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What We Learned: 11 Expert Takeaways from NFL Championship Games

A clutch run, an inexplicable penalty and a more clutch field goal lifted the Kansas City Chiefs into Super Bowl LVII against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night.

Patrick Mahomes ran for a first down in the closing seconds, got hit out of bounds and drew an unnecessary roughness penalty, and Harrison Butker booted a 45-yard field goal with three seconds left to give the Chiefs a 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. That snapped the Bengals' three-game win streak against the Chiefs.

The Eagles took care of their end of the deal with a 31-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in a game that was every bit about defense as expected. The twist was the 49ers lost rookie quarterback Brock Purdy to injury early in the first quarter, and even when he returned in the second half it was clear his throwing was compromised.

"I think we saw the best team in the NFC winning the NFC Championship today," said analyst Rich Gannon of The 33rd Team. "I think the most consistent team throughout the course of the season (won)."

AFC Championship: Chiefs 23, Bengals 20

Penalty Helps Chiefs to Super Bowl LVII

With 21 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the score tied 20-20, overtime seemed likely to decide the AFC Championship Game for the second consecutive season. 

In the end, however, it wasn’t an overtime score — nor a diving catch or back-breaking turnover — that ended the game, but rather a devastating penalty. 

After taking possession with a flourish, thanks to Skyy Moore’s electric punt return with less than a minute left, the Chiefs’ offense appeared to stall around midfield. On third-and-4, Mahomes scrambled for a first down, stepping out of bounds to stop the clock with just 8 seconds to go and little more than hope remaining to close out the game in regulation. Bengals pass rusher Joseph Ossai, a third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, came in on the play late and pushed Mahomes to the ground. 

The 15-yard penalty assessed on Ossai for the late-hit set up Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker perfectly for a chance to send Kansas City to the Super Bowl, and Butker didn’t miss his chance from 45 yards. 

Ossai was injured on the play, leaving him devastated by both the physical toll and the emotional weight of his mistake. In the blink of an eye the Bengals' chances to return the Super Bowl and avenge their loss to Los Angeles Rams vanished.

“This is emotional, we worked really hard to get here, and any play that people feel like slipped out there, you're going to take hard," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. "We want guys like that this means a lot to, they care about it, care about their teammates.

"Joseph comes to work every day, man. He loves ball, he loves being a part of this team, and it didn't come down to that point."

Last year, it was Bengals kicker Evan McPherson who split the uprights in overtime to send Cincinnati to the Super Bowl. Butker was able to return the favor Sunday, converting the game-winning 45-yarder with 3 seconds left. With the kick, and the win, Kansas City earned the right to take on Philadelphia in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 12 in Super Bowl LVII.

‘Andy Reid Bowl’ Featuring Kelce Brothers Battle

Is it the Reid Bowl? Or the Kelce Bowl? 

Super Bowl LVII will certainly be defined by what happens on the field in Arizona — every Super Bowl is. The Helmet Catch. James Harrison’s fumble return. The Philly special. But with every Super Bowl we’re also treated to stories in more depth, and connections in more breadth, than we get all season long. 

So as we head into the single most-hyped event in American sports, there are two-major storylines that are sure to grab ahold of the public imagination in the coming weeks.

On the one hand, we have Chiefs coach Andy Reid preparing to take on the organization he once called his own in one of the biggest games of his professional career. Reid coached the Eagles from 1999-2012, taking them to the Super Bowl with the help of quarterback Donovan McNabb in 2004. Though they lost that game to Tom Brady’s Patriots, the Eagles eventually would secure their own Lombardi Trophy in 2018 after Reid’s departure for Kansas City.

Reid eventually earned a ring, topping Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers four seasons ago. Now worlds are again colliding as Reid will meet the Eagles with a chance to show Philadelphia what it's been missing. 

"I can't wait for Kansas City and Philly to clash,” said Reid after the Chiefs' win against Cincinnati. “What a great Super Bowl it's going to be."

If that wasn’t enough intrigue, for the first time in league history, Super Bowl LVII will see two brothers compete against one another for a chance to be named league champion. And in true story-book fashion, these brothers aren’t just benchwarmers or part-time contributors. Travis and Jason Kelce are key cogs in two of the most potent offenses in the NFL, and both players are sure to have their names spoken with reverence in their respective sports towns for decades to come. 

