By Amy Tennery
(Reuters) – A clash of young quarterbacks is set for Sunday’s NFL conference championships, as last year’s runners-up Cincinnati Bengals take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game, while the San Francisco 49ers play the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC crown.
The National Football League’s next generation of talent will be on full display in the final hurdle to the Super Bowl: all four of the starting quarterbacks are under the age of 28 for the first time in more than a quarter century.
Former MVP Patrick Mahomes, 27, expects to shake off an injury doubt to lead his Chiefs to revenge over the Bengals in their fifth straight conference championship appearance. Last year’s overtime heartbreaker saw Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow off to the Super Bowl in only his second season.
“I thought I had a good day yesterday,” said Mahomes, who suffered a high ankle sprain in last weekend’s divisional win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. “Overall, probably better than I expected,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“I feel like I can still do a lot of things but we’ll see as we get closer and closer to the game. People will see where I’m at on Sunday.”
Kansas City will need the firepower against the Bengals, who dominated the Buffalo Bills in all facets of the game last Sunday and have won three straight games against the Chiefs dating back to last season.
“They’re still the team to beat and we’re coming for them,” said Burrow, 26.
“We know it’s going to be hard-fought, and we know the kind of players they have on that side.”
Both teams will brace for bone-chilling conditions at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, where the forecast estimates temperatures as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 11 Celsius) when kickoff comes around at 5.30 pm local time.
In the NFC Championship, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy is looking to put the cherry on top of his improbable Cinderella story on the road in Philadelphia.
The 22-year-old, dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant” as the final pick in the NFL Draft, put San Francisco on the right track after injuries sidelined starters Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance.
He proved even the most cynical critics wrong in the postseason with a confident win over the Seattle Seahawks before upending the formidable Dallas Cowboys’ defense in the divisional round.
“I do think it was one of the best defenses that I’ve seen, that our team has seen this year,” said Purdy. “Obviously, this week’s going to be a great challenge with the front that Philadelphia has.”
The Eagles produced a league-best 70 sacks in the regular season, with Haason Reddick leading the charge at linebacker, and allowed the second-fewest yards per game, behind none other than the 49ers.
That relentless defensive drive is backed up by versatile and speedy 24-year-old quarterback Jalen Hurts, with head coach Nick Sirianni eager to make an impact after his predecessor Doug Pederson led the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots five years ago.
“The higher you climb on the mountain,” Sirianni told reporters this week, “it gets windier, right? The conditions get tougher, it gets a little steeper, gets a little harder to breathe.
“And so now what an unbelievable time to just focus on the next step and the next step and the next step.”
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Additional reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)