AFC, NFC Championship Weekend Preview

January 27, 2023 by Joseph Santoliquito,

For decades, NFL franchises and individual players have forged and solidified their legacies during conference championship games. How will history remember the events and contributors this week?

Sunday features the AFC and NFC Championship Games presented by Intuit TurboTax. Will someone unexpectedly rise to the occasion with a clutch performance that sends his team to Super Bowl LVII? Will a savvy superstar write another chapter in playoff lore? Or, how about Choice C: All of the above?

Regardless, no one is questioning the quality of the league’s championship-game field. There are no lightning-in-a-bottle teams this season. In fact, this marks the first time ever that all four finalists have had at least 14 wins, including playoffs.

And in the decade ahead, NFL fans can look forward to an exciting future. The four individuals expected to start under center this week – Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and San Francisco’s Brock Purdy – represent the youngest group of conference championship quarterbacks since conference championship play began in 1970, averaging 25 years and 98 days old on Sunday. Previously, the youngest quartet was the 1996 conference championships, when the four starters averaged 25 years and 231 days.

The NFL’s Championship Game schedule:
Sunday, January 29
NFC    San Francisco 49ers (15-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (15-3)  3:00 PM ET    FOX, FOX Deportes
AFC    Cincinnati Bengals (14-4) at Kansas City Chiefs (15-3)  6:30 PM ET    CBS, Paramount+

Burrow-Mahomes, Episode IV

This week, Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes are expected to meet for the fourth time when the Cincinnati Bengals (14-4) visit the Kansas City Chiefs (15-3) on Sunday night (6:30 PM ET, CBS, Paramount+). The last time two quarterbacks started consecutive championship games against each other before either reached his 28th birthday? It was 1986-87, when Pro Football Hall of Famer John Elway guided the Broncos over Bernie Kosar and the Cleveland Browns to back-to-back Super Bowl berths.\

Mahomes has led the Chiefs to five consecutive conference championship games. Since the 1970 merger, the only other quarterbacks to start five straight conference title games are Tom Brady (five from 2003-07 and eight from 2011-18) and Pro Football Hall of Famer Ken Stabler (five from 1973-77). Mahomes is the first to accomplish the feat prior to his 28th birthday.

Prior to Burrow’s arrival, Mahomes and the Chiefs registered a 45-10 win over Cincinnati in 2018. But Burrow has had the Chiefs’ number since he entered the league. Mahomes has made 92 NFL starts, including postseason. He’s 1-3 (.250) against the Bengals and 72-16 (.818) against the rest of the league. Mahomes has never lost to any other franchise more than two consecutive times.

Burrow in three career starts against Kansas City, including playoffs, is 3-0 with 982 passing yards, eight touchdown passes, one interception and a 121.0 passer rating. Burrow is also 3-0 overall in road playoff games.

Burrow is expected to become the first quarterback selected No. 1 overall to start two championship games in his first three NFL seasons. He also can join Russell Wilson as one of two quarterbacks ever to win six postseason games in his first three NFL seasons.

Last week, Burrow improved to 5-1 as a starting quarterback in the postseason. Prior to drafting him first overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Bengals had five total postseason victories as a franchise.

Numbers Of The Week – Defense Still Wins Championships:

