What We Learned from the NFL’s Conference Championship Games
Sunday’s NFL conference championship games forced four playoff teams to interrogate and counter their opponent’s well-documented strengths and weaknesses. Those games ended with the Philadelphia Eagles downing the 49ers, after San Francisco’s towering defense could no longer keep pace, and the Kansas City Chiefs finally batting back the Bengals for their first win over Cincinnati in four tries.
The Eagles’ balance can frustrate any defense.
The entire 2022 Philadelphia Eagles offensive campaign has been a showcase in winning games in different ways. With the explosive receivers DeVonta Smith and AJ Brown and the big-armed quarterback Jalen Hurts, they often torched teams down the field, like they did against the Detroit Lions in Week 1 and the Tennessee Titans in Week 13. That same core attacked the Arizona Cardinals’ perimeter in Week 5.
The Eagles have the rushing attack — with Pro Bowler Miles Sanders at running back and Hurts — to pound the ball as they did against the Green Bay Packers in Week 12.
Sunday in the NFC championship, the Eagles won, 31-7, in a different kind of game against the 49ers’ top-ranked defense: slow, efficient, and mistake-free.
Philadelphia’s lone passing play of more than 20 yards was Smith’s fourth-and-3 conversion on the first drive, a play called a catch on the field but that might have been reversed had the ruling been challenged in time. Hurts struggled to connect with receivers down the field as San Francisco’s tough secondary blanketed his targets and its linebackers refused to allow any underneath throws to turn into big plays.
After punting on their next three drives, the Eagles rattled off a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that featured nine rushes. It was a display of not just their physicality up front, but the unique kinds of runs they can execute.
On Miles Sanders’ touchdown run with 1 minute 35 seconds left in the half, the Eagles pulled center Jason Kelce on a zone adjustment. Rather than have every player step the same way a zone would traditionally be run, the Eagles asked left guard Landon Dickerson to turn back and attack the nose tackle and allow Kelce to pull out in front of him.
Philadelphia’s smothering run game was only made more valuable by winning the discipline battle: penalties and turnovers. The Eagles got seven first downs off penalties, including one on a roughing the punter call, to the 49ers’ zero. San Francisco had led the NFL in turnover ratio all season, but forced no turnovers on Sunday, while Philadelphia recovered three fumbles. One of those turnovers set the Eagles up at the 49ers’ 30-yard line for a drive that ended in a touchdown three plays later.
There is, of course, the caveat that the Eagles only had to outscore a broken Brock Purdy, who injured his hand on the 49ers’ first drive, and the backup Josh Johnson. But the 49ers’ defense has been the team’s star all season and Philadelphia frustrated and wore it down with a run-first approach. In a season in which the Eagles’ offense has had a counter for every opponent, it won its toughest matchup yet with a smart, physical performance.
Patrick Mahomes’s ankle injury forced him to show patience.
It’s always Patrick Mahomes. For the past five seasons, at the end of winding journeys through the AFC, Mahomes has awaited an opponent in a conference championship game at Arrowhead Stadium.
This season, though, Mahomes and Kansas City hosted the rival that booted them from the playoffs last year and one that had the upper hand in their last three meetings. Facing the Joe Burrow-led Bengals, Mahomes lacked his usual mobility but picked his spots to help Kansas City get a hard-fought win over Cincinnati, 23–20.
Kansas City’s first two drives ended in field goals, with the team’s receivers hampered by injuries and draped in creative coverages. Mahomes began to test what the defense offered on Kansas City’s third drive, when he rolled out to the right, pumped to a receiver on a short route, replanted and then found tight end Travis Kelce in the end zone for a 14-yard score.
Kelce (seven catches for 78 yards) wasn’t his usual tackle-busting self, limited as he was by a sore back that had been spasming in Friday’s practices. Receiver Mecole Hardman, another reliable veteran, was limited after battling a groin injury all week.
That led Mahomes to rely on receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling and rookie running back Isiah Pacheco. Mahomes first found Valdes-Scantling on a chunk play on a corner route that set up the Kelce touchdown.
Coach Andy Reid and Mahomes also got Valdes-Scantling into the end zone on a seam route in the third quarter. Valdes-Scantling ran a switch-release with Skyy Moore, who ran underneath to clear space for the catch. Valdes-Scantling finished with six catches for 116 yards, exceeding his previous highs this season.
But Mahomes was just as willing to take what the Bengals presented him and not the force plays that had crushed Kansas City in its previous matchups with Cincinnati. Despite catching just 13 passes during the regular season (never more than three in any game), Pacheco netted five receptions for 59 yards on Sunday.
With the score tied at 20, Kansas City started its final drive near midfield with 30 seconds left. After a 6-yard Pacheco run and an incomplete pass, Mahomes was left with a third-and-4 on the Bengals’ 47-yard line. Interior pressure forced Mahomes out of the pocket to his right. Rather than rely on his arm, Mahomes gritted out a 5-yard run to the sideline, his longest rush of the day, to keep the drive alive.
Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai drew an unnecessary roughness penalty for his overeager pursuit of Mahomes, no doubt a reflexive reaction to Mahomes’s forays of the past. The flag added another 15 yards to the run, putting Kansas City in range for a game-winning 45-yard kick by Harrison Butker.
If there were any need for it, Sunday’s championship game was another reminder of Mahomes’s playmaking. He and Kansas City are headed to a third Super Bowl in five years thanks to the quarterback having shown new poise to finally beat Cincinnati — and the instinct to know when to let loose.