Injuries, questionable calls, and bone-headed mistakes all played a big part in the conference championship games Sunday – just like they do throughout the course of the entire season – but, at the end of the day, the Super Bowl matchup will end up being a pretty predictable one. No. 1 seed vs. No. 1 seed, as the Chiefs and Eagles pretty much led pole-to-pole and will go head to head next Sunday.
Of course, it wasn't exactly as predictable as all that makes it sound. Neither team was considered the favorite to come out of the conference to start the season, and there were plenty of questions about both heading into last week's games – Patrick Mahomes' ankle injury even briefly made the Chiefs home underdogs during the week leading up to their matchup against the Bengals. They would end up sneaking past the Bengals, with Mahomes outplaying Joe Burrow, hopefully putting to rest the debates about who the best QB in the NFL is – debates that were never fair to Burrow, in my opinion.
The Eagles game was never really in doubt, as Brock Purdy missed much of the game with an elbow injury and was clearly nowhere close to being healthy when he was forced back into the game in the second half. It was a heartbreaking way for the 49ers season to end – a team that had overcome two prior season-ending injuries to starting quarterbacks just couldn't overcome one last one. The Eagles very well may have still won – I think they would have – but it was such an anticlimactic way for the season to end on the NFC side.
And, of course, that result raises plenty of questions about how the 49ers are going to approach the QB situation for 2023. Purdy still hasn't lost a game that he played all the way through, after all, and it's entirely possible they opt to keep him as the starting QB coming off this incredible, unlikely run to the NFC championship game.
That's not the only big question coming out of Sunday's games, obviously, and we're not just focusing on the teams that were eliminated this week. And, just as a programming note, this will be the only newsletter you'll get this week -- next week, we'll start previewing the Super Bowl, and after that, we'll start diving into the coaching changes, previewing free agency, and starting to preview the draft. But for now, here are my five biggest questions coming out of this weekend's games:
1. What do the 49ers do at QB in 2023?
Purdy was one of the best stories in the league this season, going from the last pick in the draft to seven straight multi-touchdown games and the NFC Championship, and it's a shame his season ended with an elbow injury that throws his status for 2023 up in the air -- he suffered a torn UCL, and while the hope is he won't need Tommy John surgery, he could still miss six months or more.
Purdy's play raised real questions about how the 49ers are going to approach the position in 2023, but the injury throws even more questions up. They've still got Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft, who is entering his third NFL season with just four starts under his belt. We've seen that this 49ers offense can be pretty tremendous with just about anyone at quarterback, and I think they'll be very good whether Lance or Purdy is at QB in 2023.
But the shape of the offense figures to be much different depending on which one is in at QB. Purdy kept the offense moving well, and he clearly has the mental traits to be a viable QB in an offense with this many playmakers. However, his limited physical tools probably mean there's a cap on how good this offense can be; Lance's rushing abilities alone create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses that have already struggled with the Christian McCaffrey/Deebo Samuel combination.
A fully realized version of Lance probably makes this 49ers offense even tougher to stop; he'll get those layup throws Purdy feasted on, but he'll also introduce more of a downfield element along with what his mobility unlocks. It could make the 49ers an even tougher offense to stop, and could still make Lance a potentially elite Fantasy option. Lance has run the ball 40 times in four starts, one of which he left after playing just 21% of the snaps. He could emerge as a truly elite Fantasy option, like a West Coast Josh Allen at his best.
But could the 49ers really go away from Purdy after how he played? We know they moved off Jimmy Garoppolo coming off an NFC Championship appearance, so there's precedent here, of course. Purdy probably isn't a superstar, but the 49ers had arguably the best offense in the league with him starting, and this Shanahan offense has never needed a superstar quarterback to be dangerous. With a lot invested in the skill positions, could the 49ers opt to put Lance on the trade market? I think it's unlikely, but it's one way to recoup what they paid to acquire Christian McCaffrey – and then some – this offseason.
2. How should we value the 49ers skill players next season?
And, of course, the QB position will play a big part in how we value the 49ers skill position players. I've talked a lot about the math problem with their offense – too many mouths to feed, with arguably four elite playmakers who could be must-start Fantasy options between McCaffrey, Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle. Oh, and there's also Elijah Mitchell, who had 28 carries to 35 for McCaffrey in the three healthy games they both played together. There's a lot to like about an offense that could put up 30 points per game, but with a low pass volume, a pseudo-timeshare backfield (including Samuel's rushing role), and a creative play caller who doesn't tend to force touches to any one player, and it's been tough to trust this offense at times. That has been less true for McCaffrey, though Mitchell's presence gives me pause about ranking him ahead of someone like Austin Ekeler for 2023.
