Lombardi: A look ahead to NFL Conference Championships

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In 1966, former San Francisco 49er and Hall of Fame coach, Bill Walsh was working for the Oakland Raiders as their running back coach, his first job in the NFL.  Throughout his career, Walsh credited Raider owner Al Davis for fueling his football knowledge, helping him understand the details of great coaching.  The night before their big game against the Chargers, Walsh was sitting in his hotel room flipping channels.  Back in 1966, there wasn’t much flipping to do, it was more back and forth—minus any remote.  Walsh finds the Sid Gillman show on the local channel and becomes mesmerized. 

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Gillman, the head coach of the Chargers, loved to teach, and on his show, he didn’t hold back. Walsh knew Gilman was the architect of the passing game and the founding father of the Raider offense. What he came to understand from watching the show was the depth and knowledge Gilman possessed. This show piqued his curiosity and changed him as a coach.  From that moment, Walsh understood success doesn’t care which road you take to get to its doorstep.  He was going to be innovative and divergent in his approach.  Taking a strange road often can prove successful. Just examine the final four teams. 

For all of us, instead of watching the Sid Gillman show, we can watch the NFL’s version of the Final Four this weekend and learn more about what makes great teams great.  Al Davis thought it was vitally important to study the final four teams in every area—players, coaches and scheme.  He was obsessed with knowing what the common thread was—if there was one—about these four teams and what his team was lacking. 

At times, there is an outlier that enters this round, like Tennessee in 2019, but for the most part, this game features the best the NFL has to offer.  We know it takes great quarterbacking with an offense in the top ten of points per play, plus a defense that can rush the passer and is outstanding in all the situational aspects of the game.  Even though this round is the best of the best, you must go back to 1997, when Kyle Shanahan was 18 years old, traveling to Pittsburgh with his father Mike, then the head coach of the Denver Broncos, to watch his father’s #4-seed team play the #2-seed Steelers. The betting line for each game was under the sacred 3 points.  San Francisco hosted Green Bay and was a 2.5-point favorite.  The Steelers hosted the Broncos as a 2.5-point favorite, and guess what?  The dogs won outright.  Will that happen this year?  Not sure. 

Do these four teams have a common thread?  My philosophy from studying the final four teams throughout my career has been the teams that reach this round have dominating players in both lines—which is true for all four in the defensive front.  We know the Bengals’ offensive line is their weak link because of injuries, and the 49ers’ offensive line is best when they can run their play-action pass schemes and play from in front, not having to drop back to pass protect.  The Eagles and the Chiefs’ offensive lines are final four worthy with talented players in most positions. 

The other area of commonality through the years is having a Blue-Chip quarterback, who can win the game on his own—which three of the four possess.  Patrick Mahomes has been here before, never playing a road playoff game in his career—an indication of his season-long dominating play.  Joe Burrow loves the challenge and embraces playing on the road.  Jalen Hurts will get the biggest test in his career and will need to make more plays in the passing game—especially early in the game to help play the style the Eagles need to play to win.  We know 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy is a rookie, doing amazing things, and hasn’t had to play from behind in any game he has started.  His career so far in the NFL has been a Hollywood script, going from the last man picked in the draft, to the last man standing in the playoffs.  Can this continue?  Yes, but the 49ers must play from in front, and cannot get behind the Eagles, which would force Purdy into a drop-back pass game revealing some areas of concern in Purdy’s game. 

 

All four teams have excellent coaches in all three phases of the game, and the deciding factor ultimately will come down to what coach makes the best in-game adjustments.  What head coach do you trust to make the right decision at the right time?  Andy Reid has been here before, and so have Zac Taylor and Kyle Shanahan.  Nick Siranni is new and confident in his team—relying on his coordinators to make the right in-game decisions with his input. 

