NFL playoff picks, predictions: Rams solve 49ers on third try, Chiefs beat Bengals in championship games

NFL championship weekend is upon us, and if it’s anything like the divisional round, then two more spectacular games are on the way.

Kansas City hosts Cincinnati in the AFC championship game in a rematch of the Week 17 matchup at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 34-31, but this time they’ll have to try to do the same at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Chiefs are seeking a third straight AFC championship under coach Andy Reid after beating Buffalo 42-36 in exciting overtime. Patrick Mahomes continues to dominate the AFC playoffs with the help of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, but Tyrann Mathieu left the divisional round with a concussion.

Cincinnati is back in the AFC championship for the first time since 1988, and second-year quarterback Joe Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase have made a prolific combination. The Bengals also have an underrated defense, one that doesn’t seem to be afraid of the lights under third-year coach Zac Taylor, and that was evident in a thrilling 19-16 win against the Titans in the AFC divisional round.

NFC West rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco meet in the NFC Championship Game in a battle of two of the last three conference champions. The Rams are trying to get back to the Super Bowl for the second time under coach Sean McVay, and Matthew Stafford threw the winning pitch in a 30-27 victory against the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. The additions during the season, Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr., have resulted in the increase in late season.

The 49ers beat the Packers 13-10 in the NFC divisional round, and San Francisco swept the regular season series with the Rams. That included an overtime thriller in Week 18. Can Jimmy Garopppolo lead an offense that includes rising star Deebo Samuel and George Kittle to another big win? 49ers coach
Kyle Shanahan has the team playing their best ball.

Sporting News’ Bill Bender split four games on divisional playoff weekend. Here’s a look at our track record this season:

  • Playoffs: 7-3
  • In the past week: 2-2
  • regular season: 172-98-1

Here are our picks for NFL conference championship weekend:

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NFL picks, predictions for championship games

  • Cincinnati Bengals vs. Kansas City Chiefs (-7)

Sunday, 3 p.m., CBS

Big plays. That was the difference in the first game. Both teams have five plays of 25 yards or more, but the key for the Bengals was the defensive adjustments made after halftime.

Kansas City had five different players make those plays, but none after halftime. The Bengals’ secondary also did a great job of keeping Tyreek Hill and Travis Kielce up front. That tandem combined for 65 yards in the first meeting. Can the Bengals replicate that effort in a secondary led by Jesse Bates and Chide Awuzie? Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire did not play in the first game, and Logan Wilson should make the difference.

Cincinnati had no sacks or turnovers in the last game. They can’t do that again.

Of course, Burrow will go back to feeding Chase. Chase had 11 receptions for 266 yards and three TDs, and had four receptions of 30 yards or more. Mathieu’s condition will also be an important factor in this game. Kansas City will respond by turning up the pressure after seeing Burrow get sacked nine times by the Titans. Chris Jones had two of Kansas City’s four sacks in the first game. Burrow will make plays, and this one could be just as entertaining as the last matchup.

But it’s still Mahomes in the AFC playoffs. Mahomes is 7-1 with 23 TDs and an interception in AFC playoff games, and home-field advantage will make all the difference. This too will be close, and the Bengals will prove they will be a force. Kansas City, however, makes one more big play at a critical moment.

Chiefs 31, Bengals 28

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  • San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams (-3.5)

Sunday, 6:30 p.m., FOX

What was the common thread in the Rams’ two regular-season losses to the 49ers? Los Angeles couldn’t generate a running game. The Rams averaged 58 rushing yards in those two losses, and Stafford threw a pair of interceptions in those games.

Cam Akers could help with that, especially early in the game. If Stafford can stick to the short-passing game with Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. early (which the Packers didn’t after the opening series in the divisional playoffs), that should open up some deep shots later. Arik Armstead had 2.5 sacks in the Week 18 matchup and Nick Bosa is trouble from the rim, so it’s worth monitoring whether veteran Andrew Whitworth (knee) can go.

San Francisco has found the right offensive mix around Garoppolo, who completed 74.5% of his passes in the two regular-season games against the 49ers. Garoppolo will make some surprising mistakes, but passes the ball to Samuel and Kittle at the decisive moment. Elijah Mitchell needs to be a factor on the field. The Rams will counter that with a furious pass rush led by Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd and Miller.

Samuel will also be the X-factor player. He averaged 10.8 yards per touch in that Week 18 thriller. The Niners have won the last six meetings in this series, so McVay has to adjust to match Shanahan.

Will it come with the running game? Akers had a costly late fumble in the division win against the Buccaneers, and Sony Michel must be an inside factor. This one looks a lot like the Week 18 matchup, only this time Stafford stays locked in and the Rams are able to hold onto the lead late. Los Angeles seals its trip to the Super Bowl with a late interception and Stafford earns his first trip to the Super Bowl.

Rams 26, 49ers 21