A grim reaper in a grim situation, a “Love of the Game” pass pattern, a trap handoff to a wide receiver on a snow-covered field, and a prophetic rookie kicker named Money Mac.

Four phenomenal Divisional playoff games, four games decided on the final play, all to decide the four teams remaining in contention for Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles.

Tinseltown could not have written a more exciting screenplay to get the NFL to this point.

Welcome to the Championship Round of the 2021 playoffs.

The Championship schedule for Sunday, January 30:

GameVisitorHomeTime (ET)Network
AFC ChampionshipCincinnati Bengals (12-7)Kansas City Chiefs (14-5)3:00 PMCBS/Paramount+
NFC ChampionshipSan Francisco 49ers (12-7)Los Angeles Rams (14-5)6:40 PMFOX/FOX Deportes

FROM LAST PLACE TO CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP: NFL teams have a remarkable record of resiliency. Over the past 13 seasons (2009-21), five teams have gone from last place in their divisions to their conference Championship Games the following year.

  • This season, the CINCINNATI BENGALS can become the third team since 2003 to go from “worst to first” and make the Super Bowl in the same season, joining the 2017 Eagles and 2009 Saints. The 2017 Jaguars and 2006 Saints also followed a last-place finish with an appearance in the Championship Game.
  • In 2021, both the Bengals and SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS have answered a last-place finish with a conference Championship Game appearance, making 2021 the fifth year since the league merger in 1970 in which two teams have gone from last-place finishes to a berth in their conference Championship Games.

The seasons in which multiple teams advanced to their conference Championship Games the year after finishing last or tied for last place in their divisions since 1970:

2021Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers
2017Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles*
2008Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles
1996Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers
1991Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions
*Won Super Bowl

SUPER BOWL HOPE: With Cincinnati playing for a berth in Super Bowl LVI, 75 percent of the league (24 of 32 teams) has played for a trip to the Super Bowl in the past 12 seasons (2010-21).

For a 17th consecutive season, the NFL will have a new Super Bowl champion, extending the longest streak without a repeat winner in league history. The last team to win consecutive Super Bowls was the 2003-04 New England Patriots.

HOPE FOR TEAMS THAT MISS PLAYOFFS: The CINCINNATI BENGALS and SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS have advanced to their conference Championship Games the year after missing the playoffs. Last season, Tampa Bay not only reached the Championship Game but also won Super Bowl LV after missing the prior year’s playoffs. In 2019, three teams earned berths in the Championship Game after failing to qualify for the playoffs.

In fact, four of the last 10 teams that played in the Super Bowl – the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2019 San Francisco 49ers, 2017 Philadelphia Eagles and 2016 Atlanta Falcons – reached that pinnacle after missing the playoffs the prior season.

REMATCHES: Each Championship contest is a rematch of games that took place in the final two weeks of the regular season. The 49ers defeated the Rams in overtime, 27-24, in Week 18. The Bengals defeated the Chiefs, 34-31, in Week 17. San Francisco also earned a 31-10 win over Los Angeles at Levi’s Stadium in Week 10.

WILD-CARD WISDOM: Last week, San Francisco was the only non-division champion to win in the Divisional playoffs. For a third consecutive season, the NFL has a team in a Championship Game that did not win its division, including Tampa Bay in 2020 and Tennessee in 2019. Seven teams, including the Buccaneers last season, have won the Super Bowl as a Wild Card team.

STELLAR CHAMPIONSHIP QUARTERBACKS: A glance at the starting quarterbacks for this weekend:  

  • Kansas City’s PATRICK MAHOMES will become the first quarterback in NFL history to start four conference Championship Games before turning 27 years old.
  • Cincinnati’s JOE BURROW will become the first quarterback drafted first overall to start a conference Championship Game within his first two seasons.
  • The Rams’ MATTHEW STAFFORD can become the seventh quarterback ever to start a Super Bowl in his first season with a new team and the fourth this century, joining TOM BRADY (Tampa Bay in 2020), JAKE DELHOMME (Carolina in 2003) and TRENT DILFER (Baltimore in 2000).
  • San Francisco’s JIMMY GAROPPOLO can join Pro Football Hall of Famer JOE MONTANA (four) as the only 49ers starting quarterbacks to win multiple NFC Championship Games.

Championship Weekend also features starting quarterbacks with two of the highest winning percentages among players who began their careers in the Super Bowl era, including the postseason (minimum 50 starts). Kansas City’s PATRICK MAHOMES ranks first among those quarterbacks with a career 57-15 record (.792), including the postseason. San Francisco’s JIMMY GAROPPOLO (37-15, .712) ranks fifth.

