This part of the NFL calendar used to be a given around here. Rooting for the Patriots on Conference Championship Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake felt like a birthright and a berth right. Now, football’s final four is another reminder that the league no longer orbits around the Patriots.
We view the sports world through a particularly parochial lens here. So, as a public service, here is a Patriot-centric rooting guide to the AFC and NFC Championship games.
Let’s start with the AFC title game in Kansas City between the Chiefs and Bengals because it’s more relevant here.
Reasons to root against the Chiefs: How much time do you have? No team’s success does more to undercut the sacrosanct legacy and elements of the mythology of the Patriots dynasty than the annual AFC dominance of the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes. Andy Reid is not as skilled a coach as Bill Belichick. However, now that Reid has a generational QB, he is booking his ticket for the AFC title game year after year while Belichick can’t win a playoff game. Just a coincidence, probably.
The Chiefs are playing in their fifth straight AFC Championship game, joining the Raiders (1973-77) and the Patriots (2011-18) as the only teams to do that. Top-seeded KC could advance to a third Super Bowl in four years.
What separates the Patriots’ dynastic run with Belichick and Tom Brady is its remarkable longevity: 13 conference title game appearances, nine Super Bowls, and six Super Bowl titles. The Chiefs can’t threaten that yet, and maybe they’ll end up closer to the Peyton Manning Colts. But they’re following a familiar formula to perennial Super Bowl contention with an elite quarterback and making it look football foolproof.
Reasons to root for the Chiefs: They have a running back from Rutgers, Isiah Pacheco. The mere mention of Rutgers elicits a Pavlovian rooting response from Patriots fans. Those State Farm commercials are entertaining. Sign me up for the jazz bath.
Reasons to root for the Bengals: The Bengals, who come in riding a 10-game winning streak, are the Chief-slayers. They’ve won the last three meetings, including last year’s AFC title game in KC. Joe Burrow is the closest thing the current NFL has to a young Brady.
Joe Brrr has ice water in his veins. He’s 3-0 in his career against the Chiefs with 982 passing yards, 8 touchdown passes, 1 interception, and a 121.0 passer rating. He’s also 3-0 on the road in the postseason.
Burrow is 5-1 in the playoffs, already matching what was the franchise playoff victory total before him.
Burrow isn’t bragging when he says Cincy’s championship window is his whole career. Patriots fans can still dream that Mac Jones, who elicited some Burrow comparisons as a draft prospect, can emulate the Burrow leap.
Burrow’s success is a good omen because it proves that you can still win with a polished pocket passer and great defensive game-planning (kudos to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo).
Reasons to root against the Bengals: Watching what traditionally has been one of the most poorly and parsimoniously run franchises advance to back-to-back Super Bowls would take some shine off the Kraft management model. It also would reinforce the idea that the tide of a great quarterback can lift any NFL boat.
Zac Taylor didn’t even call offensive plays before he became Bengals coach. He went 6-25-1 in 2019 and 2020. I’m looking forward to the Brown family and Taylor ghost-writing legacy books off the back of their brilliant quarterback.
Moving along to the NFC game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco Shanahans, uh, 49ers.
Reasons to root for the Eagles: Their blueprint for success doesn’t require an elite QB and could prod the Patriots into action.
Philadelphia designed an offense that takes advantage of the quarterback’s strengths. Then got said quarterback, Jalen Hurts, a bona fide WR1 in A.J. Brown, surrendering first- and third-round picks and a four-year, $100 million extension. The only offenses that finished above Philly in yards per game and points were the Chiefs and Bills.
The Eagles are proof that you can use the roster around an Alabama QB to elevate him to MVP play. Also, the Eagles can win the old-fashioned way. They’re 12-0 when they have a 100-yard rusher.
Reasons to root against the Eagles: The Philly Special, Corey Clement’s non-catch, and the overall disaster that was the Miserable Minnesota Mall Super Bowl loss.
The Philly football fans can be boorish and annoying when their team isn’t good. They’re unbearable with a Super Bowl team.
Philadelphia fans just enjoyed a World Series run by the Phillies, losing to the Astros. Now, they’re going to the Super Bowl? That used to be our thing. Also, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, a nice guy ruining the Red Sox, hails from Philadelphia.
Reasons to root for the 49ers: Coach Kyle Shanahan is a certified FOB (Friend of Belichick). His team playing in a third conference title game in four years, and advancing to a second Super Bowl without a bona fide franchise quarterback, bolsters the Belichick Theory — that a coach can be the difference and the centerpiece of a contender.
Doing it with Mr. Irrelevant — the final pick in the 2022 draft, rookie QB Brock Purdy — reinforces the idea that franchise quarterbacks can be forged, not just found. Pablum for Patriots faithful.
If you just can’t stand to see Brady win another Super Bowl, pull for the 49ers. If Shanahan falls agonizingly short again, the Niners will consider bringing TB12 home.
Finally, running back Christian McCaffrey dates Boston University/Rhode Island’s Olivia Culpo.
Reasons to root against the 49ers: Their success only further emboldens Belichick to deemphasize the QB position, overlooking that San Francisco wields the most loaded roster in the league, including the league’s No. 1 defense with NFL sacks leader Nick Bosa. Belichick might think Bailey Zappe is his Brock Purdy. Ugh.
The Shanahan offense is the reason the Patriots offense went to pot this season.
The 49ers present painful reminders of how inept the Patriots are at drafting pass-catchers. Shanahan drafted a receiver from Arizona State who can actually play, taking Brandon Aiyuk in the first round in 2020, one year after Belichick used a first-rounder to take N’Keal Harry. Deebo Samuel was selected four picks after Harry.
With a win, the 49ers will tie the Patriots for the most postseason victories in NFL history with 37.
The verdict: The best Super Bowl matchup from a Patriots fan perspective is … Bengals vs. Eagles. Protect the legacy of the past and find a workable blueprint for the future.