Both players were 2022 NFL First-team All-Pro picks, but only one of them will have the chance to secure their city a second Super Bowl victory in Arizona on Feb. 12. 

Mahomes Gets Leg Up in QB Rivalry

Mahomes finally got the best of Joe Burrow on the scoreboard, and on the stat sheet.

Much was made going into the game about Burrow’s 3-0 record vs. Mahomes during the past two seasons, and justifiably so. But Joe Cool also had the better of it in terms of passing yardage and touchdown passes. That played a big role in the Bengals’ fourth-quarter dominance in those previous three wins. The Bengals had outscored the Chiefs, 23-3, in the final 15 minutes in those three games.

Mahomes flipped that script Sunday, and he did it on one healthy leg. The Chiefs quarterback was 29-of-43 for 326 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 8 yards — none bigger than the 5 he got on the final drive.

"I just thought that early on you could tell that he was moving a lot better than most of us anticipated coming off that high-ankle sprain last week," said Gannon. "I think on that last scramble, it's about as fast as we've seen him run in a while.

"It shows you a lot about this guy's toughness, physically and mentally, one of the toughest players in the NFL, and clearly he didn't have his fastball."

Burrow, meanwhile, was 26-of-41 for 270 yards and a touchdown, but he had two costly interceptions. He also rushed for 30 yards.

"Joe Burrow has a lot of those same qualities and characteristics," Gannon added. "He's tough, he's durable, he's dependable, and he's unflappable.

"We got treated to some great quarterback play in the AFC Championship Game. What would you expect from Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes, other than a game to come down a kick at the end?"

The other common thread in this rivalry has been three. The Bengals won the first three meetings by three points. Mahomes and the Chiefs also returned that favor on Sunday.

Chiefs Make Do with Limited Receiving Options

Not only did Mahomes have to battle through his high-ankle sprain and his top pass-catcher Kelce had to overcome back spasms, but Mahomes’ receiving options dwindled as the game went along.

Not one, not two, but three receivers went out because of injuries during the game. The Chiefs lost Mecole Hardman, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kadarius Toney at various points during the game. The trio had six combined catches for just 26 yards before exiting. Hardman was questionable to play Sunday because of a pelvis injury that had kept him out since Nov. 6.

Playing a larger role, Marquez Valdes-Scantling blew up, catching six passes for 116 yards, including a third-quarter touchdown that put the Chiefs up, 20-13. Valdes-Scantling and Smith-Schuster were signed in the offseason to help make up the production of Tyreek Hill, who was traded to the Miami Dolphins last spring.

"The biggest player of the game, in my opinion, offensively when you look at the Kansas City Chiefs was MVS, Marquez Valdes-Scantling," said analyst Greg Jennings of The 33rd Team. "Because they were so down at the receiving position.

"We knew Travis Kelce was gonna provide. There had to be someone else, and that someone else happened to be Marquez Valdes-Scantling."

Kelce finished with a team-high seven receptions for 78 yards, and running back Isiah Pacheco added five catches in a check-down role.

Chiefs' D-line Puts Heat on Burrow

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s plan was clear from the start — pressure Burrow with his front four. Kansas City sacked the Bengals quarterback four times in the first half and hit him several more times. 

The strategy made sense, given the Bengals were without three starters in their offensive line and Burrow’s history of carving up the Chiefs’ defense. 

Spagnulo’s defense also forced Burrow into two interceptions, including a tipped ball from one Chiefs rookie to another. Burrow took a deep shot down the right sideline that Bryan Cook tipped to Joshua Williams with 6:33 to play in the game. 

The Chiefs’ fifth sack, and Chris Jones’ second of the game, also was a massive one, coming on a third-and-8 play in the final minute. Jones also had three tackles for a loss.

“Kansas City’s defense did an amazing job up front, especially with Chris Jones getting two sacks,” said analyst Samari Rolle of The 33rd Team. “Being able to rush four people and not have to blitz, and then being able to play over the top of Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, it worked on big downs.

“When they needed plays to be made they didn’t have to sacrifice the defense and blitz everyone because they trusted their front four.”

