- Associated Press - Thursday, January 27, 2022

Talk about newcomers versus the tried and true.

Here come the Cincinnati Bengals, who had lost eight straight playoff games since their last victory 31 years ago. Awaiting them at loud, sometimes intimidating Arrowhead Stadium will be the Kansas City Chiefs, in their fourth consecutive AFC championship game and seeking their third trip in a row to the Super Bowl.

This is hardly the matchup most NFL observers expected. Sure, the Chiefs made sense, but the often-mocked Bengals - Bungles no more - were a surprise last to first winner of the AFC North. Now, here they are, one step from their first Super Bowl appearance since 1989.



How do they match up with the Chiefs?

WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL:

It’s not all about QB Joe Burrow and rookie WR Ja’Marr Chase, but much of it is.

This pass-catch combination was dynamic at LSU and has made a huge splash in the NFL. Burrow, whose rookie season in 2020 was cut short by a knee injury, made a sensational return and is as accurate as any passer in the league. He had 34 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions during the season, and thus far in the playoffs is 52 of 71 (73.2%) for 592 yards and a 101.4 QB rating. Chase has 14 catches for 225 yards (16.1 per reception) after scoring 13 times on 81 receptions in the regular season. The two hooked up 11 times for 266 yards and three TDs in a 34-31 win over the Chiefs on Jan. 2.

Kansas City knows it must slow down the elusive and supremely athletic Chase, but does it have the defensive backs to do so? It sure didn’t look like it against Buffalo, when CBs Charvarius Ward, L’Jarius Sneed and safeties Daniel Sorensen and Juan Thornhill struggled mightily. If star FS Tyrann Mathieu (concussion) can’t go, not only Chase but Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and emerging TE C.J. Uzomah could be dangerous.

Uzomah, however, might be needed to help block after Cincinnati allowed nine sacks at Tennessee. The Chiefs, under aggressive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, have a solid pass rush, which they’ll clearly need. Bengals tackles Jonah Williams and Isaiah Prince must deal with Chris Jones and Frank Clark on the outside, while DT Jarran Reed has been superb in the playoffs. And watch for Chiefs weakside LB Nick Bolton to have some impact.

If the Bengals can get the running game on track with Joe Mixon, who ranked third with 1,205 rushing yards, they might have the balance they need.

WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL:

Watch out!

As they showed in the shootout with the Bills, the Chiefs need only, say, 13 seconds to produce in crunch time. Not only are they the most entertaining offense in the league, but with QB Patrick Mahomes, WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce, they are as creative as anyone.

Mahomes has certified himself with his arm, legs and mind as the real thing. With him, the numbers - albeit great - are almost superfluous as he finds a way on so many plays, particularly in the most dire circumstances.

One thing the Bengals defense will need is a relentless pass rush against a stout but not impenetrable line. Cincy sacks leader Trey Hendrickson is the primary pass rusher, though DE Sam Hubbard and DT D.J. Reader can be trouble.

It doesn’t hurt that Mahomes has a sixth sense for escaping pressure, but he needs his blockers, particularly LG Joe Thuney and LT Orlando Brown Jr. to hold up. Rookie C Creed Humphrey has been a real find.

While Mahomes has other playmakers - WRs Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle, RBs Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire — moving the ball and, especially, finding the end zone usually comes down to Kelce and Hill.

The unenviable task of dealing with them goes to nearly everyone, from LBs Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt to a deep group of defensive backs: CBs Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and inconsistent Eli Apple, plus backups Tre Flowers and Trae Waynes, and safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

When a last-place team drafts a kicker in the fifth round, fans scratch their heads. Well, the Bengals are a division winner and one step from the Super Bowl thanks to Evan McPherson. The kid simply doesn’t miss: His four fields goal in the wild-card round were the most for a rookie in his postseason debut, and he nailed the winner in Music City.

P Kevin Huber did not have a particularly strong season, but he’s a veteran accustomed to punting outdoors in the cold, which will help in KC. Coverage units were fine.

Cincy defends runbacks well, but is not much of a threat on its own returns.

Pringle is more of a threat than any of the Bengals on kick returns, while the Chiefs use a variety of dangerous players to bring back punts. Hardman and CB Mike Hughes do most of the work, but the Chiefs will use Hill when they need a big play; he delivered with one on a punt return against Buffalo.

Although he missed two kicks against the Bills, Harrison Butker has a huge leg and has been very reliable for the Chiefs, and he bounced back to hit the 49-yarder to force overtime last weekend. On the other side, McPherson is the real deal.

COACHING:

Maybe the biggest discrepancy in this game is the resume for each coach.

That’s not a knock on Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor, who has helped turn around a moribund franchise and has an exciting group on offense. This is a team that doesn’t panic, and when could that be said about the Bengals?

Still, the master in this one is Andy Reid, who could join that limited group with three or more consecutive Super Bowl appearances: Don Shula, Marv Levy, Bill Belichick. Reid relies heavily on his assistants (Spagnuolo, OC Eric Bieniemy, special teams coordinator Dave Toub) and they all keep things fresh and innovative. Watch for something new Sunday.

INTANGIBLES:

What do the Bengals have to lose? They’re a year early, by most estimations, in their development, and the experience can only help them in the future. So they should be able to play loose and free.

