Bears

Hub Arkush: Breaking down the AFC and NFC championship games

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts in action during an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Philadelphia.

It’s not often that the NFL’s four best teams still are playing in the last two games before the Super Bowl, but it’s hard to argue that isn’t what we’re getting Sunday.

In the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles (14-3) will kick off as 2 1/2-point favorites over the San Francisco 49ers (13-4). Game 2 of Sunday’s doubleheader will give us the Kansas City Chiefs (14-3) matched up as 1 1/2-point favorites over the Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) for the AFC title.

If you’re someone who likes to make a wager, it’s likely that all you have to do is pick the winners. Taking the 49ers or Bengals means you’re basically picking them to win. Taking them to lose but cover with such small margins feels mostly like a fool’s errand.

Only two can make it to the Super Bowl. All four of these teams have very real chances, although it’s hard to argue that the Eagles aren’t the most talented of these four clubs.

With eight Pro Bowlers, almost the entire Philadelphia starting lineup is filled with studs. That is not something we see often.

Included among those Pro Bowlers are quarterback Jalen Hurts, running back Miles Sanders and wide receiver A.J. Brown. Of their five starting offensive linemen, left guard Landon Dickerson, right tackle Lane Johnson and center Jason Kelce earned Pro Bowl nods.

It’s also worth noting that while all four of these teams are among the four best, statistically, in the league, the Eagles are the best – ranked fifth running the ball, second in rushing touchdowns, ninth passing the ball and 14th in passing touchdowns. On defense, they are clearly the NFL’s best, including second in fewest yards allowed, eighth in points allowed at 20.2 per game, first in total sacks (with more than four per game) and first in fewest passing touchdowns allowed.

As loaded as the Eagles are, don’t think the 49ers won’t show up. They’ll deliver six Pro Bowlers of their own, including tight end George Kittle. They’re loaded on defense with linebacker Fred Warner, safety Talanoa Hufanga and one of the league’s best pass rushers in Nick Bosa.

San Francisco also is one of the game’s best, statistically, if not quite at the Eagles’ level. The 49ers always run the ball well. This season is no exception. They’re eighth in rushing and fifth in rushing touchdowns. They are also first defensively with 300.6 yards allowed per game and sport a league-best 16.3 points against.

The unknown for San Francisco will be how much they can expect from rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, who will be starting only his eighth NFL game after taking over Dec. 4 for injured Jimmy Garoppolo.

Purdy has been impressive so far, racking up 13 touchdowns, four interceptions and 107.3 passer rating in five regular-season starts. He has yet to throw an interception in the playoffs. But how ready the 262nd pick of last year’s draft – “Mr. Irrelevant,” as the final pick in the NFL draft is known – will be is a concern, especially against the most talented team he’s faced so far.

Purdy will be the only QB playing Sunday who isn’t going to the Pro Bowl.

While not quite matching all the Eagles have to offer, the Chiefs will be hosting their fifth straight AFC championship game, two of which they won after the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Andy Reid is 20-16 in the playoffs, including three Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl victory.

The Chiefs are awfully close to the Eagles in talent with seven Pro Bowlers. The big question is: How healthy is quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ ankle after injuring it last week against Jacksonville?

The Chiefs with Mahomes can still sling it. They rank first in the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns, but they do sometimes struggle to run the ball, ranking 20th. Defensively, they’re good but not quite great.

The Bengals are a drop behind the other three clubs with only three Pro Bowlers. But they’re in good shape at the most important spot with Joe Burrow at quarterback. Statistically, the Bengals are solid on defense, ranking 16th in total yards allowed but, more importantly, they’re fifth in the league in points allowed with 20.1 points per game.

Offensively, Burrow has the passing game humming, ranked fifth in passing and second in passing touchdowns. Their run game, however, has struggled, averaging 95.5 yards per game (29th). That has forced them to rely heavily on Burrow.

Anything could happen Sunday. But there are good reasons why the Eagles and Chiefs are the favorites, albeit by slim margins. The two things I can’t get over are the youngster Purdy vs. the most loaded roster in the league, and the Bengals’ inability to run the football.

It should be enough to get Philadelphia and Kansas City to the Super Bowl.

Hub Arkush is the senior Bears analyst for Shaw Media and ShawLocal.com.

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush is the Senior Bears Analyst for Shaw Local News Network and ShawLocal.com.