Championship weekend is quickly approaching, with four very evenly-matched teams battling it out for two spots in Super Bowl LVII. Three of the four teams from last year’s conference title games are back. The only exception is the reigning champion Rams, who went 5-12 this season. In their place, the Eagles are hoping to claim their second championship in six years.
Let’s dive into some of the key matchups that will define the AFC and NFC title games.
Key matchups for the NFC Title Game.
Eagles Offensive Line vs. 49ers Front Seven
This might be the premier matchup of the weekend. The Eagles have won games with their league-best offensive line all season, protecting Jalen Hurts while also paving the way for an elite running game. The 49ers, on the other hand, have the best pass-rusher in football at the moment and an elite run defense.
The clash between these two units is going to define Sunday’s game. If DeMeco Ryans can scheme the defense up in a way that breaks down the Eagles’ biggest advantage, this will be a completely different game than oddsmakers expect. On the other hand, if there’s one line that can handle what the 49ers are bringing, it’s one with Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, and Jordan Mailata.
You would think the Eagles’ line has the advantage with two top-tier veterans on the line and home-field advantage, but Ryans has had some unbelievable displays as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.
Brock Purdy vs. Eagles Secondary
The Eagles were the only team in the NFL this season to allow less than five yards per pass attempt, and they were one of three NFC teams to record 17+ interceptions.
James Bradberry caused all kinds of problems for the Giants in the divisional round, while Darius Slay remains a high-end corner. This group might also be healthier than it has been, as ballhawk C.J. Gardner-Johnson is back in the lineup and Avonte Maddox reportedly could return on Sunday.
Combined with a tough road environment, this is going to be a tough challenge for rookie Brock Purdy. Purdy is confident and has made sound decisions most of the season, but there have been a couple decisions in these playoffs that he’s been lucky to get away with. The Eagles’ defense is balanced enough both to force him into some bad decisions with their pass-rush and take advantage of them with their secondary.
It’ll be interesting to see whether the 49ers take an early lead and become free run the ball more often instead of depending on Purdy’s arm.
Key matchups for the AFC Title Game.
Bengals Running Game vs. Chiefs Run Defense
The Chiefs’ run defense has been about league average this season. One week it was a liability was Week 13, when Kansas City faced a Bengals team missing Joe Mixon and got shredded by Samaje Perine instead.
Perine rushed for 106 yards on 21 carries, adding 49 yards through the air. Even Joe Burrow ran for 46 yards and a touchdown. With Mixon healthy and coming off a terrific game in Buffalo, the Chiefs have to be careful not to focus too heavily on Burrow and watch for both Mixon and Perine.
The Bengals surprisingly did a great job blocking for Mixon in the win over the Bills, and that will be its own storyline to watch as the offensive line deals with injuries. Perine has a tendency to bully defenders, so he should be a factor whether or not Mixon is playing well.
Chiefs Offensive Line vs. Bengals Pass-Rush
The Chiefs’ pass-rush against the Bengals’ depleted but overachieving offensive line is one to watch coming into this game, but the bigger question could be what the Bengals can do to the Chiefs’ line.
All eyes will be on Patrick Mahomes, who seems to be recovering well from a high-ankle sprain but isn’t likely to be playing at 100%. If the Bengals’ relentless pass-rushers can break down a Chiefs offensive line with three Pro-Bowl caliber starters, they can take advantage of the injury.
Mahomes won’t be as mobile as he’s used to, so it would be very bad news if he was constantly pressured by Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. The Chiefs remain in decent position because they have such a reliable line, which wasn’t the case back in 2020.