0 – The number of 100-yard rushers allowed by San Francisco this season. The 49ers haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Justin Fields (103), Oct. 31, 2021. And since DeMeco Ryans replaced Robert Saleh as defensive coordinator in 2021, his unit has allowed just two 100-yard rushers in 39 games, including playoffs.
1– The number of combined 100-yard rushers (zero), 300-yard passers (zero) and 100-yard receivers (one) allowed by the four victorious defenses during the Divisional Round.
3 – The number of final-four teams that ranked among the league’s leaders in points allowed per game during the regular season: San Francisco (16.3, first), Cincinnati (20.1, tied for fifth) and Philadelphia (20.2, tied for seventh).
3 – The number of final-four teams that ranked among the league’s leaders in total yards allowed per game during the regular season: San Francisco (300.6, first), Philadelphia (301.5, second) and Kansas City (328.2, 11th).
10– Cincinnati’s points allowed in last week’s win, the Bills’ fewest points scored since Dec. 6, 2021.
20 – The number of San Francisco interceptions during the regular season, tied for the league lead. Philadelphia had 17, tied for fourth.
30 – The number of takeaways recorded by San Francisco during the regular season, tied for second in the NFL. Philadelphia had 27, tied for fourth. The 49ers’ plus-13 takeaway ratio led the league while the Eagles (plus-eight) ranked third.
70 – The franchise-record number of sacks by Philadelphia during the regular season, first in the league and tied for third in NFL history. Kansas City (55) ranked second in the NFL this year.

Championship Cities

Philadelphia and Kansas City are no stranger to hosting conference championship games. This week marks the sixth time the Eagles have hosted a championship game, tied with Miami for fifth in the league since the 1970 merger. Only Pittsburgh (11), San Francisco (10), New England (eight) and Denver (seven) have more. Kansas City, meanwhile, is tied for seventh with five, including this week.

Spotlight – Individual Matchup

When San Francisco (15-4) and Philadelphia (15-3) decide the NFC champion at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday (3:00 PM ET, FOX, FOX Deportes), the starting quarterbacks are expected to make history. The 49ers’ Brock Purdy (23) and the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts (24) will become the first pair of starting quarterbacks in a conference championship game under age 25.

The poised young passers actually squared off in a Big 12 thriller in Norman, Okla., during the 2019 season. A true sophomore, Purdy led Iowa State to 20 fourth-quarter points before Hurts and Oklahoma held off the Cyclones, 42-41. Hurts totaled 341 yards (273 passing, 68 rushing) and five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) while Purdy threw for 282 yards and five touchdowns, and added 55 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Spotlight – Team Matchup

Don’t expect a lot of yards in Sunday’s NFC Championship. That’s because during the regular season the 49ers (300.6 yards allowed per game) and Eagles (301.5) finished first and second, respectively, among NFL defenses. Sunday marks just the third time the NFL’s top two defenses in yards allowed have clashed in a conference championship game, the first since Pittsburgh beat Baltimore, 23-14, in the 2008 AFC title game. The only other instance since the 1970 merger was Dallas’ 28-0 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the 1978 NFC Championship Game.

San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans finished his playing career with the Eagles. Philadelphia acquired Ryans in a 2012 trade that involved three draft choices, one of which the Eagles used to select quarterback Nick Foles.

Philadelphia’s 32 rushing touchdowns in 2022 tied for the second-most ever in a single season, trailing only Pittsburgh’s 33 in 1976. On five occasions this season, including last week’s playoff win, an Eagles player has reached 100 rushing yards. San Francisco hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 32 straight games, including playoffs.

The NFC West has represented the conference in three of the past four Super Bowls, and six of the last 10 dating to San Francisco’s berth in Super Bowl XLVII against Baltimore.

San Francisco started Trey LanceJimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy this year. With a win on Sunday, the 49ers would be the first team to start three quarterbacks during a regular season and advance to a Super Bowl since the 2016 New England Patriots (Tom BradyJacoby Brissett and Garoppolo).

Streak Speak

Including San Francisco (12 straight wins) and Cincinnati (10) this week, 14 teams since the 1970 merger have entered a conference championship game on winning streaks of at least 10 games. However, this is only the second time two teams entered conference championship week on winning streaks of at least 10 games. It last happened in 1976, when both the Oakland Raiders (11) and Pittsburgh Steelers (10) did it.

Including postseason games, the 49ers (12) are bringing the NFL’s longest winning streak into a conference championship game since New England entered the 2007 AFC title contest with 17 straight wins.

