Then there were four. After a thrilling divisional playoff weekend in the NFL with every game ending in a one-possession walk-off victory and three road underdogs winning, the NFC championship and AFC championship matchups are set.
The AFC No. 2 seed Chiefs are in the penultimate round at home for a fourth consecutive year, looking to advance to a third straight Super Bowl. Their opponent on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, CBS), the Bengals are crashing the party, making their first conference title game appearance in 33 years after winning the AFC North.
The NFC is down to an all-West affair, with the No. 4 seed Rams hosting the No. 6 49ers, also on Sunday (6:30 p.m., Fox). San Francisco will attempt to beat Los Angeles for a third time in the same season and the teams just played in Week 18.
With the Chiefs being the only chalk, here’s our power ranking of the teams in relation to their updated odds to win Super Bowl 56, according to FanDuel Sportsbook:
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1. Kansas City Chiefs (+125)
Why the Chiefs will win Super Bowl 56
Patrick Mahomes magic. The Chiefs’ young gun remains the best quarterback in the NFL overcoming some Year 5 struggles during the regular season to get back on point passing (and running) in the playoffs. He’s thrown for 782 yards and 8 TDs while completing 76 of his passes in two games and also rushed for 98 yards and annother TD in taking down the Steelers and Bills in Kansas City.
He’s back locked in with go-to guys Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. He’s protecting the ball and taking what the defense is giving him, knowing he can find different ways to make big plays and can still finish well in the red zone. So much for anyone “figuring out” Mahomes in a “hangover” season after his “off” Super Bowl 55 loss to the Buccaneers.
Playoff experience. The Rams and 49ers have been to recent Super Bowls out of the NFC, with the latter losing to the Chiefs in Miami in Super Bowl 54. But even with their savvy veterans and coaches, they can’t match the recent resume of Mahomes, his teammates and Andy Reid. They know what it takes to win (and lose) a games of this magnitude.
Most of the roster has Super Bowl rings and are back-to-back AFC champions. Playing QB on the same level as Mahomes (see Josh Allen) is one thing, but dethroning a team this complete physically, mentally and emotionally (see the Bills) is a completely other thing.
Coaching and confidence. Reid, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo are all in sync. Don’t forget about ace special teams coordinator Dave Toub, whose unit came through with key plays to take down the Bills in the end. They don’t panic and are prepared well to adjust in any situation. That mentality carries over the players, many of whom are cerebral extensions of their play-callers and schemers.
MORE: Predicting the AFC, NFC championship games
Why the Chiefs won’t win Super Bowl 56
Too many defensive issues. The Chiefs have Jones, Jarran Reed and Frank Clark leading a solid four-man front with active linebackers. They also have great cleanup and cover men at times in the secondary. But their numbers against both run and pass haven’t been great overall. They try to balance bend-but-don’t-break with being aggressive to play off and facilitate their offense.
They couldn’t stop much of what the Bills did with Allen in the divisional round. They struggled to slow Burrow and the Bengals’ offense in Week 17, allowing them to complete a huge passing-fueled comeback. Defense, especially with injuries now in the secondary, could spell the Chiefs’ downfall.
Too cute of offensive play-calling. The Chiefs have so many wonderful toys around Mahomes, they sometimes try to get too fancy with involving unsung personnel and creative offensive plays. Sometimes the Chiefs can just beat teams with Hill and Kelce trading big plays with just enough from the running game. This almost cost them against the Bills with some third-down fails and red zone flops.
Too little of the traditional running game. Mahomes was the leading rusher against the Bills, but they could use more from the running backs maximizing the yards available against zone defenses protecting against the big plays. Jerick McKinnon has provided a backfield spark as a receiver. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is back and running hard. Darrel Williams might return on Sunday. Reid can get too pass-happy at times and force the run at inopportune times. If the chunks on the ground are there, they need to be disciplined to have Mahomes hand off to keep the chains moving and the clock ticking (which also protects the defense).
2. San Francisco 49ers (+450)
Why the 49ers will win Super Bowl 56
Mismatch-creating diverse offense. The 49ers have had ups and downs with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, but he’s delivered in clutch moments leaning on his dangerous foursome of playmakers in wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, running back Elijah Mitchell and tight end George Kittle. Don’t forget about wide receiver Jauan Jennings and fullback Kyle Juszczyk being key X-factors.
Kyle Shanahan is in a total groove again with offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, making great use of the right weapons at the right times with the rushing attack providing a high floor for Garoppolo in the downfield passing game.
