Updated: Sep 6
By: David Hartman
January 26, 2022
If you’re still spent from the single greatest weekend of NFL games we’ve ever experienced, you aren’t alone. Four walk-off wins in as many games says it all. All 4 teams that advanced (more like, escaped) are lucky to be playing this week - all were either trailing or tied at some point after the 2-minute warning. We were treated to wall-to-wall thrills, chills, and drama for 2 full days. The finishes were absolutely nuts, and it was all as exhausting as it was exhilarating - and that was just for the casual fan sitting in front of the TV. So before we sit down to watch more football this Sunday, let’s bask for another few days in the afterglow of 4 NFL games that captivated us for an entire weekend, capped off by what may have been the single greatest, craziest, and most entertaining playoff game in NFL history - and if it wasn’t that, it’s right up there with the Ice Bowl, the Kellen Winslow game, the Immaculate Reception game, the Catch game, and a few other all-time classics. Super Bowls are in a different category because they’re for all the marbles, but the stakes were plenty high this past weekend and there are 3 fan bases out there that’ll need some time to recover from devastating, stomach punch losses. BillsMafia, I’m not sure how this compares to Wide Right, but I feel your pain. The good news is, you’ve got Josh Allen and he’s only 25. Allen’s final tally in 2 playoff games this postseason: 9 TD passes and just 14 incompletions. No, that’s not a misprint. It’s a shame he didn’t get the ball in overtime, but that’s another debate for another day. What can the NFL possibly do for an encore? Sad to say, we’ve got just 3 games left in this football season and no matter what happens this coming weekend or in the Super Bowl, it’s hard to imagine that it will compare to the string of 4 heart-stopping games we just witnessed. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to see some more great and dramatic football. So, let’s take a look ahead at the Conference Championship matchups. Here are a few quick observations right up front: We’ve got 2 rematches of very recent games - In Week 17, the Bengals beat the Chiefs 34-31 in Cincinnati, and in Week 18, the 49ers went on the road and beat the Rams 27-24 in overtime to get into the playoffs, plus they beat them in November at home, 31-10. Meanwhile, the last 3 Super Bowl-losing Coaches are still competing for this year’s Lombardi Trophy - Andy Reid last year, Kyle Shanahan the year before (losing to Reid’s Chiefs), and Sean McVay the year before that. Finally, these are 4 very different teams, but one thing they have in common is a dominant, game-breaking wide receiver who can change the trajectory of a contest in an instant and has to be accounted for at all times. Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel, Tyreek Hill and Ja’Marr Chase combined for 52 TDs during the regular season, and more than 6,500 yards from scrimmage. That’s an average of more than 1,600 yards each. The total across the 4 is more than 3 miles, for those who are curious. I think there will be some sleepless nights for the 4 Defensive Coordinators this week. One quick aside before we dive into the matchups. I went 1-3 on my predictions for the Divisional Round. Not great, but since all 4 games could’ve gone either way right to the final whistle, I don’t feel too terrible about it. I did predict that after the mostly terrible games from Wild Card Weekend, we’d get “compelling matchups and great games” in Round 2 (yes, I’m quoting myself), so I’m taking the liberty of calling it a draw on the predictions front. OK, here we go - here’s my breakdown of the NFL’s Final Four:
Bengals @ Chiefs (Sunday, 3 p.m., CBS, Chiefs -7, O/U - 54.5)
Biggest Storylines: The Chiefs are in the AFC title game for the 4th straight year, and they’re also hosting the game for a 4th straight time, which is an NFL first. If the Chiefs can win, they’ll become just the 4th team to go to 3 straight Super Bowls. Oddly, the other 3 all play in the AFC East (no, no, not the Jets; it’s Miami, Buffalo, and New England). Meanwhile, the Bengals are just 2 seasons removed from having the league’s worst record (2-14), and they haven’t been to a Conference Championship game since the 1988-89 season. That was before Joe Burrow was born, and Bengals’ Head Coach Zac Taylor was only 5 years old. Burrow has very quickly become the face of the franchise, and along with his LSU teammate Chase, has led a lightning-fast turnaround. Patrick Mahomes has now played 5 full NFL seasons (4 as a starter) as compared to just 2 for Burrow, but Mahomes (26 years, 4 months) is only a year older than Burrow (25 years, 1 month). Despite his age, Mahomes has already won 8 post-season games, against just 2 losses. Meanwhile, Andy Reid is starting to sniff some rarified air. Reid has now taken 2 different teams to 4 straight conference championship games (Eagles, 2001-2004), and he’s the first coach to do that. With the win over the Bills on Sunday night, Reid tied Don Shula for third most playoff wins all-time (19), and if the Chiefs can beat the Bengals on Sunday he’ll move into a tie with Tom Landry (20), and trail only Bill Belichick (31). Reid is looking to get to his 4th Super Bowl as a Head Coach, and he would be the 9th to accomplish that. The Bengals and Chiefs just played each other 3 weeks ago, with the Bengals prevailing 34-31, at home, in a thriller that cost the Chiefs the AFC’s #1 seed, and a first-round bye. The Bengals clinched the AFC North title with that win.
