The conference championship round (schedule) for the 2022 NFL season has two great matchups. Our NFL Nation reporters deliver the biggest keys and bold predictions for each contest.
Additionally, ESPN Stats & Information offers a crucial stat and betting nugget, and our Football Power Index (FPI) goes inside the numbers with a game projection. Matt Bowen picks a matchup to watch in both games and Kevin Seifert tells us what to know about the officiating. Finally, Seth Walder and Eric Moody predict the final score and pick winners for each game (also, see picks). Plenty here for what is expected to be an exciting weekend of playoff football.
Let’s examine the conference championships, which features Jalen Hurts vs. Brock Purdy and Patrick Mahomes vs. Joe Burrow. Who will advance to Super Bowl LVII?
Note: New for this season’s playoffs, each team will be guaranteed a possession if a game goes to overtime.
Jump to a matchup:
SF-PHI | CIN-KC
3 p.m. ET | Fox | Spread: PHI -2.5 (46)
What to watch for: This matchup features arguably the two best defenses in the NFL. Philadelphia led the league in pass defense (179.8 yards allowed per game) and sacks (70) during the regular season, while the Niners led the way in interceptions (20) and were second in rush defense (79.0 yards allowed per game). But enter Niners running back Christian McCaffrey (has scored a touchdown in eight straight games) and Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (332.5 passing yards per game and seven touchdowns against top-10 defenses this season). There are very few holes on either roster. “That’s what the NFC Championship Game should be,” Philadelphia coach Nick Sirianni said. “It’s going to be good on good, and it’s going to be tight.” — Tim McManus
Bold prediction: The 49ers’ streak of 27 straight games without allowing a rusher to surpass 70 yards on the ground (including playoffs) will come to an end because of Hurts. The Niners have struggled against mobile quarterbacks in past seasons but didn’t see many this season, which is why they were fifth in the NFL in yards allowed per rush to quarterbacks (3.4). Hurts presents a bigger challenge, ranking fourth among quarterbacks in rushing yards (760) and first in rushing touchdowns (13). He ran for 82 yards and a score in Week 2 last season against San Francisco, and with the Niners keying on slowing the deep-ball passing game, he could offer a similar performance on the ground. — Nick Wagoner
Stat to know: San Francisco has heavily relied on pre-snap motion to help rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, using it on 73% of his dropbacks, including the playoffs. Purdy has excelled there, ranking fourth in QBR (80.0) and first in yards per attempt (9.2) among passers with at least 100 attempts over the regular and postseasons. But that formula will be tested by the Eagles’ pass defense, which has allowed the league’s lowest QBR (33.2) and third-lowest yards per attempt (6.3) to opposing quarterbacks on plays with pre-snap motion.
Bowen’s game-plan key: Edge rusher Haason Reddick has 17.5 sacks in his first season with the Eagles, including 1.5 in last week’s divisional-round win over the Giants. With Reddick’s first-step quickness and ability to bend and cut the corner, Philadelphia can scheme more one-on-ones while also using stunts to wrap him inside. His 27.6% pass rush win rate ranked second in the NFL to Dallas’ Micah Parsons this season. Read more at ESPN+.
What to know for officiating: Referee John Hussey’s regular-season crew threw the third-fewest flags in 2022, including two for roughing the passer and 24 for offensive holding, both the lowest in the NFL. That is good news for both the 49ers and Eagles, who were called for the second- and third-most offensive holding penalties in the league, respectively, during the regular season. — Seifert
Betting nugget: Purdy is 6-1 against the spread as a starting quarterback, all as a favorite. It ties the fifth-longest favorite streak to begin a career by any quarterback since the 1970 merger (including playoffs). And San Francisco has covered five straight playoff games, the longest active streak by any team. Read more at ESPN+.
Moody’s pick: Eagles 27, 49ers 24
Walder’s pick: Eagles 24, 49ers 16
FPI prediction: PHI, 65.3% (by an average of 4.5 points)
Matchup must-reads: Inside the trade that sent McCaffrey to the 49ers … How Johnson found his happiness after nearly quitting the game … Niners willing to let legal process play out with Omenihu … Brown says he isn’t a ‘diva,’ but he wants the ball … Has Purdy recalibrated the 49ers’ future quarterback plans? … Are the Eagles all the way back to their best?
6:30 p.m. ET | CBS | Spread: KC -1.5 (47)
What to watch for: During the regular season, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes led the NFL in QBR (73.0) on throws from inside the pocket. And that’s where he will likely have to do most of his work against the Bengals considering a high ankle sprain he suffered in the divisional round and his performance against the Bengals in Week 13. In that most recent matchup between these teams, Mahomes had one of his best QBR outings (79.6) from inside the pocket and one of his worst QBR showings (14.0) from outside the pocket. The Bengals are on a 10-game win streak, and both teams are 11-0 when scoring first this season. — Adam Teicher
Bold prediction: The Bengals will score more red zone touchdowns than the Chiefs. The Bengals ranked fifth in red zone efficiency on offense and tied for ninth on defense during the regular season. While the Kansas City offense scores plenty of touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line (second), its red zone defense was one of the worst in the league (31st) during the regular season. The team that can end drives with touchdowns will have the inside track to winning the Lamar Hunt Trophy and advancing to the Super Bowl. — Ben Baby
Stat to know: Each defense could have its hands full containing the quick passing game. Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow (19) and Mahomes (18) rank first and second, respectively, in touchdown passes on throws under 2.5 seconds, including the playoffs. And the Chiefs’ after-the-catch ability has stood out, too, especially on Mahomes’ quick throws. Kansas City has generated more yards after the catch than any team this season (2,908) and has the third-highest per-catch average of any offense (6.3). Overall, yards after the catch have accounted for 53% of the Chiefs’ receiving yards, the second-highest rate in the league. But Cincinnati’s defense ranks sixth in limiting after-the-catch production, keeping pass-catchers to just 4.7 yards after the catch per reception.
Bowen’s game-plan key: Cincinnati needs a dedicated plan for Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. Cornerback Tre Flowers is its typical tight end matchup defender in dime looks, but he’s working through a hamstring injury. We could see safeties Dax Hill or Vonn Bell in man coverage, but defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo might also have a defender jam and reroute Kelce at the line of scrimmage in zone looks and then sink to depth. Read more at ESPN+.
What to know for officiating: Referee Ron Torbert’s regular-season crew averaged 12 flags per game, fifth-fewest in the league. It threw 33 flags for defensive pass interference, illegal contact and defensive holding, the NFL’s third-lowest total. That should be of note to the respective defenses as they try to slow Mahomes and Burrow. — Seifert
Betting nugget: Kansas City is 7-11 against the spread this season, and those 11 ATS losses are the most by any team entering the conference championship round in the Super Bowl era. The Chiefs were also 2-11 against the spread in AFC games this season and 0-4 ATS with more than six days of rest. Cincinnati, meanwhile, is 21-5 against the spread in its past 26 games, including playoffs, and its 13-5 ATS record this season was second-best in the NFL. Read more at ESPN+.
Moody’s pick: Bengals 27, Chiefs 20
Walder’s pick: Chiefs 31, Bengals 30
FPI prediction: K.C., 65.5% (by an average of 4.6 points)
Matchup must-reads: Bengals confident for title game at ‘Burrowhead’ … Mahomes says he’s ‘ready to go’ for AFC title game … Injured Bengals OLs Cappa, Williams don’t practice … Kelce has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest TEs of all time … The QB battle that unlocked Mahomes