NFL Conference Championship weekend: Chiefs, Rams, Bengals and 49ers battle to reach Super Bowl LVI

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Patrick Mahomes is hoping to lead the Kansas City Chiefs to a third straight Super Bowl in Los Angeles  (Getty Images)
Patrick Mahomes is hoping to lead the Kansas City Chiefs to a third straight Super Bowl in Los Angeles (Getty Images)

Well, best of luck following that.

Last week produced the greatest Divisional Round in NFL history - perhaps the greatest weekend in NFL history full-stop. Its first three games were won with walk-off field-goals before (somehow) the best was saved until last as Patrick Mahomes went toe-to-toe with Josh Allen and rescued the Kansas City Chiefs in an instant-classic, forcing over-time despite going behind with 13 seconds on the clock, then toppling the Buffalo Bills with a first-possession touchdown in the extra period.

It was set of games so good that considering them a means to an end, a way of sorting the postseason wheat from the chaff, seems ultra-reductionist and yet here we are: with four teams left, two conference championships to be won and two Super Bowl dreams to be kept alive.

Mahomes and the Chiefs are now favourites to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the only one of the postseason’s top six seeds left standing.

Between them and a third successive trip to the Super Bowl are a franchise who have not been to one since 1988. In fact, the Cincinnati Bengals had gone 31 years without a playoff victory of any description until beating the Las Vegas Raiders on Wildcard Weekend but backed that up against No1 ranked Tennessee and are now one win from American football’s biggest game, just two years after being officially its worst team.

Can Joe Burrow outgun Mahomes once again in the AFC Championship game? (Getty Images)
Can Joe Burrow outgun Mahomes once again in the AFC Championship game? (Getty Images)

Until recently, Matt Stafford had been suffering through a similar - if not quite as long - wait. The quarterback will likely become the 12th player in NFL history to reach 50,000 career passing yards when the Los Angeles Rams meet the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game, but the 33-year-old - who joined the Rams’ win-now tilt last summer after 12 season in Detroit - had not enjoyed a single playoff success until a fortnight ago.

Both teams have recent Super Bowl defeats to avenge and have already made seismic contributions to the narrative postseason, taking care of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers between them to leave the futures of the last of the league’s golden era quarterbacks in doubt.

The Rams, though, have particular incentive, with Super Bowl LVI set for their new SoFi Stadium and we could be dealing with the proverbial London buses, after Tampa Bay became the first team to reach a home Super Bowl only 12 months ago.

If this weekend’s games are anything like the last set to roll by, we’re in for something special.

Where NFL championship games will be won and lost

Chiefs vs Bengals

It feels like a long, long time ago now that we were casting significant doubts upon Kansas City’s season, with Mahomes riding a career-rough stretch full of uncharacteristic turnovers and mistakes.

The previously hobbling Chiefs are now a familiarly slick, formidable offensive machine once again, effortlessly dropping 84 points in the post-season so far with their superstar quarterback back to his frankly ridiculous best.

While obviously not yet at his opposite number’s sublime level, the Bengals have their own budding superstar under centre in Joe Burrow, who outgunned Mahomes and lit up the Chiefs for 446 yards and four touchdowns during a memorable 34-31 triumph on home soil earlier this month that saw long-suffering Cincinnati wrap up a first AFC North title since 2015.

You have to think the ice-cool and charismatic Burrow will have to repeat such a dazzling performance in order for the Bengals to continue that fairytale run here, with star rookie receiver Ja'Marr Chase needing to be on top form once again.

Ja’Marr Chase has delivered an electrifying rookie campaign with the Bengals (Getty Images)
Ja’Marr Chase has delivered an electrifying rookie campaign with the Bengals (Getty Images)

The former LSU sensation has translated his college form into the pros and then some alongside his old QB, tearing apart the Chiefs’ floundering secondary for 266 yards and three touchdowns in the last meeting.

Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu has been in the concussion protocol this week but looks set to play on Sunday and ‘The Honey Badger’ will have to quickly get back to his best in the hopes of slowing Chase and a dynamic Bengals receiving corps that also includes the talented Tee Higgins.

While we can confidently predict how the Chiefs will perform now they are fully back in the groove, the greatest concern to the Bengals, who also have their own lights-out kicker in confident rookie Evan McPherson, who booted the last-second game-winner in Tennessee, will be the protection - or rather total lack of it - for Burrow at a deafening Arrowhead Stadium.

He was sacked nine times against the Titans, which tied an NFL playoff record as the Bengals’ iffy offensive line completely failed to cope with the relentless pressure brought by the likes of Jeffery Simmons.

It remains to be seen what physical impact such a sustained beating will have had on Burrow, while Chiefs pass-rushers Chris Jones, Frank Clark and Melvin Ingram will no doubt be looking forward to teeing off on the boy wonder at will.

Rams vs 49ers

Two familiar NFC West foes go head to head for the third time this season in the latest instalment of one of the NFL’s best current rivalries.

It is only three short weeks since an overtime thriller at SoFi that saw Robbie Gould kick a game-winning field goal after Ambry Thomas had intercepted Stafford to cap a remarkable 17-point comeback and seal the 49ers’ post-season berth in truly dramatic fashion.

San Francisco dominated the first meeting in November on both sides of the ball, running out emphatic 31-10 winners.

The Niners defense has also stepped up further in the playoffs, holding two high-octane offensive units in the Cowboys and Packers to a combined 27 points during an unlikely run to the NFC title game.

Cooper Kupp has been sensational for the Los Angeles Rams all season long (Getty Images)
Cooper Kupp has been sensational for the Los Angeles Rams all season long (Getty Images)

Can they repeat that effort here and shut down Stafford and Co once again? Stopping record-breaking receiver Cooper Kupp from breaching triple figures in yards seems nigh-on impossible these days, but the Niners have shown they are at least capable of limiting his scoring prowess.

The 49ers defense is matched by a ferocious Rams unit that has gone to a new level in the playoffs, refusing to accept what would have been an all-time collapse against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during divisional round weekend.

Von Miller was exceptional in that game, with arguably the NFL’s best player Aaron Donald continuing his remarkably high standards.

Both offensive lines are going to have to be on-point to stop two fearsome pass rushes repeatedly getting home on Sunday, while Stafford is surely more likely to withstand the constant pressure than fellow quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who has massively defied expectations to keep his starting job ahead of highly-rated rookie Trey Lance and lead this charge but is still more than capable of making the sort of back-breaking mistakes that can sink a team in an instant.

Deebo Samuel has been unstoppable as the 49ers’ dual-threat playmaker (Getty Images)
Deebo Samuel has been unstoppable as the 49ers’ dual-threat playmaker (Getty Images)

How to solve a problem like Deebo Samuel will also be crucial if the Rams want to return to the Super Bowl three years after losing to the New England Patriots in a forgettable clash in Atlanta.

The Niners receiver has bounced back from injuries to not only establish himself as a truly elite playmaker, but also one of the most dynamic and unstoppable dual-threat playmakers we’ve seen - inflicting huge damage from running back as well as out wide.

Samuel had almost 100 receiving yards against the Rams earlier this month and a touchdown on the ground, while in November he had both rushing and receiving scores.

If the Niners are to continue their winning streak against LA and make it back to the big game, one of the NFL’s most unique talents will surely be right at the heart of their efforts.

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