PHILADELPHIA – The NFL’s version of the Final Four is set, the Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers advancing to Championship Sunday.
With the Lombardi Trophy two wins away, the players can almost taste Super Bowl immortality.
“Every team comes into the year trying to accomplish the same thing,’ Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts said following Saturday night’s 38-7 beatdown of the New York Giants.
‘When you climb that mountain it gets harder and more treacherous.’
And yet the pinnacle is in sight.
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Here are five storylines that will be closely monitored and examined all week and well after kickoff this Sunday:
Patrick Mahomes’ ankle
If the speculation isn’t already at a fever pitch, then its thermometer is at least redlining after the presumptive league MVP suffered a high ankle sprain Saturday afternoon – a diagnosis confirmed 24 hours later amid Mahomes’ vow that he’ll be ready to go against the Bengals. But get ready for a week of, ‘Did he practice?’ ‘Didn’t he?’ ‘Was he limited?’ ‘Did he look comfortable putting weight on the leg during the open portion of practice?’ ‘Is he rehabbing at the facility 24 hours a day?’
Former Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo, who will be calling the Bengals-Chiefs game this weekend, already jumpstarted the theorizing by openly wondering if Mahomes can actually play.
‘When I did it, I wasn’t able to actually play the next week. In other words, you can’t walk. You can play the day of,’ Romo said Sunday on CBS’ broadcast of the Bengals-Buffalo Bills contest. ‘He’s gonna go ahead and like tape it up. He’s gonna go out there and adrenaline’s gonna kick in – he’s gonna be fine. The next day – he’s not gonna be able to do anything. He’s gonna almost be on crutches on Wednesday.
‘For those of you thinking it’s 100% that he plays, it’s gonna take a lot. Will he play? I think yes. He’s Patrick Mahomes. He’s young. You have the ability to get healthier faster. But at the same time, I just don’t know if he’s going to be able to be Patrick Mahomes. I can tell you right now – he’s not going to have the same athleticism that he had throughout most of the year.’
And we’re off.
Super Bowl’s first rookie quarterback?
That could be the Niners’ Brock Purdy. Sunday was the least impressive of his seven late-season starts, and the first in which the final pick of the 2022 draft – yes, ‘Mr. Irrelevant,’ if you hadn’t heard – didn’t throw a touchdown pass. Yet it was also devoid of turnovers and perfectly sufficient to overcome a scary Cowboys defense that was surely the best Purdy has played as a professional.
Now he’s tasked with taking down the top-seeded Eagles on the road as he prepares to become just the fifth rookie QB to start a conference championship game, joining Shaun King, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez – who all lost.
It’s not unheard of for a quarterback to win a ring in his second season, something Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Big Ben and Russell Wilson managed. But Purdy is looking to explore uncharted territory, and that would begin with a victory at Lincoln Financial Field against what’s going to be the best team he’s ever faced.
49ers and Eagles: Mirror images?
These teams met most recently last season, the Niners winning a defensive slugfest in Philadelphia 17-11 in what was Hurts’ sixth NFL start. (Purdy’s Iowa State Cyclones demolished UNLV the day before.) Now, three years after Hurts’ Oklahoma Sooners survived Purdy’s Cyclones 42-41 in a Big 12 track meet, these quarterbacks will face off on a much more even NFL playing field. And while the playing styles of Hurts, 24, and Purdy, 23, are dissimilar – the duo will be the youngest QBs, in terms of combined age, to start in the championship round – their teams have much in common.
They combined to produce 14 Pro Bowlers and 12 All-Pros (first- or second-team) during the 2022 season. The success of each is largely rooted in the trenches, Eagles RT Lane Johnson, Eagles C Jason Kelce and 49ers LT Trent Williams widely recognized as the premier players at their respective positions, the latter two on a Hall of Fame fast track. But these clubs also roll deep on their defensive lines. The Niners feature league sack leader and likely NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa. The Eagles’ 70 regular-season sacks nearly toppled the league record, but they were the first team to feature four players with at least 10 sacks apiece – and Haason Reddick, Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham each had a minimum of 11, Reddick’s 16 trailing only Bosa’s 18½ league-wide. And behind both D-lines, an exceptional group of playmakers – the Niners’ linebacking corps arguably the NFL’s best, the Eagles’ featuring what’s probably the league’s top group of corners.
