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Preview: The Conference Championship Round Evinces A Youthful Upsurge 

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts will lead his team against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Photo by AP.

Combine all the seasons played by the remaining four starting quarterbacks, and you get 10 fewer seasons than Tom Brady.

When Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, 24, goes head to head with 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, 23, it will be the youngest quarterback matchup in NFC Championship game history. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is 26, while Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is 27.  

It is a new era in the NFL, and Conference Championship weekend determines which one of these young men takes another step closer to asserting their reign over it. 

Philadelphia Eagles v. San Francisco 49ers: A Brawl For The Ages

Both offenses are complete with an abundance of playmakers. Both defenses elicit fear in any offense. Both won’t win. One will.

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan opted to cancel the usual team-wide Monday meeting, prioritizing rest. The Niners, specifically quarterback Brock Purdy, will need all the rest possible to wrestle against the top-seeded Eagles with the second-best defense in the league. 

Undoubtedly, the Eagles are Purdy’s most dense task of his short yet success-filled career. 

Considering Purdy, the last pick in the 2022 draft, started his first professional game in early December and is 7-0 in all starts, a lack of experience gives Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts an advantage. Any nerves Purdy, or Niners fans, may possess regarding experience will be swallowed by the wisdom and pedigree of Shannahan. Under Shannahan, this will be San Francisco’s third appearance in the NFC Championship in the last four years. 

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Sophomore Bison linebacker, Pennsylvania native and Eagles fan Phil Cook believes Purdy’s inexperience should boost his team’s confidence.

“We should be confident going into the championship game because we are going against a rookie quarterback,” he said. 

Shannahan, however, is not the gunslinger, and with Eagles defensive end Hassan Reddick coming off of a two-sack performance against the Giants in the divisional round, he is hungry. The Eagles defense has accumulated 70 sacks and 17 interceptions on the season. 

Cook provided his honest thoughts on Reddick as well, “He is a phenomenal defensive presence.” 

There is a caveat. Trent Williams will be on the offensive line protecting Purdy. Williams has allowed zero sacks this season. 

An effective performance from Williams will give Purdy time to find his colossal weapons. 

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Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox is unsure of returning to action from a toe injury he suffered on Christmas Eve against the Cowboys. Cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry will be relied upon to slay the four-headed giant of hybrids Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffery, wideout Brandon Aiyuk, and tight end George Kittle. 

McCaffery scored a critical touchdown in their divisional matchup against the Cowboys. However, he only rushed for 35 yards. The Niners firing on all cylinders is essential.

The Eagles will need a structured plan focusing on how they will protect the middle of the field, as Purdy throws 62 percent of his passes over the middle. 

His ascension has been nothing short of a blessing for the Niners. Before Purdy started, the Niners offense was top 10 in expected points added, or EPA, per play. With Purdy at the helm, an already stellar offense catapulted into the top three of the same category. 

Offense alone doesn’t win games. Fortunately, that is perfectly fine for San Francisco. 

Niners defensive menace Nick Bosa in tandem with Jimmie Ward and Fred Warner, will seek to devour Hurts’ soul. As mentioned earlier, the Eagles have the second-ranked defense. Well, their opponent has the first. 

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The Niners racked up a league-leading 20 interceptions this season. During the regular season, the Niners defense allowed only 50 plays over 20 yards, ranking fourth in the league. The Eagles had 80 plays of over 20 yards, second behind the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Hurts must endure the imminent pressure that former Eagles linebacker and now Niners defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans will enforce. A steadfast performance will usher the Eagles into football glory. 

Cook has immense belief in Hurts to lead the Eagles.

“Hurts is playing on an MVP level,” Cook said. “It is hard to do what he is doing on this level.” 

Akin to Purdy, Hurts has multiple weapons.

Eagles star wide receivers A.J Brown and Devonta Smith combined for nearly 2,700 yards on the season. For their cleats to caress the grass in State Farm Stadium on Feb.12, replicating their divisional round performance of combining for only 83 receiving yards will not cut it against the 49ers.

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A brawl awaits America. The Eagles have eight wins at Lincoln Financial Field this season, including the playoffs. That is more wins at home than Purdy has in his career. Three of the four Niners losses occurred on the road this season. 

All stats and records evaporate within the 360×160 field lines.

The Niners are on a quest to crush the Eagles’ dream and prove that the west coast is the best coast in the NFC. 

