NFL Picks – Conference Championships 2023

This is Jalen Hurts’ time to shine and for the first time in five years, Andy Reid finally has a running back.

I couldn’t focus this week. I know who I think will win and why. Despite that, I failed to properly put those reasons on paper. So good luck making sense of my ramblings.

Last Week:   2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs:       5 – 5 – 0

Sunday, January 29

(2)49ers at (1)Eagles [3:00PM ET, FOX]
Nick Sirianni can’t get lopsided. The 49ers were the NFL’s 2nd best rush defense, allowing only 77 yards per game. The difference between 2nd and 3rd (15 yards) was the same difference between 3rd and 14th, so the Niners were an exceptional defense against the run. That can’t discourage Sirianni from plugging away at the run game. This is the NFC Championship. The Eagles were one of the NFL’s premiere rushing attacks behind perhaps the league’s top offensive line. Do what you do best and challenge the opponent to stop you.

In one sense, the Eagles are actually prepared for this game. They played the Tennessee Titans in early December. Tennessee’s rush defense finished less than a yard ahead of San Francisco’s. In that contest, Sirianni pretty much abandoned the run game and cruised to victory on the arm of Jalen Hurts. I think that would be a mistake Sunday. In that win over the Titans, Philadelphia’s running backs ran the football only 12 times to Jalen Hurts’ 39 pass attempts. (The Eagles ran the football more on the final two drives after the score was 35-10 and Gardner Minshew was inserted into the game.) That kind of imbalance against the 49ers would be a mistake, in my humble opinion. No, the 49ers pass defense isn’t all that special (they finished 20th), but that’s an improvement over Tennessee’s 32nd ranked unit. This isn’t to say the Eagles need to win the game on the ground; they just can’t get out of whack.

Good teams dominate when they successfully bully the opponent to be one-dimensional. On one side, the 49ers will want to establish a productive running attack to open up their play action, protect Brock Purdy, and perhaps most importantly, get the defense playing downhill. Once the defense is attacking downhill, Kyle Shanahan’s quick passes to the outside start to wreak havoc. Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle with the football in space is where this offense thrives. Dallas did a tremendous job at limiting this aspect of the 49ers attack. The Cowboys defense also has more speed than the Eagles, so it’ll be even more imperative that the Eagles limit the run without sending extra help.

On the other side, the Eagles want Purdy to have to drop back on 3rd and longs to extend drives. Despite what the 49ers keep selling, Purdy has never played in an environment like he will Sunday. If the Eagles can get him into obvious passing situations and let their NFL record-breaking pass rush do its thing, the Eagles should be in good shape. Purdy may not commit the backbreaking turnovers like Daniel Jones or Dak Prescott, however. Even when Dallas had him on the run Purdy was composed and made wise decisions with the football.

I know I said the Eagles must remain committed to the ground game, and I believe they have to, but I think Hurts has to win this game for the Eagles. There will be big play opportunities in the passing game and Hurts must capitalize. San Francisco’s pass rush is a bit overrated. They did little to impact Prescott last week. Hurts will have time and the Eagles receiving corps is better than San Francisco’s back end. Hurts is a finalist for MVP, offensive player of the year, and is line for a huge contract. This is his game to earn all three. If he excels, the Eagles are in Glendale. If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you know what I have to do, so I’m going to do it. 49ERS +2.5

(3)Bengals at (1)Chiefs [6:30PM ET, CBS]
Anyone who watched the Bills and Bengals play over the last two months was not surprised by Cincinnati’s beat down last weekend. Buffalo has been a mess for a while. Even against bad teams they would look lost for extended stretches. Their finale against New England should never have been that close, and in the Wildcard round the Bills allowed Miami to hang around to the point of having the football with a chance to win twice in the final 10 minutes. The Bengals are everything the Bills aren’t; stable, composed, relentless, physical, and tough. Now they get a rematch of last year’s conference title game. And I think this year’s outcome will be different.

I say that not because the Bengals are in any worse. No, in fact, I think they’re even better than a year ago. I think the Chiefs are also more prepared for this game than they were a season ago.

Patrick Mahomes has played an entire season without an elite, explosive downfield threat like Tyreek Hill. In last year’s AFC title game, the Bengals frustrated Mahomes and the Chiefs by sitting their safeties deep and daring Mahomes to take the easy play and move the football methodically down the field. The Chiefs offense short-circuited in the 2nd half as a result. Mahomes has had a full season without Hill under his belt and the offense has thrived. They’ve spread the football out (Kansas City has eight players with at least 250 receiving yards, and that doesn’t include Kadarius Toney), and best of all, may have finally found a reliable ground game behind rookie Isiah Pacheco.

Pacheco is the first Kansas City running back to rush for over 800 yards at better than a 4.5 yards per rush average since Kareem Hunt in 2018, and Pacheco did it despite only starting 11 games. Everyone knows Andy Reid doesn’t love running the football, but he’s always had a potent running back regardless. Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, and Hunt were all instrumental in Reid’s offenses over the last two decades. Now that Reid and the Chiefs finally have that element back in the offense, I think they will ride the running game Sunday.

Does that mean the Chiefs won’t throw the ball? No, of course not. This is still Andy Reid. Even last week, with his franchise quarterback playing on one leg, Reid did not stop airing it out. But the mystery surrounding the severity of Mahomes’ ankle and how limited he will be gives Reid a weird advantage. Cincinnati has no idea what to expect. Is Mahomes limited? Is a he a full go? Can he move the pocket and extend plays? The Chiefs will use this uncertainty to give the Bengals looks they’ve never seen before. Yes, eventually the game will play out and Cininnatti will have a read on what Mahomes is and is not capable of, but for those first two to three series, Reid will exploit the mystery.

I don’t know why, I just feel like the Chiefs survive this one. No team other than the 49ers has been better than the Bengals over the last two months. Joe Burrow is unflappable and the team has adopted that mentality as well. But the Chiefs have overcome a lot and kept on trucking. I just think they find a way. How’s that for insight? CHIEFS -1

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