Cody Schoeler’s NFL West Conf. Championship Previews
Posted on January 28, 2023
There was a very high likelihood that I wouldn’t be writing any previews this week.
The west teams make up just 25 percent of the league, so it would be an uphill battle for them to be represented in the conference championships.
But that isn’t the case when two of the best teams in the entire league are in a west division in each conference.
The Chiefs and 49ers have both been playing exceptionally well this season, overcoming plenty of adversity to do so. As their reward, they get to take on the Bengals and Eagles, respectively, with a spot in the Super Bowl all the line.
Will they be able to get there? I don’t know, I don’t predict the future. But I can preview it, so that is exactly what I’m going to do now with a quick preview of both conference championship games this weekend.
49ers vs Eagles
Sunday, January 29
12:00 pm PT, FOX
This was the matchup that everyone thought would happen in the NFC Championship Game, and they were right.
These are the two best teams in the conference and have been so for quite some time.
You don’t get to this point by not having an elite group of talent, which is exactly what these teams both have.
According to Football Outsiders’s DVOA metric (which stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) both the 49ers and Eagles are in the top six in both offense and defense.
The 49ers are sixth in offensive DVOA and first in defensive while the Eagles are third and sixth in those same metrics.
Both of these teams are incredibly good on either side of the ball, so whichever side is great will likely win the game for its team.
It’s been mentioned countless times how good the 49ers’ defense is (most of those times by me), but this might be their toughest test of the season.
The Eagles are a physically assertive offense with stars wherever you look. Whether it is quarterback Jalen Hurts, wide receiver A.J. Brown, or the entire offensive line, there is talent everywhere.
Where that talent shines the most is in the ground. Led by center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson, both of whom were named All-Pro first-teamers, Philadelphia finished the season with the fifth-most rushing yards.
The Eagles also led the league in rushing touchdowns with 32, which is eight more than the team with the second-most.
Most of that is due to their success in short-yardage situations, where Hurts and the offensive line are nearly unstoppable.
But if anybody can stop this Eagles’ rushing attack, it will be the 49ers. They allowed the second-lowest average yards per attempt thanks to a punishing front seven.
The matchup in the trenches isn’t always the most exciting thing to watch but it may just decide this game.
The Eagles will throw the ball, though. And why wouldn’t they with talents like Brown, wide receiver Devonta Smith, and tight end Dallas Goedert?
Most of the attention is on Hurts’s running ability but he is certainly a capable thrower. He finished the season fourth in both passer rating and QBR and has made the most of his outstanding group of weapons.
But he will also face a tough challenge in the 49ers’ defense.
San Francisco held its opponents to the sixth-lowest passer rating and has one of the best pass rushes in the league, which should give the Philadelphia offensive line a run for its money.
Linebacker Fred Warner is just one of the reasons why it’s so hard to throw on the 49ers but he’s a pretty big reason. He can effectively neutralize the entire middle of the field and make plays using insane athleticism that shouldn’t be possible for a linebacker.
How the Eagles and Hurts attack Warner and the rest of a very good 49ers’ pass defense will be a very crucial aspect of Sunday’s game.
And then there’s the other side of the ball where, once again, the most important matchup will be upfront.
By this point, everyone is aware that quarterback Brock Purdy is having one of the most storybook seasons ever witnessed in the league.
The Eagles’ defensive line is hoping to end that story abruptly.
The 49ers were one of the better teams this year at protecting the quarterback, with their combination of offensive line play, led by first-team All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams, and scheme leading to just 31 sacks allowed, the sixth-fewest in the league.
The Eagles, on the other hand, were dominant at getting to the quarterback, leading the league in sacks with 70, which was 15 more than the team with the second-most.
The 49ers will have to make Purdy’s day as easy as possible and limit his mistakes if they want to win. The number one way to do that is to keep him clean and not let the Eagles’ pass rush get to him.
The other way to do that is by getting the ball out quickly to the offensive weapons, which is what the 49ers have been doing all season.
Handing the ball off to running back Christian McCaffrey and sometimes wide receiver Deebo Samuel will be incredibly helpful.
As will getting Samuel, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, and tight end George Kittle the ball in space.
The Eagles have as good of a cornerback dup as there is in the league with James Bradberry and Darius Slay along with a ballhawking safety in C.J. Gardner-Johnson, so they can definitely make some plays.
Purdy and the San Francisco offense are going to have to be incredibly efficient if they want to move the ball on that defense and avoid any game-breaking turnovers.
