CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS: And then, there were four. I’m not sure I can remember another year where even on Championship Sunday there’s no clear Super Bowl favorite, as all four remaining teams have very similar odds in BETDAQ’s Super Bowl Outright market (to be exact, Philadelphia is currently trading at 3.45, Cincinnati at 3.55, Kansas City at 3.8, and San Francisco at 4.6).

That means we could be in for a couple of great games on Sunday, and the two games will feature a contrast in styles, as in the AFC we’ll see explosive offenses and two of the game’s best young quarterbacks, while the NFC game will showcase bone-crushing defense and will likely come down to whichever offense makes the fewest mistakes.

Only three games remain in what has been a very profitable year for this column, and though the Playoffs haven’t gone exactly as planned, there’s still time to finish strong. Here’s how I expect things to shake out on Sunday:


NFC Championship Game

San Francisco 49ers @ Philadelphia Eagles Sunday 20:00 GMT

Line: Philadelphia -2.5 (46)

Though some expected a team like Dallas to upset the applecart and sneak into this game, the Niners and Eagles have been the two best teams in the NFC since October, winning 16 of their last 18 combined games. Both teams have Super Bowl-caliber defenses, with the 49ers ranking first in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed, and Philly ranking second in yards allowed and first in passing defense and total sacks. Both also have accomplished skill-position players on the offensive side of the ball, as San Francisco has one of the league’s top RBs in Christian McCaffrey and do-it-all playmaker Deebo Samuel, while Philly has one of the NFL’s top WR tandems in A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith.

There is one significant difference between these teams, however: experience at the quarterback position. Though Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts is only in his third season, he has 33 starts under his belt and has improved tremendously since his rookie season, finishing this year with over 4,400 total yards, 35 TDs and only 6 INTs. His counterpart on Sunday, San Francisco’s Brock Purdy, is a rookie who will be making his eighth career start. Though Purdy has surprised everyone with his play and veteran demeanor, he looked very much like a rookie in last week’s Divisional Round win over the Cowboys, completing only 19 of 29 passes for 214 yards and at times appearing uncertain and a bit rattled. This will be far and away the toughest test of his football career: a frigid road game with intense pressure and the NFL’s top secondary and fiercest pass rush coming after him. In a game like this where the two teams seem so evenly matched and have been playing so well for so long, something like an inexperienced rookie QB is difficult to overcome. Purdy has been a revelation for the Niners, but can he really pull this off? I have my doubts. That being said, I’m expecting a nail-biter. Prediction: Philadelphia 21, San Francisco 20


AFC Championship Game

Cincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs Sunday 23:30 GMT

Line: Kansas City -1.5 (48)

In what is quickly shaping up to be the rivalry of the decade, the Chiefs and Bengals will meet yet again with everything on the line. In last year’s AFC Championship Game, the Bengals were able to erase a 21-3 first-half deficit to win a 27-24 OT thriller, and in Week 13 of this season it was Cincinnati coming out on top again, by the exact same score no less, though this time Joe Burrow and his Bengals finished off the comeback in the 4th quarter and didn’t require overtime. So you might say that it’s beginning to look like the Bengals have the Chiefs’ number, though that narrative could be put on its head by Patrick Mahomes and Co. on Sunday.

Will we see Mahomes at his best, though? The NFL world watched last week as his ankle was bent 90 degrees sideways in the Divisional Round win over Jacksonville, and though he was able to return to the game, he was hobbling around badly and seemed to have trouble pivoting off the ankle and putting any significant weight on it. The official diagnosis is a high ankle sprain, and though Andy Reid has confirmed that Mahomes will be starting this game, his mobility is expected to be severely compromised and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to drive the ball downfield. Making matters worse for the Chiefs, Mahomes’s favorite target, All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, was added to the injury report this week with a back issue and is officially listed as questionable for this game. I would expect Kelce to play as long as he can walk, but Mahomes-to-Kelce is the engine of the Kansas City offense, and if that connection is disrupted or diminished in any way it will be very difficult for the Chiefs to win this game.

Even if Mahomes and Kelce are able to do their thing, beating this Cincinnati team will be a tall order. The Bengals have won 10 straight games and seem to be playing their best football of the season, easily dispatching the favored Bills last week on a snowy day in Buffalo. The offense is both balanced and explosive, and they’ll be facing a Kansas City D that ranked 31st out of 32 teams in red zone defense this season. I expect Cincy defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to have a plan for slowing down Kelce that includes jamming the big TE at the line and trying to disrupt timing, a task that could be made easier if Kelce is slowed by his back injury. If that Mahomes-to-Kelce connection can be interrupted or altered, the Chiefs are toast. Mahomes could add to his legend if he were able to outperform Burrow and win this one on essentially one leg, but I’m not counting on it. Prediction: Cincinnati 30, Kansas City 21


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