What to Look for: The Chiefs’ victory over the Bills on Sunday night was one of the most improbable wins you’re ever going to see. Few offenses are capable of going 45-50 yards in just 13 seconds, but if we’ve learned one thing over the last few seasons it’s never to count out Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce. The KC offense is back to being both sudden and lethal, and as always is creative in its design. Mahomes continues to grow his legend as an unparalleled magician. Jerrick McKinnon has given the running game a nice lift, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire is back and looked good backing up McKinnon on Sunday. The Cincinnati defense is decent but is likely to be overmatched in this one. When these teams met in Week 17, Mahomes and Burrow both had big games, but the Chiefs had no answer for Ja’Marr Chase, who went off for a ludicrous 11-266-3 line. Burrow finished the game with similarly ridiculous totals - 466 passing yards and 4 TDs. Obviously, the Chiefs need to figure out a way to deal with Chase and can’t allow anything close to that kind of output from either Burrow or Chase on Sunday. But Chase isn’t Burrow’s only weapon - Tee Higgins is an excellent #2 WR and creates mismatch problems with his size and speed, and Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon (as both a rusher and a pass catcher) and recently rediscovered tight end C.J. Uzomah (13 catches in their 2 playoff wins) make the Bengals a very tough offense to deal with, if (and it’s a big if) Burrow has time to throw. The Titans sacked Burrow 9 times on Saturday, and pressured and hurried him all game, and the Bengals struggled to sustain drives as a result. Burrow was held without a TD pass for just the second time all season, and the Bengals’ offense only managed a single TD on the day. The Chiefs don’t have the kind of elite pass rushers that Tennessee has, but the Cincinnati offensive line is a weakness that can be exploited, and KC will obviously try to bring as much heat as it can. The Chiefs did manage to sack Burrow 4 times in Week 18, but they’ll need Chris Jones, Melvin Ingram and the rest of their pass rushers to get more consistent pressure than they mustered that day, especially because the KC secondary is banged up. If Tyrann Mathieu (concussion) misses this game, that’s a big problem for the Chiefs, who could again be without starting CB Rashad Fenton (who has missed both playoff games with a back injury). We all saw what Josh Allen and Gabe Davis just did to the KC secondary, and Burrow, Chase and the rest of the Cincinnati air attack can be just as lethal when Joe has time to throw. Bengals’ rookie PK Evan McPherson is a McPerfect 8 for 8 on FGs in 2 playoff games, and since his 2 misses in that weird overtime loss to the Packers on October 10, he’s been automatic, hitting on 31 of 32 FG attempts. Harrison Butker is no slouch himself, and has made more than his share of big kicks throughout this period of KC dominance in the AFC, but he did miss a FG and a PAT against the Bills.
