Thoughts From the NFC and AFC Championship Games

The two conference championship games we got this weekend in the NFL were interesting. I can’t really call them anything else because one game was a blowout where the losing team almost started looking for quarterbacks in the stands and the other was a divisive game that came down to a few big plays at the end, and maybe a penalty or two. So, I can’t necessarily say that both games were good or entertaining or uncontroversial, but I can say they were interesting. Here are my thoughts from those interesting games, starting with none other than the biggest winner of the entire weekend.

The Biggest Moment of Patrick Mahomes’s Career

There is a lot that Mahomes has done over the course of his six-year career, with only five years as a starter. He’s won an MVP (and likely another), broke the record for most total yards in a season, made five AFC Championship Games, won a Super Bowl, and won Super Bowl MVP. But what he did on Sunday by making his third Super Bowl tops the list of most impressive things he’s done.

There was almost an unbearable amount of pressure on the young quarterback heading into the game. He was facing a Bengals team that he hadn’t beaten since they drafted Joe Burrow, including last year’s AFC Championship Game. Not only would a loss keep him out of the Super Bowl for the second year in a row, but it would also open up the question of whether or not Burrow and the Bengals were really the premier team in the AFC.

And then you throw in the fact that Mahomes was playing on an injured ankle (which was visibly apparent at times on Sunday) and against a team that has held its own against him on defense in past games. Many people thought the Cincinnati defense would once again have Mahomes figured out and take advantage of his bum ankle.

But none of that mattered on Sunday because Mahomes led his team to a 23-20 victory, securing his spot in the Super Bowl for the third time (something done by just 12 other quarterbacks, and Mahomes is only 27). He didn’t necessarily have his best game but he played well enough to win, especially given the circumstances.

He threw for 326 yards, completing 29 of 43 passes. He also threw just two touchdowns, but again it was still enough to win. Both scores were impressive, though, which has become the norm for Mahomes.

The first was on a fourth-and-one late in the second quarter with the Chiefs up just 6-3. He rolled out to his right but the Bengals did an excellent job of covering the routes. That didn’t stop Mahomes from finding Travis Kelce in the end zone for the first touchdown of the day. It was a textbook of the connection between those two players (which is the best in the league). Mahomes didn’t panic when the play didn’t go as planned, he bought himself a little bit more time and fired the ball to his All-Pro tight end because he trusted that he would get open and make a play, which he did.

But it was the second touchdown that really left me, and many others in awe. Remember, Mahomes was playing through an ankle injury that would have resulted in him sitting out a regular season game. Despite that, he still managed to make several of his typical extraordinary plays in the game, none so more extraordinary than this strike to Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Most other quarterbacks don’t make that play. Fitting the ball into that tight of a window while stepping up into a collapsing pocket is something that only the best of the best can do. And doing so on an injured ankle, which he is pushing off of to make the throw, just makes it that much more impressive.

But that wasn’t the last time Mahomes would make a huge play despite his injury. On the final drive of the game, Mahomes scrambled out to his right and got the first down with eight seconds left, putting his team on the edge of field goal range. Of course, we all know what happened next. The Bengals were called for a late hit, which moved the Chiefs comfortably into field goal range, and Harrison Butker nailed the game-winner.

That penalty has overshadowed an incredible effort by Mahomes. It was only fitting that in a game where he made several massive plays, the biggest one of all was the one time he used his legs. This was the game of Mahomes’s life, his version of Michael Jordan’s flu game, and he capped it off with a gutsy run. Mahomes’s ankle game will be one that will be remembered for a long time, especially if it eventually leads to his second Lombardi Trophy.

Bengals’ Blown Chance

So, now let’s talk about that aforementioned penalty. It was undoubtedly a huge game-altering play, and it always sucks when the refs are involved in those moments. But it was the right call (in my opinion and according to the rulebook), so maybe we should be talking about whether or not Joeseph Ossai should have been lunging toward Mahomes after he was clearly out of bounds.

The same people who were complaining about that call are also lamenting potentially missed holding calls on Mahomes’s scramble and a potentially missed block in the back call on the Skyy Moore punt return to start the drive. So, is it that you don’t want penalties to decide games or you don’t want penalties to be called against the team you’re rooting for?

But the Bengals lost this game on their own, even before those penalties were called or not called. Cincinnati got the ball back with 2:30 left in a tie game. The Bengals started at their own six-yard-line so it wasn’t the best-case scenario, but all they need to do was get into field goal range and they would have a chance to win.

But they couldn’t do that. Seven plays later the Bengals were punting the ball back to the Chiefs and would eventually lose the game. So why is that not getting more attention? All you can ask for in a close game is possession of the ball with a chance to win the game. The Bengals had exactly that but couldn’t take advantage. There was only one penalty on the drive, an intentional grounding call that was justified, but Cincinnati converted on third down following the call so it didn’t ultimately matter.

