The 2021 NFL season comes down to the Chiefs and the Bengals in the AFC, and the Rams and the 49ers in the NFC.
Currently, and probably to no one’s surprise, Vegas has the Chiefs and Rams favored to advance and square off in the Super Bowl, which would mean a third straight AFC Title for the Chiefs, and a second NFC Title in 4 years–plus a home Super Bowl–for the LA Rams.
San Fran is looking for its second Super Bowl berth in the past 3 seasons, and possibly against the same team they lost to in the 2019 Super Bowl, the Chiefs. The 49ers had a 20-10 lead midway through the 4th quarter in that game but squandered it and lost 31-20.
The Chiefs, Rams and 49ers are all familiar with being this deep in the playoffs. All three teams have been here before over the past few years. The Bengals have not.
Two weeks ago the Bengals won their first playoff game since 1990, and they are now looking for their first Super Bowl berth since the 1988 season. That year they lost to Joe Montana’s 49ers 20-16, and Montana had to lead a game-winning drive in the final few minutes.
The line on the AFC Championship right now is Chiefs -7.
The line on the NFC Championship is Rams -3.5.
My thoughts on the AFC Championship are fairly straightforward: Joe Burrow has been incredible in leading the Bengals to the AFC Championship in just his second season in the NFL. He is clearly going to be one of the great quarterbacks in the NFL for many years to come–and he may already be one of the best in the league right now.
In fact, he has now become the first quarterback to be selected #1 overall and lead his team to the Conference Championship in under 2 seasons. Talk about a home run. The Bengals were 2-14 the year before they got Burrow, and he has completely turned that franchise around.
This is how it often goes with the great ones: they arrive sooner than everybody thinks. People looked at Joe Burrow before the playoffs and thought, “Yeah, he’s great, but he needs a few more years before that team can truly compete.” Nope. He’s ready to go now. The great ones always arrive sooner than you think. Hell, look at his teammate Ja’Marr Chase: for most of the regular season, the thought on him was, “Wow, this kid is damn good for a rookie.” Now it’s, “This kid is damn good, period.” Ja’Marr Chase is already arguably a top-5 receiver in the league as a rookie. The greatest talents tend to shine almost immediately. Not always, but usually.
Unfortunately for the Bengals, they’re not the only team with an uber-talented young superstar. Patrick Mahomes is arguably the best example of “the great ones arrive sooner than you think” we’ve ever seen. He sat his rookie year behind Alex Smith, but then in year 2, as the starter, he threw 50 TDs, won MVP and had the Chiefs a play away from the Super Bowl. He won a Super Bowl MVP in Year 3. As great as Burrow and Chase are, there’s nobody out there like Mahomes. (As crazy as it sounds given that they were drafted 3 years apart, Mahomes is only 15 months older than Burrow).
The Bengals did beat the Chiefs a little under a month ago in Cincinnati. The Chiefs jumped out to a 21-7 lead, but the Bengals rallied back to win at the end, 34-31.
I think the Bengals have a shot in this game just because of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, who has become one of the best receivers in the NFL, but the playoffs are a different game than the regular season. Just because you beat a team during the regular season doesn’t mean you can beat them in the playoffs. You might catch a team snoozing in the regular season, but that generally doesn’t happen in the playoffs. You are going to get the other team at their very best come playoff time. The Bengals might be in for a rude awakening this weekend.
The main problem for Cincinnati is that they simply cannot protect Joe Burrow. The offensive line allowed him to get sacked 9 times last week against the Titans, and the Chiefs have a pretty good pass rush with Chris Jones and Frank Clark. Joe Burrow should expect to get hit early and often this Sunday, and I think this is a serious problem for the Bengals that they may not be able to overcome.
As for the Chiefs, I mean what else can you say about them? 4 AFC Championships in a row since Mahomes took over as the starter. They’re going for their third-straight Super Bowl Berth and it should have been four had Dee Ford not jumped offsides in the 2018 AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. The Chiefs are borderline unbeatable.
Certainly they got shellacked by the Bucs in the Super Bowl last year, everybody remembers that, but their offensive line was decimated for that game. I’m not saying the Bucs’ Super Bowl title deserves an asterisk because they were dominant in that game, but it’s hard for any quarterback to function when he’s getting destroyed on almost every snap–even Mahomes.
My power ratings think the Chiefs should be favored by about 6 at home, which is a bit less than Vegas has this game handicapped, but still: the Chiefs are clear favorites, and I expect them to win by somewhere between 7-14 points and return to the Super Bowl once again.
While I think the Bengals certainly have an outside shot to win, I would not put their odds much higher than about 25%. I don’t think their defense is good enough, and I don’t think their offensive line can protect Joe Burrow. Burrow was able to overcome it against the Titans, but I don’t think he’ll be able to overcome it against the Chiefs.
