Ranking the NFL's Conference Championship Teams
What. A. Weekend.
If you are a fan of white knuckles, then the divisional round of the NFL playoffs was right up your alley. Saturday was all about the little guy, with the top seeds in both conferences getting shown the door on last-second field goals. That theme continued into the first game Sunday, and then...
Well, then the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs played quite possibly the wildest postseason game ever, an overtime affair that saw three touchdowns and a field goal in the last two minutes of regulation.
It went to overtime, because of course it did.
After one of the more action-packed weekends in recent memory, four teams are left standing, and it's not the group most expected. The Cincinnati Bengals haven't been this close to the Super Bowl since the waning days of the Reagan administration. The San Francisco 49ers are vying for a second Super Bowl appearance in three years with a (presumably) lame-duck quarterback. The Los Angeles Rams can be fantastic or mediocre, seemingly based on their mood. And the Chiefs...
OK, we expected the Chiefs to get this far, as they tend to with Patrick Mahomes under center.
For one final time this season, we have gathered the NFL analysts here at Bleacher Report and asked Gary Davenport, Maurice Moton and Brent Sobleski to rank the last four teams left. To seed the league's final four, if you will.
For No. 4 to meet No. 1, we'll need one more of those upsets.
4. San Francisco 49ers (10-7, NFC No. 6 Seed)
The San Francisco 49ers are the closest thing to a "Cinderella" team left in this year's playoff field, even if that's an unusual thing to say about a team that's one win away from the franchise's second NFC title in three seasons.
But the Niners weren't expected to get this far. This is, after all, a team that finished in third place in its own division. An upset over the Dallas Cowboys was one thing, but beating the top-seeded Packers? In a game where the Niners failed to generate even 220 yards of offense and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo didn't play well?
And yet, that's what happened, with a pair of special teams blunders by the Packers paving the way for the biggest upset of the postseason.
The Niners will be an underdog yet again in next week's NFC Championship Game, but as Moton noted, it's long past time to stop counting this team out.
"After a 3-5 start, the 49ers went on a tear with a stout defense and a potent ground attack that features rookie running back Elijah Mitchell and All-Pro wideout Deebo Samuel," Moton said. "They've won nine of their last 11 games, upending the Cowboys and Packers in road playoff matchups.
"Garoppolo makes enough plays with George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Samuel in the passing game. And head coach Kyle Shanahan knows how to finish drives deep in opponent territory, as San Francisco has the best red-zone (touchdown) scoring percentage. With Robbie Gould making 87 percent of his field goals, the 49ers have a complete squad that plays well in all three phases—no wonder they're one of the last four teams left in the playoffs."
Still, for the Niners to move on to Super Bowl LVI, Garoppolo is going to have to be better than the 11 completions in 19 attempts for 131 yards with a pick that he posted at Lambeau Field.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7, AFC No. 4 Seed)
And my personal favorite, "Joe BRRRR."
Those are just some of the nicknames that have been ascribed to second-year quarterback (and budding superstar) Joe Burrow as he led the Cincinnati Bengals to within a game of the franchise's third Super Bowl appearance. And sure enough, he played a major role in Saturday's upset win over the top-seeded Tennessee Titans.
Despite being dropped nine times and hit countless others, Burrow threw for 348 yards, with five of those passes and 109 yards going to former LSU teammate and Offensive Rookie of the Year front-runner Ja'Marr Chase.
However, as Sobleski pointed out, there are more reasons the Bengals have come this far than just the team's fantastic young pitch-and-catch duo.
"So much concentration is placed on Burrow and Chase that others on the Bengals roster tend to be overlooked even though they're prime contributors," he said. "Saturday's performance is a wonderful example of how the team can win in different ways.
"The defense, specifically defensive tackle D.J. Reader, came to play against a Titans ground game that included Derrick Henry. The unit held Henry to 3.1 yards per carry as the Bengals knocked off the AFC's No. 1 seed. On the backline, nickel Mike Hilton played very well with an exceptionally athletic interception in the third quarter. Kicker Evan McPherson can't go without mention, because he proved to be the biggest difference in Cincinnati's victory thanks to a walk-off 52-yard field and four field goals total.
