NFL play-offs: Kansas City Chiefs aim for third straight Super Bowl in conference championships
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|Live: Listen to commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra of the Cincinnati Bengals vs Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday (19:50 GMT); Follow live text and live clips on Sunday (19:30 GMT) on the BBC Sport website and app|
NFL fans barely caught their breath after what many called the greatest weekend in play-off history.
But now it’s time for the conference championship games, which will decide which two teams line up in Super Bowl 56 on Feb. 13.
Not only all four last week’s divisional round matches won in the very last game, but each conference’s top seeds were eliminated – the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers.
It meant a premature end to the season for MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay. It was also the end of the road for seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady and his defending champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Veteran quarterbacks are now says he plans to retire while two of the new breed prepare to face off in the form of Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow for the AFC title.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams are aiming for a Super Bowl played in their own stadium. They just have to pass the five-time winners of the San Francisco 49ers.
“It’s all on the line,” said BBC pundit Jason Bell. “When it comes to the last four, the players don’t leave anything on the pitch because it’s over after that. There’s no tomorrow.”
Sunday’s Conference Championship games (away team first, times in GMT)
- Cincinnati Bengals vs. Kansas City Chiefs (8:00 p.m.)
- San Francisco 49ers – Los Angeles Rams (11:30 p.m.)
Will Kansas City make it three in a row?
The Buffalo Bills are widely considered one of the top two teams in the AFC Conference, but the play-off draw pitted them against the Kansas City Chiefs last week.
And their young stars Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen produced a quarterback shootout that exceeded expectations, with Mahomes and the Chiefs winning in overtime.
Mahomes, 26, led Kansas City to the AFC Championship Game in all four seasons as a starter, with the Chiefs being the first team to stage a championship game four years in a row.
They are now one win away from becoming the fourth team to play in three consecutive Super Bowls, after beat San Francisco two years ago before lost to Tampa Bay last year.
Tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill were key men during those runs, and trailing with 13 seconds left against the Bills, Mahomes once again turned to his most reliable targets for put the Chiefs within range to make the tying field goal. who forced overtime.
Mahomes then found Kelce for the game-winning touchdown to spark ecstatic scenes at Arrowhead, where Mahomes is now 7-1 in the play-offs. Cincinnati, however, beat the Chiefs 34-31 just four weeks ago.
“As good as Kansas City played last week, there was a lot of emotion,” Bell said. “For me, it’s always a trap. We saw it with the Minnesota Miracle (2017 season play-offs). The following week, the Vikings simply disappeared. I’m worried about the Chiefs, but hopefully because of their experience it won’t be a disappointment.”
Can the Bengals go from worst to first?
Just two years ago, Cincinnati finished with the NFL’s worst record, meaning they had the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft.
With that, they selected quarterback Joe Burrow. Then, with the fifth pick in the 2021 draft, they picked wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, and the former college teammates picked up where they left off.
Chase had 266 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the Bengals’ win at Cincinnati on Jan. 2, helping him set a new season record for most receiving yards by a rookie.
The pair then led the Bengals to their first play-off win in 31 years on wildcard weekend, before upset Tennessee last week for their first-ever away win in the playoffs.
But Cincinnati’s offensive line struggled to protect Burrow. The 25-year-old was sacked nine times by the Titans, tying a play-off record, but he still managed to lead them to victory.
“Expect a lot of double coverage on Ja’Marr Chase,” said BBC pundit Osi Umenyiora. “But it will leave big spaces for (wide receivers) Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, and the Bengals have a quarterback who can get those guys into football.”
Rams for revenge
Last year, Tampa Bay became the first team to play a Super Bowl in its own stadium. This year, the Los Angeles Rams can emulate that feat with the NFL showpiece staged at SoFi Stadium.
Sean McVay’s men also have the home advantage for the NFC Championship Game as San Francisco eliminated Green Bay last week, but the 49ers have won their last six games with the Rams, including the last game of the regular season.
With San Francisco 17-0 at the end of the second quarter and out of the play-off spots, the Rams had the chance to end their division rivals’ season. But the The 49ers fought back to win in overtime and sneak into the playoffs.
Cooper Kupp led the league in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions after the Rams traded for quarterback Matt Stafford last year. They added wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr and linebacker Von Miller to their all-star midseason roster, and all delivered in the playoffs.
Kupp and Beckham have three touchdowns between them and Stafford led a game-winning game last week while Miller, along with Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd, pressured Bucs quarterback Brady throughout.
The Rams’ much-vaunted defensive trio is aiming to do the same on Sunday against San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo.
“The Rams wreaked havoc last week and I see them going after Jimmy G,” Bell said. “They need to stop the run and force him into tight windows because if you let him, everyone knows he can do something that negatively impacts the game.”
Can the 49ers keep rolling?
San Francisco effectively played knockout football for four weeks as they needed to win their final two regular season games to qualify for the play-offs, and they have since scored upset wins in Dallas and Green Bay.
The 49ers defense limited the Packers to just 10 points while their offense relies heavily on their running game, via Elijah Mitchell and dual-threat receiver Deebo Samuel.
Garoppolo and the 49ers failed to close out Super Bowl 54, allowing the Chiefs to fight back in the final quarter.
And despite throwing six interceptions and just two touchdowns over the past four games, the much-maligned quarterback managed to bring Kyle Shanahan’s team back to the brink of the big game.
“People might say the 49ers weren’t supposed to be here, but they had to scratch and fight their way through and that usually gives you a psychological edge,” Umenyiora said.
“I think Rams-Chiefs is the game everyone wants to see. But there’s going to be a little wrench thrown in there somewhere. I just don’t know if it’s going to be the AFC or the NFC.”
Bell added: “The NFC game is a game for NFL purists. It’s all about patterns because the coaches (McVay and Shanahan) know each other so well. Let’s see what they do, who has the best plan.
“But I want Rams-Chiefs. I need to see these big-armed quarterbacks (Stafford and Mahomes) go there in the Super Bowl.”