The starting quarterbacks with the highest winning percentages, including the postseason, among players who began their careers in the Super Bowl era (minimum 50 starts):

Patrick Mahomes57150.792
Tom Brady278840.768
Roger StaubachHOF96350.733
Lamar Jackson38150.717
Jimmy Garoppolo37150.712

SIGNIFICANT HOST SITES: The LOS ANGELES RAMS are the first team to host a conference Championship Game in a stadium that will also host the Super Bowl in the same postseason. Meanwhile, Kansas City is the first team ever to host four consecutive conference Championship Games.

A LOOK BACK ON THAT INCREDIBLE DIVISIONAL WEEKEND: A few significant notes from the most exciting Divisional playoff weekend in NFL history:

  • In the four games, the margin of victory was a combined 15 points, the lowest for a Divisional playoff weekend in league annals. The previous low was 18 points in 2006.
  • For the first time ever, all four Divisional games were decided by a winning score on the final play, the most in a single postseason all-time. During the regular season, the NFL had 34 games decided by a winning score on the final play, the most in a season in league history.
  • In Kansas City’s 42-36 overtime win over Buffalo, the Chiefs and Bills combined to score 25 points in the final two minutes of regulation, the second-most points in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter of any game in the Super Bowl era. Regular season or postseason, only one other contest produced more points in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter: The Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings combined for 28 points in the final minutes of the Ravens’ 29-26 win on Dec. 8, 2013.
  • For the first time since 2010, each No. 1 seed failed to advance to its conference Championship Game. This is also the first season since 2010 in which multiple teams seeded fourth or lower (the No. 4 CINCINNATI BENGALS and No. 6 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS) advanced to a Championship Game.
  • Three road teams won in the Divisional round for third time in NFL history (also 1971 and 2008).

RAMS IN RARE COMPANY: The Rams are hosting the Championship as the NFC’s No. 4 seed. Since 1990, when the NFL expanded the playoff field to six teams in each conference, only one other team has hosted a conference Championship Game as a No. 4 seed: The 2008 ARIZONA CARDINALS, who defeated Philadelphia in the NFC title game to advance to Super Bowl XLIII.

DON’T DISCOUNT LOWER-SEEDED TEAMS: Since the 2005 Steelers won Super Bowl XL, seven teams have advanced to their conference Championship Games as a No. 6 seed, including the SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS this year. The list includes the 2008 Eagles, 2008 Ravens, 2010 Jets, 2019 Titans and Super Bowl XLV champion Packers in 2010.

SUPER BOWL PIPELINE: Since the 49ers advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII in the 2012 season, the NFC West has produced five of the previous nine NFC champions. After the 49ers or Rams win on Sunday, six NFC West teams will have advanced to the Super Bowl in 10 seasons, including three in the past four years (the Rams in 2018, 49ers in 2019 and Sunday’s winning team).

A look at the AFC and NFC Championship Games:

CINCINNATI BENGALS (12-7) at KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (14-5) (Sunday, 3:00 PM ET, CBS/Paramount+ )

