NFL Conference Championships Preview


Oliver Thomas, Staff Writer

After one of the greatest divisional rounds of all time, the conference championship games are set. With 4 teams remaining and a Super Bowl trip on the line, it is the best time of the year for each team to be playing their best football.


Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs 

After arguably one of the greatest playoff games of all time, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs return to Arrowhead Stadium one last time this season for a rematch against the Joe Burrow-led Cincinnati Bengals. Mahomes and Burrow met in week 17 in a thrilling 34-31 victory with career performances by Burrow and wide receiver Jamarr Chase. Down by 2 touchdowns, Joe Burrow mounted a ridiculous state line, throwing for 425 yards and 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. Chase tallied an unreal receiving 266 yards and 3 touchdowns. To close out the game, Evan McPherson nailed a 20-yard field goal to clinch the AFC North in a 34-31 win in this week 17 duel. Facing a shaky Kansas City secondary, this is a matchup this fits well for the Bengals offense.

Burrow and the rest of the offense have had slight stepbacks through the first 2 rounds of the playoffs. By no means has Burrow been bad, but if they want any chance in this game, it will take another Week-17-like performance out of him. The Bengals only put up 19 points against the Titans in the divisional round, which is nowhere near the production that they will need against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Mahomes had a much more impressive performance in his matchup against the Buffalo Bills, throwing for 378 yards and 3 touchdowns, as well as running for 69 yards and a touchdown. Down by 3 with 1:39 left, Mahomes mounted the perfect 2-minute drill, driving the ball down the field and completing a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill. Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen drove back down and gave the Bills a 3 point lead, leaving Mahomes with 13 seconds left and their season on the line. Against all odds, Mahomes brought the Chiefs into field goal range, allowing Harrison Butker to send the game to overtime with a 44-yard field goal. Once again, Mahomes drove down the field and found Travis Kelce in the endzone to send the Chiefs to the conference championship against Cincinnati.

 With these two offenses facing off, it sets up an exciting battle. The Bengals have a solid secondary that will be up to the challenge of stopping the Chiefs’ offense. Statistically, the Bengals are a middle-of-the-pack defense throughout this year. The defense is 13th in opponent passer rating and 16th in interceptions. In the playoffs, the defense stepped up, forcing 4 interceptions through the first 2 games, as well as limiting Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill to 2 combined passing touchdowns. However, Patrick Mahomes is in a class of his own compared to these two. Mahomes walked all over the Bills, who were arguably the best defense in the regular season. The Bengals, a youthful and explosive team, are facing the former MVP and a hall of fame coach. Having to play at Arrowhead is another challenge that the Bengals will have to deal with, as Patrick Mahomes is 24-6 when playing at home in his career.

This game will come down to quarterback play more than anything. If Mahomes or Burrow has a down day, it will be near impossible for either team to stay in the game. If Mahomes has a performance as he did against the Bills, I have a hard time seeing the Bengals winning. The Bengals still have the talent to pull off the upset just how they did in week 17. However, this game was not at Arrowhead, which in Burrow’s case is not good. Burrows’s completion percentage drops 13% on the road with a 102 passer rate compared to 111 rates at home. 


San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams

After taking down the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, the Los Angeles Rams are onto their first conference championship since 2018. Two divisional rivals, the 49ers and the Rams, rematch for their 3rd meeting of the 2021 season. The 49ers swept the Rams in the regular season. The first match, in San Francisco, ended in a final score of 31-10. Stafford had one of his worst performances as a Ram, only throwing the ball for 243 yards and throwing 2 interceptions. The 49ers came into that game with a record of 3-5, losing 4 out of their last 5, and far outside of the playoff picture. At that game, everything changed. Deebo Samuel tallied 133 total yards and 2 touchdowns, one coming on the ground and the other thrown from Jimmy Garoppolo. Elijah Mitchell ran for 91 yards on 24 carries, and Garoppolo finished the game with a 79% completion percentage. It was a complete embarrassment for the Rams, who at the time were 7-2 and one of the Super Bowl favorites around the league. Odell Beckham Jr. was struggling in his first game as a Ram, and the whole team performance brought up the possibility of whether or not the Rams were a contender. 

The two met again in LA for a week 18 battle, which ended with the 49ers coming out on top in an overtime thriller. Both quarterbacks struggled at points, each throwing 2 interceptions. The game had blowout written all over it with 5 minutes left in the 2nd quarter, as the Rams had a 17-0 lead and were causing havoc in the pocket for Garoppolo. San Francisco kicked a field goal as the half ended but still faced a 14 point deficit at the half. San Francisco then mounted a comeback, bringing the game to a score of 17-17 towards the end of the 3rd quarter. The game stayed tied until Matthew Stafford found Cooper Kupp for a 4-yard touchdown with 2:30 left. After having a 3 and out on the first drive, the game seemed to be finished, as the Rams had the ball back with 2 minutes left. However, San Fransisco got the stop and used their timeouts to stop the clock, and give Jimmy Garoppolo one last shot to send the game to overtime. With 90 seconds and a couple of big plays from Deebo Samuel, a Jauan Jennings touchdown tied the game at 24-24. The 49ers marched down the field to kick a field goal on the first possession of overtime to give them a 27-24 lead. After a pass interference call to give the Rams a boost of momentum and a first down, Stafford took a deep shot to Odell, which was picked off, ending the game to give the 49ers a 27-24 win. 

In the 3rd meeting of these two teams, the key for Matthew Stafford is to limit turnovers. The Rams are undefeated this year when Stafford doesn’t throw an interception. The more chances to get the ball to Cooper Kupp is the more big-play opportunities that can put the 49ers out of the game. For the 49ers, a lot less of their success is determined by quarterback play. Jimmy Garoppolo has yet to throw a passing touchdown this postseason and has only been throwing for an average of 151 yards the last two games. In his defense, the most recent games were being played in some of the worst possible conditions, with freezing temperatures and snow. Even in good conditions, Garoppolo has never been a key part of the 49er’s success. The 49ers will need a solid performance from Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell to succeed like they have been at points this season, giving the defense enough of a cushion that they will need facing the Rams offense. There won’t be a way to stop Kupp, but the defense will need to do what they can to slow him down somehow. If both teams play to their strengths it should be a great game just like it was in week 18.