NFL playoffs conference championships: Bengals-Chiefs, 49ers-Eagles

ByBrooke Pryor and Seth Walder ESPN logo
Monday, January 23, 2023

There are only four teams left in the 2022 NFL season's playoffs as we head to the conference championship round. Fresh off a win over the Cowboyson Sunday night, the 49ers will face the Eagles -- who dismantled the Giants on Saturday -- in the NFC Championship Game. And after beating the Bills on Sunday, the Bengals will try to get back to the Super Bowl for a second consecutive year against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Kansas City held off Jacksonville on Saturday to get the divisional round rolling, despite a right ankle injury toPatrick Mahomes.

Let's look ahead to that exciting conference championship schedule. To get you ready for next week's slate, Brooke Pryor picked out the biggest thing to watch for in each game, and Seth Walder explored how each team can win to advance to Super Bowl LVII. Let's get started in the NFC.

Note: Odds and game lines are via Caesars Sportsbook. Game projections are via ESPN's Football Power Index.

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NFC Championship Game

(2) San Francisco 49ers at (1) Philadelphia Eagles

Sunday, Jan. 29, at 3 p.m. ET (Fox)

Opening line: PHI -2 (45.5)

FPI projection: PHI, 64.4% (by four points)

What to watch for: This is how it was supposed to be. We have the two most dominant teams in the NFC meeting with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The 49ers and Eagles haven't faced each other this season, so it'll be a clean slate for each side. 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 A.J. Brown, tight end Dallas Goedert and running back Miles Sanders. But he's still recovering from a right shoulder sprain suffered more than a month ago.

And while the 49ers are on their third starting quarterback in Brock Purdy (the 2022 draft's Mr. Irrelevant), Kyle Shanahan's quarterback-friendly system and the 49ers' plethora of offensive playmakers -- tight end George Kittle, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and running back Christian McCaffreyamong them -- make San Francisco's offense plenty potent even with a rookie quarterback. There is an outside chance quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo could be ready for the NFC Championship Game, too, but Purdy has helped the 49ers get this far after the veteran went down in Week 13 with a broken foot. Purdy, though, hasn't faced a defense like Philadelphia's unit -- one that held teams to a league-low 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 it had 20 interceptions to the Eagles' 17. In a game so evenly matched, this one could come down to experience, and while the 49ers were in a Super Bowl more recently than the Eagles, Hurts' relative experience to that of Purdy could be the difference-maker.

Why the Eagles will win: The 49ers have the only roster that can even compare to the Eagles, but in terms of the full 53-man lineup, Philadelphia still has the edge. That's especially evident in the trenches. The Eagles have the superior pass block win rate and pass rush win rate, and Haason Reddick (17.5 sacks, postseason included) should be set up for another big day. He will faceMike McGlinchey, not Trent Williams. And while the 49ers' offense has been mostly great with Purdy at the helm, no one's doubting who's the better quarterback in this matchup. It's Hurts, and that will matter.

Why the 49ers will win: The unique attributes of the San Francisco offense will limit the effectiveness of the normally dominant Eagles defense. That so much of the 49ers' receiving production comes from McCaffrey, Samuel and Kittle will mitigate the effect of the superb cornerback duo of James Bradberry (who led all corners in fewest yards per coverage snap allowed, per NFL Next Gen Stats) and Darius Slay. And edge rusher Nick Bosa can beat Jordan Mailata, who ranked 56th out of 64 in pass block win rate this season.

AFC Championship Game

(3) Cincinnati Bengals at (1) Kansas City Chiefs

Sunday, Jan. 29, at 6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

Opening line:KC-2.5 (49.5)

FPI projection: KC, 65.2% (by five points)

What to watch for: Chiefs. Bengals. Patrick Mahomes.Joe Burrow. Arrowhead Stadium. Super Bowl berth on the line. It feels a little like déj vu, doesn't it? But though the circumstances are similar, these two teams are hardly the same groups that met a year ago for an overtime thriller in which Cincinnati rallied from 18 points down to clinch its first Super Bowl trip in 33 years. 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), per 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 over the Jaguars, and he said he expects to play against the Bengals. In the December meeting between Cincinnati and Kansas City, the Bengals' defense held Mahomes to 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 one rushing TD -- and he became the first quarterback to beat Mahomes three games in a row. Burrow got a big boost in that game from a 106-yard rushing performance by running backSamaje Perine. Against the Bills in the divisional round,Joe Mixonwas the hot Bengals rusher with 105 yards and a touchdown. But we also need to call out the Cincinnati defense, which held the Bills to just 10 points and 8 first-quarter yards.

Why the Chiefs will win: A banged-up Mahomes is still a top-10 quarterback. Yes, the injury will limit him. But Mahomes will still have an elite pass-protecting line helping him, along with head coach Andy Reid's playcalling and tight endTravis Kelce-- who caught 14 passes against eight different defenders in the Chiefs' playoff victory over the Jaguars -- being seemingly uncoverable right now.

With a two-high-heavy defense, the Chiefs can limit the threat of Bengals receiver Ja'Marr Chase catching deep shots down the sideline. 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 lackluster Bengals offensive line, which ranked 31st in pass block win rate this year entering 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 toward Cincinnati. Chase and Tee Higgins have the advantage over the Chiefs' corners, too. Chase recorded 97 receiving yards in the Bengals' win over Kansas City in December. And in Sunday's win over the Bills, Burrow demonstrated once again that he can overcome his offensive line by getting the ball out quickly (2.5 seconds on average, per NFL Next Gen Stats).

And if the Bengals are the better offensive team with a limited Mahomes on the opposite sideline, that would give them the advantage in all three phases. The Bengals ranked ninth in EPA per play on defense before shutting down Josh Allen and the Bills, while the Chiefs are 15th. And Kansas City has had the worst special teams efficiency of any team this season.

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