NFL play-offs: Kansas City Chiefs target third straight Super Bowl in Conference Championships

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NFL fans have 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 the two teams that will line up at Super Bowl 56 on 13 February.

Not only were all four of last week’s divisional round games won on the very last play, but the top seeds in each Conference were dumped out – the Tennessee Titans and the Green Bay Packers.

That meant a premature end to the season for the MVP favourite, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. It was also the end of the road for seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady and his defending champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The veteran quarterbacks are now said to be contemplating retirementexternal-link while two of the new breed prepare to battle it out in the form of Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow for the AFC title.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams aim to reach a Super Bowl being played in their own stadium. They just have to get past five-time winners the San Francisco 49ers.

“It’s all on the line,” said BBC pundit Jason Bell. “When it comes down to the final four, players aren’t leaving anything on the field because it’s over after this. There’s no tomorrow.”

Sunday’s Conference Championship games (away team first, times in GMT)

  • Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs (20:00)
  • San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams (23:30)

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 which exceeded expectations, with Mahomes and the Chiefs prevailing in overtime.

Mahomes, 26, has led Kansas City to the AFC Championship game in all four seasons as a starter, with the Chiefs the first team to host a championship game four years running.

They’re now one win from becoming just the fourth team to make three straight Super Bowls, having beaten San Francisco two years ago before losing to Tampa Bay last year.

Tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill have been key men during those runs, and trailing with 13 seconds left against the Bills, Mahomes again turned to his most-trusted targets to get the Chiefs within range to make the game-tying field goal which 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, though, beat the Chiefs 34-31 just four weeks ago.

“As great as Kansas City played last week, there was a lot of emotion,” said Bell. “To me, that’s always a trap. We saw it with the Minnesota Miracle (2017 season play-offs). The next week the Vikings just disappeared. I’m worried about the Chiefs but hopefully, because of their experience, it won’t be a let-down.”

Can the Bengals go from worst to first?

Just two years ago Cincinnati finished with the worst record in the NFL, meaning they had the first pick in the 2020 draft.

With that they selected quarterback Joe Burrow. Then with the fifth pick of the 2021 draft they chose wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, and the former college team-mates picked up from where they left off.

Chase had 266 receiving yards and three touchdowns in that Bengals win in Cincinnati on 2 January, 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 upsetting Tennessee last week for their first ever away win in the post-season.

But Cincinnati’s offensive line has struggled to protect Burrow. The 25-year-old was sacked nine times by the Titans, tying a play-off record, yet he still managed to lead them to victory.

“Expect a lot of double coverage on Ja’Marr Chase,” said BBC pundit Osi Umenyiora. “But that’ll leave wide-open spaces for (wide receivers) Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, and the Bengals have a quarterback who can get those guys the football.”

Rams out for revenge

Last year Tampa Bay became the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their own stadium. This year the Los Angeles Rams can emulate that feat with the NFL showpiece being staged at SoFi Stadium.

Sean McVay’s men also have home advantage for the NFC Championship game as San Francisco knocked out Green Bay last week, but the 49ers have won their last six games with the Rams, including the final game of the regular season.

With San Francisco 17-0 down late in the second quarter and out of the play-off places, the Rams had the chance to end their divisional rivals’ season. But the 49ers fought back to win in overtime and sneak into the post-season.

Cooper Kupp led the league for 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 star-studded roster mid-season, and all have delivered in the play-offs.

Kupp and Beckham have three touchdowns between them and Stafford led a game-winning drive last week while Miller, along with Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd, put pressure on Bucs quarterback Brady throughout.

The Rams’ vaunted defensive trio aim to do the same on Sunday against San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo.

“The Rams caused havoc last week and I see them getting after Jimmy G,” said Bell. “They have to stop the run and force him to throw into tight windows because, if you allow him to, everyone knows he can do something that impacts the game negatively.”

Can the 49ers keep rolling?

San Francisco have effectively been playing knockout football for four weeks as they had to win their last two games of the regular season to make it into the play-offs, and they’ve since claimed upset wins at Dallas and Green Bay.

The 49ers’ defence restricted the Packers to just 10 points while their offence leans heavily on their run 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 although he’s thrown six interceptions and just two touchdowns in the last four games, the much-maligned quarterback has managed to marshal Kyle Shanahan’s side back to the brink of the big game.

“People might say the 49ers aren’t supposed to be here but they’ve had to scratch and claw their way in and usually that gives you a psychological advantage,” said Umenyiora.

“I think Rams-Chiefs is the match-up everybody wants to see. But there’s going to be a little monkey wrench thrown in somewhere. I just don’t know whether it’ll be the AFC or the NFC.”

Bell added: “The NFC game is a match-up for NFL purists. It’s all about the schematics because the coaches (McVay and Shanahan) know each other so well. Let’s see what they do, who has the better plan.

“But I want Rams-Chiefs. I need to see these big-arm quarterbacks (Stafford and Mahomes) go at it in the Super Bowl.”

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