NFL

NFL Talking Point: Three MVP candidates and 'Mr Irrelevant' – which QBs can get it done?

By Sports Desk January 28, 2023

This year's NFL conference championships have provided a fascinating line-up of potential Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.

In the AFC Championship Game, Patrick Mahomes is hosting Joe Burrow in a repeat of last year's matchup, with both men having already been to the big game.

Meanwhile, in the NFC, Jalen Hurts and Brock Purdy have each played just two postseason games, green enough both to provoke excitement and concern in equal measure.

Three of these QBs were confirmed as MVP candidates this week, with Purdy the obvious exception as 'Mr Irrelevant', enjoying a fairytale story that would surpass just about any other.

So, which of the four is best placed heading into this weekend, and who can expect to be playing in Arizona in two weeks' time?

Brock Purdy, 49ers @ Eagles

It is safe to say Purdy did not expect to be playing in this game when he was selected with the final pick of the 2022 draft.

Injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo have catapulted the rookie into the spotlight, and he has not disappointed, winning his first seven starts to extend the 49ers' streak to 12 straight victories – a team's longest sequence entering a conference championship since the undefeated New England Patriots in 2007.

Purdy, at 22, will become the youngest QB to start a game at this stage of the season since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, while he is only the fourth to do so having started five or fewer regular season games.

But given this inexperience, Purdy is the one remaining QB who likely will not be handed complete control of the offense, instead asked simply to consistently put the ball in the hands of the 49ers' outstanding skill players.

Christian McCaffrey, like Purdy, has won every start since joining the 49ers in a mid-season trade from the Carolina Panthers, scoring an offensive touchdown in each of his past eight – one shy of both Ezekiel Elliott's 2022-best streak of nine.

Since his first start, McCaffrey ranks third in the NFL for offensive touches (234); since Purdy's first start, he ranks first (136).

Even with McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel each highly effective targets through the air, the 49ers have shifted their focus to the run game with Purdy under center.

They have run the ball on 50.1 per cent of plays since Purdy's first start, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL and the highest of any team who made the playoffs. Prior to Week 14, that figure was 43.2 per cent.

It is unlikely the 49ers move away from that now against an elite defense that leads the league by a considerable margin in sacks (75), sack yards (517) and sack rate (10.7 per cent).

Purdy may need McCaffrey and Co. to carry him through this round, but a Super Bowl appearance would only encourage those Tom Brady 2001 comparisons.

Jalen Hurts, Eagles vs 49ers

Hurts' appearance on this stage is clearly not as surprising as Purdy's, but few could have foreseen the Eagles QB as the Goliath to his opponent's David back when the season began.

The third-year star has delivered on his potential in 2022.

Hurts' ability to run with the ball was never in question, and this year his 14 rushing TDs rank third among all players, with Josh Allen his nearest rival at QB on a comparatively meagre eight.

But there has crucially been progress in the passing game as Hurts posted career-best marks by just about every metric in the regular season – 66.5 completion percentage, 3,701 passing yards, 22 passing TDs, 1.3 interception percentage and a passer rating of 101.5.

Last week, in the Eagles' playoff opener against the New York Giants, he threw two TD passes and zero picks for a rating of 112.2.

Having missed two games and two Eagles defeats, Hurts heads into the NFC Championship Game with a 15-1 record as a starter this year, no doubt confident of improving that mark further against the 49ers.

In an intriguing battle that pits the league's best run offense (47.0 per cent success rate) versus its second-best run defense (32.1 per cent), Hurts can provide the X-factor.

The 49ers have shown few signs of weakness this year but did so against Marcus Mariota, another running QB, whose Atlanta Falcons ran the ball on 69.6 per cent of plays in Week 6 and were successful 43.6 per cent of the time.

The Eagles will have been watching the tape from that matchup to give Hurts the best possible chance to find joy against an otherwise fearsome defense.

Joe Burrow, Bengals @ Chiefs

Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton dubbed the Chiefs' home stadium, so terrifying for so many visiting teams, "Burrowhead" as Cincinnati prepared for their return in the AFC Championship Game.

Burrow went into Arrowhead last year and got the better of Mahomes, leading the Bengals to a third conference championship win in three attempts all-time.

Although the Los Angeles Rams then defeated the Bengals in the Super Bowl, Burrow has continued to show himself to be the man for the big occasion, taking down the much-fancied Buffalo Bills last week.

He has won five of his first six playoff starts, with only Brady (7-0), Russell Wilson (6-1) and Mahomes (6-1) winning six of their first seven since 1995.

So calm and composed, Burrow is an outstanding passer, ranking second in the league with his 68.2 completion percentage this year and third with his 85.9 well-thrown percentage.

His problem has long been a lack of protection from the Bengals' offensive line, with Burrow taking a league-leading 148 sacks since his debut season in 2020 – a campaign that was cut short by ACL and MCL tears sustained in one hit.

But Burrow took just one sack against the Bills, and the Bengals are consistently doing a better job in giving their QB time to make the pass – albeit with his help.

The Bengals have allowed a pressure rate of just 32.4 per cent this year, the fourth-best in the NFL, as Burrow has taken just 2.46 seconds to release the ball, the fifth-fastest average among QBs with 100 attempts.

It is Burrow's ability to work this quickly while maintaining a league-low pickable pass percentage of 1.53 that cuts him out as a star capable of again going to Kansas City and withstanding all they throw at him.

Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs vs Bengals

Mahomes is the one man who cannot be planned for. If he is on his game, there is surely no stopping the Chiefs superstar.

Happily for the Bengals, he was a long way from the Mahomes everyone knows in the second half of last year's AFC Championship Game, and his hopes of performing at peak level will be limited by injury this week.

A high ankle sprain would rule out just about any other QB, but Mahomes, no doubt determined to put right what went so wrong last year, is set to play.

Mahomes completed only eight of 18 passes after halftime in the Chiefs' 2021 defeat, throwing two interceptions for a remarkable passer rating of 12.3.

That was the sixth-lowest rating in the second half of a playoff game this century – not the sort of company the best QB in football is used to keeping.

But that passer rating in the second half against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, when Mahomes was playing with an injury, was up at 110.7.

Even as he hobbled around the field, Mahomes was able to finish a fourth postseason game with a completion percentage above 70.0 (72.3) and multiple TD passes.

Only four players – Brady (six), Drew Brees (six), Troy Aikman (five) and Joe Montana (five) – have had more such performances. Mahomes has played just 12 playoff games in his career.

If that is the sort of form the Bengals can expect to find Mahomes in this week, with revenge on his mind, all the focus on that ankle might count for very little.

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