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Championship Crystal Ball: Let's Go!
It’s finally here, folks. Championship Sunday. Four excellent teams competing for a chance to make it to the Super Bowl on February 12th in Glendale, Ariz.
Last week was a heck of a lot of fun as the Eagles and Niners emerged in the NFC and the Bengals and Chiefs advanced in the AFC. And these matchups bode quite well for an enjoyable afternoon and evening of football.
The Divisional Round mark for THE GURU was 2-2 with Buffalo and Dallas losing while the Eagles and Chiefs won. The postseason record stands at 7-3 (.700) and the overall mark is 174-105 (.624).
Let’s get to it.
3 PM, FOX: SAN FRAN (15-4) AT PHILADELPHIA (15-3)
(Announcers: Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen)
This is going to be fun to watch and I’ve been wrestling with this pick, just as my boy FATBACK HOBBS battled the 96-ounce steak at the Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse in Orlando in the spring of 1992. The meat won big that day, bludgeoning my friend’s morale and lower intestine with extreme prejudice. But the NFC victor isn’t as simple to determine.
On the one hand, the Eagles have been one of the league’s elite teams from the jump this year and the foundation of their team, the offensive and defensive lines, are elite. Beautiful to watch, even for a rival fan like yours truly.
On the flip side, I believe the Niners have the best head coach in today’s game in Kyle Shanahan, who leads SF into its third NFC Championship game in four years. That’s no knock on Nick Sirianni, whose virtues I’ve extolled, just an acknowledgement of the tremendous job that Shanahan does.
In my book, Shahanan is the best coach I’ve seen at utilizing different - and disparate - personnel since Joe Gibbs, who led Washington to three Super Bowl wins with three different quarterbacks AND three different running backs. Like Gibbs, Shanahan pays great attention to scheme and places a great premium on offensive-line play with his OL coach, Chris Foerster, one of the very best. As a result, he sits on the precipice of his second Super Bowl appearance as a head coach.
Of course, Sirianni and the Eagles hold the o-line in high esteem as well and coach Jeff Stoutland, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., has done a terrific job with his troops once again in 2022. Whether passing or running, his unit excels and, though they are talented, Stoutland deserves a great deal of credit.
At day’s end, I think there are two line-related questions that will go a long way towards determining today’s winner:
Can San Francisco utilize the athleticism of left tackle Trent Williams, the NFL’s best, to create plays in space for Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, etc.?
Can Nick Bosa, the Niners star defensive end, disrupt the flow of the Philadelphia passing game?
Two tough questions to answer but I lean towards “yes,” on both.
One additional point before my prediction: I don’t think the Philadelphia crowd will be a factor, at least not outside of the parking lot. This isn’t to disparage the Eagles faithful, just a reflection of my belief that home-field advantage is one of the most overrated things in sports when two excellent teams are playing.
In the last four years alone, home teams are 2-2 in the NFC title game and 2-2 in the AFC championship tilt. The Saints lost at home to the Rams in the 2018 postseason and the host Packers fell to Tampa in the 2020 playoffs. And, on the AFC side, the Chiefs were defeated at Arrowhead Stadium in 2018 and 2021, losing to the Patriots and Bengals, respectively.
Just about anyone would rank Green Bay, Kansas City and New Orleans as tough places to play yet, those teams suffered home losses in the penultimate round of the playoffs. Why? They got beat by good teams who didn’t care where they were playing.
And what of Brock Purdy facing the Philly crowd? Well, with all due respect, the young man started 47 college games - 47! - at Iowa State and he surely faced many a hostile Big XII crowd. Rest assured that going into Austin, Tex., Norman, Okla., or Morgantown, W. Va., on a Saturday afternoon is no picnic for opposing teams. And, for those that may scoff, think about this: seating capacity at the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma stadiums are 100,000 and 86,000, respectively. Lincoln Financial Field? It’s just shy of 68,000.
I expect this game to be a low-scoring, down-to-the-wire affair and, historically, I see it playing out like the 1990 NFC Championship game when a determined Giants team went into San Francisco and stole a victory. Matt Bahr drilled a 42-yard field goal to win that game and send New York to the Super Bowl and, this year, it’ll be Robbie Gould doing it for the Niners. Let’s go with the same score. SAN FRAN, 15-13
6:30 PM, CBS: CINCINNATI (14-4) AT KANSAS CITY (15-3)
(Announcers: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo)
If you’re among the small group of four or five people that read this column, you know I’ve been blabbering for a while that I’m done picking against Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow. Well, it is about time I took my own advice, isn’t?
Of course, what I should really be saying is that I’m done picking against Zac Taylor and Frank Pollack. You know Taylor, of course, given his stature as head coach of the Bengals but I’m willing to bet that Mr. Pollack is more than a mystery to you.
Pollack, you see, is the Cincinnati offensive line coach and, working with his boss, Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, he has done a masterful job of camouflaging the struggles of several of the team’s offensive linemen. History says that shouldn’t be a surprise.
After all, a young Pollack learned at the knee of two of the game’s all-time greats when it comes to o-line play. His position coach at Northern Arizona University in 1986 was none other than Andy Reid, the man who will be across the sideline today. Next up was future Raiders head coach Bill Callahan, who coached the Lumberjacks offensive line in 1987-88. He is now in Cleveland and still considered an elite o-line coach.
Please pardon this digression while I ask: How small is the football world? Well, Callahan’s son, Brian, works with Pollack today as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator and, while at Northern Arizona, Pollack also crossed paths with two other future NFL head coaches - Brad Childress and Marty Mornhinweg. Pretty cool.
As for the game, there’s been a fair amount of bravado emanating from the Queen City this week but, putting aside the below-the-belt comments from Cincinnati’s mayor, it is much ado about nothing. Andy Reid’s teams play with determination and urgency no matter the circumstance.
Of course, playing with urgency is one thing while playing with injuries is another. There is naturally plenty of concern about Patrick Mahomes right ankle but, truth be told, I’m more interested in whether or not Travis Kelce’s out-of-the-blue back issue will cause issues for the Chiefs.
If Kelce doesn’t play, the Bengals may win this game handily but, then again, this is a Chiefs team that can generally handle everything that’s thrown at them. I know how good the Bengals are on both sides of the ball. I know they’ve won three straight vs. Kansas City. But, in the eleventh hour, I can’t shake the thought that the Chiefs are going to find a way to rise up and win this ballgame.
I may live to regret my flip-flop, but I’m gonna do it any way. Give me a one-legged Mahomes and a gimpy Kelce, backed by Reid’s ingenuity and a defense that’s better than folks think. CHIEFS, 30-29 (P.S. THE TRE MAN tells me this is a very bad idea.)
Enjoy the games all and, if I’ve picked against your teams today, enjoy it and thank me later. Odds are that you’re going to win :)
Be well and God bless!