After one of the most entertaining divisional rounds in NFL history, there are just four teams remaining. Which two will come out on top?
Following last weekend’s slate of thrillers, what does the NFL do for an encore this time around? Sunday’s two championship games have a lot to live up to but there are more than enough storylines swirling around the four remaining teams to ensure plenty of fireworks (quite literally when it comes to the Chiefs).
AFC Championship Game (Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 3pm EST/8pm GMT)
What the Bengals need to do to win: Everything perfectly. It all starts with quarterback Joe Burrow taking better care of the ball. Against the Tennessee Titans, Burrow was sacked nine times, tying a playoff record. Much of this was due to the porous offensive line – which will have to step up on Sunday – but some down to Burrow’s refusal to simply throw the ball away when under pressure. The Bengals beat the Chiefs 34-31 in the regular season, so they know they have a chance of an upset, but it won’t happen if Burrow can’t stay on his feet.
What the Chiefs need to do to win: The defense needs to do better. Let’s be real: as entertaining as Bills-Chiefs was, Kansas City had to a) set up a game-tying field goal in the span of 13 seconds and b) win a coin toss to clinch the game in overtime. Their defense allowed 36 points against the Bills and they could be without safety Tyrann Mathieu, who suffered a head injury last Sunday. (He returned to practice on Thursday but his status for the Bengals game was still uncertain at time of writing.) Yes, the Bills were an extremely tough matchup, but Burrow and the Bengals are in the AFC title game for a reason.
Key player: Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs. Mahomes only came into the league in 2017, but he has already won a regular season MVP award and is looking to take his team to their third straight Super Bowl (where he also has been selected as an MVP). If we’re living in the golden age of NFL quarterbacks – and it’s difficult to argue we’re not – Mahomes is the perfect example of why.
Prediction: Chiefs over Bengals. It’s easy to root for this Bengals team, especially if you are a little tired of seeing Kansas City win the AFC yet again. That doesn’t change the fact that the Bengals are the underdogs for a reason: the Bills were the biggest obstacle between the Chiefs and the Super Bowl and Joe Burrow and co should present less of a challenge. This could be a blowout early.
NFC Championship Game (San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams, Sunday 6.30pm EST/11.30pm GMT)
What the 49ers need to do to win: They need to find a way to get the best out of their quarterbacks. Plural. The 49ers beat the Packers last weekend in spite of their signal-caller, not because of him. Jimmy Garoppolo looked determined to throw his second interception of the day late in Saturday’s game and it was telling that the season-changing play against the Green Bay Packers was a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Garoppolo will start but don’t be surprised if the team runs a few plays for rookie Trey Lance in key spots, as they did occasionally throughout the season, particularly when the in-game situation calls for a more mobile quarterback.
What the Rams need to do to win: Exploit the quarterback mismatch. Matthew Stafford is coming off a two-touchdown performance with 366 passing yards in the divisional round game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he comfortably outplayed Tom Brady. This time around, the starting QB on the other side is Brady’s former understudy. This is exactly why the Rams made the move to trade Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions for Stafford in the first place: with Goff this one would be a coin flip, but with their new big-armed QB, they’re favorites on merit.
Player to watch: Cooper Kupp, wide receiver, Los Angeles Rams. He’s not the most famous receiver on the roster – that would probably be Odell Beckham Jr (who is currently playing for fairy dust) – but Kupp is definitely the Rams’ No 1 receiving option. During the regular season, he led the league in yards after the catch: 848 in total, ranking him above Deebo Samuel, his more versatile counterpoint on the opposing team.
Prediction: Rams over 49ers. This one promises to be a much more competitive matchup than the AFC title game and an influx of Niners fans may ensure that the Rams do not even have much of a home-field advantage in LA. Ultimately, though, the 49ers needed the Packers to commit some heinous special teams blunders in order to squeak out a 13-10 victory, and it doesn’t feel like the Rams will be quite as accommodating.