Analysis

Who Will Be The Biggest Conference Championship X-Factors?

Who Will Be The Biggest Conference Championship X-Factors?

Heading into Conference Championship Weekend, there are a plethora of players that will be in the spotlight. Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, Tyreek Hill, and Ja’Marr Chase are certainly some of the bigger names; however, there will be other players who could end up stealing the show when all is said and done. After a historic Divisional Round, this slate of Conference Championship games has a lot to live up to with a lot of players hoping to contribute to NFL history. Here is one player from each team who could make a huge impact on their respective Conference Championship games. 

Cincinnati Bengals: WR Tee Higgins

While second-year wideout Tee Higgins is certainly not an under-the-radar player, he is definitely somebody to watch out for in this round. In the regular season, Higgins formed one of the top receiver duos in the league with teammate Ja’Marr Chase, as he compiled 74 receptions for 1,091 yards. and 6 touchdowns. Yet, Higgins has not seen the same level of success in the playoffs. Thus far, Higgins has only recorded 8 receptions for 106 yards and zero touchdowns through two games. Though Higgins had a good game against the Titans (7 REC & 96 YDS), there is certainly room for improvement if his regular season is any indication. 

Luckily enough, Higgins is going up against a familiar opponent in the Kansas City Chiefs. While Ja’Marr Chase stole the show in the Bengals’ Week 17 upset victory with his 266 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns, Higgins still had a solid game with 3 receptions for 62 yards. It would not be surprising to see the Chiefs put a lot of emphasis on defending Chase, especially after how much he torched them in the first matchup between these two teams. This could open up a lot of opportunities for Higgins to have a big day for the Bengals. It may not be to the level of Gabe Davis from the Divisional Round, but Higgins is certainly capable of those types of outings. Higgins is aided by the number of weapons the Bengals have on offense as they can take the pressure off of him. 

Kansas City Chiefs: RB Jerick McKinnon

The Chiefs have certainly not been one of the best rushing teams in the league this season. In their shootout victory over the Bills, Patrick Mahomes was their leading rusher with just 69 yards. Ultimately, the Chiefs ran the ball 27 times for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns against one of the better defenses in the league. The leader in carries for Kansas City was veteran Jerick McKinnon, who ended the game with 10 carries for 24 yards. Despite not having an efficient rushing day, McKinnon recorded 5 receptions for 54 yards on 7 targets. This included several plays where Mahomes checked it down to McKinnon, and he was able to make a play to get the first down. 

In the first matchup against the Bengals, the Chiefs were able to run the ball effectively for  23 carries and a total of 155 yards and 2 touchdowns. It also helped that the Chiefs were able to hold a double-digit lead for a good chunk of that Week 17 affair; however, this did not help them in the end. They still managed to lose because of the heroics of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. 

Does this mean the Chiefs should abandon the run game completely? Absolutely not. In fact, with the way they were running the ball that day, they should have run it more. McKinnon could certainly be in line for a big game if the Chiefs go down that route since he got more carries than former first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has dealt with some injuries as of late. If this game becomes a high-scoring affair, like the first time around, McKinnon should still see plenty of targets in the passing game, especially with the Bengals focusing a lot of their attention on Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. This could open up a lot of the underneath routes for McKinnon to succeed. 

San Francisco 49ers: CB K’Waun Williams 

While Nick Bosa is obviously going to be a huge part of San Francisco’s defensive effort against the Los Angeles Rams as the Niners go for their third win of the year against LA, slot corner K’Waun Williams is a player that everybody should keep an eye on. He will most likely get the bulk of the snaps against Rams star wideout Cooper Kupp. While injuries have forced Williams to take on a bigger role on the defense throughout this playoff run, he should still see a lot of Cooper Kupp in this one. 

In the first two matchups against the Rams, Kupp recorded 18 receptions for 240 yards and 1 touchdown on 20 targets. Even with the Niners winning both matchups, they did not have many answers for Kupp. Not many defenses did, either, but the Niners will have to have a better game plan against him in order to win the biggest game of the year and get back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. Williams will be tested in this one, especially if rookie corner Ambry Thomas is out again. Even though this is a depleted secondary, Williams has been one of the few constants, especially during this playoff run. He could really leave a big impact on this game if he is able to stop Kupp at least a little bit. Williams does not need to stop him completely, but rather, just enough to make sure that Kupp is not the biggest headline from this game. 

Los Angeles Rams: TE Tyler Higbee

Even though Rams’ tight end Tyler Higbee has not been the star many thought he would be after a terrific end to the 2019 season, he has still been a vital part of the Rams’ offense. Moreover, he has been one of the better red zone targets for the Rams this season, compiling five receiving touchdowns in the regular season, which is tied for third on the team with Odell Beckham Jr. Three of Higbee’s touchdowns came against the Niners this year, and two of them were in the second matchup where the Rams had a 17-0 lead. While Higbee did not burn the Niners from a yards standpoint, the former Western Kentucky Hilltopper only had 75 yards against the Niners in the 2021 regular season through two matchups, and yet he still managed to burn them in the red zone. 

The Niners are going to have a lot on their plate, especially with the injuries that they have on the defensive side of the ball. It doesn’t help that Odell Beckham has become a reliable target in this Rams offense, so one should expect the Niners to put a lot of their attention on Beckham and Cooper Kupp, as mentioned earlier. This should help give Higbee some openings underneath, and in the red zone, as the Niners attempt to limit the damage from Kupp and Beckham. If the Rams are able to have a balanced distribution to their receivers, it should bode well for winning their first game against the Niners since 2018. 

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