Scott Shapiro's Championship Sunday Preview: Bengals will keep it close with Chiefs
A few days have passed, and I am still catching my breath from one of the most entertaining and incredibly competitive Divisional Rounds ever.
Cincinnati at Tennessee and San Francisco at Green Bay lacked offensive efficiency, but both contests offered great defense and tremendous drama.
Like the two Saturday tilts, Los Angeles at Tampa Bay ended with the road team kicking a last-second field goal for the victory. Fortunately for the Rams, Matthew Stafford saved his squad from one of the biggest choke jobs in sports history, with an extremely well-played game and a tremendous throw in the final minute to All-Pro Cooper Kupp.
Just when you thought things could not get more exciting, one of the best football games I have ever witnessed took place. Sure, there were some curious defensive decisions and coaching choices over the final couple of minutes in Arrowhead Stadium, but what a display it was from two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
In the end, it was the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes who somehow found a way to win and get back to the AFC title game for the fourth consecutive season.
The stage is set for Championship Sunday in the National Football League, where it seems impossible to get anywhere near the drama we got last weekend. Nonetheless, it is safe to say it should be a lot of fun.
Bengals at Chiefs
Sun, January 30 2022, 8:00 PM
These two teams met in Week 17 in Paul Brown Stadium, with the Bengals getting the best of the Chiefs, 34-31. In that late regular-season affair, Kansas City jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead and looked poised to extend its eight-game winning streak when the team went to the locker room with a 28-17 first-half advantage.
However, Cincinnati came back behind historical performances from Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, and clinched the Bengals' first AFC North title since 2015.
Not that much has changed since that shootout in the Queen City, other than the game being played in Arrowhead Stadium and the stakes being significantly higher.
It is important to remember, though, that in that early January contest, it was Travis Kelce’s first game back from the COVID-19 list and Tyreek Hill’s second. Hill caught six passes for just 40 yards, while Kelce managed just five grabs for 25 yards.
It is difficult to decipher how much Cincinnati’s defense had to do with holding down the Chiefs’ star pass catchers and how much of it was due to the virus, but one thing is for sure — Hill and Kelce look as good as they have all season right now. Stopping the Kansas City offense is going to be a tall task.
Halting the Bengals offense will be no easy chore either, but if Kansas City hopes to have more success in doing so than it did in the first encounter, it needs to get even more pressure on Burrow.
Steve Spagnuolo’s defense sacked the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner four times, but Chris Jones and crew were unable to put enough pressure on Burrow to contain Cincinnati’s high-powered aerial attack.
The former LSU star made them pay, throwing for 446 yards and four touchdowns. Playing in front of the Chiefs’ faithful will present more of a challenge for the Bengals’ subpar offensive line that was dominated from start to finish by the Titans' defensive front in Nashville last Saturday.
However, if the line can play like it did in Week 17, it should allow Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd to once again have a lot of success.
There is no doubt, it will be a stiff challenge for the Bengals to head into Arrowhead and come away with the franchise’s biggest win of the century, but they are a gritty bunch led by one of the best signal callers in the NFL.
Look for Kansas City to come away with a narrow victory in another shootout between two of the league’s best players.
49ers at Rams
Sun, January 30 2022, 11:30 PM
The top talking point in the lead-up to the NFC Championship Game is certain to be Kyle Shanahan’s record against Sean McVay. Shanahan and the 49ers have won six straight against McVay’s Rams, including a come-from-behind victory in Week 18, which vaulted San Francisco into the playoffs.
San Francisco’s recent success against the Rams has a lot to do with its ability to run the ball efficiently and Jimmy Garoppolo’s solid play against Los Angeles. If both continue, the Niners will be playing again in SoFi Stadium in two weeks.
Normally, I would be extremely confident in San Francisco’s running game against the Rams, but Trent Williams' ankle injury is a major concern. The best left tackle in the league is likely to play on Sunday afternoon, but if he is not at full strength, it is a major blow to the 49ers’ offense.
Not only will it limit San Francisco’s efficiency on the ground, but it could lead to a disastrous day for Garoppolo, who played miserably in the frigid temperatures in Lambeau Field.
The Rams’ defense has played extremely well in their first two postseason victories. Their defensive line is capable of dominating this game, especially if Williams struggles.
I have much more faith in the San Francisco defense that has been awesome during the 49ers' run to the NFC title game. DeMeco Ryans' unit has been able to get consistent pressure from their front four, which has allowed them to mask the issues in their secondary.
The Rams’ offensive line played admirably on the road without Andrew Whitworth in the Divisional Round, but this is an entirely different challenge they face on Sunday afternoon.
I have been on San Francisco for a number of weeks and lean that way again in the NFC Championship Game, but I do have concerns about the Niners' ability to move the ball consistently.
Both teams have dominant defensive lines that have every right to control the game. It should keep this one under the total.