Hurts and Purdy are both highly mobile, though Purdy uses his legs to extend plays from the pocket – which Hurts can obviously do, though he also set sail for 760 yards and 13 TDs on the ground. Oh, and the weapons at their disposal. The backfields are headlined by San Francisco’s Christian McCaffrey and Philadelphia’s Miles Sanders but expect plenty of others to get carries. The Eagles’ A.J. Brown and Niners’ Deebo Samuel are listed as wide receivers but are hybrids who are among the most punishing runners in the league with the ball in their hands, Samuel a significant component of the 49ers’ run game. And WR2s Brandon Aiyuk (49ers) and DeVonta Smith (Eagles) and TEs Dallas Goedert (Eagles) and George Kittle (49ers) can all feast in their own rights, but especially so if too much defensive attention is focused on Brown and Samuel.
These teams, each in pursuit of a 16th win on the season, almost seem like cousins or long-lost siblings. But there will be no warm and fuzzy family reunion Sunday.
Will Joe Burrow remain perfect against K.C.?
Sunday will mark the fourth meeting between the Bengals and Chiefs in the past 13 months. Cincinnati has won the previous three, including last year’s AFC championship game at Arrowhead Stadium, the margin of victory three points in every one.
The narrative will entail Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow – his lone postseason loss in six starts occurred (barely) in Super Bowl 56 – being the only quarterback to win his first three starts against Mahomes. Give Burrow the credit he’s due as he’s been generally stellar in those matchups, including a 446-yard, four-TD passing effort in the first one. It’s not like Mahomes has been awful against the Bengals, but he hasn’t thrown for 300 yards against them since Andy Dalton was their quarterback. And Mahomes was uncharacteristically terrible – by his own admission – in the second half and overtime of last year’s championship game, throwing a pair of interceptions after halftime as K.C. squandered a 21-3 lead.
And yet the Bengals have been the beneficiaries of some atypical fortune in those games – the Mahomes turnovers, a fourth-down K.C. penalty that forgave some bizarre play calls by Cincy HC Zac Taylor in the first meeting and a pivotal (and rare) fourth-quarter fumble by Chiefs All-Pro TE Travis Kelce in Week 13, Kansas City’s last defeat.
To some degree, maybe the Bengals are renting space in K.C.’s collective headspace – and the Chiefs are definitely aware of the score. But if Mahomes is a reasonable facsimile of himself Sunday, it’s perfectly rational to expect a different result. After all, Tipico does favor K.C. … by one point … at home.
Kansas City Eagles?
We’ve also reached the point of the NFL season when it’s fun to project Super Bowl matchups. The Chiefs and 49ers could tee it up for the second time in three years. The Niners and Bengals could join the Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers as the only franchises to meet thrice on Super Sunday. The Bengals and Eagles … well, they shared LBs Bill Bergey and Dhani Jones back in the day?
But nothing is going to feed the Super Bowl hype machine like a pairing of the Chiefs and Eagles. Soup to nuts, they were probably the best teams in the league this season, their No. 1 conference seedings testament to that. Hurts might well have been the MVP front-runner, had he not hurt his shoulder last month and been overtaken by Mahomes.
But that’s nothing.
Andy Reid trying to win his second Super Bowl with the Chiefs … against the team he coached for 14 seasons and rose to prominence with – nearly leading Philadelphia to its first Lombardi Trophy in 2004 before falling just short in Super Bowl 39? The podcasting, media-savvy Kelce brothers each seeking their second ring?
If it’s storylines you like – and thanks for reading this far – Kansas City-Philadelphia will deliver plenty, right down to barbecue vs. cheesesteaks … not that there’s any rooting interest here.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.