On the other side of things, an all-around Eagles team evoking a nightmarish presence will seek to send the Niners back on a six-hour flight to San Francisco in despondency. 

Hilltop’s Predictions: Niners 24 @ Eagles 19 

Where & When to Watch: Sunday, Jan. 29, at 3 p.m. ET on FOX.

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Chiefs v. Bengals: A Rematch For The Ages

A year later. The same teams. The same stipulation. Win, and you stamp your ticket to Super Bowl 57. 

Last year’s AFC Championship game graced these two franchises that battled in an overtime thriller. With a team of bellicose warriors, the Bengals fought from 18 down to secure their franchise’s first trip to the big bowl game in 33 years. 

Bison wide receiver and junior journalism major Bryce Parker shared his thoughts on the implications of the game. 

“I feel like this game is giving us a new inter-conference rivalry as we saw with Manning and Brady,” Parker said.

The path to consecutive appearances will be easier than last year. In addition to the Bengals defense not having to worry about speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who the Chiefs lost to the Dolphins during the 2022 offseason, Chiefs star quarterback Mahomes will not be 100 percent.

Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain in the Chiefs’ 27-20 victory over the Jaguars in the AFC divisional round. 

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Mahomes experienced the same injury in the 2019 season-opener against the Jaguars and threw for four touchdowns the following week against the Raiders. The stakes are higher this time around and the Chiefs don’t have more games to look forward to like they did in 2019. 

An ideal Chiefs offensive line provides Mahomes quality time in the pocket to exercise his stellar pocket awareness and find receivers. His ability to break the pocket will be limited, and with a Bengals defense that just held the Buffalo Bills to 10 points, the Chiefs game plan must be near flawless. In their week 13 matchup, Mahomes only threw 16 completions, his lowest output of the season. The caveat is his team only lost by three points, even though Burrow had 25 completions on 31 attempts and three touchdowns on the day. 

Burrow performing similarly to week 13 is plausible as the former LSU standout has the weapons pertinent to inflict mass destruction on Mahomes’ quest for another trip to Disney World. 

However, defensive player of the year nominee Chris Jones is also craving a trip to Mickey Mouse’s domain. Jones has 79 pass rush wins on the season, 26 more than any defensive tackle. The Bengals offensive line, though improved, ranked 31st in pass block win rate this year. Burrow maintaining a quick release time throughout the game is critical. Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan will likely look to put star wideout Ja’Marr Chase in various formations to ensure the college teammates display already formidable chemistry by seeing the play before it is executed. 

There are also wide receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins and running back Joe Mixon, who rushed for 105 yards in the divisional round, that will force the Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to mull multiple defensive schemes heading into the Championship weekend. 

Parker believes defense will determine who hops on a plane to Arizona for the Feb. 12 game.

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“I am excited to see the quarterbacks duel it out but the defense will be the decision-maker in this game,” he said.

In addition, Parker admits the Bengals’ offensive weapons are also a determining factor.

“I think the Bengals will pull out the win because they have the harder offense to stop schematically,” Parker said. “They have multiple offensive threats with a great run game.” 

Playing the position, Parker knows a solid wide receiver core when he sees one and knows the danger it may inflict. “In the passing game, the Bengals have three elite options in Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd with a good complement in Hayden Hurst (tight end) which makes this team hard to beat,” he added.

Mahomes’ wide receiver and running back core are less threatening than Cincy’s. 

The Bengals may have an army on the offensive side, but the Chiefs have a hulk. Tight end Travis Kelce. 

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Coming off a historic 14-catch masterpiece against the Jaguars, Kelce is motivated to smash through the Bengals defense. 

A plethora of arguments can go in favor of either team. History favors the Bengals. Mahomes alone, even at 50 percent, favors the Chiefs. 

However, history repeating itself is common. The Bengals and Chiefs have played three times since 2021, and the Bengals have their number, winning by three in each of the matchups. The deadlock of winning by three breaks for the Bengals in the AFC Championship. The taste of victory continues in the AFC Championship for the Bengals. 

Parker didn’t refrain from stating his prediction, “Unfortunately, the Chiefs will get bounced in the AFC Championship game for the second year in a row.”

Hilltop’s Prediction: Bengals 27 @ Chiefs 17 

Where & When to Watch: Sunday, Jan. 29 at 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS

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Joshua Herron is a sports reporter with The Hilltop covering professional sports. 

Copy edited by Jasper Smith 

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