The Bengals failed on that drive and lost the game because they couldn’t block Chris Jones, who had a sack on third down to force a punt. You can point to things that happened after that play that decided the game as well but the bottom line is that none of those things happen if the Bengals just capitalize on that drive. The Bengals were not screwed over because of the refs, they screwed themselves.

Chris Jones Has Himself A Day

Speaking of Jones, he deserves a special mention after the game he played on Sunday. Not only did he make one of the most important plays of the day with that crucial third-down sack, but he was dominant nearly all game.

The Bengals’ issues on the offensive line were well-known heading into the game. It was something that the Bills failed to take advantage of last week, much to their detriment. The Chiefs did not suffer the same fate, thanks in large part to Jones.

He had two sacks and five quarterback hits, which is insane considering he is mostly used on the interior of the defensive line. But he isn’t just relegated to rushing from the defensive tackle position. The Chiefs do an excellent job of getting their best defensive player involved in different ways, whether it is lining him up at defensive end or running a stunt to get him on the outside.

A game like this was also due for Jones. He entered Sunday without a single sack in the postseason despite playing in 14 previous playoff games. Jones was also coming off the best season of his career, tying his career-high in sacks with 15.5 and being named a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year.

A lot of the praise from the game is going toward Mahomes, and rightfully so, but Jones deserves his flowers as well. The Chiefs don’t win this game without him. He was absolutely integral to their ability to hold the high-powered Bengals to just 20 points. Hopefully, this was the game that finally let the average NFL fan know that Jones is one of the best players in the sport, full stop.

A Purdy Impactful Injury

Let’s switch gears to the first game from Sunday, although you may have already forgotten it because it was a blowout. The Eagles beat the 49ers to win the NFC in a 31-7 domination, although it’s hard to take much from that game.

Despite the contest being the usual 60 minutes long, this game was over when Haason Reddick got a strip-sack fumble, although the turnover was the least of the 49ers’ worries. That play led to a Brock Purdy injury (later diagnosed as an injury to his UCL) that left him unable to effectively throw the ball, which is fairly important for a quarterback. The 49ers then inserted Josh Johnson into the game, although he was eventually ruled out with a concussion and Purdy had to come back in.

The fact that San Francisco was down to its fourth-string quarterback makes it incredibly hard to evaluate this game. the Eagles ended up running away with it, as expected. That has prompted a sentiment that the Eagles were always the better team and this sort of blowout was inevitable, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Purdy played just one drive while healthy which lasted only six plays, but we can still look at the early portion of the game to see how this game might have played out if he didn’t get injured.

The Eagles were up 21-7 at halftime but even that total was inflated by a dropped snap by Johnson that led to the Eagles getting the ball at the 49ers’ 30-yard-line. That play doesn’t happen if Purdy is in the game, neither do the several delay of game penalties that hindered their drives.

San Francisco played some pretty good defense against the Eagles despite what the score suggests. After allowing a touchdown on the first drive, the Niners forced three straight punts. The only problem is that their offense couldn’t capitalize on those stops with Johnson under center. They were finally able to get in the endzone with an impressive run by Christian McCaffrey, but that was the last time they would put points on the board.

San Francisco ended up with just 164 yards and 3.6 yards per play. It was a miserable performance. It was so miserable that it led to the Eagles’ win looking a lot better than it did. They managed just 3.8 yards per play, so statistically, their offense wasn’t much better, they just had the ball more.

Overall, it’s hard to take anything away from this game but one thing we can be sure of is that this game is much different with a healthy Purdy. This game was not destined to be a blowout, it just became one due to a very unfortunate injury. If the Eagles were down to their backup’s backup at quarterback it probably would have looked very similar.

The Best Of The Best

With all that being, the Eagles still deserve to be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. They were the best team in the conference all season, deservedly earning the number one seed in the playoffs. It’s what earned them the right to skip the first round and face Daniel Jones in the second round, which combined with Purdy’s injury gives them a very unimpressive run to the Super Bowl.

But, at the end of the day, the best team emerged, which is what we should all be rooting for. It sets up an incredible matchup with the other best team in the league. The Chiefs were also the one seed in their respective conference, giving us a best-versus-best Super Bowl (which I ranked as the best potential matchup last week before the games).

Whether or not you agree or like how each time got to this point, you have to appreciate the fact that we ended up with an outstanding pairing. Sports are unpredictable, which sometimes prevents us from getting what we want the most. We never got Lebron against Kobe in the NBA Finals or Brady versus Rodgers or Brees in the Super Bowl. I’m not saying Mahomes versus Jalen Hurts is on that level. In fact, I’m saying it definitely isn’t. What I am saying is that when the postseason field was laid out, Chiefs versus Eagles was the best possible matchup, and it’s the one we ended up with.