With all that being said, these teams are very similar. Teams with young quarterbacks surrounded by dynamic weapons that are strong up front on both sides of the ball.
This should be a back-and-forth slugfest of a game and it may come down to one or two plays that decide who represents the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Chiefs vs Bengals
Sunday, January 29
3:30 pm PT, CBS
If this feels like a matchup you’ve seen a few times before it’s because it is.
The Chiefs and Bengals have played each other three times since the start of last season, including last year’s AFC Championship Game.
That game will, of course, be remembered for the epic turnaround that the Bengals orchestrated in the second half to make their unprecedented run to the Super Bowl.
So, it’s safe to say these teams know each other pretty well and that will show on the field on Sunday.
The Number One thing to pay attention to in any game the Chiefs play is quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
The prospective NFL MVP is the type of player who undoubtedly can lead a team to the Super Bowl, as he has done twice before, but he is playing on an injured ankle and against a team he hasn’t fared well against in the past.
In the last three games against Cincinnati, Mahomes hasn’t thrown for more than 275 yards while totaling six touchdowns and two interceptions. Oh yeah, and all those games were losses.
There’s something about the way Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo dials up the defense against Mahomes that works.
Of course, it also helps to have great players such as safety Jessie Bates and linebacker Logan Wilson dropping back into coverage.
How Anarumo plans to defend Mahomes this time, or how Mahomes and the Chiefs can react to that plan, will be very important.
If the Bengals are able to slow down the Chiefs it will be very impressive because that has been nearly impossible this year. Even with less offensive talent than in years past, the Chiefs have been just as dominant on offense.
The continued excellence of tight end Travis Kelce, who was named to the All-Pro first team, is a huge part of that.
He racked up 14 catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns last week against the Jaguars in what was one of the best postseason performances by a tight end ever.
It may be a good idea for Cincinnati to cover Kelce and force wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Kadarius Toney to try to beat them.
Mahomes isn’t the only superstar quarterback in this game, though, because Joe Burrow has entered that conversation over the past couple of years.
Last year, beating Mahomes and making it to the Super Bowl was what began his ascension to superstardom, so doing it once again would be a huge moment in Burrow’s young career.
Burrow’s success against the Chiefs hasn’t just been about winning: He’s thrown for 982 yards and eight touchdowns in his three career games against Kansas City, which were all wins.
It makes sense that Burrow would be able to take advantage of a Chiefs’ defense that has never been considered elite, especially given the fact that he’s throwing to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins—who are two of the best young receivers in the game—and handing off to a very capable running back in Joe Mixon.
But the Chiefs are significantly better at defending against the pass this year than they were last year.
It shows in Burrow’s stats because he had his worst of three career games against the Chiefs this season, even throwing his first interception in the matchup.
Kansas City’s pass defense still isn’t great statistically, but it’s certainly better than it used to be.
An influx of new talent in the secondary, such as safety Justin Reid and rookie cornerbacks Jaylen Watson and Trent McDuffie, has helped the Chiefs get better in that area.
But the number one reason for the defensive success is defensive tackle Chris Jones, who was dominant all year long.
His ability to rush the passer from all over the defensive line has negatively impacted opposing passing games this season.
Jones’s ability has also drawn more attention from offensive lines, which opens things up for defensive ends Frank Clark and rookie George Karlaftis.
It also just so happens that the Bengals’ offensive line is vulnerable at the moment.
Although it didn’t show in last week’s game against the Bills, the Bengals have lost several starters on the line, which is something the Chiefs can exploit.
But even if they get pressure on Burrow, the Chiefs are still going to have to defend the skill players, which is a tough task.
Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, along with the two aforementioned rookies, may have a tough time guarding Chase and Higgins, making it even more imperative that the pass rush get to Burrow.
Linebacker Nick Bolton will also play a crucial role in defending inside the box. He’ll be matched up against Mixon, tight end Hayden Hurst, and sometimes even tasked with keeping an eye on Burrow trying to make any plays.
How the young defender can handle all that will hugely impact the defense’s ability to stay in this game.
There’s a lot on the line in this game, not just a spot in the Super Bowl, although that’s definitely the biggest prize.
A win here would be a defining moment in either of the young quarterbacks; careers, not to mention a huge day for their respective franchises.
This game will come down to more than just the quarterbacks but given the level of play both Mahomes and Burrow have shown so far, whoever outplays the other will probably be the one emerging victorious.
—More from Cody Schoeler—
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