Why the 49ers and Bengals Lost in the NFL Conference Championship Games

It'll be the Eagles versus the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII

January 31, 2023 5:23 am
Brock Purdy attempts a throw against the Eagles.
Brock Purdy met his match in the Philadelphia Eagles.
Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated via Getty

Following a pair of games featuring the four best teams in the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles will take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium in Arizona on February 12. The Chiefs, who will be playing in their third Super Bowl in four seasons, were originally favored by about a point at many sportsbooks but are now underdogs by two points after a ton of early money poured in on the Eagles to win the NFL championship for the second time in six seasons. With Jalen Hurts leading the Eagles against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, this year’s Super Bowl will mark the first time two Black quarterbacks will face off in the NFL’s title game.

When the Chiefs, who will be the road team even though the game is being played at a neutral site, take on the Eagles, Sunday’s losers will be at home watching along with the rest of the NFL and the country in general. So why exactly will the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers be on their couches instead of on the field on the second Sunday in February? Let’s break down the biggest reason why the 49ers and Bengals were unable to advance to the Super Bowl.

The 49ers lost because they still don’t have a quarterback

Despite trading up in the draft to select Trey Lance almost two years ago, working out a deal to keep Jimmy Garoppolo in town over the summer and drafting Brock Purdy during the offseason, the San Francisco 49ers somehow were forced to turn to 36-year-old journeyman Josh Johnson at quarterback in a game that could have sent them back to the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons. No surprise, that did not end well as Johnson, who has been a member of 14 different teams during his 15 seasons in the NFL, was terrible before leaving with a concussion.

Johnson’s exit meant that Purdy, who started the NFC Championship game against the Eagles but departed in the first with an elbow injury, was forced back into action even though he was unable to throw the football with any strength or accuracy. Facing an offense that did not have the ability to pass, the Eagles were able to pin back their ears and attack on defense in a game that turned into a blowout very quickly.

That the 49ers, who made it to the NFC Championship game last season but lost to the Rams with a healthy Garoppolo under center, made it within a game of the Super Bowl with Purdy after losing Lance and Jimmy G to injury, is a testament to how strong San Francisco’s football program is. But the fact that the Niners didn’t have a better option to turn to than Johnson after Purdy went down is also an indictment of that program. To be so close to being in the Super Bowl and pin your chances on the right arm of a player who was selected in the 2008 NFL Draft is a travesty and makes the 49ers look arrogant to a fault.

It’ll be fascinating to see where the Niners go from here as Garoppolo’s contract is up and the health situations of both Lance and Purdy are up in the air. San Francisco certainly can’t use star running back Christian McCaffrey, who was fitted with a quarterback wristband during Sunday’s game, under center, and head coach Kyle Shanahan may not be able to rely on either Lance or Purdy to start next season.

That being the case, expect the drumbeat for the 49ers to make a run at Tom Brady to begin once again. Itt had largely been silenced with the emergence of Purdy over the second half of the season, but that was before an elbow injury and Johnson being called into action effectively ruined the NFC Championship game. For a team with a loaded defense and offensive playmakers at nearly every position, there’s simply no excuse not to have a viable starting quarterback in place. Had Purdy somehow won on Sunday, the gig would have been his despite the team drafting Lance. Now, with the way things played out, his future is far from clear and the same can be said for Lance.

“You dress two quarterbacks and neither one of them can throw and neither one of them is really available. It kind of limits what you can do as an offense,” said Niners tight end George Kittle. “How does that feel to lose an NFC championship game because I don’t have a quarterback? Pretty shitty to be honest.”

Want to stop feeling that way? Pressure general manager John Lynch to get a quarterback, finally.

The Bengals lost because they’re still the Bengals

Facing off for the fourth time in less than 400 days with Cincinnati emerging victorious in the previous three meetings by a three-point margin each time, the Chiefs and Bengals once again played a game that was decided by a field goal. This time, it was Joe Burrow and the Bengals who wound up on the losing end of things and the only people they really have to blame are themselves.

The most obvious embodiment of that sentiment was defensive end Joseph Ossai mindlessly and blatantly hitting Mahomes when the star quarterback was clearly out of bounds with the score tied 20-20 and time running out in the fourth quarter. The resulting 15-yard penalty made what would have been a difficult field goal for Harrison Butker into more of a chip shot and he was able to deliver the game-winning kick and send his team to the Super Bowl.

As perplexing and dumb as Ossai’s mistake was, it was far from the only foolish play the Bengals made down the stretch in a game where they had the advantage of playing against a hobbled Mahomes and a depleted Kansas City receiving corps.

Forced to punt to Kansas City prior to Ossai’s blunder, the Bengals elected to kick the ball right down the middle of the field instead of putting it out of bounds or angling it to make a return tougher. Generally a shaky returner, Skyy Moore had no issue fielding the ball and broke free for 29 yards on the return to give Mahomes good field position on what would turn out to be the game-winning drive.

Prior to that series of events, Burrow also made a boneheaded play when he chucked a ball deep to Tee Higgins on third down that was batted into the air and picked by rookie cornerback Josh Williams. The mistake didn’t end up costing the Bengals at the time because Mahomes was unable to move the Chiefs past midfield, but Burrow’s decision to throw a deep ball to Higgins when Cincinnati just needed to pick up a first down was highly questionable and very reminiscent of the type of plays the Bengals would make in the past.

For the most part, the Bengals have seemed like an entirely different franchise since Burrow arrived in Cincy, and head coach Zac Taylor has proved far more competent than the majority of his predecessors. That being said, the Bengals have not been able to completely rewrite their DNA as of yet, and Sunday’s loss shows they are still susceptible to the types of mistakes that plagued them when the franchise went three decades without a playoff win.

“We’re not going to make it about one play. There was plenty of plays we left on the field today that could have put us in a better position,” Taylor said following the loss. “The character of this football team, that’s never going to change. We’ve got the right people in the locker room, the right men leading this team and this organization.”

But for now, at least, they’re also still the Bungles.

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