After a season that almost seemed like it's a week or two too long, thanks NFL, we've finally arrived at the Super Bowl pairing. And what do you know, the No. 1 seeds from each conference advanced, which without looking it up I'm pretty sure doesn't happen very often. Plenty to dissect from yesterday's games.
Eagles 31, 49ers 7. Man, nothing can turn a potentially great game into a debacle faster than a quarterback injury. I will not in any way look to lessen Philadelphia's win, since they might very well have shut down Brock Purdy even had they not knocked him out of the game. But once it was a question of fourth-stringer Josh Johnson, Purdy with an elbow injury, or Christian McCaffrey at quarterback, the Super Bowl merchandise for the Eagles was already being printed up. I'm not sure Johnson was going to throw for 100 yards in this game even if he, too, weren't knocked out with a concussion. Purdy returned but quite clearly couldn't throw the ball at all, and perhaps a healthy Purdy would also have struggled. But things might have gone a little better.
As it was, Philadelphia's fairly early 21-7 lead might as well have been a 100-point advantage. McCaffrey turned in a really cool touchdown run and did as much as he could, but there was no chance of the offense generating 20 points. And the Eagles offense had no urgency to throw the ball (leaving us wondering mildly how Jalen Hurts would have fared if he had to, how is that banged-up shoulder actually doing?). A lousy day for those who started any Eagles receivers, only those who started Hurts were spared somewhat by Philadelphia's reckless use of him as a runner in a game that was basically over in the first half -- but hey, let's put him in the middle of a pile of bodies and punch him into the end zone anyway, what's the harm. I don't know why Miles Sanders didn't get any work after scoring twice early, but it helped me hit a parlay that included a rushing under, so thanks for that Coach Sirianni.
Saw an item somewhere yesterday noting that Kyle Shanahan has as hard a time keeping quarterbacks healthy as he does running backs. Probably not fair, but it's pretty clear that quarterback is the offseason issue that San Francisco needs to resolve. They can't count on Trey Lance. They probably won't bring back Jimmy Garoppolo. The toughest challenge faced by Brock Purdy wound up incomplete -- I think he could be their starter next year, but I have no idea if San Francisco feels the same. It's not often a 13-4 team isn't sure what the answer is at the most important position, but that's what's facing the 49ers.
Kansas City 23, Cincinnati 20. Where to start with this one. First, you'd think a game that ended on a last-second field goal would have been a lot better. It was exciting in the sense that it was close throughout, and both quarterbacks had the ball in the final two minutes of a tie game with a chance to win it for their team. The negative, however, is that both of those last two drives were overshadowed by other things. Cincinnati's probably wasn't going to go anywhere, with Joe Burrow under siege from Chris Jones and company, the one thing going into the game which seemed like it might be a big problem for the Bengals -- their banged-up line, and Kansas City's 55-sack pass rush. But it definitely wasn't going anywhere after an intentional grounding penalty that was of the kind officials almost never call, Samaje Perine was right there, and Burrow was getting buried (that seemed the more likely area for a flag to be thrown, which might have resulted in a Bengals win).
So Cincinnati punted, with very little time left, and we seemed pretty likely to get overtime. But we were denied it by two things: one, a lengthy Skyy Moore punt return that relied on the refs again stepping up and failing to call an illegal block in the back. I don't want to dwell on that one, officials are never consistent on such calls. So instead I'll focus on the play that definitely cost us overtime, the late hit out of bounds by Bengals linebacker Joseph Assai. I feel terrible for the guy, since he'll be held up as the goat and is certainly the easiest target, but he was far from the only reason. But he was the final, most direct reason, with a careless and unnecessary play, without which there's no way Kansas City kicks that field goal and no way we don't get overtime. Unfortunate.
Officiating is bad these days. We've been saying it literally all year, and when I see people saying "That was the worst officiated game!" I think, no, it was typical. It was just the highest-profile one. Spots have sucked all year. Reviews have sucked all year. This billion-dollar industry lets close games be decided week after week by aging officials running up to spot balls from 10 yards behind the play, with no chance of actually putting it in the proper place, measuring first downs with a length of chain between two poles. What could possibly go wrong? Turns out pretty much everything.
As for the rest of the game, I suppose I have to give some credit to one of my favorite targets of ridicule, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who stepped with his best game by far with all of Kansas City's other wide receivers hurt. Never mind that he'd been under 30 yards in six straight games and 10 times on the season, he's a big part of why Kansas City is still playing. If he gets cut in the offseason after this, some other team will maybe fall for his appeal and pay him good money again. The Super Bowl is two weeks away, so we'll see who the team has available (can they still sign Odell Beckham?).
Kansas City's decision to scale back Jerick McKinnon and use Isiah Pacheco as a receiver was surprising. McKinnon did let an early short pass (which would have gone nowhere) bounce off his face, and maybe that was a factor. But those holding Pacheco in dynasty, or that can still use him in playoff competitions, have to be feeling pretty good. He also had an early touchdown run wiped out by a penalty, or he'd have been especially good.
Patrick Mahomes showed that practicing fully during the week is not the same as fully healthy. He threw the ball fine, but he wasn't moving well, and there was the one instance where he put all his weight on that ankle and was clearly barely able to stand. But he got the win, and he's got two weeks to rest up. Should be moving better in the Super Bowl, if perhaps not 100 percent.
Cincinnati's offensive line injuries caught up with them. They couldn't protect Burrow, they couldn't open holes for the ground game, and maybe they wouldn't have been good enough yesterday even if fully healthy. But that's undoubtedly where they'll be putting resources in the offseason. I'm not going to be surprised if they're right back in this game next year.
So, Philly versus Kansas City. We'll talk a lot about it over the next week plus. I don't have an early pick. As a defensive guy, it's nice to see the league's two best pass rushes in the big game. Won't be surprising if one of those helps swing it at the end.