NFL playoff predictions: Our picks for the conference championships
By Emmanuel Morgan
The drama of the NFL’s divisional-round playoff games — punctuated by three walk-off field goals and an overtime touchdown — will be impossible to live up to this weekend, if only because there are fewer games to be played.
But fans needn’t worry: Rich storylines in both of the conference championship matchups should divide onlookers and offer stylistic clashes on the field.
First up is the AFC championship game Sunday, where the ascendant Cincinnati Bengals, who entered the postseason as the No. 4 seed, will try to prevent the Kansas City Chiefs from advancing to the team’s third consecutive Super Bowl.
Then, in the later game, the star-studded Los Angeles Rams, who traded much of the team’s draft capital to build a roster capable of competing in a Super Bowl in their home stadium, will be tested by the dogged San Francisco 49ers, the lowest remaining seed and an NFC West division rival.
Here’s a look at Conference Championship Weekend, with all picks made against the spread.
Last week’s record: 1-3
All times are Eastern
No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs, 3 p.m., CBS
Line: Kansas City -7 | Total: 54.5
In only his second season, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has led a bottom-feeding franchise to its first conference championship game since the 1988 season. Much of that success has been fueled by his connection with rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase, as well as a cohort of skill position players. That group includes running back Joe Mixon, who in his fifth season in Cincinnati put up career-high numbers in yards (1,205), touchdowns (13) and carries (292) to help take some of the offensive load off Burrow, who was the most sacked quarterback in the league in 2021.
It stands to reason that the Bengals’ feel-good run may end in Arrowhead Stadium, where Kansas City has hosted a record four consecutive AFC championship games. The team’s dominance and the home crowd make the venue a tough place to play and, as Mahomes showed last week against the visiting Buffalo Bills, it’s a place where a game-tying drive can happen in just 13 seconds.
But the Bengals have thrived this season by keeping games close — Cincinnati has lost only one game by more than 7 points — and then either having Burrow find a playmaker or getting a timely stop or takeaway from its defense. Burrow, like Josh Allen, is capable of going throw-for-throw with Mahomes, and a shootout would make taking the over a safer bet, especially since it’s unclear whether Kansas City’s Pro Bowl safety Tyrann Mathieu will play after he left last week’s matchup against the Bills with a concussion. Pick: Bengals +7
No. 6 San Francisco 49ers at No. 3 Los Angeles Rams, 6:30 p.m., Fox
Line: Rams -3 | Total: 46.5
For all the talk about the Matthew Stafford trade and the Rams’ headline acquisitions of defensive back Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Von Miller and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. en route to a title run, the team’s success Sunday will hinge on whether coach Sean McVay can deploy those players to do something he has yet to accomplish in six previous tries: beat Kyle Shanahan and his 49ers.
McVay and Kyle Shanahan were assistants under Mike Shanahan on Washington’s 2013 team (along with Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur) and, as division rivals, are deeply familiar with each other’s game plans. But Kyle Shanahan has had the upper hand because the 49ers’ scheme perfectly counters the Rams’ Aaron Donald-led pass rush by coupling physical run plays with elaborate pre-snap motions, effectively playing hide and seek with the defense. Short throws across the middle keep the lurking Ramsey at bay.
Shanahan expects a key cog in making all that offensive strategy work, versatile receiver Deebo Samuel, to practice and play this week after he took a helmet to his right leg in last week’s win over the Green Bay Packers. Less certain is whether left tackle Trent Williams (sprained ankle) will be available, and his absence could be a significant blow to the 49ers’ efforts to stave off Donald and Miller.
Los Angeles expects to return its starting left tackle, Andrew Whitworth (knee, ankle), as well as safety Taylor Rapp (concussion) — and has the added motivation of wanting to avenge having blown a 14-point halftime lead against San Francisco in its final regular-season game, a meltdown that allowed the 49ers to make it to the postseason. Still, Shanahan has the Rams’ number. Pick: 49ers +3