Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, a look at how the final four teams stack up against each other, on each side of the ball ...
The NFL playoffs have reached Championship Sunday, with the league's four best teams battling it out for an opportunity to play in Super Bowl LVII.
The Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers step into the arena with star-studded lineups on both sides of the ball. There's no weak unit in the bunch. With that in mind ...
I decided to rank all eight groups -- four offenses and four defenses -- against each other. After reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film of each team, here's how I rank the units, 1 through 8.
If the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, the top defense must be able to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the passing game. The Eagles are a destructive force that destroys opponents at the point of attack. The defensive line, in particular, has taken a sledgehammer to all comers, utilizing a mix of size, speed and skill to overwhelm blockers in pass protection. As the first team in NFL history to boast four players boasting double-digit sacks -- Haason Reddick (16), Brandon Graham (11), Javon Hargrave (11) and Josh Sweat (11) -- Philadelphia can harass the quarterback while throwing a blanket over the skill players in the passing game. With 70 sacks during the regular season -- the third-most in league history -- the Eagles had 15 more sacks than the next-closest team (Kansas City).
That kind of pressure up front fits quite nicely with a defensive backfield that features a pair of long, rangy athletes with A+ ball skills and tackling ability. Darius Slay and James Bradberry are rock-solid corners with a knack for reading the quarterback's eyes while shadowing wideouts in space. With C.J. Gardner-Johnson complementing these veteran cover men as a ball-hawking safety with outstanding range and diagnostic skills -- after all, he tied for the league lead with six interceptions despite missing five games -- Philly has a perfect combination of pass rush and coverage to flourish in today's pass-happy game.
As Joe Burrow makes a run at the NFL's QB1 spot, it is important to acknowledge a star-studded supporting cast loaded with five-star pass catchers and runners. The Bengals' three-wideout package features an elite WR1 (Ja'Marr Chase), a dynamic vertical threat (Tee Higgins) and a crafty slot receiver with complementary skills (Tyler Boyd). The trio overwhelms opponents via individual and collective skills, and Burrow does not mind targeting the hot playmaker when he identifies a mismatch. Hayden Hurst adds a dimension to the offense as an underrated chain mover with soft hands and savvy route-running skills. Although the Bengals rarely target the tight end as a primary option, the presence of a reliable playmaker at the position forces opponents to play honest against the team's "11" personnel package.
Running back Joe Mixon is the X-factor as a hard-nosed runner with three 1,000-yard seasons on his résumé. Though he failed to surpass that mark in 2022, the veteran's increased role as a pass catcher (career-best 60 catches this season) adds yet another element to this multifaceted offensive machine.
While the critics will point to a patchwork offensive line forced to overcome a spate of injuries, that compromised unit manhandled the Bills just last week. And Cincy's able to mask any O-line issues with Burrow's supercomputer processing speed and all that explosiveness on the perimeter.
It's no coincidence that 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is one of the hottest candidates in the 2023 head-coaching carousel. (In fact, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported Friday that Ryans has emerged as a top candidate for the Houston Texans' job.) The former Pro Bowl linebacker has implemented a scheme that perfectly matches a talented personnel group. San Francisco's defensive line and linebackers, in particular, have the ability to take over games, mixing stout run-stopping ability with tremendous pass-rush/cover skills.
Nick Bosa is a true game-wrecker who seems destined to take home Defensive Player of the Year honors next month. The fourth-year pro led the league with 18.5 sacks during the regular season, routinely fending off double teams at the line of scrimmage. Bosa sets the tone with his relentless effort and refined skills.
Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw bring the heat from the second level as "fast flow" linebackers with outstanding speed, quickness and burst. The duo's ability to key, diagnose and chase shrinks the field for runners and pass catchers attempting to produce splash plays in space. With Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson making timely contributions as quasi-linebackers masquerading as safeties, the 49ers have a rock-solid defense built around a group of blue-chip defenders with A+ playmaking skills.
Yes, this unit's ranking suffers from the uncertainty surrounding Patrick Mahomes' ankle. If the quarterback's right, this attack is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
Credit Andy Reid for finding a way to average nearly 30 points per game with a tight end anchoring the aerial attack. While Travis Kelce will eventually sport a gold jacket as one of the best players ever at the position, the Chiefs are winning with a smoke-and-mirrors offense directed by the top quarterback in the game. Despite losing a cheat-code target during the offseason (Tyreek Hill), Mahomes easily led the league with 5,250 passing yards. The former NFL and Super Bowl MVP continued to dazzle as an improvisational wizard, while showcasing pinpoint passing skills and highly efficient play from the pocket. The combination of scripted and impromptu big-gainers speaks volumes about Mahomes' reservoir of talent.
With Reid supporting his quarterback with a blue-chip offensive line and two underrated backs (scrappy Isiah Pacheco and receiving threat Jerick McKinnon), the Chiefs routinely out-schemed opponents en route to their fifth straight AFC Championship Game appearance.
Kyle Shanahan has assembled a dynamic offensive lineup with hybrids and chameleons on the perimeter. The 49ers are a rare squad with the potential to overwhelm opponents with both talent and tactics.
