Analysis: NFL wasn’t at its best in conference championships

Jan 30, 2023, 12:58 PM | Updated: Jan 31, 2023, 10:10 am

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) walks back to the sidelines during the second half of...

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) walks back to the sidelines during the second half of the NFL AFC Championship playoff football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The NFL didn’t put on its Sunday best for the conference championships.

Before the San Francisco 49ers ran out of luck and quarterbacks, they were burned by a fourth-down catch by Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Devonta Smith that wasn’t even a catch.

Although Kyle Shanahan could have thrown a challenge flag, the league’s replay assist rule allows the replay official to make a quick reversal without a challenge, something that didn’t happen before the Eagles hurried to the line and snapped the ball.

Smith’s 29-yard catch from Jalen Hurts to the San Francisco 6 was quickly followed by Miles Sanders’ TD run that opened the scoring.

After Christian McCaffrey tied it up by pinballing his way into the end zone from 23 yards out, the Niners were done in by their quarterback issues and succumbed 31-7 in an NFC championship that was only slightly more competitive than Georgia’s 65-7 stomping of TCU in college football’s national championship.

At least the Horned Frogs had a quarterback who could still throw the ball more than 5 to 10 yards in the fourth quarter.

Not so the 49ers, who were done in by Philadelphia’s relentless pass rush, losing third-stringer Brock Purdy to a right elbow injury and fourth-string journeyman Josh Johnson to a concussion.

“You dress two quarterbacks and neither one of them can throw and neither one of them is really available,” tight end George Kittle said. “It kind of limits what you can do as an offense, kind of limits our playbook to like 15 plays. You can only do so much.”

Dressing two quarterbacks is the problem.

The NFL used to allow an “emergency” third quarterback to dress for the game, but the league stopped doing that 2011 when it expanded game-day rosters from 45 to 46, with the third quarterback no longer designated an “emergency” active player.

A third QB would count toward the 46-man limit, so teams quit doing it. And it burned the 49ers and the NFL on Sunday.

When Johnson went out with a concussion on the first drive of the second half, the Niners were left with the choice of putting Purdy back in even though he could hardly throw the ball or play the rest of the game in the wildcat with McCaffrey running the show.

They chose Purdy, and the Niners had no shot against a Philadelphia defense that stacked the box with no concern about defending the pass.

On the ice later that night, the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers activated their emergency backup goaltender — affectionately known as the EBUG — Matt Berlin, a player from the University of Alberta Golden Bears. They put him in net with a five-goal lead over the Chicago Blackhawks and 2:26 to play, and he stopped the only shot he faced.

If the NHL can have the EBUG on standby, then there’s no reason for the NFL not to reintroduce its EQBIII.

Another thing the league might have to look into again is its officiating.

The AFC championship went down to the wire and Patrick Mahomes finally beat Joe Burrow when Kansas City prevailed 23-20 over Cincinnati in a game that featured enough infuriating flags and blatantly missed calls — plus some bad clock keeping — to reignite the debate about the league needing to replace moonlighting lawyers with full-time officials.

Among the flags that drew fans’ ire was a costly intentional grounding call on Burrow on the last possession. Earlier, a nearly identical throw to the ground from Burrow didn’t draw a flag.

Former NFL VP of officials and Fox rules analyst Dean Blandino said the intentional grounding call on Burrow never should have been called because Chris Jones hit him just as he released his pass.

“Was Joe Burrow’s passing motion affected by the contact by Chris Jones?” Blandino asked in a tweet from The 33rd Team. “And that’s the key: if the quarterback starts his throwing motion, which the hand coming forward with the ball starts that motion, and then he’s contacted by a defender, which impacts that motion, then you are not to call intentional grounding.

“And I thought that the contact may have impacted Burrow’s ability to get the ball out toward (Samaje) Perine enough to not calling grounding in that situation.”

The good thing is the NFL has one more marquee evening to get it all right when Jason Kelce’s Eagles and Travis Kelce’s Chiefs square off in Super Bowl 57 in Glendale, Arizona, on Feb. 12.


AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.


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Analysis: NFL wasn’t at its best in conference championships