Instant analysis from Sunday’s NFC and AFC Championship games:
⋅ Patrick Mahomes won an MVP and a Super Bowl before turning 26, but no victory may do more to boost his legacy than his heroic performance in Sunday night’s 23-20 win over the Bengals in the AFC Championship game.
Playing on a right high ankle sprain suffered only eight days prior, and playing without several of his top receivers due to injury, Mahomes threw for 326 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. But it wasn’t just the stats; Mahomes played through pain and gutted out a victory against perhaps the best team in the NFL.
Mahomes still made several impressive throws and flips on the run, displaying his trademark razzle dazzle despite being clearly limited with his mobility. He was sacked just three times in 49 pass plays, and was clutch in crunch time.
Mahomes was able to step up in the pocket and throw a 19-yard dart to Marques Valdez-Scantling for a touchdown, stepped up and made another big 25-yarder to Valdez-Scantling, and then won the game with a 5-yard scramble on third-and-4, which drew the Joseph Ossai personal foul penalty to put the Chiefs in range for the game-winning field goal.
Mahomes played like a warrior, and his win on a high ankle sprain will go down as one of the gutsier in NFL lore.
⋅ Joe Burrow also played like a champion in defeat. He and the Bengals started slow — zero total yards and three sacks allowed in the first quarter — but came roaring back in the second and third, and gave themselves a chance to win.
Burrow finished with 270 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions, but made several unbelievable plays — a 27-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins, a 35-yarder to Ja’Marr Chase on fourth-and-6 (in double coverage!), a 13-yard scramble to pick up a first down in the fourth quarter, and a 23-yard pass to Hayden Hurst to convert third-and-16.
This game didn’t work out, but Burrow is as cool and clutch as it gets. He will be back on this stage many times.
⋅ It’s usually a cop-out to blame the officiating, and the Bengals certainly did deserve the personal foul penalty at the end of the game that put the Chiefs in position for the win. But Ron Torbert’s crew was objectively terrible and one-sided against Cincinnati.
The refs bafflingly gave the Chiefs a do-over on third down because of some clock issue. The Bengals got the stop, again, but had it wiped out by a questionable holding penalty on cornerback Eli Apple. Then with 5 minutes left, the refs handed the Chiefs another first down with a ticky-tack defensive pass interference call against Mike Hilton.
Instant replay official Walt Anderson also got into the act with yet another head-scratching ruling, giving Valdes-Scantling forward progress and a first down even though he clearly pulled the ball back on his own. The video certainly wasn’t conclusive.
The Chiefs and Bengals played another classic — their last four games have each been decided by a field goal — but this one was marred by inconsistent, one-sided officiating.
⋅ Injuries are an inevitable part of football, and they ruined what should have been a fantastic NFC Championship game between the Eagles and 49ers. Niners quarterback Brock Purdy hurt his elbow on the opening series, backup/fourth-stringer Josh Johnson suffered a concussion, and the Eagles ran away, 31-7.
It’s a shame, because this should have been a slugfest between the NFL’s top two defenses and two of its most dynamic offenses. Instead, it was choppy and non-competitive, with the Niners lacking functionality on offense and the officials throwing too many penalty flags.
The 49ers fought valiantly, particularly on defense, where they held the Eagles to 269 total yards. But the Niners gained only 164 and held the ball for just 22:34 as their season frittered away.
This game highlighted the NFL should reinstitute the “emergency third QB” rule. And Shanahan probably should have used Christian McCaffrey as the Wildcat quarterback instead of going back to an injured Purdy. But it potentially would have gotten McCaffrey hurt, and probably wouldn’t have mattered for the Niners. When you’re down to your fourth-string — and potentially your fifth-string — QB in the NFC Championship game, it’s hard to have much of a shot.
⋅ Poor Kyle Shanahan can’t catch a break. He has built a terrific program in six years with the Niners, but the 2018 season was wrecked by Jimmy Garoppolo’s ACL tear, the 2020 season was wrecked by Garoppolo’s ankle injury, and the 2022 season ended with Josh Johnson under center. All Shanahan wants is to make it through a full season with the quarterback of his choosing. That doesn’t seem too much to ask, but seemingly every year he suffers a different calamity.
⋅ It sounds weird to say when they won by 24 points, but the Eagles did not play the crispest game on offense and were lucky the 49ers basically played without a quarterback.
Jalen Hurts threw for only 121 yards, and the run game averaged just 3.4 yards per carry before kneel-downs as the Eagles struggled in the first half and took too long to pull away. The run game was especially frustrating — the Eagles had four nice runs for 54 yards (13.5 average), and just 96 yards on their other 38 non-kneeling runs (2.5 average). Hurts also averaged just 4.8 yards per pass attempt as he struggled to hit anything but checkdowns and quick outs.
The Eagles only scored their first touchdown thanks to a missed call on DeVonta Smith’s fourth-down catch. They also wasted an early turnover at midfield, missed four tackles on McCaffrey’s touchdown run, and got terrible punts from Brett Kern, an injury replacement.
The Niners’ No. 1-ranked defense deserves a lot of credit, and is better than the defense the Eagles will face in the Super Bowl. But the Eagles’ offense showed some cracks Sunday.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.