Pressure-creating, smart-defense. Nick Bosa has been a beast returning from major knee injury to put pressure on the passer and rip against the run, flanked by Arik Armstead. Linebacker Fred Warner continues to prove why he might be now the best second-level non-edge defender in the game. The 49ers also can control action in their interior defensive line with D.J. Jones and at the safeties with Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. Back healthy, they have settled well at the right time in their zone scheme under first-year coordinator DeMeco Ryans.
Coaching and playoffs experience. This is similar to the Chiefs with Reid, Mahomes and the rest. Shanahan, Garoppolo and most of the 49ers know what it’s like to get to the Super Bowl and almost win it vs. Mahomes. That’s already been a key asset through the surprise NFC title run. Offense, defense and special teams are all strong fundamental units.
Why the 49ers won’t win Super Bowl 56
Weak cornerback play. The 49ers have been operating with a shuffling coverage group because of constant injuries, which has kept them from having a consistent combination both outside and for the nickel package. There’s no shutdown player anymore and they can be vulnerable to big plays if they need cover for a long stretch when the pass rush doesn’t get home.
Garoppolo’s wild-card play. Jimmy G has been money in plenty of big games, including the comeback against the Rams in Week 18 that put the 49ers in the NFC playoffs in the first place. He doesn’t get enough credit for being a smooth operator and leader in Shanahan’s offense. But he also tends to miss a lot of throws that are there and rack up interceptions on ill-advised throws. When he’s in a rhythm and the 49ers’ offense has tempo getting everyone involved while playing offf the run, he gets hot. When much is put on him in uncomfortable down and distance with predictable passing, he’s not.
Samuel and Kittle getting too beat up. Samuel and Kittle are daunting receivers because of how physical their games are. But that also causes them to get into harm’s way in terms of coming in and out games given their recent injury history of missing time. They need to stay on the field for nearly every offensive snap to be big factors for Garoppolo and also open things up for the running game (as blockers, too) and other receivers.
3. Los Angeles Rams (+210)
Why the Rams will win Super Bowl 56
Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp. The Rams first-year passing combination has produced better results than one could ever imagine. Stafford’s big arm has turned Kupp from reliable slot into the best wide receiver in the NFL running routes with precision all over the field while also showing impeccable hands, speed and quickness. Kupp is taking over games the way Jerry Rice once did for the 49ers. Stafford’s chemistry with him downfield is incredible. Because of Kupp’s attention, wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr and Van Jefferson and tight end Tyler Higbee see favorable coverage for Stafford to exploit, too.
Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller. They are the holy trinity of the Rams’ defense. Donald has been to the Super Bowl and lost for the Rams. Ramsey has fallen short in both Jacksonville and Los Angeles. Miller was a centerpiece of the Broncos’ defense that lost Super Bowl 48 to the Seahawks and won Super Bowl 50 over the Panthers. Donald just keeps dominating and wreaking havoc up front. Miller is rejuvenated in the pass rush. Ramsey continues his shutdown stylings. All three are capable of making plays to take over games, as seen against the Cardinals and Buccaneers.
Sean McVay and Raheem Morris. McVay has done a masterful job of getting the Rams to find a new offensive gear with Stafford instead of Jared Goff. He also doesn’t forget about the running game and his play-calling has been point, especially in always scheming Kupp open. But McVay also made a key move in replacing former defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, now the Chargers’ head coach, with Morris, the former Buccaneers head coach. Morris has gotten the most of his veteran corps and helped the Rams overachieve in their weaker personnel areas. He’s pushed the right buttons with his team’s attack mode.
Why the Rams won’t win Super Bowl 56
Running game regression. The Rams were excited to get second-year back Cam Akers back for the playoffs with an expedited return from an Achilles tear. But he almost cost them with multiple fumbles and struggles against a stout Buccaneers run defense in the divisional round. That ignored the fact Sony Michel was very effective as a feature back rushing for the injured Darrell Henderson down the stretch. McVay should consider going back to the experienced and overall healthier former Patriot Michel in the playoffs going forward.
Defense beyond the Big Three. The Rams can be exploited well when teams can control Donald, keep the edge secure from Miller and don’t force the ball toward Ramsey. They struggle at times with short-to-intermediate quick passes to the middle of the field and can be worn down against the run, too. That’s why the 49ers have had their number in recent meetings.
