NFL championship weekend is set, and if it’s anything like the divisional round then two more spectacular games are on the way.
Kansas City hosts Cincinnati in the AFC championship game in a rematch of the Week 17 matchup at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won that 34-31 but will have to try to do the same at Arrowhead Stadium this time.
The Chiefs are shooting for a third straight AFC championship under coach Andy Reid after outlasting Buffalo 42-36 in an overtime thriller. Patrick Mahomes continues to dominate the AFC playoffs with the help of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, but Tyrann Mathieu left the divisional round with a concussion.
Cincinnati is back in the AFC championship for the first time since 1988, and second-year quarterback Joe Burrow and rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase have formed a prolific combination. The Bengals have an underrated defense, too, one that does not seem afraid of the lights with third-year coach Zac Taylor, and that was evident in the thrilling 19-16 victory against the Titans in the AFC divisional round.
NFC West rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco meet in the NFC championship game in a battle of two of the last three conference champions. The Rams are trying to get back to the Super Bowl for the second time under coach Sean McVay, and Matthew Stafford made the clutch throw in a 30-27 victory against the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. In-season additions Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. have delivered in the late-season surge.
The 49ers beat the Packers 13-10 in the NFC divisional round, and San Francisco swept the regular-season series with the Rams. That included an overtime thriller in Week 18. Can Jimmy Garopppolo lead an offense that includes breakout star Deebo Samuel and George Kittle to another huge victory? 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has the team playing its best ball.
Sporting News’s Bill Bender split four games on divisional playoff weekend. Here is a look at our track record this season:
- Playoffs: 7-3
- Last week: 2-2
- Regular season: 172-98-1
Here are our picks for NFL conference championship weekend:
NFL picks, predictions for championship games
- Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs (-7)
Sunday, 3 p.m., CBS
Big plays. That was the difference in the first game. Both teams have five plays of 25 yards or more, but the key for the Bengals were the defensive adjustments made after halftime.
Kansas City had five different players make those plays, but none game after halftime. The Bengals’ secondary also did a great job of keeping Tyreek Hill and Travis Kielce in front. That tandem combined for 65 yards in the first meeting. Can the Bengals replicate that effort in a secondary led by Jesse Bates and Chide Awuzie? Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire didn’t play in the first meeting, and Logan Wilson will need to be a difference maker.
Cincinnati didn’t have a sack or turnover in the last meeting. They can’t do that again.
Of course, Burrow is going to feed Chase again. Chase had 11 catches for 266 yards and three TDs, and he had four catches of 30 yards or more. Mathieu’s status will be a huge factor in this game, too. Kansas City will respond by dialing up the pressure after watching Burrow get sacked nine times by the Titans. Chris Jones had two of Kansas City’s four sacks in the first meeting. Burrow will make plays, and this one could be just as entertaining as the last matchup.
But it’s still Mahomes in the AFC playoffs. Mahomes is 7-1 with 23 TDs and one interception in AFC playoff games, and the home-field advantage will be a difference maker. This will be close, too, and the Bengals prove they are going to be a force. Kansas City, however, makes one more big play in crunch time.
Pick: Chiefs 31, Bengals 28
- San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams (-3.5)
Sunday, 6:30 p.m., FOX
What was the common thread in the Rams’ two regular-season losses to the 49ers? Los Angeles could not generate a running game. The Rams averaged 58 rushing yards in those two losses, and Stafford threw a pair of interceptions in those games.
Cam Akers could help with that, especially early in the game. If Stafford can stick to the short passing game with Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. early (which the Packers did not do after the opening drive in the divisional playoffs), then that should open up a few deep shots later. Arik Armstead had 2.5 sacks in the Week 18 matchup and Nick Bosa is a problem off the edge, so it is worth monitoring whether veteran Andrew Whitworth (knee) can go.
San Francisco has found the right offensive combination around Garoppolo, who completed 74.5% of his passes in the two regular-season meetings against the 49ers. Garoppolo will make a few head-scratching mistakes, but he gets the ball to Samuel and Kittle in crunch time. Elijah Mitchell needs to be a factor on the ground. The Rams will counter that with a furious pass rush led by Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd and Miller.
Samuel will be the X-factor player, too. He averaged 10.8 yards per touch in that Week 18 thriller. The Niners have won the last six meetings in this series, so it’s on McVay to make the adjustments necessary to match Shanahan.
Will it come with the running game? Akers had a costly late fumble in the divisional victory against the Buccaneers, and Sony Michel needs to be a factor inside. This one plays out a lot like the Week 18 matchup, only this time Stafford stays locked in and the Rams are able to hold on to the lead late. Los Angeles seals its trip to the Super Bowl with a late interception, and Stafford gets his first Super Bowl trip.
Pick: Rams 26, 49ers 21