NFC Championship: Eagles 31, 49ers 7

QB Injuries Finally Catch Up to 49ers

The story of the San Francisco 49ers for much of the 2022 season was their ability to keep their offense humming despite multiple quarterbacks suffering serious  injuries. Second-year phenom Trey Lance suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2. Jimmy Garoppolo then sustained a potentially season-ending foot injury in Week 13 

That forced San Francisco to turn to rookie Purdy, the final pick of the 2022 draft, who took the league  by storm, leading the 49ers to seven consecutive wins as a starter, including a wild-card triumph over the Seattle Seahawks and a Divisional Round victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

Purdy, the fifth rookie quarterback to start a conference championship - and the fifth one to lose one, barely had the chance to get started before suffering an injury to his right (throwing) elbow on a strip-sack by Eagles edge rusher Haason Reddick. San Francisco was forced to turn to veteran journeyman Josh Johnson

Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Martz, an analyst for The 33rd Team, said the seminal play of the game was avoidable.

"If you set at 10 yards, that's the apex that outside rushers are trying to get to," Martz said. "If you sit back there, you've got to get rid of that ball. If you don't, then you've got to step up inside because that's the rusher's end point, and you take it away and they push them by.

"But he got back there, didn't get rid of it, sat there for a second and didn't work up into the pocket. On a deep ball like that, that many steps back in the pocket, you can't do that to your protection. That's on the quarterback."

Johnson’s cameo went shorter than planned because he suffered a possible concussion when his head hit the ground early in the third quarter. Prior to that, Johnson also fumbled late in the first half, setting up the Eagles for a short touchdown drive and a 21-7 lead just before halftime. 

Johnson’s injury forced Purdy back into the lineup, but he clearly was limited, attempting just one pass in his second stint. Purdy finished 4-for-4 for just 23 yards. 

"Once Brock Purdy went down with the arm injury in the first quarter, you just got the sense that took some of the air and some of the momentum out of the 49ers," Gannon said. "It felt like it was gonna be an uphill battle once Josh Johnson stepped into the huddle. They were going to have to do some great things defensively, create turnovers and field position, score on defense, score in the kicking game to keep this thing close, and it simple didn't happen."

The quarterback passed just five times in the second half, forcing the 49ers to lean almost entirely on their ground game despite trailing by multiple scores. It was clear coach Kyle Shanahan either did not trust Purdy to throw the ball downfield, or knew he physically could not do so. 

One has to imagine if Purdy didn't suffer an injury, the game would have been at least more competitive. Furthermore, this could lead to the NFL reinstituting a three-quarterback-minimum rule. 

Ground Game Powers Eagles

Strength met strength in the trenches, and nowhere was that more apparent than the matchup between the Eagles’ running game and the 49ers’ rush defense. 

The 49ers defense allowed only 77.7 rushing yards per game (second in the NFL) coming into the game. The Eagles, meanwhile, rushed for 147.9 yards per game (fifth) behind what many consider the league’s strongest offensive line. Clearly something had to give.

That something was the 49ers defense, which the Eagles ran over for 148 yards and four touchdowns - two by Miles Sanders and singles by Boston Scott and quarterback Jalen Hurts.

That they rushed for 148 yards against the No. 1 defense in the NFL this season is impressive.

"They do it a number of different ways, whether it's Miles Sanders, whether it's Jalen Hurts, Kenneth Gainwell," said Gannon. "They've got the best offensive line in football, and they do a great job coming off the football and knocking you backwards in the running game."

Philadelphia’s attack was balanced as Gainwell had 48 yards, Sanders 42, Hurts 39 and Scott 21. The Eagles picked up 11 of their 25 first downs on rushes. It also contributed to a massive 37:26 to 22:34 advantage in time of possession.

"You got a feeling early in terms of not only who had the momentum, but who had the edge, the edge in terms of attitude, and Philly definitely had that," said analyst Eric Mangini of The 33rd Team. "What I liked is the way they were able to capitalize on San Francisco's mistakes."

Eagles Break Century-old Record

The four-TD output allowed the Eagles to break a nearly 100-year-old record for most rushing touchdowns scored by one team in a season, postseason included. The Frankford Yellow Jackets rushed for 38 in 1924, a number the Eagles surpassed on Hurts’ quarterback sneak in the third quarter. There is a good chance the Eagles will set this bar even higher where it really counts - Super Bowl LVII in two weeks.

