much more to handle than CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and Dalton Shultz. Philadelphia’s main weakness at linebacker will give Purdy plenty of chances to throw it up to George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, but will that be enough? It all depends on how often he can get the ball in their hands either in space or with blockers in front.
4. Kansas City Chiefs - After defeating Jacksonville with the help of their rookie, 7th round running back Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City will be hosting its fifth straight AFC Championship Game. This will be the fifth championship games in five years as a starter for Patrick Mahomes, but it’ll be the first time he’s playing with a high-ankle sprain. After that injury, Mahomes and the Chiefs offense were clearly less efficient and explosive as they are normally, which could spell disaster against a fantastic Bengals defense.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, they’ve drafted well on offense and defense the past few years, getting plenty of production from Pacheco, Creed Humphrey, Nick Bolton, and L’Jarius Sneed. All four of these players will have to play great on Sunday, since the Bengals will likely try to get the score up early so they can kill the Chiefs with Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. With these players, a low-scoring or low-yardage game can be won, but even with this injury, anything is possible with Patrick Mahomes.
MVS but the S stands for SCOOORE!!! pic.twitter.com/APKHHtKOWQ— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 22, 2023
5. Buffalo Bills - What a disaster of a game to end a season of destiny for the Buffalo Bills. After last year’s heartbreak at Kansas City, 2022 felt like the year of inevitable success for the Buffalo Bills. A loaded roster, a new pass-rusher that directly addressed their pass-rush issues in Von Miller, depth behind him, and a MVP-caliber quarterback should have been the ingredients to getting over the hump, but Cincinnati had other plans.
Cincinnati’s makeshift offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage for the entire game, and quarterback Joe Burrow made Buffalo pay for it dearly. Similarly, Cincinnati’s defense made Josh Allen’s love for the deep ball his worst enemy, and no amount of running the ball was going to help against a defensive line this good. Buffalo ends the season surprisingly early and with more questions than answers, but the draft looms as another opportunity to become a complete roster.
Injuries to Von Miller and Micah Hyde exposed Buffalo’s need for still another pass rusher and safety, both of which they can target in the draft. In my opinion however, this loss provides Buffalo a great opportunity to start copying off the Bengals by filling their starting lineup with great receivers. Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis are both fantastic, but a third, x-factor receiver would give Josh Allen a great target regardless of where he looks.
6. Dallas Cowboys - It wasn’t a surprising finish for the Cowboys, who came up short on offense against the fantastic 49ers’ defense, but it was an equally disappointing one for Dak Prescott fans hoping to get more consistency out of their quarterback. Mike McCarthy’s offense demands a lot out of the passer, and Dak Prescott has shown the ability to operate under this intense pressure, but not frequently enough to stop turnovers from haunting his otherwise highlight-filled season.
In this game in particular, all the blame should not be entirely placed on Prescott’s shoulders due to great coverage from San Francisco and poor play from Michael Gallup, but two interceptions (and nearly a third) will be what lingers in the minds of many Cowboys fans. However, similar to Buffalo, Dallas does not have many positions in need of a new player or draftee, but instead can use this draft to diagnose exactly what they need in order to close out these playoff games.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars - Those glitter kitties ended up giving the Chiefs a run for their money, but as it is with every other team in the NFL, Travis Kelce proved to be just too much to handle. Although a dropped interception from Foyesade Oluokun may have been the missed big play, a poorly timed tripping penalty and Trevor Lawrence sack kicked the Jaguars out of field goal range at the beginning of the 2nd quarter. Those three points would have made a big difference in the fourth quarter, where the Jaguars found themselves down 10 and getting away from their rushing attack.
The Chiefs, after Mahomes’ ankle injury, leaned into rushing the ball with rookie Isiah Pacheco, which paid dividends in the second half. Entering the offseason, Jacksonville can be happy that they won’t need free agency or the draft to become a contender, but will need to be active in both in order to survive getting back below the cap for 2023. Evan Engram and Jawaan Taylor will likely both be given more long-term deals, but players like Marvin Jones or Shaquill Griffin may be replaced with draftees or veteran free agents.
8. New York Giants - So much for the Danny Dimes experience. The Giants gave up nearly 4 straight touchdowns in the first half without scoring a point. After turning the ball over twice to start the game, the Giants went 3-and-out 3 straight times, ending the first half with a total of just 64 yards on offense. The defense didn’t fare much better, giving up 268 yards on the ground on only 44 carries (6.1 average). The Giants had built an identity around the quick pass, excessive running with Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones, and the scramble drill. Against the Eagles, that game plan was disrupted so quickly by Philadelphia’s overpowered defensive line that the game was practically over after the first few possessions.
Now, entering the off-season with significantly more optimism than they’re used to, the Giants will have the challenge of trying to decide who to keep out of the 21 players entering unrestricted free agency in March. Of these 21 players, 14 are starters, and some notable names include Saquon Barkley, Daniel Jones, Darius Slayton, Richie James, Jon Feliciano, and Julian Love. This off-season, due to the amount of change and transition inevitable, will be seen as an inflection point Giants history. It’s anyone’s guess if Daboll, Schoen and Co. will decide to run it back with largely the same team in hopes of a better turnout in January next year, or if this is the off-season we see the house that Dave Gettleman built get nuked away in favor of another rebuild. They’ve already signaled their interest in re-signing Jones, but they’ll need plenty more than just him to return.
Personally, I expect to see the Giants offer new contracts to Barkley, Jones, Love, and a few others to keep the core of this team together, but will inevitably have to let a lot of these pieces go since there’s so many that will get similar offers elsewhere. Their picks in the 2023 NFL Draft will likely be used to sure up their receiving corps after losing some in free agency, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they get inspired by the Eagles team they just lost to and decide to take a quarterback in the second or third round as the eventual replacement for Jones.