The Pick Burrow and the Bengals have arrived ahead of schedule. They’ve restored the roar in the Queen City, and Bengals’ fans have to be thrilled with how this team is positioned for the next 5-10 years. The Bengals proved 3 weeks ago that they can hang with the Chiefs, and just like Buffalo, they’ve got the firepower to hold their own with Kansas City if it turns into a shootout - something few teams can do. But I don’t think they want that kind of game, and I expect plenty of Joe Mixon as long as the game is close. In the end, Kansas City’s offense is too good, and I think they’ll pressure Burrow enough to get some key stops. Patrick Mahomes looks invincible right now, and the Chiefs’ (and Reid’s) experience in big playoff games is an edge, as is the Arrowhead crowd. Even with a banged up secondary, I like the Chiefs to keep it going coming off of their huge win over the Bills. They had their scare, they escaped, and now they roll into a third straight Super Bowl. Chiefs 31, Bengals 24.
49ers @ Rams (Sunday, 6:30 p.m., FOX, Rams -4, O/U - 46.5)
Biggest Storylines: It’s an all-NFC West Conference Final. The last time teams from the same division met in a Conference Championship was 8 seasons ago, and it was also 2 squads from this division, with the Seahawks beating the 49ers to go to the Super Bowl. The 49ers come into this one riding 2 significant winning streaks. They’ve won 3 straight elimination games, on the road, as underdogs. The first of those 3 wins was against these same Rams during the final week of the regular season, with L.A. having a chance (and failing) to knock its hated division rival out of the playoff field. The Rams got out to a quick 17-0 lead in that contest but couldn’t hang on (a theme we’ll come back to). With the 49ers trailing by 7, Jimmy G led his team down the field in the final minute of regulation for a game-tying TD, and the 49ers eventually prevailed in OT, 27-24. And that gets us to the second streak. The 49ers have won 6 straight against L.A., with sweeps of the season series each of the last 3 years - and built into that streak is that Jimmy G has never lost to the Rams in his career. A whole lot of 49er fans filled up SoFi for that Week18 game. Will L.A.’s season ticket holders again sell their seats to the Bay Area faithful? There might not be much of a home crowd in this one. For 54 years, we didn’t have a single case of a Super Bowl entrant playing in its home stadium, but that changed last year with the Bucs playing at home, and it’ll happen for a second straight year if the Rams can prevail on Sunday. McVay’s Rams and Shanahan’s 49ers lost consecutive Super Bowls in 2019 and 2020. McVay and Shanahan are 2 of the biggest names among the NFL’s fleet of young coaching stars, and one of them will be getting a second shot at a championship this year. And of course there is the long work history between them.
What to Watch For: The 49ers’ defense and special teams were truly outstanding at Green Bay on Saturday night. But lost in the big win over the Packers is how dismal the offense was. Yes, bad weather was a significant factor and neither team could move the ball with any consistency. But the 49ers’ offense didn’t score a touchdown, completed only 11 passes, and barely gained 200 total yards on the night. Two field goals were all they could muster. Jimmy G was ineffective for much of the game, and for the second straight week had a very costly turnover - in this case, keeping the 49ers from finally getting on the scoreboard late in the first half when they were driving the ball deep into Packers territory for the first time all game. The offensive line struggled to open holes for Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel and allowed 4 sacks and multiple pressures, and now they’ll have to deal with Aaron Donald, a fully healthy Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd, who thoroughly harassed Tom Brady for 60 minutes on Sunday. Making matters worse is that standout LT Trent Williams suffered a sprained ankle in the Green Bay game, and his availability for Sunday is in doubt. Deebo Samuel suffered a knee bruise on his final carry on Saturday night, but as of now there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be available on Sunday, and hopefully he’ll be at or close to 100%. Deebo gave a lot of teams fits this year, and the Rams were no exception. He scored 3 TDs against them in the 2 games (2 rushing, 1 receiving), threw a TD pass against them, and went over 130 total yards in both games. But it’s going to take more than Deebo to beat the Rams, and