Penalties, Turnovers Prove Costly to 49ers

The 49ers did themselves no favors by repeatedly committing penalties in crucial situations. San Francisco took 11 penalties for 81 yards, with seven of those penalties turning into first downs for the Eagles. 

On a drive late in the second quarter, 49ers penalties gave the Eagles a fresh set of downs three times. That helped the Eagles sustain a drive that resulted in Sanders’ second touchdown, which gave Philadelphia the lead for good.

"The penalties were a big issue," Gannon said. "Eleven penalties today. The 49ers kind of self-destructed after Brock Purdy went out. Eleven penalties, three turnovers, just 164 yards of offense. They weren't the same team without Brock Purdy."

Turnovers also hurt the 49ers, particularly Reddick's strip sack of Purdy and Johnson's fumble late in the second quarter. Johnson's fumble set up the Eagles' third touchdown of the half.

The 49ers also did not elect to review a huge, first-quarter catch by DeVonta Smith that replays showed should have been an incompletion.This non-catch catch moved the Eagles inside the 10-yard line and set up Sanders’ first touchdown run. A later review using a new camera angle clearly showed Smith did not complete the catch, but it was too little, too late. 

"That's on San Francisco, and that's a really good job by the Eagles," Mangini said. "This is the fourth-and-3 play that sets up a potential touchdown, and they're running down to hurry up. Everything tells you if they're running down to hurry up to snap the ball, they don't think it's a completed pass.

"So especially on a crucial play, a fourth-down play that's going to set up a touchdown, you throw the challenge flag if you're in doubt."

Shanahan was asked after the game about why he didn't throw the challenge flag.

"The replay we saw didn't definitely show that," Shanahan said. "They showed one on the scoreboard that didn't have all the angles you guys saw, and that looked like a catch, and we don't want to waste the timeout, which we definitely would have if we didn't see that. Then I hear they got a couple other angles, and you guys end up seeing later that it was not a catch."

By the end of the game, the 49ers’ frustrations boiled over. San Francisco tackle Trent Williams and Philadelphia safety K’Von Wallace were ejected with 4:13 to play after a short brawl, which included Williams body slamming Wallace into the turf and Wallace throwing a punch after getting back up. Wallace’s status for the Super Bowl could be in jeopardy. 

Hurts Pedestrian as Passer

Even though the Eagles controlled the majority of the game, Hurts accounted for just 160 total yards, 39 on them on the ground. The MVP candidate attempted 25 passes and completed 15 of them for 121 yards, which were the fewest of any game this season and his lowest total since a 44-6 rout of the Detroit Lions in 2021. 

On one hand, Hurts kept the offense moving despite some struggles after the first drive. The Eagles finished with 269 yards.

"Even though they only put 269 yards of offense, they scored 31 points, and it's no fault of Jalen Hurts," Gannon said. "I thought offensively they continue to run the football well."

Hurts used his feet to buy time and took what the 49ers’ stingy defense gave him. He didn’t hesitate to throw the ball out of bounds if no receivers were open, and thus avoid negative plays. 

On the other hand, he rarely tested the 49ers downfield, which likely has as much to do with San Francisco’s personnel and schemes as anything. Still, one has to wonder how much Hurts’ injured shoulder has healed, and how much more it will heal during the two-week run-up to the Super Bowl. 

Birds Fly South For Super Bowl Return

The Eagles will play in the fourth Super Bowl in franchise history when they kick off in Arizona in two weeks. That will move them into a tie for the fifth-most with three other teams (Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts).

Philadelphia has a chance to win for the second time in five seasons. In 2017, they avenged an early Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. The Patriots bested them after the 2004 season. The Eagles also lost in their first appearance, to the then-Oakland Raiders after the 1980 season.

"They got it done like they did all year. They race off to these early leads, and then the Eagles defense, which had 75 sacks during the regular season and postseason just tees off on these quarterbacks," Gannon said. "I'll you what, the Eagles are going to be a tough team to beat in the Super Bowl. They're well balanced, they're well coached, they don't make a lot of mistakes.

"They can run the football, they can stop the run. They're going to be a really tough challenge for whichever team wins the AFC Championship."