While each Championship Sunday team has blue-chip players on offense, the 49ers have a collection of multifaceted playmakers who can align anywhere from the backfield to out wide on any given play. When Shanahan moves around Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Kyle Juszczyk, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk as key pieces on the chessboard, he simplifies the game for his rookie quarterback, Brock Purdy, who has played at a high level since stepping in for Jimmy Garoppolo in early December. Although Purdy is still viewed as the weakest link in an offense that lacks a glaring shortcoming, San Francisco has been able to protect the first-year starter behind a scrappy offensive line that blows defenders off the ball. In addition, Shanahan has made life easy for his young passer by utilizing the 49ers' playmakers in an assortment of catch-and-run plays that enable them to turn short passes into big gains.
Boasting a versatile passing attack and a potent ground game headlined by McCaffrey, the 49ers can bludgeon or befuddle opponents on any given play.
Jalen Hurts emerged as a true MVP candidate due to his ability to spark the Eagles' offense with his unique playmaking skills. A rugged dual-threat quarterback with A+ running skills and improved pocket-passing ability, Hurts puts defenders in a bind.
Philadelphia GM Howie Roseman helped Hurts find his groove in his third year by surrounding him with the best offensive line in football and a pair of premier pass catchers (A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith) on the perimeter. In addition, the Eagles have an emerging star at tight end (Dallas Goedert) with the sticky hands and polished route-running skills to give linebackers and safeties issues in coverage.
With Miles Sanders also pitching in as a 1,200-yard rusher possessing speed, quickness and wiggle, the Eagles' offense is balanced and explosive, utilizing a college-like attack that features a mix of option plays, RPOs and designed quarterback runs to keep defenders on their heels.
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo (a.k.a. the mad scientist) is a brilliant strategist with a creative playbook that confuses quarterbacks and play-callers via exotic pre-snap disguises and flawless post-snap execution.
Though the tactics are impressive, the Bengals' collection of blue-collar players also outworks and outlasts opponents over 60 minutes. Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard and D.J. Reader anchor a front that beats up on opponents at the line of scrimmage to create opportunities for linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt to make plays as sideline-to-sideline predators.
Jesse Bates III and Vonn Bell are the centerpieces of a secondary that excels at limiting the big play. The veteran safeties are excellent communicators with range and ball skills to rack up interceptions on tipped and overthrown passes. Although cornerbacks Eli Apple, Mike Hilton, Cam Taylor-Britt and Tre Flowers aren't household names, they play well in a unit that routinely puts them in favorable positions to make plays in key moments.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is a blitz master with an Encyclopedia of pressures designed to create sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers. This year's defensive roster enhances the veteran's creativity with several disruptive defenders along the front line.
Chris Jones and Frank Clark anchor a Chiefs D-line that overwhelms opponents with strength, power and explosion. Each defender flashes the potential to take over a game, and the duo's ability to disrupt and knock down quarterbacks can change the game's momentum. With rookie George Karlaftis emerging as a complementary pass rusher, the Chiefs have enough firepower at the line of scrimmage to create chaos.
In the defensive backfield, Juan Thornhill and Justin Reid are interchangeable defenders with the ball skills and tackling ability to control the middle of the field, while L'Jarius Sneed complements the safeties as an opportunistic corner with outstanding cover skills.
Five draft steals to watch on Sunday
Executives, scouts and coaches spend countless hours preparing for the NFL draft each year, hoping to add a handful of key contributors to a roster that eventually competes for a championship. While most of the attention is focused on the top picks who are expected to vie for starting roles in Year 1, the developmental prospects drafted on Day 3 (Rounds 4-7) can emerge as surprise playmakers on title contenders. Whether they make their mark as starters, role players or special teams standouts, these underrated prospects outplay their draft-day status to become valuable members of top-notch squads.
With four teams remaining in the race for the Lombardi Trophy, I'd like to spotlight five draft steals on the big stage. Keep an eye on these Day 3 rookies on Sunday.
DRAFTED: Round 7, No. 262 overall | Iowa State
"Mr. Irrelevant" has an opportunity to put a vise-grip on the QB1 job -- if he hasn't already done so -- with another stellar playoff effort in the NFC Championship Game. Purdy is the first quarterback to begin his career with a 7-0 mark (including playoffs) since Jimmy Garoppolo, and Ben Roethlisberger is the only rookie to start his career with more consecutive wins (14). If the former QB3 leads the 49ers to a Super Bowl win, he'll immediately join Joe Montana and Steve Young on the team's Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks. Wild stuff.
DRAFTED: Round 7, No. 251 overall | Rutgers
The rugged runner has the third-most rushing yards (728) in the league since Week 10 (including playoffs), exhibiting a combination of speed, power and burst that has added a dimension to the Chiefs' ground attack. Pacheco's emergence as an RB1 has given Andy Reid another scary weapon to feature in an offense that keeps opponents guessing each week.
DRAFTED: Round 4, No. 136 overall | North Dakota State
The rookie has held his own as a first-year starter on an offensive line revamped entirely following the 2021 campaign. After getting off to a rocky start, Volson solidified the Bengals' left guard position with consistent play in the trenches.
DRAFTED: Round 7, No. 243 overall | Washington State
The rookie cover corner immediately jumped into the rotation as a long, rangy defender with solid instincts and skills. Watson's rapid development has enabled the Chiefs to utilize the "big" corner as a spot starter/sub-package defender throughout the season.
DRAFTED: Round 4, No. 134 overall | UTSA
The fourth-rounder has been one of the team's biggest surprises (yeah, beyond Purdy). Burford has exceeded expectations as a 16-game starter on an offensive line that bullies opponents at the line of scrimmage. Although he needs to polish up his game a bit, Burford is another feather in the cap of GM John Lynch.