Jimmy G has to involve the 49ers’ other weapons more than he did on Saturday night (Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings combined for just 1 catch). The 49ers are also going to need to get George Kittle more involved in the passing game as well. Jimmy has thrown a bad pick in each playoff game so far and he’s got to avoid that kind of costly mistake this week. Nick Bosa was all over Aaron Rodgers last week and they’ll need another big game from him and the rest of the D line. Robby Gould is money - he’s now a perfect 20 for 20 on FGs in the playoffs. The Rams are lucky to have survived a very sloppy second half at Tampa Bay, and it would’ve been an unforgivable loss had they blown that game. They had several golden opportunities to put the game away for good and failed each time. It almost looked like they were trying to give the game away. Here are their possessions, starting with their last possession of the first half: Fumble (on the Tampa 1 yard line), Punt, TD, Fumble, Punt, Fumble, Missed FG, Punt, Fumble, FG. Four lost fumbles in the final 31 minutes? Do that against the 49ers - do even half of that - and it’s going to be a very long evening for the Rams. Meanwhile, Cooper Kupp’s incredible run of dominant performances continues, even with his lost fumble on Sunday. Kupp (9-183-1) was once again unstoppable this past week. Like Deebo, he put up big numbers in both SF-LA matchups this season, but he’s put up those same big numbers almost every week for 19 straight games. He’ll likely get his again, so the question is how much damage Matt Stafford can do with the Rams’ other passing weapons, including OBJ who has fully emerged as a legit #2 in this offense, #3 WR Van Jefferson, and Tyler Higbee who caught 6 balls and scored twice in the Week 18 meeting. Stafford hasn’t thrown a pick in either of the Rams’ playoff wins, after throwing 7 over the final 3 weeks of the regular season. He’ll need to be clean again on Sunday. The Rams couldn’t run the ball last week against Tampa’s stout front, but they’ll no doubt continue to try to have some semblance of balance, and they could have both tackle Andrew Whitworth and RB Darrell Henderson back this week. I do wonder if we’ll see as much of Cam Akers after his 2 lost fumbles at critical junctures on Sunday. They don’t want Matt Stafford going back to throw 40-plus times against a very good San Francisco pass rush and secondary. On defense, the Rams wore down and had some lapses in the second half, but they mostly played a solid game against the Bucs, with Aaron Donald (who was moved all over the formation) and Von Miller being particularly disruptive. They’ll get after Jimmy G but will also need to hold up against the 49ers’ sophisticated (and now 2-headed) rushing attack, which didn’t really get going last week but which gave the Rams problems this season. The Rams are likely to get starting safety Taylor Rapp (concussion) back this week, which would be a plus. Finally, third year kicker Matt Gay was short on 1 of his 4 FG attempts at Tampa Bay on Sunday, but has been very reliable all year, hitting on 32 of 34 FG tries. The Pick: It’s tough to beat a team 3 times in a season, but that’s what stands between the 49ers and a return trip to the Super Bowl. They’re starting to feel like a team of destiny and are on the kind of roll we’ve seen from wild card teams before - such as the 2007 Giants, the 2010 Packers, and the Bucs last year. I really want to jump on the bandwagon and pick them for another upset - and clearly, they’ve had L.A.’s number. Meanwhile, the Rams have mortgaged their future to build a team that can win it all right now, and they might have the most talented roster in the NFL. The team that built a 27-3 lead over the Bucs last week looked awfully good. But they’re hard to trust, as they’ve shown a propensity to make big mistakes and blow leads. But do you know who I trust even less right now? Jimmy G. He’s not 100% healthy and I really don’t like what I’ve seen from him the past 2 weeks, even as his team keeps winning. I think the Trent Williams injury is a big one for San Francisco to overcome (even if he plays, I doubt he’ll be close to 100%) and I expect the L.A. pass rush to be in Jimmy’s face all day, forcing him into some bad decisions and throws. This one should be close, but the Rams and Sean McVay finally end the losing streak against Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers. Rams 26, 49ers 23.
To see more NFL and Fantasy Football content from David Hartman, visit his blog, The Pigskin Papers, at: www.thepigskinpapers.com.