Plus, they know when they’ve needed big plays in the past month or so, they have made them.

For the Chiefs, it’s Super Bowl or bust, as it has been since Mahomes took charge.

 

Old West rivals 49ers, Rams meet for Super Bowl berth

They have gone at each other 145 times. The 49ers have owned the Rams in the past six meetings, and have a 75-67-3 mark against their California rivals.

Until Sunday, only one of all those confrontations was in the postseason — the Niners won that one, too, 30-3 in 1989 on the way to the most lopsided Super Bowl victory.

Now, San Francisco goes for a three-game sweep of Los Angeles, though the Rams will be at home and favored.

Each team comes off last-second victories on field goals, the Niners on the Lambeau Field tundra, the Rams in balmy Tampa against Tom Brady and the Bucs. They know one another so well their coaches probably could swap sides and be comfortable.

Here’s how the 49ers and Rams match up:

WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL:

Just give it to Deebo Samuel in some manner.

A true flex player, for all your fantasy gurus, the All-Pro receiver turned running back on occasion has become as dynamic as any NFL player. Samuel will test everyone on LA’s defense, from fellow All-Pro Jalen Ramsey at cornerback, yet another All-Pro — unanimous, no less — DT Aaron Donald — or some of the other studs on that unit. Samuel could be the wild card the Rams can’t match.

He also can’t be a one-man gang. QB Jimmy Garoppolo needs to avoid forcing passes; he tends to be good, make that bad, for one turnover a game. He also must feed the ball often to RB Elijah Mitchell, a real find, and keep versatile FB Kyle Juszczyk involved.

Niners TE George Kittle hasn’t been his usual brilliant self, but LA is weak at safety and the LBs don’t do much in coverage. But the Rams have another potential offense wrecker in LB Leonard Floyd, plus the revitalized Von Miller.

How well the 49ers hold up on the offensive line might be critical. All-Pro Trent Williams, dealing with ankle issues, is the best left tackle in the game, though the keys could be center Alex Mack and guards Laken Tomlinson and Daniel Brunskill, who get the pleasure of dealing with Donald all day. But the Niners have minimized him this season: Donald has only three pressures and zero sacks in the two games during the regular season.

WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL:

As Samuel should be the focal point for San Francisco, so too must WR Cooper Kupp for LA. Kupp, another unanimous All-Pro, pulled off the hat trick of leading the NFL in receptions, yards and touchdown catches; made the biggest play last week after Tampa Bay stormed back to nearly steal the game; and has a unique connection with QB Matthew Stafford.

Kupp is far from the only playmakers 49ers DBs must account for. Odell Beckham Jr., Van Jefferson and TE Tyler Higbee can’t be given minimal attention by safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward, CBs K’Waun Williams and, if healthy, Ambry Thomas.

LA has a two-pronged running game with Sony Michel and Cam Akers. They must avoid turnovers; the Rams fumbled four times at Tampa. And they must avoid the likes of DEs Nick Bosa and Samson Ebukam, DT Arik Armstead, plus standout linebacker Fred Warner, who has been battling a balky ankle.

The Rams could have a difficult time protecting the revitalized Stafford if LT Andrew Whitworth remains sidelined by knee issues. His sub, Joseph Noteboom is a level down. Center Brian Allen could have his hands full with defenders in the middle.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Robbie Gould has been spectacular in his, uh, Goulden years. The 40-year-old placekicker made two field goals, including a 45-yarder in the snow as time expired to beat Green Bay, making him 20 for 20 in his career on field-goal attempts in the playoffs. His range doesn’t match that of the Rams’ Matt Gay, but Gould is extremely reliable.

Gay is no slouch, though, and the way three of last weekend’s four games came down to last-season field goals, his role could be vital.

P Johnny Hekker has been one of the league’s best punters for a decade, also is a threat on fake punts. His counterpart, Mitch Wishnowsky, has had a mediocre season.

Neither team is particularly dangerous on kick returns.

COACHING:

Kyle Shanahan simply doesn’t lose to the Rams, who have dropped the past six games to the Niners. The first four, though, came without Stafford, an immeasurable upgrade from Jared Goff.

Shanahan and Sean McVay are leaders of the youth wave among offense-minded coaches. They’re aggressive to a fault, highly popular with their players, and have a deep trust in their schemes.

Where both have struggled is late in games — see Rams at Bucs last weekend, 49ers at Cowboys in the wild-card round.

LA’s Raheem Morris is a respected defensive coordinator in the mix for a second head coaching job. DeMeco Ryans is much more a newbie to the position in San Francisco, but his unit has been stellar for all but one period against Dallas in these playoffs.

INTANGIBLES:

San Francisco’s mastery of its longtime rival has to raise the confidence level of the 49ers, while ticking off the Rams. Not to be overlooked is how the 49ers rallied to beat the Rams in the season finale, which SF needed to qualify for the playoffs.

That said, the Rams are playing at home — SoFi Stadium will stage the Super Bowl, and the five-plus decade run of teams not hosting the big game ended in Tampa last year.

Los Angeles added stars in Stafford, Miller and Beckham with one thing in mind: returning to the Super Bowl the Rams lost three years back. And the Niners, with many of the same players still on hand, lost their chance for the NFL title two years ago to Kansas City.

So both teams have a nasty taste to remove.

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