It’s coming down to the wire in the NFL season. The Lombardi Trophy is within the grasp of the four teams who will take part in Sunday’s conference championship games. Ahead of such a vital weekend, we sought out the insights of a couple of former NFL players: the BBCs Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora.
Now, with the season coming down to the wire, we had another opportunity to sit down with Jason and Osi and break down the matchups in the two conference title games. Below are excerpts from that conversation, in which Jason and Osi preview the NFC title game and the keys for the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. You can see their thoughts on the AFC title game here.
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On the matchup in the NFC Championship between the Rams defense, and a Niners’ offense:
Jason Bell: This defensive front is Rams’ strength.
Now, I’ve learned a lot over the years working with Osi about defensive line play, and you are going to have to focus on taking something away.
In this matchup, the Rams are going to have to stop the run, because, basically, that’s the main component of the Niners’ offense. When I look at this matchup, if I’m the Rams, I want to take that away and make Jimmy Garoppolo beat me.
Even doing that, the way Von Miller and Aaron Donald played last week, on the same side, they can cause havoc on the right side of the 49ers’ offensive line, which is a weak point. I see them taking advantage of that and getting after Garoppolo and forcing him into tight window throws.
Again, though, if it’s me, I’m making Jimmy Garoppolo beat me.
On three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, and what makes essentially unstoppable:
Osi Umenyiora: It’s everything, really. He’s got it all. It’s his combination of explosiveness, incredible strength, incredible quickness, tenacity, and hard work. He does a lot of film work, a lot of studying, and understands the game before he goes in. A lot of things that he does might look like freestyling, but they’re not. He does what he does because he sees something.
But, really, what makes him THE best is that combination of athleticism, speed and power that you really never see in one person. Usually, you have a guy who’s very athletic, but not incredibly strong. Or maybe someone’s really strong, but without that thrust and quick power that that Aaron Donald has. He brings all of these things together. That’s how you end up a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, who’s probably going to win one or two more before his career is over.
JB: also, the best defensive linemen I’ve ever been around, like Osi, are always in elite shape, and able to play every down. And that’s what Aaron Donald does. He’s always on the field. He can play every down. And that’s amazing for that position.
On Donald’s place in history:
OU: You could make the argument that he plays his position better than anybody else has ever played their position, outside of maybe some of the elite quarterbacks, and a few other guys. In terms of his all-around ranking, you have to look at him like a Jerry Rice, like a Tom Brady. Now, his team hasn’t done as much as those guys’ teams, but in terms of what he’s done individually, I think he’s comparable to the very best players in the history of the game.
Osi Umenyiora, on whether he sees similarities between this 49ers team to the 2011 Super Bowl-winning Giants team, of which he was a part. Both are built on very strong defenses, and each went through adversity during the season. These Niners went started slowly and lost four in a row and, like those Giants, qualified for the playoffs as a Wild Card. The Giants went on a run in the playoffs and won the Super Bowl as huge underdogs against the Patriots.
OU: A lot of similarities. I think they’re probably a better running team than we were, but in terms of the way that we played defense, and all of adversity that they’ve had to overcome to get here, without a shadow of a doubt, very similar.
We had to do the same thing. Right. So yeah, really similar teams. One difference would be at quarterback. I think Eli Manning was a better quarterback than Jimmy Garoppolo is, especially in high stress, high pressure situations. But other than that, I’d say we were very, very similar.
They’ve also been forced to rally. I mean, they were down 17-0 in the second quarter in Week 18, and were almost out. And now, all of a sudden they’re coming up against that same team for the NFC Championship.
On how a backs-against-the-wall, fighter’s mentality works in a team’s favor:
JB: I think when you have to fight, especially going into the playoffs, and when you do make it to the playoffs, it gives you an added advantage. The Niners have been playing playoff games for a couple of weeks now, before these other teams were. Everything has been a fight, and they’ve had to scratch and claw to make their way in. If people question whether they’re supposed to be here – hey, they fought their way into the playoffs, and they’re here. That gives you a psychological advantage going in, and that can work out pretty well.
On Jimmy Garoppolo, and whether the criticism he receives is justified:
JB: He is what he is. I think it all started when he missed that throw in the Super Bowl.
Look, Kyle Shanahan has won more games with him than without him, but we judge quarterbacks on what they do in big games. And in the big game, he didn’t come through, and he missed throws. With him, everyone knows that when you game plan, the key is to force him do something that impacts their game negatively. Because of that, we talk about him the correct way.
Now, is he a good player? Absolutely. He’s one of the top-20 quarterbacks in the league. But it’s all about what you do in the big games. And that’s why they went out and got Trey Lance in the draft. If they’re winning at this level without a closer, imagine if they had one. So he has to come up big in these games.
On what fans should expect from the championship games:
OU: Well, you there’s just no way it’s going to be as good, right? I mean, last weekend we saw, literally, the best weekend that we’ve ever seen in terms of a Divisional Round playoff.
I think these are going to be battles. You look at San Francisco, you look at L.A., these guys know each other very, very well, they play in the same division. Then, you look at Kansas City and you look at Cincinnati. I mean, Kansas City just got destroyed by Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago, and gave up almost 500 yards of offense… it was ridiculous. So K.C., they’re going to be looking for redemption there. It won’t be last week, but you can expect some fantastic games.
JB: Yeah, you had the quarterbacks last week that did it. All right. They were the highlights. I mean, they didn’t make a mistake! if you protect Joe Burrow, you might be able to get a little bit of that, because Burrow and Mahomes could really go at it.
On the other side, in the NFC, we get to see a matchup for the NFL purists, which is all about the schematics. These two coaches know each other. Let’s see what they do! Let’s see who’s got the better plan. So that’s going to be very interesting. And, once again, it’s on the line, man! The players are not leaving anything on the field. This is different. That’s what makes it so exciting. When it comes down to the final four, people they elevate their games to another level because it’s over after this. You don’t have tomorrow.
Who actually wins these games and goes through to the Super Bowl?
JB: Rams and Chiefs. I need to see these quarterbacks, these big-armed quarterbacks go at it in the Superbowl. And I’m from L.A., and we need to have this game L.A.! I’m all about it. I’m a real fan right now.
JB: Yeah, I think Rams vs Chiefs is the matchup everybody wants to see, but there’s going to be a little monkey wrench thrown in there somewhere. I don’t know where, exactly, whether it’s in the AFC or NFC, but there’s going to be a little surprise!
Watch Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora on the BBC NFL Show, Friday at Midnight on BBC One. For more NFL action, tune into NFL Gamepass and Sky Sports NFL this Sunday 30 January to catch the Conference Championships. Bengals vs. Chiefs at 8PM and 49ers vs. Rams at 11:30PM.