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Only Four Left — Previewing the NFL Conference Championships

“Four games. Four game-winners. Best weekend of football ever?”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks @NFL Twitter.

Four games.
Four game-winners.

Best weekend of football ever? (by @Bose) pic.twitter.com/FsK59TfPER

— NFL (@NFL) January 24, 2022

After a wild weekend of football, punctuated by not one, but four game-winning drives, four teams emerged from games so tight that it would take a microscope to find the difference between the competitors.

Sunday has a lot to live up to, but fortunately, this is the NFL and there’s craziness even before matchups begin. This year’s title games both feature regular-season rematches with teams that swept those matchups each entering Sunday as underdogs. The San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals each managed to go a combined 3-0 against the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively, but neither is favored to win.

Why not? Well for one, both the Niners and Bengals will be on the road. Second, neither team aligns with the star power of its respective opponents. This has, however, yet to stop either longshot yet.

However it falls, there are two spectacular games on the horizon. Let’s jump in and see who has the best chance to move onto the big one — Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles in two weeks.

Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs, 3 p.m. ET (CBS, Paramount Plus) at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City

Kansas City Chiefs wide receivers Tyreek Hill (11) and Byron Pringle mob Travis Kelce (87) and Kelce caught the game-winning touchdown.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receivers Tyreek Hill (11) and Byron Pringle mob Travis Kelce (87) and Kelce caught the game-winning touchdown. NFL/YouTube

First up on Championship Sunday is the AFC where upstart Cincinnati will try and knock off two-time defending conference champion Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium’s vicious confines.

Just to even earn its third straight semifinal appearance, the Chiefs bested the Bills in one of the great playoffs matchups of all time. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes drove his team 44 yards in 10 seconds on Sunday night to force overtime in last weekend’s epic battle. The back-and-forth action reached a fever pitch with three lead changes and a tie over a combined 25 points in the last two minutes of regulation alone.

The Bengals, in their first conference championship game since 1989, will have to match that magic, led by quarterback Joe Burrow and his clicking connection with wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. 1989 also happens to be the last year they played in the Super Bowl, so perhaps fate is on Cincinnati’s side.

These two squads faced each other twice in the regular season with the Bengals coming out on top both times — the only team to pull off that feat this season. The last time the teams met was less than a month ago in Week 17 with Cincinnati’s Evan McPherson nailing a field goal as time expired. This seems to be a theme for the team as McPherson played a massive role in the Bengals’ 19-16 road upset of top-seeded Tennessee last Saturday, knocking through four field goals, including the game-winner from 52 yards out as time expired.

The Bengals will need more than McPherson’s heroics on Sunday, however, as the supercharged Chiefs offense is likely not going to be held to 16 points. To knock off the 2020 Super Bowl champs, the Bengals will need to be almost perfect on offense and score a key takeaway or two on defense — a big ask considering that Mahomes is coming into the game with eight touchdown passes and one rushing touchdown versus just one interception in Kansas City’s two playoff victories.

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San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams, 6:30 p.m. ET (Fox) at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood

Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson kicks his fourth field goal of the day — the game winner over the Tennessee Titans on Saturday.
NFL/YouTube

Quarterback Matthew Stafford is riding high after leaving one of the NFL’s most moribund franchises for Los Angeles’ star power in the offseason. After going 0-3 in three playoff starts over 12 years with the Detroit Lions, Stafford is now surrounded by talent. The Rams have rolled to a 2-0 record to begin Stafford’s stint in L.A. and a home Super Bowl date just a win away. The team, however, may be on a collision course with its kryptonite.

Rams coach Sean McVay and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan are good friends, having worked together under Shanahan’s father Mike in Washington D.C. in 2013. Each has enjoyed success and Super Bowl appearances in their careers, but since becoming head coaches, Shanahan has gotten the better of McVay in head-to-head matchups, going 7-3 in 10 games between the two, including winning the last six straight and two this year. In Week 18, the Niners bested the Rams on the road to punch their playoff ticket. Three weeks later, the teams are colliding again, with an invitation to Super Sunday on the line.

Stafford threw a pair of interceptions in each of those losses with the Rams averaging only 58 rushing yards in those matchups. Running back Cam Akers, who has already ignited L.A. upon his miraculous return from an Achilles tear, could be the help that the team needs. San Francisco has already shown it’s vulnerable to a short passing game, so if Stafford can also get Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. rolling early, then that, combined with a rushing attack, could open up the deep shots that the 49ers have thus far prevented the Rams from taking.

For their part, San Francisco sports a fierce defensive line with Arik Armstead up the middle, Nick Bosa off the edge, and Rams veteran Andrew Whitworth is already dealing with a balky knee. On offense, the Niners have a similar offensive philosophy, using a zone running game in combination with a quick, West Coast passing offense to keep defenses on their toes. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has a knack for following frustrating starts by coming through in crunch time. In order to neutralize the Rams’ pass rush, led by lineman Aaron Donald, perhaps the best defensive player in the NFL, running back Elijah Mitchell needs to be a factor in the ground game along with hybrid running back and wide receiver Deebo Samuel who has served as San Francisco’s X-factor in matchups with the Rams.

This matchup portends to be a tight one and Stafford will have to stay laser-sharp throughout to seal his first trip to the Super Bowl.

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