NFL Playoffs: Previewing the AFC, NFC conference championship games

Steel City Underground previews the AFC and NFC conference championship games of the 2022 NFL playoff season, including dates, times, and teams vying for a shot in Super Bowl LVII.

Predictions aside, the 2022 NFL conference championship games on Sunday, January 29, will feature teams that are statistically close; they may end up being historically well-matched. That makes this weekend’s games not only highly anticipated but increasingly attractive to NFL fans who may not have tuned in once their own team finished their season.

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NFC Championship

San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles 

Sunday, 3:00 p.m. (Eastern), FOX

Questions surrounding the recovery of Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and his sprained throwing shoulder were answered when he let loose a 40-yard pass in his opening offensive series last weekend: he can throw. The issue, now, is whether he can maintain a high throwing tempo throughout the entire game against the 49ers since he threw for just 154 yards in the divisional round win thanks to a fast four-score team lead over the New York Giants.

For the ‘Niners, head coach Kyle Shanahan and company are riding the Brock Purdy rocket, but his lack of experience -despite going unbeaten since the rookie quarterback took over the offense – may be a concern. Against the Dallas Cowboys, Purdy was kept from shining nearly as brightly and was denied a touchdown; it was the first time he’d been shut out this season.

Both Hurts and Purdy will be under pressure as the Philadelphia and San Francisco defenses battle for top billing, supremacy, and the biggest plays of the game.

The Eagles finished the regular season just two sacks shy of the NFL single-season team sack record of 72 (Chicago Bears, 1984 season), and grabbed five against the Giants in the divisional round. Meanwhile, the linebacker trio of Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, and Azeez Al-Shaair combined with Nick Bosa make the Niners defense a trial for even the most-experienced NFL quarterbacks. These defenses will be in a head-to-head grudge match for 60 minutes.

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AFC Championship

Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs

Sunday, 6:30 p.m. (Eastern), CBS

While a lot of the pre-game chatter surrounds the ankle injury Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes suffered in the divisional round, plenty of talk is about how the Bengals have picked up steam as Joe Burrow has been more elusive, taking less sacks despite an offensive line that has seen its share of injuries and adjustments. Burrow has had the support of a rebuild in the run game, and Joe Mixon‘s 20 carries for 105 yards last weekend kept the young quarterback from being loaded-up on.

“We know what team we’re playing: a team that’s been to this game the last five seasons, and they’ve all been in that stadium. So, to me they’re still the team to beat, and we’re coming for them. But we know it’s gonna be tough. It’s gonna be hard fought, and we know the kind of players they have on that side.” – Bengals QB Joe Burrow

Kansas City’s defensive front is formidable and fully expected to have learned from earlier games with Cincinnati how to mix things up to keep Burrow tamed. It doesn’t hurt that three starters on the Bengals offensive line are in a questionable state as the game approaches.

Although Mahomes plans to play through any ankle discomfort, the Chiefs relied more heavily on Jerick McKinnon out of the offensive backfield in their passing game when Mahomes was healthy. In the divisional round, once Chad Henne entered at quarterback as Mahomes was examined, tight end Travis Kelce once again took the role of safety valve and McKinnon was tasked with more blocking assignments. The Bengals keyed-in on Kelce, earning a game-changing forced fumble and recovery in the no so distant past, making how the Chiefs adapt an interesting area of focus.

“There is nothing that is going to stop Pat from doing what Pat does,” Chiefs leading receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster

The game is billed as a shootout, but neither defense should be ruled out as a difference-maker in this matchup. Turnovers will be key. Penalties will be costly. While the battle in the trenches will be heated, fans may see more exciting engagements from the defensive secondaries as both teams try to shut down the pass… and eliminate major highlight-reel plays.

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