We’ve reached the final hoop on the road to Super Bowl 57 after 21 weeks and 281 games of the NFL season.
Four teams remain in the playoffs, and the winners of this weekend’s Conference Championships will face off in the championship game on February 12 in Arizona.
The usual suspects are present, with the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers all reaching the Super Bowl in the previous five years.
QB Patrick Mahomes has led the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game for the fifth consecutive year, and he is widely expected to be named the season’s Most Valuable Player.
However, there are concerns about how fit the 2018 MVP will be for the rematch with the Bengals on Sunday.
Can 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy complete his remarkable transformation from ‘Mr Irrelevant’ to Super Bowl starter?
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How physically fit will Mahomes be?
Mahomes was forced to leave last week’s divisional round game against the Jacksonville Jaguars due to an injury, but he returned for the second half.
The 27-year-old suffered a high-ankle sprain and said after the 27-20 win that he’ll “be good to go” this Sunday and will do “whatever I can to be as close to 100%”.
Mahomes suffered a toe injury during the Chiefs’ playoff run two years ago, when they lost to Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl 55.
“If you’re playing football, you have to battle through injuries,” he said after the game. He’s had to do it in practice this week, and he’s even gotten some advice from seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.
“I now have a good relationship with him,” Mahomes said. “Man, why wouldn’t you want to hear from the ‘GOAT’? It’s cool to see the guys you grew up with talking to you on that kind of platform.”
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Mahomes, who led the NFL with 41 touchdown passes and 5,250 yards passing this season, said treatment and rehab have been “a full-day thing” all week.
The Chiefs’ offensive line has been designed to provide Mahomes with more protection so that he does not have to scramble out of the pocket, but right-handed quarterbacks also use their right foot as a base to make throws.
Although Mahomes has not fully tested his injury this week, he has demonstrated that he has the arm to make unorthodox passes when flat-footed or off-balance since entering the league in 2017.
“When we get into the game, you know adrenaline will take over and you’ll be able to make those throws when you need to,” he explained.
Bengals return to ‘Burrowhead.’
Mahomes has reached the AFC Championship Game in each of his five seasons as a starter, and Kansas City is aiming for a third Super Bowl in four years.
Nonetheless, the Chiefs were defeated at home last year by the Bengals, whose unexpected run to the Super Bowl ended in a 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
Cincinnati had the worst record in the league just two years prior, ensuring them the first pick in the following season’s draft.
With that, they chose Joe Burrow, who has helped transform the Bengals into a threatening, no-nonsense team.
Cincinnati has won all three games against Kansas City in the last two seasons and returns to Arrowhead Stadium, which will host the AFC title game for the fifth consecutive year, for the first time since 1988.
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“We recognize them, and they recognize us. It’s going to be a lot of fun “Burrow adopted the ‘Joe Cool’ moniker from legendary 49ers quarterback Joe Montana. “They’re still the team to beat in my opinion, and we’re coming for them.”
Despite playing in snowy Buffalo last week, the Bengals defeated the Bills to eliminate the pre-season Super Bowl favorites and claim their 10th consecutive victory.
Knowing a trip to Kansas City was next, Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton said to a TV camera late in the game “we’ll see y’all in Burrowhead”. “It might have stirred a few pots,” he added this week.
It certainly has, and it has been used to boost Kansas City’s motivation, as their only loss in their previous 12 games was at Cincinnati on December 4th.
“They’re putting a lot of bulletin board material out there,” said Travis Kelce, tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs.
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Can the Eagles put an end to ‘Mr Irrelevant’?
The San Francisco 49ers will face the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game, who, like the Chiefs, finished the regular season with a 14-3 record and secured the top seed in their Conference.
This also earned them a bye in week one of the playoffs, giving Jalen Hurts more time to recover from a shoulder injury that caused Philly’s third-year quarterback to miss two games late in the season and drop out of MVP contention.
The Eagles lost both games, but despite a sluggish finish to the season, they and Hurts were back to their dominant best when they defeated the New York Giants last week.
A trade for receiver AJ Brown was one of several wise off-season moves that have allowed the Philadelphia Eagles, who defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 52, to build a well-balanced offense and a solid defense.
However, they now face a San Francisco team that has the best offense and defense in the NFL, as well as a 12-game winning streak.
Why is the NFL’s ‘Mr Irrelevant’ now anything but?
A mid-season trade for dual-threat running back Christian McCaffrey aided the 49ers’ 13-4 record.
However, their last seven victories have come with Purdy as the starting quarterback following injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, who led the 49ers to Super Bowl 54 before losing to the Chiefs.
Purdy is not only their third choice, but also this season’s ‘Mr Irrelevant,’ the nickname given to the last man chosen in the draft.
Purdy’s ease of adaptation to the NFL has seen the 23-year-old set numerous records. He now hopes to surpass them by becoming the first rookie quarterback to play in a Super Bowl.