January 27, 2023

Jon Ralph – The Final Four

THE Lightning Bolt or the Philly Special?

If you were forced to choose between Bucket List moments few would pass up witnessing Usain Bolt’s greatness first-hand in an Olympic stadium.

Yet if you asked me to split hairs, the outrageous trick play called up by Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson on a fourth-and-goal in Super Bowl 52 stands above all else.

As a sports journalist lucky enough to cover my share of international achievements I have been blessed to watch Bolt win multiple 100m Olympic titles, to see Shane Warne break Muttiah Muralitharan’s world record wickets tally. To see the West Indies run down a fourth-innings tally of 418 in Antigua against Australia that remains the greatest chase in cricket history.

Yet the moment that stands above them all is being in that Minnesota stadium as the Eagles held off Tom Brady’s last-gasp Hail Mary in a 41-33 victory through a series of insane trick plays and ballsy fourth-down conversions. The Philly Special itself was audacious in its planning and flawless in its execution as quarterback Nick Foles watched as the ball was snapped instead to running back Corey Clement. Clement tossed the ball to third-string tight end Trey Burton, who pitched the ball to an untouched Foles for a touchdown in Super Bowl history’s craziest play.

As a sports fan whose main quibble about the NFL was risk-averse play callers it was a jaw-dropping moment never to be forgotten.

So what is the point of this drivel given Australian NFL fans couldn’t care less about a footy journo’s mediocre bucket list?

If you are shelling out for a Super Bowl experience you want to fly home knowing you have seen something transcendent.

Something out of this world.

Something you will remember for the rest of your life that will take years of planning to knock off the top of your life-long sporting moments.

As the AFC and NFC Championships await this weekend – with the winners securing passage into Super Bowl LVII – the four teams left standing give you every chance of securing that can’t-wait-to-tell-your-mates experience.

Buffalo won’t be there to finally break the drought after those four successive Super Bowl losses and America’s team in the Dallas Cowboys was dumped from the playoffs in a hailstorm of poor play calls and self-inflicted wounds.

And yet every one of the four contenders are bona fide contenders with an attached narrative that would make their rise to Super Bowl champion entirely memorable.

That would give you a chance to witness a once-in-a-lifetime moment you will never forget.

In a Monday morning (Australian time) double header the Philadelphia Eagles take on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Conference Championship before the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Cincinnati Bengals for the AFC Conference Championships.

If Philadelphia wins the Super Bowl the story writes itself – the most exacting sporting fan base in America gets another title with a young quarterback who might be the prototype for the game’s future.

In 24-year-old Jalen Hurts the Eagles have a unicorn equally capable of hurling touchdowns or rushing for them with his pulsating running game and powerful capacity to get into the N Zone on quarterback sneaks.

To witness him cap a remarkable season in which his MVP hopes were dashed only by a late injury would be to see a player on the verge of greatness.

The Eagles will take on San Francisco with Hurts under centre, a trio of excellent running backs (Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Kenneth Gainwell), air support in AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith and the offensive line that allowed those backs to amass 268 rushing yards in the 38-7 play off victory over the New York Giants.

That fan base is so notorious it infamously booed Santa at an NFL game, with city officials having to grease light poles ahead of sporting celebrations to stop fans scurrying up them as they march through the Philadelphia streets.

If San Francisco marches past the Eagles and eventually wins the Super Bowl the fans those at the game in person will have a story for the ages to bask in. Of “Mr Irrelevant” Brock Purdy – the last player picked in the national draft – winning his first nine straight games to take the Super Bowl, of a storied franchise once again climbing the podium for a sixth NFL title.

But more importantly, if San Francisco manages to win the Super Bowl it will be one all-out hell ride.

There is no more watchable trio in the NFL than tight end George Kittle, jack-of-all-trades Deebo Samuel and pass-catching running back Christian McCaffrey.

Kittle is definitely shaded by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce for sheer effectiveness but when fit there is no one more dynamic or aggressive as he broke open last week’s game with a juggling circus catch.

On October 20 the 49ers went all in to trade for Panthers fantasy stud McCaffrey offering second, third and fourth-rounders in 2023 and a fifth-rounder in 2025. McCaffrey has at times been blanketed effectively in his short stint in San Francisco but rivals give up so much to stop him that the 49ers keep chugging along on what is now a 12-match win streak.

Pray that the 49ers get to the Super Bowl if you have a ticket – or are considering a late dash – because it will be worth whatever price you pay.

This time last year No.1 overall pick Joe Burrow and his Bengals gate-crashed the playoffs and progressed all the way through to a 23-20 Super Bowl loss to the LA Rams.

A year on they are the real deal, having just torched Super Bowl favourites Buffalo in a 27-10 road victory in the snow to stretch their win streak to 10 games.

If you departed Phoenix having watched Burrow and his wingman Ja’Marr Chase hold aloft the Lombardi trophy you would believe you have seen a duo with a 10-year Super Bowl window ahead of them, you would believe you have seen a pair capable of greatness.

If Kansas City gets past the Bengals this weekend and goes on to win the Super Bowl that might be the best story of all.

When fully fit Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes hasn’t found a way to beat Burrows and his Bengals – he is 0-3 against a player dubbed ‘Joe Cool’ given his swagger and the ice in his veins when he crosses the white line.

This time around Mahomes will take a high ankle sprain into the clash against Cincinnati and its brilliant defensive strategies, which have befuddled the greatest NFL quarterbacks these past 12 months including Buffalo’s Josh Allen just days ago.

He will play but the nature of those syndesmosis injuries is that regardless of the number of painkilling injections pre-match they rob players of their power and explosiveness.

Which means Mahomes remarkable capacity to ad lib out of the pocket and with all manner of mind-blowing release angles might be severely curtailed.

So if it is Mahomes triumphing against that injury adversity to win his second Super Bowl trophy at the age of 27, then the chase for many of Tom Brady’s records truly will be on for the game’s best quarterback and most watchable player.

There is no bad Super Bowl winner across history but there are interlopers and teams that have stolen the trophy by catching fire across January before disappearing without a trace.

The NFL has itself four elite teams with elite records who at their best make you shake your head at how enjoyable they are to watch.

The NFL can’t guarantee the Philly special or the Immaculate reception of the David Tyree helmet catch but this year everything points to a decider well worth the price of admission.