  • While the two franchises have never met in the postseason, they did meet only four weeks ago, in Week 17 at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati overcame a 14-point deficit to defeat Kansas City, 34-31, and clinch the AFC North. Bengals quarterback JOE BURROW passed for 446 yards and four touchdowns while rookie wide receiver JA’MARR CHASE had 11 receptions for a franchise-record 266 yards and three touchdowns. Chase surpassed JERRY BUTLER (255 receiving yards on Sept. 23, 1979) for the most receiving yards in a game by a rookie ever.
  • The Bengals, who began as an expansion franchise in 1968, own the best record in AFC Championship Game history, 2-0 (1.000), minimum two games. Cincinnati advanced to the Super Bowl in 1981 and 1988, both times losing to the San Francisco 49ers. The Bengals (2-0) and New York Giants (5-0) are the NFL’s only teams in the Super Bowl era without a loss in a Championship Game (31 of the 32 teams have played in the contest).
  • The Chiefs with a win would advance to a third consecutive Super Bowl. Only the BUFFALO BILLS (four, 1990-93), MIAMI DOLPHINS (three, 1971-73) and NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (three, 2016-18) have appeared in at least three consecutive Super Bowls.
  • Kansas City is the first team in NFL history to host a Championship Game in four straight seasons, and the seventh to play in the game in four consecutive years. The Chiefs are 2-2 all-time in AFC Championship Games, including victories in each of the past two seasons. The franchise was 3-0 in AFL Championship Games, with wins in 1962 (as the Dallas Texans), and 1966 and 1969 after moving to Kansas City.
  • The Chiefs’ ANDY REID has now guided two teams to four consecutive Championship Games, Philadelphia (2001-04) and Kansas City (2018-21). No other head coach in the Super Bowl era has made four straight appearances in the game with multiple teams. BILL BELICHICK (eight from 2011-18) and Pro Football Hall of Famers JOHN MADDEN (five from 1973-77), TOM LANDRY (four from 1970-73) and MARV LEVY (four from 1990-93) are the only other coaches with four-or-more consecutive Championship Game berths in the Super Bowl era.
  • Reid also has 252 career wins, including the postseason. Only Pro Football Hall of Famer DON SHULA (347), Pro Football Hall of Famer GEORGE HALAS (324), BILL BELICHICK (321) and Pro Football Hall of Famer TOM LANDRY (270) have more.
  • Cincinnati’s ZAC TAYLOR could become the sixth individual to win his first three postseason games as an NFL head coach, joining BRIAN BILLICK (2000), JEFF FISHER (1999), JOHN FOX (2003), DOUG PEDERSON (2017) and KEN WHISENHUNT (2008).
  • The Bengals are 2-1 (.667) against Kansas City since Reid took the reins of the Chiefs in 2013. Only the Titans (5-2, including the postseason) have a better record against the Chiefs in that span.
  • Kansas City’s PATRICK MAHOMES is expected to become the first quarterback in NFL history to start four conference Championship Games prior to turning 27 years old.
  • Mahomes is 7-1 in eight career postseason starts at Arrowhead Stadium, with 23 touchdown passes, one interception and a 120.5 passer rating.
  • Including the postseason, Mahomes owns a 4-1 career record against opponents to which he lost previously in the same season, including wins in the 2020 AFC Championship Game and last week’s victory, both over Buffalo. His only loss was to the New England Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship.
  • The Bengals’ JA’MARR CHASE, who enters Sunday with 225 postseason receiving yards, needs 18 receiving yards against the Chiefs to break the NFL’s postseason rookie record held by TORRY HOLT (242 in 1999). Chase, who had 116 receiving yards in the Wild Card win against Las Vegas and 109 last week, is the first player in NFL history with multiple postseason games of 100-or-more receiving yards.
  • In 2021, five pairs of NFL teammates each reached 1,000 receiving yards and two of those duos are featured on Sunday: JA’MARR CHASE (1,455) and TEE HIGGINS (1,091) and the Chiefs’ TYREEK HILL (1,239) and TRAVIS KELCE (1,125).
  • Kelce, who had eight catches for 96 yards and the game-ending touchdown reception in last week’s win, has at least 90 receiving yards in five straight postseason games, the longest streak in the Super Bowl era. Kelce also joined Pro Football Hall of Famer JERRY RICE and ROB GRONKOWSKI as one of three players in NFL history with 90-or-more receptions and 10-plus touchdown catches in their postseason careers.
  • In NFL history, only Rice (151 postseason receptions), JULIAN EDELMAN (118) and Gronkowski (98) have more career postseason catches than Kelce (96).
  • Hill, who registered 172 receiving yards in the 2020 AFC Championship, had 11 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown in last week’s win. He joined LARRY FITZGERALD, JULIO JONES, STEVE SMITH and Pro Football Hall of Famers FRED BILETNIKOFF and JERRY RICE as the only players in NFL history with multiple career postseason games of at least 150 receiving yards.
  • In last week’s Divisional win at Tennessee, quarterback JOE BURROW completed 28 of 37 attempts for 348 yards, while wide receiver TEE HIGGINS had seven receptions for 96 yards and wide receiver JA’MARR CHASE had five catches for 109 yards.
  • Burrow, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, became the first quarterback to win two playoff games in his second season since RUSSELL WILSON led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl title in 2013.
  • Bengals rookie kicker EVAN MCPHERSON converted a game-winning, 52-yard field goal with no time remaining to send Cincinnati to the AFC Championship. McPherson, who kicked a 54-yard field goal earlier in last week’s win at Tennessee, tied the single-game NFL postseason record with two field goals of at least 50 yards.
  • McPherson, who converted all four field-goal attempts in both the Wild Card and Divisional victories, is the first kicker in NFL history with four-or-more field goals in multiple games of the same postseason. With eight field goals, he also has tied the NFL’s rookie postseason record, held by STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI (2006).