"Those are but three examples to show the Bengals aren't just the Burrow and Chase show. Cincinnati can eke out a victory against the league's best as long as its porous offensive line doesn't derail everything."
That offensive line is the biggest obstacle standing between the Bengals and the Super Bowl. In addition to the nine sacks the team allowed against the Titans, the Bengals allowed 55 sacks in the regular season—third-most in the league.
While Burrow may be the most prolific quarterback in single-season passing yardage in franchise history, he'll need a cleaner pocket.
2. Los Angeles Rams (12-5, NFC No. 4 Seed)
Sunday's heart-stopping win over the defending Super Bowl champions was a microcosm of the 2021 Los Angeles Rams.
For the most part, just as he did during the regular season, Matthew Stafford played well with 28 completions in 38 attempts for 366 yards and two scores. Cooper Kupp was uncoverable, reeling in nine passes for 183 yards and a touchdown. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald logged a sack, three quarterback hits and seven pressures.
But after racing out to a 27-3 third-quarter lead, the Rams had to hold on for dear life to eke out a three-point win on a Matt Gay field goal. They lost four fumbles in the game, including one by Cam Akers that cost the team points at the end of the first half and another just after a Tampa touchdown when the Rams could have just about run out the clock.
Still, it gives Stafford his second career postseason win and the Rams a chance to advance to the Super Bowl for the second time since 2018. According to Davenport, the biggest obstacle standing between Los Angeles and hosting the Super Bowl is...the Rams.
"No one should be especially surprised that the Rams 'upset' the Buccaneers or that Los Angeles is in the NFC title game," he said. "Whether it's skill-position talent, road-graders (and a Godzilla) in the trenches on both sides of the ball or one of the league's best defensive backs, the Rams have arguably the most balanced and talented roster left in the postseason.
"When they play up to their potential and avoid mistakes, the Rams can beat anyone. They are significantly better on paper than the 49ers, who they are 0-2 against this season, and they dominated the first half of their Week 18 meeting with San Francisco.
"But the Rams blew that 17-3 lead at SoFi Stadium for the same reason they nearly blew a big lead in Tampa: unforced errors. If they want to host Super Bowl LVI, they need more Dr. Jekyll and less Mr. Hyde."
1. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5, AFC No. 2 Seed)
This wasn't an easy entry to put together. It took several hours (and quite a bit of smelling salts) to get our analysts to come to after they collapsed at the end of Sunday night's epic battle between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills.
Calling it an instant classic doesn't scratch the surface. It may well have been the best divisional-round game ever—if not the best postseason game ever.
But the Chiefs prevailed, so Kansas City will make history next week by hosting the AFC Championship Game for the fourth consecutive year.
Davenport doesn't see moving on to a third consecutive Super Bowl being much of a hurdle for this team.
"Seriously, what am I supposed to say and write about Patrick Mahomes at this point?" he said. "That he's really, really good? That you can't leave 13 seconds on the clock up three or he will rip your still-beating heart from your chest and show it to you as you die? I still can't believe that game (and drive) actually happened, although Mahomes doing to Josh Allen what Tom Brady did to Mahomes in 2019 shows that life is indeed a circle.
"This isn't to say the Chiefs don't have anything to worry about, as the Bills just piled up 422 yards of offense against them. With Tyrann Mathieu out with a concussion, Bills wideout Gabriel Davis set a postseason record with four touchdown catches. And all the way back in the long-ago olden days of Week 17, the Bengals beat the Chiefs at Paul Brown Stadium in a game where Joe Burrow threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns.
"But the Chiefs are playing in a fourth straight AFC Championship Game at home for a reason—and that reason's name is Patrick Mahomes. Regardless of how the Chiefs play defensively, Mahomes is going to light it up. He has 23 touchdown passes versus just one pick in his career in the postseason at Arrowhead. He has also lost in said playoffs all of twice as the starter, and the guy he lost to isn't around to spoil his fun thanks to the Rams."
If nothing else, the AFC Championship Game is one where bathroom breaks may need to be timed wisely.