NFL Conference Championship Games: What to Watch This Weekend

NFL conference championship games Patrick Mahomes in the pocket
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick MahomesColin E Braley/AP / Shutterstock

The NFL conference championship games are coming up this weekend, and the four remaining playoff teams—the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, and Los Angeles Rams—will battle it out to claim the two Super Bowl slots. The Bengals visit the Chiefs at 3:05 p.m. (EST) on CBS with the AFC title on the line, and the 49ers visit the Rams at 6:40 p.m. (EST) on Fox to play for the NFC title.

 

 

The Chiefs are seven-point favorites in the AFC, while markets have the Rams as 3.5-point favorites in the NFC. Both games are rematches where the underdog has beaten the favorite in the last month; the Bengals beat the Chiefs in Cincinnati in Week 17, and a week later, the 49ers clinched a playoff spot by beating the Rams in Los Angeles, the site of this weekend’s game.

Below are four big questions—and key players to watch—for the games on Sunday.

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2022 NFL Conference Championship Games Preview

1. How will the Chiefs confront Cincinnati’s passing game?

The Bengals’ 34–31 win over the Chiefs on Jan. 2 came down to Kansas City’s inability to stop the Joe Burrow-led Cincinnati pass attack. The Bengals spent almost the entire game with their top three receivers on the field together: Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. The Chiefs couldn’t stop them with five, and sometimes even six, defensive backs. The same strategy probably won’t work in this game: The weakest link in the KC defense is dime safety Daniel Sorenson, whom the Bengals picked on repeatedly.

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is a smart guy, so he is presumably aware of this problem. The Bengals throw out of the shotgun all day, and in their last meeting, the Chiefs didn’t have enough capable defensive backs to do anything about it. Burrow threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns in Week 17, with Chase catching three of them. KC doesn’t seem to have a good answer other than for edge defenders Melvin Ingram III and Frank Clark to generate a ton of pressure and harass Burrow early in his drop-backs. We’ll see what Spagnuolo cooks up.

2. The Chiefs will get more out of Patrick Mahomes this time. But how much more?

Cincinnati’s defense had a lot of trouble guarding tight ends this season. Four different teams racked up at least 115 tight end receiving yards in games against the Bengals, and Cincy was near the bottom of the NFL in overall tight end pass defense stats.

Interestingly, in their previous meeting they limited Travis Kelce and the Chiefs’ whole tight end group to 66 yards on 11 targets. (Kelce only had 25 yards. His backup, Blake Bell, had 35.) The Bengals also kept Tyreek Hill, maybe the best receiver in the league, to 40 receiving yards on 10 targets. They let the Chiefs run the ball at will against them (23 carries for 155 yards, a 6.7-yard average), but that was a trade Cincinnati was comfortable making. Mahomes didn’t make big mistakes, but without much explosiveness from his favorite targets, he finished with an uncharacteristically low 26-of-35 passing for 259 yards (7.4 per throw) and two scores.

It feels impossible that Cincinnati could hold Kelce and Hill to a combined 65 yards in the rematch. Exactly how much damage those two superstars do will have a strong influence on whether Cincinnati can keep up in another shootout with Mahomes.

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3. Is Jimmy Garoppolo capable of more than he’s given the 49ers in the playoffs?

Garoppolo, who got the Niners to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, played solidly this year and held off No. 3 overall draft pick Trey Lance to remain Kyle Shanahan’s starter. But he has been dealing with a bad thumb on his throwing hand all month, and he’s been more of a passenger than the driving force behind the 49ers’ two playoff wins to date. He’s thrown one touchdown to three interceptions and averaged 6.8 yards per throw.

To be fair, one of those games took place in blizzard conditions at the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field. But the Packers had multiple chances to get an interception off Garoppolo, and had they capitalized on those opportunities, he could easily have five or six playoff picks instead of four.

It won’t get easier against the Rams, who have both the best defensive front player in the NFL (Aaron Donald) and the best cornerback (Jalen Ramsey), to go along with a pretty good collection of talent at other defensive positions. On another hand, Garoppolo averaged 10 yards per throw and cleared 300 yards total when the Niners visited the Rams in the last week of the regular season, and only a couple of interceptions marred his performance. I don’t think Garoppolo will move the needle on Sunday, but I also won’t discount the chance that he improves on his recent efforts.

4. Can the 49ers make game-changing plays that don’t involve special teams?

Despite a tremendous defensive effort against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the divisional round, the 49ers would’ve had no chance if not for two exceptional special teams plays: a blocked field goal and a blocked punt, the latter returned for a game-tying touchdown. Robbie Gould won them the game with a field goal a few minutes later.

San Francisco’s special teams had an all-time great night. There’s no discounting that. But they’re not going to block two kicks in this game for two reasons: One, that almost never happens, and two, the Rams are much more competent on special teams than the miserable Packers. (Green Bay not only surrendered the two blocks, but only had 10 men on the field for Gould’s winning field goal.)

The 49ers will need their offense or defense to make a game-changing play instead. The best candidates for that are also the most obvious: defensive end Nick Bosa, who bothered Rodgers all night, and receiver Deebo Samuel, whose pass-catching and ball-carrying contributions have made him one of the league’s true game-breaking talents.

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