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (12-7) at LOS ANGELES RAMS (14-5) (Sunday, 6:40 PM ET, FOX/FOX Deportes)

  • The Rams are the first team in NFL history to host a conference Championship Game at the site of a Super Bowl in the same postseason. With a win, Los Angeles would become the second team ever to play a Super Bowl on its home field, joining last year’s Buccaneers. Prior to 2020, that had not happened over the first 54 Super Bowls.
  • The 49ers and Rams have met only once in the postseason: The 1989 NFC Championship, a 30-3 San Francisco win at Candlestick Park. San Francisco went on to defeat Denver in Super Bowl XXIV.
  • San Francisco, making its second appearance in the NFC Championship in three years, has reached a conference Championship Game for the 17th time, more than any franchise in the Super Bowl era. Since 2011, the 49ers are making their fifth appearance in the NFC Championship. San Francisco is 7-9 all-time in the NFC title game.
  • The Rams are making their 11th appearance in the NFC Championship Game, tied with the Packers for the third-most since the 1970 league merger. Only the 49ers (17 including this season) and Cowboys (16) have more appearances in the NFC Championship.
  • This season, beginning with their Week 10 win vs. the Rams, the 49ers have won nine of their last 11 games entering Sunday’s contest, including the postseason.
  • In 2021, the Rams have won seven of their past eight, including the regular season. Their only setback in that span was a loss to the 49ers in the Week 18 season finale, a game San Francisco had to win to clinch a playoff berth.
  • San Francisco has won three straight road games against the Rams and has been victorious in five of its last six trips to meet the Rams in Los Angeles. This season, the Rams lost five overall games and two were to San Francisco.
  • In that Week 18 victory, San Francisco overcame a 17-0 deficit to win, 27-24, in overtime, clinching a playoff berth for the second time under head coach KYLE SHANAHAN.
  • Last week, San Francisco blocked two kicks in a 13-10 win at Green Bay, becoming the first team to block a field goal and a punt in the same postseason game since Buffalo did it in a road win against the Houston Oilers in the 1988 AFC Divisional playoffs. San Francisco defensive back JIMMIE WARD blocked a Packers field-goal attempt at the end of the first half, while defensive lineman JORDAN WILLIS blocked a fourth-quarter punt that was returned 6 yards for a touchdown by safety TALANOA HUFANGA to tie the game, 10-10, with 4:50 remaining. Hufanga’s touchdown marked the second-latest game-tying or go-ahead special-teams touchdown in NFL postseason history. The only game-tying or go-ahead special-teams touchdown scored later in an NFL postseason contest was the Music City Miracle kickoff return with 13 seconds remaining to help Tennessee defeat Buffalo in a 1999 Wild Card game.
  • In the 49ers’ Divisional playoff win, wide receiver DEEBO SAMUEL had 39 rushing yards and converted a third-and-7 with a 9-yard run on San Francisco’s game-winning drive. In Samuel’s career, including the postseason, the 49ers are 8-1 when he has 35-or-more rushing yards.
  • Quarterback JIMMY GAROPPOLO has a 4-1 (.800) postseason record as a starting quarterback, and a 37-15 (.712) career record, including the postseason. His .712 career winning percentage, including the postseason, is the fifth-best mark among quarterbacks who began their careers in the Super Bowl era (minimum 50 starts). Only PATRICK MAHOMES (.792), TOM BRADY (.768), Pro Football Hall of Famer ROGER STAUBACH (.733) and LAMAR JACKSON (.717) have higher marks.
  • Garoppolo in his career is also 3-0 as a starting quarterback on the road against the Rams. He is bidding to become the second quarterback in 49ers history to win multiple NFC Championships, joining Pro Football Hall of Famer JOE MONTANA, who captured four NFC titles.
  • Last week, Rams linebacker VON MILLER had one sack, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery in Los Angeles’ 30-27 win at Tampa Bay. Miller has at least one sack in four consecutive postseason games, including 2.5 sacks to earn Super Bowl 50 MVP honors with Denver. He also had 2.5 sacks for the Broncos in his last conference Championship Game, against New England in the 2015 AFC Championship.
  • Los Angeles quarterback MATTHEW STAFFORD orchestrated a five-play, 63-yard drive with 42 seconds remaining to advance the Rams to the NFC Championship. Since Stafford entered the league as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft, he has now engineered 43 game-winning drives, including the postseason, the most of any quarterback in that span.
  • In last week’s win, Stafford completed 28 of 38 attempts (73.7 percent) for 366 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 121.2 rating. He also scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. Stafford, who ran for a touchdown in the Rams’ Wild Card win, joined TOM BRADY and AARON RODGERS as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for at least 300 yards with two-or-more passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown in multiple career postseason games.
  • Rams wide receiver COOPER KUPP had nine catches for 183 yards and a touchdown in last week’s win, including a 70-yard touchdown in the first half. His 20- and 44-yard receptions set up the game-winning field goal with less than a minute remaining.

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply