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4 storylines to watch in this weekend's NFL conference championship games

This weekend's two NFL Conference Championship games are shaping up to make for one of the closest semifinal rounds in recent memory.

The winners of Sunday's two games — the San Francisco 49ers vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, followed by the Cincinnati Bengals vs. the Kansas City Chiefs — will meet Feb. 12 for Super Bowl LVII.

All four remaining teams have a legitimate shot at winning it all, as the betting odds show. For the first time in more than 25 years, the spread in both games is less than a field goal. And the difference in odds between the favorite (the Eagles) and the longest shot (the 49ers) is so tight that, by that measure, this weekend is the most evenly matched conference championship round in recorded betting history.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes limps on the field after being injured against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Arrowhead Stadium on Jan. 21.
David Eulitt / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes limps on the field after being injured against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Arrowhead Stadium on Jan. 21.

Whether you're a longtime football viewer or a decided non-fan reluctantly tuning in to humor a loved one, here are some storylines to follow this weekend:

Just how fast is it possible to recover from a high ankle sprain?

The Kansas City Chiefs are perhaps the most successful team in the NFL these days. Sunday will mark their 5th straight conference championship game (although they've only been able to turn that into one ring so far).

But this year's chances took a hit when star quarterback Patrick Mahomes sprained his ankle in last week's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Though the Chiefs pulled out the victory, Mahomes was temporarily sidelined for evaluation before returning to hobble and limp his way to the win.

At first, the team was tight-lipped about his recovery and whether the presumptive MVP would be available to play against the Bengals on Sunday.

Then, later in the week, the team announced that Mahomes would play and allowed reporters to briefly watch him participate in a pair of low-key warmup sessions, leaving Chiefs fans (and bettors) to scrutinize the recordings like the Zapruder film.

But even when the Chiefs have been healthy, they've had trouble with the Bengals. These two teams have faced off three other times in the last 390 days, and Cincinnati has won all three games by 3 points each.

For round 4, it's anyone's guess whether Mahomes will be recovered enough to play well enough to win.

Can the Bengals finally get their first Super Bowl win? Or will they join the NFL's least desirable club?

The Bungles are no more.

With the unflappable Joe Burrow under center, Cincinnati is a franchise transformed. Before last year, the Bengals hadn't won a playoff game since 1991. Now, they're appearing in their second straight AFC championship game, and a win will send them to their second straight Super Bowl appearance.

Burrow is still on a rookie contract, meaning his salary is artificially low for his caliber of play. That has freed up Cincinnati to spend money surrounding him with talent, especially in their wide receiver corps. That math will change before too long, forcing the Bengals into some tough personnel decisions in the future. (On the other hand — asked earlier this month about the importance of taking advantage of the team's current window to win the Super Bowl, Burrow responded: "The window's my whole career.")

For now, the sky seems to be the limit for this Bengals squad, which steamrolled preseason Super Bowl favorites the Buffalo Bills last week. And they certainly have the confidence to beat the Chiefs (again).

If they win Sunday, Burrow will have his chance to complete Cincinnati's turnaround with the franchise's first ever Super Bowl win. But if they lose, they'll join the NFL's saddest exclusive club with the Bills and the Minnesota Vikings: the only franchises to go 0-4 in the Super Bowl.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts asked for a Super Bowl for Christmas. How can Santa say no?
Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts asked for a Super Bowl for Christmas. How can Santa say no?

Will Jalen Hurts get his Christmas wish?

For neutral fans looking for a truly capricious reason to root for a random team, consider this: Late last year, the Eagles' offensive line released a Christmas album called A Philly Special Christmas. It's extremely charming, and all proceeds benefit local charities in Philadelphia.

Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce hatched the idea while volunteering in 2021. "The problem is, I can't sing, so I knew I was going to have to coax guys that could sing to come do this," Kelce said in a mini-documentary about the making of the album, which hit the top 10 on a handful of Billboard album charts this month.

A trio of linemen took vocal lessons with members of the Philadelphia-based band The War On Drugs. Then, in July, they recorded the album, along with guest appearances by star teammates — including quarterback Jalen Hurts, who said, "You know what's on my Christmas list: the Super Bowl."

As for the actual football, the Eagles might have had the most complete roster of any team this season. Hurts, a danger to score both with his arm and his legs, has had a breakout season, and this week he was named a finalist for Most Valuable Player. They have been a serious contender all season and, with their 38-7 domination of the New York Giants last week, seem to be peaking at just the right moment.

(Also worth mentioning: Jason Kelce is the brother of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. If the Chiefs and Eagles both advance this weekend, the Kelce brothers would become the first siblings to play against each other in a Super Bowl.)

Oh, and have you heard of this kid Brock Purdy?

If you've watched even an hour of NFL broadcast coverage in the past two months, you've probably heard about quarterback Brock Purdy, aka Mr. Irrelevant, aka the last pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, who was thrust into the starting role for the 49ers after a series of unlucky injuries to their first- and second-string QBs.

Purdy, who was passed on multiple times by all 32 NFL teams before the Niners took him at #262, has improbably led San Francisco to eight straight wins since he took over in December.

If the Niners win Sunday, Purdy — again, a seventh-rounder — would become the first rookie quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl. It's remarkable stuff.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan already has the reputation as an offensive wizard. But this — taking a rookie 7th-round quarterback the distance in the playoffs, giving San Francisco a chance at its first Super Bowl win since 1995 — is his best magic trick yet.

Of course, the 49ers are stacked with other talent, so Purdy shouldn't have to work miracles to beat the Eagles. He just needs to capably get the ball to playmakers like tight end George Kittle and jack-of-all-trades Deebo Samuel. And San Francisco's top-rated NFC defense, led by defensive end Nick Bosa, need to do their part against the Eagles' top-rated NFC offense.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
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