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AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann

2021 NFL Game Picks: Conference Championships


Last week: 0-4

Playoffs: 4-6

Overall: 182-99-1

 

#4 CIN (12-7) @ #2 KC (14-5) | SUN 3:00 PM ET | CBS

Kansas City appeared finished with 13 seconds left against the Bills last week, but Patrick Mahomes was able to hit Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce—the two guys you can’t let beat you—for chunk gains to get into field goal range before winning in overtime. Now, Andy Reid’s squad is in the AFC Championship Game for the fourth season in a row, and it will be interesting to see how their experience matches up with the confidence of a young Cincinnati team. On defense, the Bengals need to do what Buffalo couldn’t do down the stretch by making someone other than Hill or Kelce to beat them, and they’ve already proven they can by holding the duo to 65 receiving yards in the Week 17 win. That said, the playoffs at Arrowhead Stadium will be an entirely different challenge, and it would be wise for Mahomes to get Mecole Hardman—who caught a 53-yard pass in the first meeting—more involved as someone that showed he can destroy angles when given the ball in space. Also, it sounds like Darrel Williams (toe) will be close to 100% after a full practice to begin the week, so Kansas City’s backfield can attack in a variety of ways with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jerick McKinnon, and Williams; the play of D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill on the defensive line will be key in allowing the Bengals to play coverage all game.

 

Of course, it’s a big ask to expect Cincinnati’s defense will be able to contain Mahomes for 60 minutes, but Joe Burrow has shown he can win a shootout against anyone—and the connection with Ja’Marr Chase hasn’t slowed down for the playoffs (109+ receiving yards in both games). That said, I would be surprised if defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo didn’t treat the rookie wideout similar to Stefon Diggs last week with routine double teams after he roasted them for an 11/266/3 line in the regular season. If so, Burrow can still do damage with Tee Higgins (perhaps in single coverage like Gabriel Davis), Tyler Boyd, and C.J. Uzomah—not to mention Joe Mixon seeing lighter boxes. And again, the confidence of the offense is sky high with Burrow under center, which could lead to another whoever-gets-the-ball-last scenario on Sunday. Because of homefield advantage and concerns about not being able to finish with sacks against Mahomes (zero in the first matchup), the edge goes to Kansas City to reach the Super Bowl for the third year in a row.

Winner: Kansas City Chiefs

 

#6 SF (12-7) @ #4 LAR (14-5) | SUN 6:30 PM ET | FOX

The recent history of his rivalry is well-documented with six-straight wins for San Francisco, and there is also some bad blood between the two sides—particularly Deebo Samuel versus Aaron Donald. The feud started when Donald acted like he didn’t know who Samuel was when asked about him at a press conference a couple of years ago, while Samuel has recently said he has no interest in conversing with Donald because “he’s an opponent” and it’s “not something [he does],” which is refreshing in an age where rivals often workout together in the offseason and follow one another on social media. The unique usage of the 49ers’ top weapon will have him and Donald likely meeting in the trenches on more than on occasion, and I would bet Kyle Shanahan has some new plays to maximize the versatility of Samuel; we already saw Trent Williams used as a fullback last week, and his athleticism combined with George Kittle’s ferociousness as a blocker is reason that San Francisco can be so creative with their play calls. Just how healthy Williams (ankle) is this week is a major factor against the playoff-boosted Von Miller.

 

The most important factor, though, is quarterback play by Jimmy Garoppolo and Matthew Stafford. He doesn’t get close to enough respect for being a winner with a 38-15 record as a starter, but Garoppolo has gone 5-1 in the postseason, and he was delivering passes on the money in last week’s win despite single-digit temperatures and a lack of sharpness by the playmakers; weather won’t be a factor this week, but you could tell Jimmy G was not at all phased by the cold/snow based on how he looked on the bench. Stafford was also not affected by the Rams blowing a 27-3 lead against the Bucs by making what was essentially the game-winning throw to Cooper Kupp in the final seconds, and Sean McVay has found his groove as a play-caller at the perfect time for Los Angeles hoping to finally win it all this season. For the ground game, I’m assuming the team will stick with Cam Akers following to lost fumbles in the Divisional Round, but I think Sony Michel should be re-integrated as a key piece of the offense, too, so we’ll see if they have more of a split this weekend. While it’s very difficult to beat a rival seven times in a row, I have faith in Garoppolo and the offense doing enough with Nick Bosa and the defense again forcing Stafford to make at least one mistakes in the biggest game of his career—setting up a Super Bowl LIV rematch.

Winner: San Francisco 49ers

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