Championship Weekend: Keys to Victory for Bengals, Chiefs, Rams, 49ers
Let’s be real. It is almost mathematical impossible to produce a weekend of football like we witnessed in the divisional round. The Bengals, 49ers, and Rams all won on walk-off field goals, while the Chiefs knocked off the Bills in overtime in a quarterback battle for the ages. The good news for all four teams headed to the champion round (aside from the fact that they’re one game away from the Super Bowl) is that no team has an emotional advantage after last week. They all laid everything they had on the line.
All four teams are also in the advantageous position of deep familiarity. The Bengals knocked off the Chiefs in Week 17, and the 49ers erased a 17-point deficit to topple the Rams in Week 18. As the final four games near, here’s a look at the matchups and intangibles that will go into deciding the slate for Super Bowl 56.
AFC Championship: Bengals at Chiefs, 3PM ET on CBS
While the latest odds for Super Bowl 56 put the Chiefs as favorites to hoist Lombardi, the Bengals have an air of destiny. It’s safe to say that Cincinnati made the right move by passing on offensive lineman Penei Sewell and instead selecting Ja’Marr Chase with the no. 5 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Chase and Joe Burrow absolutely smoked the Chiefs in Week 17. Chase accounted for 266 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns out of Burrow’s 446 yard-4 TD total. These two have remained hot in the playoffs.
The Chiefs will need to adjust but also need to provide answers for Burrow’s other weapons like Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and C.J. Uzomah. The Chiefs defense, which evolved from one of the league’s worst to one of the best after acquired Melvin Ingram mid-season, has struggled in the past four weeks (granted two of those weeks were against the Bills and Bengals). But Tyrann Mathieu (concussion) is tracking to play which should help.
The Bengals offensive line was smoked last week by the Titans’ defensive front. Through a variety of stunts, Burrow was sacked a remarkable nine times (and they still won!). The Chiefs like to utilize the straight up blitz, which Burrow is a master at exploiting. Will the Chiefs study the Titans film and add a few more stunts?
There are no more adjectives left to describe what Patrick Mahomes can do with a football in his hands. He’s ridiculous. However, the Bengals figured out a way to hold Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to 65 yards in Week 17. Obviously holding those two to anything in that ballpark would be a massive boost for the Bengals.
Crowd noise at Arrowhead is a real x factor. The Bengals will need to watch for false starts and make sure their communication is tight.
NFC Championship: 49ers at Rams, 6:30ET on FOX
Kyle Shanahan certainly has bragging right over his former assistant Sean McVay. The 49ers have beat the Rams a whopping six straight but none of the will matter if the Rams win at home on Sunday and host the Super Bowl in two weeks.
Cooper Kupp is going to have a day. Despite San Francisco’s impressive track record against the Rams, Kupp has feasted on the 49ers secondary, topping 100 yards every meeting against their nemesis this season. The 49ers have a top notch run defense (Sony Michel eked out just 43 yards on 21 carries in Week 18) so stopping the other Rams receivers like Odell Beckham Jr. and Tyler Higbee will be key.
Will the Rams be able to do the impossible and stop Deebo Samuel. Ever since Shanahan starting utilized Samuel as a multi-layer threat, he’s become arguably the most dangerous weapon in the game. The Rams couldn’t contain Samuel in Week 18 – he had 45 rushing yards, 85 receiving yards and a score.
QB play: Matthew Stafford is the more respected quarterback in terms of ceiling goes but both of these quarterbacks are prone to at least one major mistake a game. But they both have proven to be clutch. Stafford made some aggressive, picture-perfect throws to seal the Rams’ win over Tampa, avoiding overtime. And Garoppolo, for all the heat he takes, led the 49ers on their game-winning drive last week as well.
Trent Williams’ health could be a major factor. The All-Pro left tackle has missed practice all week with a tweaked ankle but could suit up on Sunday. When Williams missed Week 18, Garoppolo was sacked three times. When he returned against Dallas, Garoppolo wasn’t sacked at all.
San Francisco likes to call SoFi Stadium, Levi’s South, a reference to the fact that the Rams’ home stadium turned into a sea of red in Week 18. The Rams tried to avoid a repeat by restricting ticket sales to Los Angeles zip codes for the NFC Championship early in the week but they were shamed into opening up sales to all. Given how well the 49ers travel, it’s doubtful SoFi will feel like the Rams House it strives to be. A repeat of red could be quite demoralizing to the home team.