Kansas City (2018-22) will become just the third team to play in five consecutive conference championships since 1970. The New England Patriots (eight straight from 2011-18) and the Oakland Raiders (five from 1973-77) also accomplished the feat.

Did You Know?

All-Pro brothers Jason and Travis Kelce aren’t taking anything for granted this week, but should they each win their respective championship games, they’ll accomplish something no other family has done. They’ll become the first set of brothers to play on opposite teams in the same Super Bowl.

Under-The-Radar Storyline

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has a lot of Andy Reid in his coaching DNA. Taylor’s father-in-law, Mike Sherman, coached with Reid in Green Bay from 1997-98 under Mike Holmgren. Holmgren, Reid and Sherman, as well as Mike Shanahan, point to Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Walsh as a mentor. Walsh learned much of his coaching prowess from the founder of the Cincinnati Bengals, Pro Football Hall of Famer Paul Brown.

Taylor is 5-1 as a head coach in the postseason. His .833 postseason winning percentage ranks second in NFL history behind Pro Football Hall of Famer Vince Lombardi (.900, 9-1) among coaches with a minimum of six games coached.

Taylor is only the 13th head coach in NFL history to win at least five of his first six postseason games, the first since Mike Tomlin. Should he win Sunday, he would join Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan as well as Pro Football Hall of Famers Tom FloresJoe GibbsJimmy JohnsonVince Lombardi and Bill Walsh as the only head coaches in NFL history to win at least six of their first seven postseason games.

Taylor is only the third coach ever – joining Pro Football Hall of Famers Tom Landry and Chuck Noll – to guide a team to multiple conference championship games after winning six-or-fewer games over his first two seasons with the same team. Taylor was 6-25-1 from 2019-20 with the Bengals.

Four coaches in NFL history have reached two Super Bowls after winning no more than two games in their first season with the same team: Pro Football Hall of Famers Jimmy JohnsonTom LandryChuck Noll and Bill Walsh. Taylor was 2-14 in his first season with Cincinnati (2019) before leading the Bengals to Super Bowl LVI.

Trend Time

Over the last nine postseasons (2013-21), home teams are 14-4 in conference championship games. The Bengals (last season at Kansas City) have one of those four victories.

This Week In NFL History

Jan. 25, 1998 (25 years ago) – In Super Bowl XXXII, Terrell Davis overcomes debilitating migraines to rush for 157 yards and a Super Bowl-record three touchdowns to lead the Broncos to their first NFL crown, snapping the NFC’s streak of Super Bowl victories at 13. Late in the third quarter, with the Broncos and defending champion Packers tied, 17-17, Denver faces a third-and-6 from the Packers’ 12-yard line. Without a better option, a 37-year-old John Elway leaves the pocket and dives for a first down, turned by three Green Bay defenders into a spinning helicopter. Inspired by Elway’s desire at a pivotal moment, Davis finds the end zone two plays later. After Green Bay knots the game at 24 early in the fourth quarter, Elway connects with fullback Howard Griffith on a key 23-yard pass that sets up Davis’ go-ahead touchdown with 1:45 remaining. Brett Favre guides the Packers into Broncos territory but linebacker John Mobley bats away Favre’s fourth-down pass in the waning seconds to secure a 31-24 victory. Afterward, owner Pat Bowlen, one of six future Pro Football Hall of Famers from that Broncos team, hands Elway the Vince Lombardi Trophy and declares, “This one’s for John!”

And Last But Not Least

The Bengals and Chiefs are playing in a conference championship for the second straight year, something rare in NFL history. Since the 1970 merger, the same two teams have met in consecutive conference championships on only six occasions. Dallas defeated San Francisco in both 1970 and ‘71, the Steelers took two of three from the Raiders (1974-76), the Steelers captured two straight over the Houston Oilers from 1978-79, the Broncos edged the Cleveland Browns in consecutive thrillers (1986-87), Dallas took two of three from San Francisco (1992-94) and the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots split two straight AFC title games from 2011-12.

Joseph Santoliquito can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.

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