Zac Taylor will need to make sure he protects his offensive line in the game. This game will be different than Buffalo since the Chiefs front led by Chris Jones will be a huge challenge.  Taylor will need to rely on running back Joe Mixon to carry the offense, particularly if the Chiefs play split safety defense.  The Bengals’ defense has played great against the Chiefs in the last three games, outscoring them 48-16 in the fourth quarter.  What has been overlooked is how the Bengals’ offense has limited the number of Chiefs’ possessions in the three games.  In most NFL games, each team gets 12 possessions.  In the three games, the Chiefs’ offense has had the ball for 28 possessions which included the overtime AFC Championship game.  Yes, the Bengals have played good defense, but the key to their success against the Chiefs has been from playing less defense.  If the Chiefs gain 11 possessions in the game, they will win.  And forget the Mahomes injury talk; he is playing and will play well. 

Kyle Shanahan knows he must play from in front.  The best way to protect his rookie quarterback is by allowing him to stay within the play-action framework of his offense.  Shanahan and the 49ers must start fast, even taking the ball if they win the toss. They must know the Eagles will approach this game the same way they approached the Titans game in Week 13.  The Titans were a great run defense, and instead of matching strength on strength, the Eagles pivoted and threw the ball early and often to gain the lead and force the Titans to play from behind, which isn’t their style.   The NFC match-up is all about style.  Both defenses play their best when rushing the passer and protecting a lead, creating turnovers.  The Niners or the Birds cannot be two scores down entering the fourth, so each possession will be critical. 

Last week, the Cowboys’ defensive speed gave the 49ers’ offense trouble.  The Cowboys showed different looks and different packages, which kept the 49ers off balance.  Expect more of that from the Eagles, as for most of the season, the Birds had to know their biggest obstacle toward reaching the Super Bowl was the 49ers.  I am confident they spent most of the bye week breaking down the 49ers and devising a plan to handle their defense and attack their offense, which will force Shanahan to quickly adjust.

I love this weekend and cannot wait to keep studying the teams.  We only have three more football games to watch, which makes me sad, but this off-season will be fun. 

QB Ratings

1. Patrick Mahomes – He will need to make plays with his feet, and in the last three games against the Bengals, the Chiefs are 9-13 in the red zone.  Mahomes must be great in the red zone, and he usually is. 

2. Joe Burrow – Burrow makes the game look easy with his style of play.  His mental game will be on display. Once he gets a handle on the Chiefs’ blitz attack, he can make the right calls and get the Bengals into the perfect play. 

3. Jalen Hurts – When facing a fast defense that tackles well, Hurts will need to secure the football in every situation.  Fumbles occur when the defensive line attacks the runner from behind. Hurts must be prepared for this since the 49ers will be the fastest defense he has faced.  His success will be determined by his ability to look off the defense.  The 49ers play zone with all eyes on the passer. If Hurts leads them to the ball, this could be a huge problem. 

4. Brock Purdy.  This game won’t be too big for him if the 49ers play from in front.  Purdy’s experience last week against the fast front of the Boys will help him this game when facing another fast front of the Eagles.  Purdy must play within the framework of the offense. He isn’t going to win the game for the 49ers. That’s for McCaffrey, Samuel, and Kittle to handle. He needs to be the point guard and just dish the ball. 

Power Ratings

Kansas City

Philadelphia

San Francisco

Cincinnati

My ratings have these teams within a point of one another, and they are the best of the best. 

Line of the Week

After the Chiefs game on Saturday, we knew the Mahomes ankle injury would be the variable in the line all week, and that has proven to be true.  The line has flipped back and forth with the Chiefs now the favorite in most shops, ranging from a point to a point and a half.  The Eagles/Niners line hasn’t moved off the 2.5, even though all the money is coming in on the Eagles.  No one is betting on the 49ers, which is strange—but probably because in the simplest terms, bettors favor Hurts over Purdy. 

Coordinator Battle of the Week

So many internal battles to watch.  Shanahan against Jonathan Gannon, the defensive coordinator of the Eagles, has most of my attention.  Gannon is the favorite to become the next head coach of the Texans. How he devises a game plan to deal with the 49ers will go a long way in terms of closing the deal in Houston.  I cannot help but think Mike Shanahan might offer a few points to his son for the game plan.  Mike, as I write in Football Done Right, is Hall of Fame-worthy and meets the criteria I set forth.  He is a brilliant strategist, and even though he hasn’t coached since 2013, his mind is sharp and a valuable resource for his son. 

Enjoy the games and check back for the game picks on the Lombardi Line.