As we settle down from the excitement provided by one of the most exhilarating weekends of football in recent history, a look ahead at Conference Championship Weekend reveals two rematches from earlier this season. The AFC Championship sees the Cincinnati Bengals at the Kansas City Chiefs in a Week 17 rematch, while the NFC Championship Game sees bitter NFC West rivals complete a trilogy as the San Francisco 49ers take on the Los Angeles Rams. The first tape teams and coaching staffs watch will be from their head-to-head matchups as they look at players, schemes, and plays that provide information ahead of this weekend.
Kansas City Chiefs vs Cincinnati Bengals
The first bout between the AFC’s top two teams saw arguably the best game any wide receiver had this season as rookie sensation Ja’Marr Chase racked up 11 receptions for 266 yards and three touchdowns. With the second-most receiving yards and touchdowns in a season for any rookie wideout in history, Chase’s dominance extends beyond being a product of his chemistry with quarterback Joe Burrow. His connection with his college teammate, especially evident on back shoulder fades when he is lined up as the boundary X, is bolstered by a laundry list of technical and physical talents. His excellent quickness off the ball, detail and nuance when running routes, short area burst to separate from defenders, ability to make contested catches, explosive speed, and dynamic run-after-catch ability have all contributed greatly to his success.
In Week 17, Burrow was aggressive throwing one-on-ones to the outside and gave his receivers chances to make plays. Chase had success against Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward, and was able to consistently win outside and beat him on back shoulder throws. His touchdowns came from 72, 69, and 18 yards out. The two deep scores came on the same play concept with Chase and fellow receiver Tyler Boyd flipping locations and responsibilities. On his 72-yard score, Chase ran an out route from the slot while Boyd motioned across the formation outside of Chase and ran vertically. He made a great move to evade Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton and showed off his acceleration as he raced to the end zone. On his 69-yard touchdown, Boyd once again motioned across the formation but this time he ran the out route from the slot. Chase took the outside vertical route and raced down the left sideline after making the catch.
Back shoulder fades to Chase consistently provided the Bengals a way to advance the ball. His 18-yard touchdown came out of 11 personnel in a 3×1 formation as he lined up as the boundary X receiver. The Chiefs out of nickel responded to Joe Mixon shifting from the boundary slot into the backfield with zone to the field with 4 over 3 and man lock to the boundary, with Ward in press man on Chase. He was able to beat him and haul in a great ball by Burrow, showing good body control to keep his feet in bounds. On the game-winning field goal drive, Chase was able to beat Ward on a one-on-one fade route for 35 yards as he again lined up as the boundary X receiver.
The Chiefs featured Cover Two as a foundational coverage against the Bengals, especially out of dime and they used a lot of disguise and late movement to get to it. Burrow had a lot of success against Kansas City’s man coverage (Cover One, Cover Two Man and Cover Zero), completing 13 of 19 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown. Vertical routes outside the numbers were a major part of his success, and a big reason the Bengals were able to win the game.
One of the biggest storylines after the Divisional Round was Cincinnati’s inability to protect Joe Burrow. They gave up nine sacks – the most in a game by a winning playoff team – and Burrow had to battle mentally and physically to compensate for poor pass protection. The first half of the game also saw the Bengals offensive line get dominated physically in the run game by the Titans defensive line, as Cincinnati was unable to generate any push at the point of attack. Right guard Hakeem Adeniji was responsible for three sacks and was dominated by Titans defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. Left tackle Jonah Williams also turned in a poor performance as Burrow was sacked three times on third down.
In their previous game against the Chiefs, the Bengals gave up four sacks. Kansas City and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo were not as aggressive, bringing five or more rushers at a lower rate than what had been their season percentage through the first 15 games. Despite being more selective with their pressure, they had success getting free defenders to Burrow at times. The Chiefs have generated the sixth most pressures of any defense this year and there is no question they have the personnel advantage versus the Bengals offensive line, one of the worst pass protecting units in the NFL.
Los Angeles Rams vs. San Francisco 49ers
The Los Angeles Rams have lost their last six games against the San Francisco 49ers, with their most recent victory coming on December 30th, 2018. The 49ers showed a strong commitment to the running game in both matchups this season, registering a combined 75 rushes for 291 yards and two touchdowns. This foundational commitment to the running game is not only a hallmark of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense but helps neutralize Los Angeles’ biggest threats on defense. The Rams pass rush has three notable pass rushers in outside linebackers Von Miller and Leonard Floyd, along with defensive tackle Aaron Donald. These three have combined for just one sack in two games against the 49ers this year (and Miller’s sack in the week 18 matchup came versus backup LT Colton McKivitz playing for injured Trent Williams) as San Francisco has consistently controlled the pace and tempo of the games and minimized Jimmy Garoppolo’s deeper drops into the pocket.
Shanahan is confident in his ability to scheme on offense and create favorable blocking angles, matchups, and leverage in the running game, especially his staple outside zone run game. When teams widen their defense against the 49ers, which the Rams do with their 5-2 base defense, his response is two-fold. One tactic is motion to the play side to add a blocker. This negates the numbers advantage the 5 man front presents and minimizes the ability of the front to out-leverage the 49ers outside zone run game. The additional player can be a wide receiver, tight end, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, or even an offensive tackle – as was seen with left tackle Trent Williams. The 49ers will also rely on their gap scheme concepts inside against widened defenses, which allows them to take advantage of the space created and get double teams on Aaron Donald, as the Bucs did on the first 2 plays of the game last week.
San Francisco’s success against the Rams this season also stems from their performance on third down. They have converted 17 of 28 third downs, a rate nearly 20% higher than their overall third-down conversion rate on the season. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has been a big part of this, completing 13 of 17 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown on third downs throughout these two games. He was especially effective in their Week 18 game, demonstrating poise and composure in the pocket, clearly getting through his progressions, and making big-time throws in critical situations.
The final four teams all possess talented players on offense that promise to make this Sunday’s games full of fireworks, and I look forward to seeing how it tactically plays out and which two teams will then match up in Super Bowl LVI.
For previous NFL Matchup pieces about this weekend’s teams, click below.
Aadit Mehta contributed to this story.