And, of course, that's all without even accounting for the impact Lance's rushing abilities could have on the offense. It'll make them more dangerous, but it'll also likely lead to even less pass volume, along with another mouth to feed in the running game, especially near the goal line. If Lance turns into a Josh Allen-esque Fantasy option, it's probably going to be bad news for someone in this offense.
This could be an elite offense for Fantasy production, but it might be a frustrating one for Fantasy players to have to actually figure out. Especially since we only saw the 49ers play three games with their full complement of weapons healthy after the McCaffrey trade – and obviously none with Lance. It creates a ton of uncertainty and makes me wary of paying full freight for anyone here.
3. Is Joe Mixon's role at risk?
To open the season, Mixon finally got the true three-down role we've been waiting for. Through Week 9, he had played 72% of the Bengals snaps and was on pace for 285 carries and 94 targets – just seven carries shy of his career-high and 22 more targets than he had ever had in a season. However, he suffered a concussion in Week 11 that cost him a few weeks, and when he returned, he played more than 60% of the snaps just once in his final eight games.
Including, stunningly, just 35% of the snaps in the loss to the Chiefs Sunday. It's just one game, but it was the biggest game of the season, and Mixon took a backseat to Samaje Perine, after his role had already decreased down the stretch. Mixon makes the big bucks for the Bengals, but there really wasn't much difference between he and Perine's performance this season, even when Perine was asked to take on a significant role as a starter for two games. Perine actually averaged more yards per target (5.1 to 4.6), though Mixon did outperform him by NFL Next Gen Stats' Rush Yards Over Expected stat.
But Mixon wasn't exactly a standout by that measure, and I do wonder if there's at least a chance he won't dominate work the same way next season. The Bengals clearly like him, but the fact that they barely skipped a beat with Perine taking on a bigger role may not bode well for Mixon, who, at least from a Fantasy perspective, really relies on volume to make up for middling efficiency. If he isn't a lock for 70% of the snaps and 80% of the high-value touches, is he even an RB1? He certainly wasn't down the stretch, as he averaged 13.4 PPR points per game over his final seven games, including the playoffs. That could be a preview of 2023.
4. Is Isiah Pacheco a potential three-down back?
The Chiefs have a tendency to roll with the hot hand at running back in the playoffs, and Sunday, that was Pacheco, who played a season-high 57% of the snaps against the Bengals. That came in a game where Pacheco rushed for just 26 yards on 10 carries, so this wasn't just a situation where the Chiefs were trying to establish the run – they threw 43 passes in this one. The Chiefs just trusted Pacheco more in the passing game in this one, as he played 27 pass snaps to just 21 for Jerick McKinnon, a pretty massive change from how they typically operate.
And it forces me to at least consider the possibility of Pacheco being more than just an early-downs option for the Chiefs in 2023. He was just that as a rookie, more or less, with Sunday's game being just his second with more than two catches. I viewed Pacheco as a TD-or-bust RB3 for most of his rookie season, but if he's going to cut into McKinnon's passing downs role while still getting 10-15 carries most weeks, there's definitely a path to him being an RB2. I'll need to see Pacheco used in a similar way in the Super Bowl to have any confidence in it – and the Chiefs moving on from McKinnon this offseason would certainly make me feel even better about it. But it's on the table now, at least.
5. Do the Chiefs have a WR worth drafting in 2023?
Marquez Valdes-Scantling had a big game Sunday, catching six of eight passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, but I think we've seen enough of him to know he's probably never going to be much more than a boom-or-bust option – he's played five seasons with Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, and that was his sixth game ever with more than five catches. And it took JuJu Smith-Schuter and Kadarius Toney getting hurt to happen.
Smith-Schuster was the only reliable Fantasy option among the Chiefs wide receivers this season, and he's a free agent this offseason; Mecole Hardman was a useful enough option thanks to six touchdowns in eight games, but he's also a free agent. The principal WRs the Chiefs have under contract for 2023 are Toney, Valdes-Scantling, and Skyy Moore, who had just three catches for 13 yards despite playing a season-high 58% of the snaps Sunday.
Toney will likely be the first of the current crew drafted – he's gone inside the top 100 in each of the first two mock drafts we did this month – and I'm willing to take a flier on him in the middle rounds. However, he left yet another game with an injury Sunday, adding to a long list of injuries since he got to the NFL that includes multiple hamstring injuries, a knee scope, and other ankle injuries, to name just a few. Even when healthy, the Chiefs never trusted him as more than a role player, and he still couldn't stay on the field.
Which is all to say, at this point, there's a decent chance that the highest-ranked Chiefs wide receiver in 2023 isn't even on the roster right now.