Super Bowl participants do not spring from a flurry of victories gained over a few weeks in January. Organizations that reach the pinnacle of success in the National Football League are like any operation that achieves success. It is the final product of dedicated work to build something that will endure the challenges in development and succeed through the final rigors required to win.
All four teams participating on Sunday in the NFL Championship Games have paid the prices to get here. The National Football Conference finds two teams not led by a quarterback who was a first round draft choice, but rather men that every other team had a shot at adding to their roster. The Philadelphia Eagles are led by 24-year-old Jalen Hurts, who was selected in the second round with the 53rd pick in the 2020 draft. Four quarterbacks were taken before him in the first round. They were Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Jordan Love.
The San Francisco 49ers are guided by a rookie seventh round pick, Brock Purdy. He opened the season third on the 49ers depth chart and after both Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo were sidelined with injuries, has won all seven of his NFL starts.
Then there is the American Football Conference battle set for Arrowhead on Sunday between the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs. These two franchises are led by first round draft choices at quarterback. Cincinnati’s Burrow was the first player chosen in the same draft that brought Hurts to Philadelphia in the second round, and no one has doubted it was a brilliant selection by the Queen City franchise. The Chiefs are guided from behind center by the second quarterback and tenth overall selection in the 2018 draft, and no one has ever questioned whether he deserved to be the first player chosen that year.
That fact is particularly true in Chicago, where fans of the Bears are still bemoaning that their team left Patrick Mahomes on the board while selecting Mitch Trubisky with the second pick in the 2017 draft. Six years later, the Bears are still looking for their franchise quarterback.
Mahomes versus Burrow is arguably a battle between the best two quarterbacks in football today. That is taking into consideration that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have reached the shadowy side of their storied careers, and Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence have not yet cracked a Super Bowl field.
Burrow led a young Bengals squad to the Super Bowl last year, and did it on the Chiefs home field by downing Mahomes and his Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. In that contest, the Bengals were decided underdogs to a Chiefs team that was looking to make their third straight Super Bowl appearance. Two years earlier, Mahomes led the Chiefs to a win over the San Francisco 49ers to complete the 2019 season, and lost the following season in Super Bowl LV to Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
On Sunday, the Bengals are looking to get back to the final leg for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, which they failed to gain last February while losing to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI. This year, the Bengals are given a much better chance to advance out of Arrowhead with a victory than they were last season.
Earlier this year, the Chiefs visited Cincinnati and were favored by 2½ points over Burrow and his Bengals. And for the third time in a row, Burrow downed Mahomes and company with the Bengals third straight three point victory over the Chiefs.
So, if the Chiefs were favored in Cincinnati on December 4th by 2½ points, why are they favored by fewer points on their home field tomorrow?
Two reasons come quickly. First, Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain during last week’s win over the Jacksonville Jaguars and no matter how good he looks this week in practice, people in the know realize that a high ankle sprain does not heal in one week. And second, football bettors have a memory on par with an ostrich.
The football world is driven by the most recent results, and when the Bengals went into Buffalo last week as nearly a touchdown underdog and came away with a convincing 27-10 win that wasn’t even as close as the score, the assumption is made that they can repeat that kind of performance.
In truth, when one knows what drives results, a dominating win that was a surprise to most is a valid reason to expect a less impressive performance in their next game. That is because the motivational dip comes at a team in the Bengals spot from both directions.
First, when preparing for a tough battle, as Cincinnati was last week heading into Buffalo, and that victory comes easy, the next week’s preparation is almost always less intense. And second, when the Chiefs see the Bengals hammer a team that beat them on their home field earlier this year, Buffalo downed Kansas City at Arrowhead in mid-October, their preparation is heightened.
This week, Cincinnati has nearly 70% of the wagers on this game backing their chances in Kansas City. This is a long way from where the Bengals opened this season, a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on their home field.
That early season defeat was attributed mostly to the Bengals suspect offensive line. The same unit that allowed Burrow to be sacked nine times in last year’s playoff game in Tennessee while still downing the top seed Titans the week before they upset Mahomes in Kansas City. That was the Bengals in last year’s playoffs, a team spiked by the motivation to end a thirty-year drought without a postseason victory.
This year, after a rocky start, the Bengals offensive line issues appeared to be handled as the team molded into a solid unit to protect their franchise quarterback. But, in recent games, injuries depleted the Bengals front line as starters La’el Collins, Jonah Williams and Ted Karras will all miss Sunday’s game against the Chiefs.
So, can a Championship Game come down to the offensive lines?
Kansas City comes into this contest with the most sacks registered by an AFC team against opposing quarterbacks, 57, which is second in the entire league to the Eagles. And the Chiefs offensive line is a unit that has avoided injuries this season and has the challenge this week of protecting their hobbled prized field general.
After the game, the heroics of the winning quarterback, receiver or running back will grab the headlines, but going in, the unit I think will most contribute to the winning squad is the men up front.
Qoxhi Picks: Kansas City Chiefs (-1½) over Cincinnati Bengals