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2022 NFL Playoffs: Conference Championship weekend preview and predictions

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve reached Conference Championship weekend for the 2022 NFL Playoffs. It’ll take some doing to top the fantastic finishes we saw in the Divisional Round. In the AFC Championship Game, the Kansas City Chiefs are the hosts for the fourth consecutive season. Over in the NFC Championship, the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams’ last games of the season are guaranteed to be at SoFi Stadium, but only one of them will make it back to the Super Bowl.

I went 3-1 with my predictions last weekend, with only my preseason AFC champion pick Tennessee Titans letting me down. Props are in order for John P. Gilbert and Stan Taylor, as they both went 4-0. Gilbert’s got a massive lead over the rest of the staff, so please be nice to him.

All odds are courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook.

Sunday, January 30th

Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs - 12 PM PT, CBS

It took everything out of Patrick Mahomes and that Chiefs offense to escape with a thrilling overtime win over the Buffalo Bills. Meanwhile, the Bengals overcame a ridiculous nine sacks to upset the Titans. This is a rematch of their exciting Week 17 showdown, in which Zac Taylor’s decision to go for it on 4th and goal at the 1 in a tied game proved to work out in the end thanks to Chiefs penalties. While the process used was not the most sound — dropback passes at the 1 not once, but twice — you can understand why Taylor wanted to avoid only being up a field goal with time on the clock for Mahomes.

Joe Burrow lit up Kansas City for 30/39 for 446 yards and 4 touchdowns, including 266 yards and a hat trick of TD passes to Ja’Marr Chase, and a massive 3rd and 27 conversion when the Chiefs stupidly Cover-0 blitzed on the game’s final possession. The Chiefs offense did not have any turnovers and were 6/11 on 3rd down, but only had three 2nd half possessions and only scored a field goal after halftime. As a whole, the offense was very efficient but did almost all of its damage in the opening half.

One thing to note from the Bengals’ win is how quiet Travis Kelce was. He did have a touchdown but he otherwise only had 5 catches for 25 yards, and Tyreek Hill had just 40 yards on 6 catches. Both men have lit up this postseason with big plays and Cincinnati will find it extremely difficult to shut them both down again.

Cincinnati’s much-maligned offensive line gave up four sacks (and really could’ve been more) in the first meeting, and while the Chiefs pass rush can be inconsistent at best, they have the overall talent to make life miserable for Burrow by winning in the trenches. The obvious concern is Kansas City’s secondary, which was torched by Josh Allen and may not have Tyrann Mathieu due to a concussion. Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd is already up there as one of the top receiving trios in the NFL for my money.

One of the common refrains for slowing down the Chiefs offense has been to play loads of Cover 2 and don’t get beat over the top. Well it might have worked for a few weeks but you can only keep this offense down for so long:

Cincinnati has a sneaky underrated defense — 11th in EPA/play and 10th in EPA/dropback — and they’ve held the Raiders and Titans to just 35 points total. Trey Hendrickson is a phenomenal pass rusher and they’ve got a good secondary with Jessie Bates as the real standout. As much as we’ve beaten up on Tre Flowers’ play in Seattle, I’ve noticed that the Bengals seem to use him as a big nickel to cover TEs. In other words, probably the best position for him outside of returning to safety.

You might have noticed that I’ve not mentioned the rushing attacks of either team. I don’t expect either to be a factor and has anyone looked at Joe Mixon’s game log lately? If anyone is going to be a major impact player on the ground, it’s Patrick Mahomes. Clyde Edwards-Helaire may prove me wrong, but it’s also likely him and Jerick McKinnon just do their damage in the passing game.

The Bengals could lose this 96-0 and it’d still be a wildly successful season. Zac Taylor’s first two seasons in Cincinnati ended in a combined 6-25-1. They won the AFC North for the first time since 2015, swept both the Ravens and Steelers in the same season for the first time since 2009, won their first playoff game since 1990, and won their first ever road playoff game the week after that. They’ve got a chance because they beat the Chiefs the first time around, but repeating that feat in Kansas City seems like a step too far.

...If this does come down to field goal kicking, then I side with Evan McPherson. The AFC North (except the Browns) has so much talent at placekicker it’s ridiculous.

Kansas City was in trouble at 3-4 but it looks like reports of their impending demise proved greatly exaggerated, and Andy Reid’s boys will be back in the Super Bowl.

Pick: Chiefs

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams - 3:30 PM PT, FOX

Well this stinks.

There’s no good outcome here unless one of these teams loses in the Super Bowl. Either the 49ers make it back for a third time in ten seasons or the Rams get to have a home game Super Bowl just like last year’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Kyle Shanahan’s team has beaten the Rams six straight dating back to 2019 (which is when the 49ers became relevant again), so there’s the notion that Shanahan owns Sean McVay and that is very plausible. What’s been pretty consistent during this winning streak is the 49ers’ ability to generate takeaways — the Rams have had no turnover-free games during this skid — and a reasonably effective running game when they aren’t burning clock. Elijah Mitchell rushed for 91 and 85 yards respectively on 48 total carries, which isn’t impressive but isn’t terrible given the opposition. Deebo Samuel is both the 49ers’ best receiver and their best running back, and he’s always a threat in the open field.

San Francisco’s consistent ability to generate pressure without blitzing has proven problematic for both Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford, and it’s the 49ers’ front seven that makes life easier for their secondary. On the flip side, the Rams also don’t blitz often (and don’t need to) and have what it takes to force Jimmy Garoppolo into mistakes. In the Week 18 game, Jimmy G had two turnovers but still came through in the clutch with a tying TD drive in the 4th quarter and the game-winning field goal drive in overtime. As much as we mock him, Garoppolo is pretty good when he’s in rhythm, and he’s had success over the years attacking the holes in the Rams’ zone defense.

Stafford has been terrific this postseason and has yet to turn the ball over. Cooper Kupp was fairly quiet against the Cardinals (and still scored a touchdown) but lit up the Buccaneers secondary. When targeting Kupp in the previous two 49ers games, Stafford is 18-20 for 240 yards and a touchdown. It’s obvious that the 49ers defense won’t stop Kupp, but can they stop OBJ, Higbee, and Jefferson? Perhaps so. At least this season, the 49ers’ run defense has been so stout that the Rams have only managed 116 yards on 37 attempts. If the Rams offensive line can’t hold up in pass protection against Nick Bosa and company, they likely won’t have the running game to rely on. Last week, Cam Akers tried giving the game away with two lost fumbles and just 48 yards on 24 carries, although a lot of that should fall on McVay for such a ridiculous usage rate.

I guess the smart pick is the Rams because they’re pretty much due, right? The last game should’ve been a win for them if not for some very cowardly playcalling by McVay in the final two minutes of regulation and some terrible hurry-up mode defense. Jimmy G is not healthy and actively making game-losing plays that haven’t yet been punished, Deebo was banged up against the Packers, ditto for Trent Williams.

Buuuuut I’m going with San Francisco. Styles make fights and the 49ers can match the Rams’ physicality on both sides of the ball. Deebo Samuel and George Kittle are cheat codes in general but they’re specifically designed to exploit the Rams defense. Also I sense they have that Team of Destiny feel given this same matchup could’ve seen them KO’d from the postseason three weeks ago and yet here we are.

Pick: 49ers

Lastly, here’s our Tallysight picks from the FG staff. When the Super Bowl rolls around we’ll have a big predictions post with opinions from everyone.