Saturday, April 1, 2023

NFL conference championship games: Dates, times, previews, early odds for Chiefs vs. Bengals, Rams vs. 49ers

Given what transpired during the past weekend, don’t be surprised to see “I survived divisional round weekend” shirts made for the four remaining teams in the NFL playoffs. The first three games of the weekend were decided on last-second field goals by the visiting team. The fourth game wasn’t decided until Patrick Mahomes hit Travis Kelce in overtime to lift Kansas City to a wild win over Buffalo. 

The Chiefs will be joined by the other divisional round survivors: Cincinnati, San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams. Each team will try to carve out its own legacy with a win next weekend. Kansas City is vying to become the third team to appear in three straight Super Bowls. The Bengals are two wins away from the franchise’s first Super Bowl win. The 49ers are trying to win a sixth Lombardi Trophy that has eluded them for 27 years. Los Angeles is looking to avenge its 13-3 loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. 

Below is a breakout of both championship games along with somewhat way-too-early predictions for both contests. 

AFC Championship Game

Bengals at Chiefs

When: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET

TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)

Line: Chiefs -7, O/U 53.5

Cincinnati overcame a 14-0 deficit to defeat the visiting Chiefs 34-31 in Week 17. In a foreshadowing of their divisional round win over the Titans, rookie kicker Evan McPherson lifted the Bengals to victory on a 20-yard field goal as time expired. 

Joe Burrow outdueled Mahomes by throwing for 446 yards and four touchdowns on 30 of 39 passing. He had a field day getting the ball to rookie phenom Ja’Marr Chase, who tallied 266 yards and three touchdowns on 11 receptions. Burrow was sacked four times by the Chiefs, who will surely look to apply more pressure on the signal-caller after the Titans sacked him nine times this past Saturday. 

Burrow had to feel good after watching Josh Allen and the Bills‘ offense put up 36 points on the Chiefs’ defense on Sunday night. Conversely, Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense will have its work cut out as it prepares to face a Bengals defense that allowed just 35 total points in playoff wins over the Raiders and Titans. Cincinnati picked Ryan Tannehill off three times on Saturday, including Logan Wilson’s pick that set up McPherson’s game-winning kick. 

The Bengals’ defense will face its biggest challenge Sunday against a Chiefs offense that includes Mahomes, Kelce, receivers Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Both teams were near the bottom in the NFL in passing yards allowed during the regular season, so a possible shootout is certainly in the works. 

Prediction: This game will likely come down to how many turnovers the Bengals can force and how well Cincinnati can protect Burrow. I think the Bengals can do both well enough to pull off the upset, while punching the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance since the 1988 season. Cincinnati also has an advantage in running back Joe Mixon, who had an impressive touchdown run in Saturday’s win in Nashville. 

Score: Bengals 27-24 

NFC Championship Game

When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET

TV: Fox

Line: Rams -3.5, O/U 46.5

It’s fitting that the NFC title game will pit two teams from arguably the NFL’s most competitive division. San Francisco’s season sweep of the Rams included a 27-24 overtime win at SoFi Stadium in Week 18 that clinched the 49ers’ playoff berth. 

Like many teams this season, the Rams had no answer for Deebo Samuel in both regular-season meetings. Samuel had eight touches for 133 yards and two touchdowns in the 49ers’ 31-10 win over the Rams in Week 10. Samuel recorded 140 total yards and a score on 12 touches in San Francisco’s Week 18 win in Los Angeles. He was complemented in both games by running back Elijah Mitchell, who ran for a combined 176 yards on 48 carries. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was steady in both games, while the 49ers’ offensive line did not allow Aaron Donald to take down Garoppolo in either matchup. 

Neither game was particularly stellar for Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who completed 64.4% of his passes with four touchdowns and four interceptions in those games. His pick-six to Jimmie Ward put the Rams in an early 14-0 hole en route to a 21-point loss back in Week 10. Stafford also endured seven sacks in those games that included five in Week 18. Arik Armstead led the charge with 2.5 sacks in the 49ers’ three-point overtime win in Week 18. 

The 49ers didn’t have an answer for Cooper Kupp, the NFL’s triple crown winner this season. Kupp caught a combined 18 of 20 targets for 240 yards and a touchdown against San Francisco during the regular season. Conversely, the 49ers had no trouble shutting down the Rams’ rushing attack, as Los Angeles averaged just 3.12 yards per carry in those games. 

Prediction: Los Angeles’ offense has found its stride with the addition of Odell Beckham Jr. and the reemergence of Cam Akers. But the 49ers had the Rams’ number in both games during the regular season, and I don’t see that changing on Sunday. If they’re healthy, the 49ers have the players to pull off yet another upset while reaching their eighth Super Bowl. San Francisco’s defense will have to continue to be dominant, while Samuel, Mitchell and George Kittle will need to carry the 49ers’ offense once again. 

Score: 49ers 23, Rams 20 

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