Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. I’m picking the Eagles and Bengals to win Sunday.
In today’s SI:AM:
💬 The Warriors’ message during their White House trip
🏈 Why Ed Reed didn’t work out at Bethune-Cookman
✅ Conference championship game picks
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Super Bowl trips on the line
The more I think about it, Sunday’s conference championships sound like perfect matchups. As a Giants fan, sure, I would have liked to see them advance, but all four of the teams remaining have proved themselves to be elite over the course of the season, and there isn’t any possible combination of Super Bowl teams that would be disappointing.
One game (Chiefs vs. Bengals) features two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, players who could come to define the league’s next decade. The other (Eagles vs. 49ers) will be an old-school meeting of two teams that rely on the running game and stout defenses to win.
49ers at Eagles (3 p.m. ET on Fox)
No team has looked as good during these playoffs as the Eagles did while dismantling the Giants last weekend. New York’s defensive line has plenty of talent, but Philadelphia’s offensive line tossed them around like ragdolls. With quarterback Jalen Hurts seemingly healthy, the Eagles and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen did whatever they wanted to on the ground, running 44 times for 268 yards (an average of 6.1 yards per carry). The Niners’ run defense is elite, though. They ranked second in the NFL with a measly 3.4 yards per carry allowed, just a hair behind the Titans. Something has to give Sunday, and it’ll be a treat to watch.
That San Francisco defense, led by coordinator DeMeco Ryans, linebacker Fred Warner and defensive end Nick Bosa, is the reason the Niners have made it this far. The question is whether the offense can score enough points to earn a trip to Arizona in two weeks. Brock Purdy has exceeded expectations in his seven starts at quarterback, but he’s still a rookie who was the last pick in the draft. This is a perfect situation for him to be in, as he’s able to rely on the team’s outstanding defense and running game to take the pressure off him. He’s had only one game where he’s had to play from behind (a 37–34 overtime win over the Raiders in Week 17). What happens if the Eagles are leading in the second half and the Niners have to start putting the ball in the air to try to come back?
Bengals at Chiefs (6:30 p.m. ET on CBS)
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this game will come down to how healthy Patrick Mahomes’s injured ankle is and how the Chiefs are able to devise a gameplan that accounts for his (possible) limitations. Mahomes has said on multiple occasions that he intends to be on the field Sunday, but he’s always at his best when he’s able to get outside the pocket and make throws on the run. With his high ankle sprain, he likely won’t have the same mobility that helps separate him from other passers. Mahomes was throwing off of one foot at times against the Jaguars, and, because he’s Patrick Mahomes, he made it work. But the Bengals are much better than Jacksonville, and Mahomes could need his eccentric group of pass catchers to step up to keep pace with the Cincinnati offense.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals, meanwhile, are looking forward to an encore. They’ve proved they can beat Mahomes, even with two healthy ankles. Burrow is undefeated in three games against the Chiefs in his career: a 2021 Week 17 game in Cincinnati, the ’21 AFC championship game in Kansas City and Week 13 this season (also in Cincinnati). The Bengals won those three games by a combined nine points, so this is hardly a one-sided rivalry. With any luck, playoff meetings between the 26-year-old Burrow and 27-year-old Mahomes will become increasingly common. As for this one, our experts are more or less in agreement about the expected result. Four of the five picked the Bengals to win.
The best of Sports Illustrated
- In today’s Daily Cover, Howard Beck writes about how the Warriors used their visit to the White House earlier this month to advocate for gun control.
- Richard Johnson looks at what went wrong between Ed Reed and Bethune-Cookman, leading to the messy removal of Reed as football coach.
- Rohan Nadkarni breaks down the NBA All-Star starter selections, which were announced last night.
- The departures of the U.S. men’s national team’s sporting director and general manager just add to the uncertainty surrounding U.S. Soccer, Brian Straus writes.
- Bill Enright analyzed the betting numbers for Sunday’s conference championship matchups.
- Luka Dončić hurt his ankle last night against the Suns.
- Duquesne is reexamining its security procedures after that viral food delivery prank.
- The Bengals’ Super Bowl reservation prices nearly tripled between Nov. 21 and Dec. 19, with Cincinnati’s late push propelling the team to the conference championships.
The top five...
… things I saw last night:
5. Paul George’s fastbreak windmill dunk.
4. Mats Zuccarello’s five-hole game-winner.
3. Stan Van Gundy showing off the vocabulary he learned from his viral Twitter exchange with Kevin Durant.
2. Geno Auriemma’s fiery in-game interview.
1. Julius Randle’s reaction to Jaylen Brown’s missing two free throws that would have given the Celtics the lead with seven seconds left in overtime.
As speculation swirls about Tom Brady’s future, let’s turn back the clock to his first conference championship game. On this day in 2002, the Patriots upset the Steelers to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl, where they would knock off the Rams to complete their fairy-tale story. How many passing yards did Brady have in Pittsburgh?
Yesterday’s SIQ: On Jan. 26, 1997, Mario Lemieux tied an NHL record by scoring four goals in a single period. Who matched that feat this season?
- Tage Thompson
- Mikko Rantanen
- Jack Hughes
- Bo Horvat
Answer: Tage Thompson. He had five goals, including four in the first period, against the Blue Jackets on Dec. 7.
Thompson became the 18th player in NHL history to score four goals in a period and the 10th in the expansion era. He was just the second (after Patrick Marleau in 2017) since Lemieux to accomplish the feat.
Thompson is having a breakout season for the Sabres. Roughly halfway through the season, he has nearly equaled his goal total from last season—which was also a career high. In his first four seasons, Thompson scored just 18 goals. Then, last season, he was Buffalo’s leading scorer with 38 goals. (He also led the team with 68 points.) This season, he has 34 goals in 48 games and the Sabres are in the hunt to make their first playoff appearance since 2011.
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