Squawka NFL

11 things you need to know before NFL Championship Sunday

By Nat Coombs

Published: 17:00, 28 January 2022

With Championship Sunday on the horizon, the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers prepare to do battle to take one step closer to the ultimate goal, the Super Bowl LVI title.

Our expert Nat Coombs takes a look at 11 intriguing storylines for the week ahead in his latest column for Squawka NFL.

Experience vs Moxie

Let’s call it a push this time around. For all the composure that Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will bring into the AFC Championship game, don’t underestimate how fearless this Bengals side is.

Joe Burrow is playing like a 10-year vet inside the body of a sophomore QB , who’s really only had a season and change after last year’s injury.

Meanwhile, Evan McPherson apparently knocked out a few practice kicks, told backup QB Brandon Allen: “We’re going to the Championship game” and proceeded to convert his walk-off field goal and send the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round packing.

Rookie sensation Ja’Marr Chase has so much confidence, he’d fancy his chances against an in their prime (no pun intended) Deion Sanders & Darelle Revis, let alone a banged up Chiefs secondary.

So much of the time we hear that a lack of experience costs teams in the playoffs but it hasn’t affected Cincy so far.

Bengals need to establish the run

If the Bengals can establish the run via Joe Mixon, then they’re in business. This Chiefs defense can be run on, allowing just shy of 2000 rushing yards (ranked 31st) and 4.8 YPC (also 31st) in the regular season.

Doing so will slow the Chiefs pass rush down, it will set up the play-action and it will open up space for Chase and Tee Higgins, not to mention Tyler Boyd who may well have a breakout playoff game – he’s been underwhelming by his standards so far.

Chiefs’ patience a virtue?

Will the Chiefs retain this new-look, patient, clock eating, double-digit play drive mindset, or has the last wild two minutes of the Bills game flipped a switch and we’ll be back to the freewheeling, two strike knockout whirlwind of v.1 Mahomes/Andt Reid?

The Bengals can go toe-to-toe, so even if the Chiefs blaze a lead, it won’t phase them like other teams (Titans, Pats) who just aren’t built that way. This has all the makings of a shootout.

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Chiefs’ haters fall quiet

I wonder how the Chiefs haters – many of whom wrote them off five weeks into the season – are feeling right now? The offensive line has continued to gel, they’ve overcome injuries, and the new direction of the offense has found a rhythm. The supporting cast has stepped up too, hell they’ve managed to showcase a ground game at times during the run-in

And who’d have thunk their much-maligned defense would have carried them through the NFL equivalents of the rainy Tuesday nights away at Stoke? All season long we’ve had ridiculous over-reactions from semi-hysterical talking heads who can’t look beyond the previous 48 hours.

This was always a class unit, sorting out kinks, and to suggest otherwise was madness.

What is Spags going to cook up?

How this Steve Spagnuolo led defense will tackle Burrow and the Bengals shaky offensive line is interesting. As PFF outlined this week, Burrow – and his maligned O-Line – is more effective against a straight up blitz, as opposed to more complex, deceptive pressure looks.

Spags was the architect of two brilliant game plans to take down Tom Brady in a Super Bowl (whilst at the Giants) and he may have another big game masterclass up his sleeve here with Chris Jones & co ready to wreak havoc.

Can Stafford prevail where Goff failed?

The reason the Rams upgraded at quarterback – dealing two first round picks and incumbent Jared Goff to the Lions in exchange for Matthew Stafford – was for moments like this.

Stafford has delivered consistently – shutting up those same clowns who’d written him off after a few indifferent displays in the run in – with clutch time strikes at the death to see off Tom Brady and the Bucs in the divisional round.

He’s a been a top tier QB for years, just languishing in the Detroit wilderness. Sunday could be the seminal game of his career.

Do the Niners have Donald’s number?

As per PFF the 49ers have held Aaron Donald to a pass-rush grade of just 61.8. His pass-rush grade versus all other teams is 93.

If Donald can buck that trend and/or keep a couple of 49ers linemen occupied to open things up for Gregg Gaines, Von Miller and co, the pressure could force Jimmy Garoppolo into all kinds of unravelling.

Garoppolo: Game manager

As Ben Isaacs put so eloquently on my podcast this week, “San Francisco don’t need Garoppolo to win the game for them, but LA needs Stafford to win it for them.”

The Niners will lead with the run, with the innovative sheen of lining up Deebo Samuel in the backfield and let Jimmy G play it safe in air leveraging the middle of the field, his favourite zone.

Conversely, the San Fran have been mightily effective at shutting down the run, so it’s highly likely to be on Stafford to win it with his (big) arm.

Shanahan v McVay

All I keep hearing in the build-up to this game is that Kyle Shanahan is on a different planet to Sean McVay.

Sure the Niners coach is 6-0 against his rival since 2018 but suggestions that there is a significant coaching mismatch here are grossly overstated.

Three of those six games were decided by a field goal, one included a Jared Goff meltdown and one of the heavier defeats, earlier this season, occurred during a transitional phase for LA – Odell Beckham’s first start, ditto Von Miller, adjusting to life after Robert Woods and a banged up ground game.

McVay is a heavyweight mind and it’s taken time to re-up an offense with new direction after his initial, Todd Gurley-era successes and a brand new QB.

Can Odell shine on the grandest stage?

Which makes Beckham one of the most intriguing players of the weekend. This year’s Playoff Lenny? A wounded superstar, bouncing into a new team to re-invent himself just in time for clutch-central?

Becoming more and more acclimatised to his surroundings, the playbook. McVay has got the offensive smarts to dial it up, Stafford no doubt has the arm. Cooper Kupp may be the All-Pro but don’t be at all surprised of OBJ goes off on Sunday!

Will SoFi Stadium turn red?

Who’s at home? Reports that San Fran will be representing with a big contingent and that the Rams were concerned enough to try and freeze Niners from buying tickets out may mean it’s one of the most underwhelming Championship game home advantages in recent memory.

NFL Championship Sunday Predictions

Cincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs

San Francisco 49ers @ Los Angeles Rams

AFC/NFC Championship Double
 Nat Coombs Championship Double on SkyBet
Odds correct at time of publication.
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Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.

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