This game to me feels like the 2014 AFC Championship: you had the upstart and overachieving Colts, led by third-year phenom QB Andrew Luck, who you got the sense were just happy to be there, against the Patriots, who had been there countless times. The Patriots won 45-7. This Bengals team to me feels like that Colts team, and the Chiefs are starting more and more to resemble the Dynasty-Era Patriots. I’m not sure the Chiefs will win as big as the Pats won in 2014, but it’s a similar situation.
The Bengals have a bright future with Joe Burrow, for sure. But they’re not ready for the Super Bowl. They’re not ready to beat the Chiefs in the playoffs. Not yet.
The NFC Championship is a lot more evenly-matched. My power ratings say the Rams should be favored by about 3.5 with home field advantage, and that’s about where Vegas has this game, too.
The 49ers, though, have beaten the Rams six times in a row. Kyle Shanahan simply has owned Sean McVay over the past 5 seasons. Both guys were hired in 2017, and Shanahan’s 49ers are 7-3 against McVay’s Rams over that span.
You probably remember that the 49ers beat the Rams in the final game of the regular season just 18 days ago–the 49ers had to win that game to clinch a playoff berth. They were down 17-0 but came back to win in overtime, and now here they are. The Rams had a golden opportunity to get rid of the 49ers and eliminate them from the playoffs, but they choked, and now the 49ers stand between the Rams and a Super Bowl berth in their home stadium.
It’s difficult to discount the history between Shanahan and McVay, however the Rams are clearly the superior team on paper. They’ve got stars all over the place: Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Von Miller, Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham, Matthew Stafford–it’s a stacked roster. Nobody denies that.
But the Rams don’t always put it together and play their best football, for whatever reason.
They were totally dominant against the Cardinals in the Wild Card round, and then started off dominant against Tampa in the Divisional round, building up a 27-3 lead, but they sat on it and allowed the Bucs to come back and tie the game up before scrapping together a last-minute drive to kick a game-winning field goal. I was impressed by how clutch Matthew Stafford was on that final drive, and it shows me that he can deliver in big time moments, but it’s hard not to be concerned about the Rams’ ability to put together 4 strong quarters. They also blew that game against the Niners that we just talked about.
Look, the 49ers are a scrappy team. They play tough defense and run the ball; they’re one of the most physical teams in the NFL today. They were able to get past the Packers in Lambeau thanks to a blocked field goal and a blocked punt returned for a TD late in the game. The Niners didn’t score a single offensive touchdown in that game and still won.
The Rams definitely have a different offense than the Packers, and it might even be a better offense overall–it certainly features more weapons. But the Packers have a great offense led by the best quarterback in the league, and the Niners held Green Bay to 10 points in Lambeau.
I think the 49ers will hang around in this game. I think it’ll be close in the 4th quarter, but I think Matthew Stafford will be the difference. I just trust him and Cooper Kupp to make plays in the 4th quarter more than I trust Jimmy Garoppolo. Certainly the 49ers do have a couple of A+ level weapons on offense in Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, but I think the QB will be the difference.
I will not be shocked at all if the 49ers win, though. People always talk about how it’s hard to beat a team twice in season whenever two teams that played in the regular season meet up in the playoffs. And they apply that same logic to beating a team three times in one season, which the 49ers will have to do if they’re going to make the Super Bowl.
But while it’s true that it’s commonplace for the team that lost in the regular season matchup to win in the playoffs (think the 49ers beating the Packers, the Chiefs beating the Bills), it’s different when the teams meeting the playoffs have played twice in the regular season.
In those instances, the team that swept the regular season games wins 63% of the time:
Why is this the case? Well, maybe because if you can beat a team twice it’s more likely that you simply have their number. Beating a team once could be a fluke, but beating them twice means it’s more likely that you’re just better than they are, flat out.
Now, this doesn’t mean the Rams are screwed. In fact I’m picking them to win.
I just think it’s time for Sean McVay to finally beat Kyle Shanahan. Enough is enough already.
Of course, I’ll feel like an idiot if the 49ers win because of the recent history.
But just last year in the playoffs, the Bucs took down the Saints after getting housed by the Saints twice in the regular season–including a 38-3 drubbing at home. It felt like the Saints had the Bucs’ number last season, and yet somehow the Bucs took down the Saints when it really mattered.
I think the Rams get it done against San Fran.
Which sets us up for a rematch of the Greatest Regular Season Game Ever Played, the Rams-Chiefs thriller from 2018 that ended up with a final score of 54-51 Rams.
(Also, it’s the Super Bowl we could’ve gotten in 2018 had Dee Ford not jumped offsides and gave the Patriots a second chance in the AFC Championship Game. However, the Rams shouldn’t have been in the Super Bowl that season–remember the bullshit no-call PI they got away with that screwed the Saints out of a Super Bowl?)
Rams 21, Niners 17
Chiefs 31, Bengals 23