CHAMPIONSHIP SUNDAY: After the best weekend of football that I have witnessed in my 40 years on this planet, only four teams remain in the race to Super Bowl LVI. We’re left with two matchups that are intriguing, but that we’ve seen before: in the AFC, Cincinnati and Kansas City will square off in a rematch of a Week 17 thriller that saw the Bengals erase a 28-17 halftime deficit to edge the Chiefs 34-31 and prevent them from locking up the 1-seed. That game was in Cincinnati, however, while the rematch will be in Arrowhead, where the Chiefs have won 8 straight games.
In the NFC, meanwhile, bitter division rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco will square off again in SoFi Stadium, where the 49ers cliched a playoff berth with a 27-24 overtime victory in Week 18. That makes six straight wins for the Niners over the Rams, and yet LA is still the betting favorite this week– can the 49ers continue to prove the doubters wrong?
Here are my thoughts on what should be a terrific Championship Sunday:
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Cincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday 15:05 EST)
Line: Kansas City -7 (54.5)
We were expecting plenty of offense and high-level quarterback play when these teams met in Week 17 and the game sure delivered, as Kansas City put up four 1st-half touchdowns but couldn’t hold on after Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati offense got revved up. Burrow finished with 446 passing yards and 4 TDs and the Chiefs had absolutely no answer for Ja’Marr Chase, who went crazy with 11 catches for 266 yards and 3 TDs. Undoubtedly, the first order of business for the Kansas City defense in this game will be slowing down Chase, and we saw the Chiefs effectively shut down star Buffalo receiver Stefon Diggs last week by committing two players to him in coverage on nearly every play. That resulted in a career game for Bills receiver Gabriel Davis, however, and in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd the Bengals have second and third options in the passing game who are even more dangerous than Davis. Joe Burrow has shown repeatedly that he’s perfectly fine with feeding those guys the ball if defenses scheme to take away Chase– Higgins and Boyd finished the regular season with nearly 2,000 combined receiving yards and 11 TDs.
The real key for the Kansas City defense in this game will be getting to Burrow and not giving him the time to find his playmakers, and considering the state of the Cincinnati offensive line, that’s certainly doable. But as we saw last week in Tennessee, when Burrow was sacked 9 times (!) and still passed for 348 yards in leading his team to victory, the young man is not easily rattled, and the Chiefs are certainly vulnerable in the secondary. The Bengals will score in this game and score plenty, but so did the Bills last week, and many teams before them… the question is, can you outscore Patrick Mahomes? The Bengals did a decent job of limiting the KC offense in Week 17, daring the Chiefs to run the ball (which they did, 23 times) and focusing on slowing down Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, leaving all the other Kansas City pass-catchers in single coverage. It worked, sort of– Mahomes & Co. were typically unstoppable in the 1st half but stalled a bit in the 2nd half as Cincinnati took away the big play. I have a strong feeling that Andy Reid is going to make a concerted effort to get Kelce and especially Hill more involved this time around, and after watching Mahomes shred the top-ranked Buffalo defense last week it’s difficult to have much confidence in the Cincinnati D in this spot. That said, Burrow and the Bengals offense will make plenty of noise themselves, and it’s not hard to imagine this one turning into a classic quarterback duel resembling last week’s Buffalo/KC thriller (we can’t possibly get that lucky again, can we?). I like the Chiefs to advance, but 7 points feels like too many. Prediction: Kansas City 31, Cincinnati 27
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
San Francisco 49ers @ Los Angeles Rams (Sunday 18:40 EST)
Line: Los Angeles -3.5 (45.5)
They say familiarity breeds contempt, and I don’t think there will be too many hugs and handshakes exchanged when these teams face off for the second time in three weeks. The Rams already had one chance to end San Francisco’s season and couldn’t get the job done, so it’s only fitting that their final roadblock to the Super Bowl is the team that has absolutely owned them in recent years. Losing six consecutive games to a divisional rival has to be hard to swallow, especially when your team is as good as the Rams have been, but I don’t put any stock in the “revenge” or “motivation” angle– with the season on the line and the chance at football immortality within each player’s grasp, both teams will be plenty motivated for this one. When the game kicks off it will be all about matchups, execution, and toughness, as it always is. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, those three elements– yes, event the toughness and physicality aspect– have been controlled by the Niners in recent meetings.
San Francisco plays a bruising style of football, with a variety of simple, old-school running plays disguised by pre-snap motion, and in all-purpose weapon Deebo Samuel they may have the best skill-position player in the NFL. The only real question the 49ers have is at quarterback, as Jimmy Garoppolo has struggled at times this season and frankly looked awful in San Francisco’s Divisional Round win over Green Bay last week. That being said, Garoppolo has a history of playing well against the Rams, and the LA secondary had trouble defending the middle of the field even before they lost starting strong safety Jordan Fuller to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 18. With all the attention that the Rams defense is sure to give Deebo Samuel, this could be a game where 49ers Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle really does some damage. On the other side of the ball, the Niners front seven will look to heat up Matt Stafford just like they did the last time these teams met, sending overload blitzes on nearly every obvious passing down. Stafford has a reputation for being a little skittish under pressure and can get reckless with the football at times, so it will be interesting to see how Sean McVay calls this game– the Rams have turned to the running game more in recent weeks, but the Niners D is just so tough up front… it feels like Stafford is going to have to make it happen from the pocket. Can he change the narrative and rewrite the story of his career? I have my doubts. Prediction: San Francisco 24, Los Angeles 20