Passing offense beyond Kupp. OBJ has been good for the Rams, but keep in mind he’s doing it as a more complementary target playing off Kupp vs. an intimidating No. 1. Jefferson can sometimes disappear from the game plan, and so can the tight ends. The Rams also can get too one-dimensional and put Stafford in tough pressure situations, which causes mistakes leading to turnovers when Kupp isn’t open.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (+800)
Why the Bengals will win Super Bowl 56
Joe Burrow, championship QB. Burrow is wise beyond his 25 years, which is already mature for a QB who was drafted No. 1 overall in 2020. He has established himself as an elite young passer after only 28 career starts, including playoffs. He is also the leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, coming back strong from a major left knee injury (torn ACL, MCL). The former LSU Heisman Trophy winner is drawing comparisons to another classic playoff Joe — Montana — with his calm, cool clutch play. He is looking for another cigar after lighting up the SEC and the rest of college football in a prolific, unprecedented national championship season only two years ago.
He has the look of a long-term franchise QB who will allow the Bengals to consistently contend, even in the tough AFC North. Burrow has carried the team, given he also was the most-sacked QB during the regular season and just survived being dropped nine times in Tennessee . There’s a good vibe that he should one day (maybe very soon) get a Super Bowl ring to match his natty.
More weapons than everybody else. The Chiefs, Rams and 49ers are loaded with offensive playmakers. But no one quite has the pop when looking at all three Burrow key wide receivers (Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd), feature back Joe Mixon and reliable when needed tight end C.J. Uzomah. That depth, versatility, explosiveness and balance already has created major matchup problems for the Raiders and Titans. Burrow, in addition to picking apart the Chiefs in the regular eason, had a big game in a Week 14 home overtime loss to the 49ers. The Bengals have loaded up well around the QB, making it easier to quickly find a open man or pivot to Mixon’s effective rushing through the red zone.
Sound, big-play defense. The Bengals have done an amazing job of rebuilding a strong defense for coordinator Lou Anarumo on every level. Defensive end Sam Hubbard, linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt and safety Jessie Bates III are the core young drafted players. From free agency, defensive tackle D.J. Reader, defensive end Trey Hendrickson and cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton have been huge recent additions.
Cincinnati contained Derrick Henry and the Titans’ might running game. The Bengals also pressured Ryan Tannehill into key takeaways in Tennessee. They can do a lot of everything well, even though they are short of being a dominant unit. They also are made to be complementary to the offense humming with Burrow and putting heat opponents to keep up.
Why the Bengals won’t win Super Bowl 56
Bad offensive line play. Burrow was sacked 51 times in the regular season. The Raiders got to him twice in the wild-card game before the Titans explosion that nearly cost the Bengals a chance to advance. The Bengals have been better than expected up front and are at their best run blocking. But Burrow masks some of their problems in the passing game with either getting the ball out to one of his playmakers quickly or shuffling his feet to buy extra time to throw downfield.
No QB who was sacked more than all other QBs in a season has ever reached the Super Bowl. Cincinnati must clean things up against Jones and Kansas City after being terrorized inside by Denico Autry and Jeffery Simmons in Tennessee. That’s before facing the 49ers’ Bosa or the Rams’ Donald in the Super Bowl.
Leaky pass defense. The Bengals have a good pass rush from the edges of their front four, powered by Hubbard and Hendrickson, two relentless ends with a variety of moves. They also are pretty sound in coverage with Awuzie outside and both Hilton and Bates roaming inside. But they also were only the No. 28 pass defense in 2021, giving up on average 248.3 yards per game. If they don’t get to the QB and allow Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford or Jimmy Garoppolo too much time, they won’t hold up. Sometimes their aggressiveness in trying to make big plays on the ball costs them in major lapses. That won’t cut it against any of those other offenses.
Overall playoff inexperience. The Bengals are youthful beyond Burrow and are party crashers in the AFC playoffs, given they were the only team from the North to not make the playoffs last year. Their head coach, Zac Taylor just completed his third season and is only 38. They are new to winning big and being in this position with this team.
Two of the Bengals’ rookies, Chase and kicker Evan McPherson, are big reasons why they have a second shot at the Chiefs with Burrow. But this is Kansas City’s fourth consecutive home AFC championship game and that team has been to two straight Super Bowls with Mahomes and Reid. The 49ers went to the Super Bowl two years ago under Shanahan and the Rams went to the Super Bowl three years ago under McVay. Taylor is a McVay protege trying to break into the exclusive (but expanding) club.
The Bengals will either have the ultimate breakthrough or exit the playoffs knowing they have overachieved and have an even brighter future. Win it all or lose, that’s a win-win with Burrow not going anywhere for a while.