FOOTBALLSTORIES NFL FINAL FOUR PREVIEW
By MATT SANTOLERI
Entering the season every franchise starts off in the same position. A clean slate as the sins and blessings of the previous season alike are washed away and a chance to lift that Lombardi Trophy is once again renewed.
In a league where it’s not uncommon to see some teams lose all but 2-5 games and others miss undefeated seasons but just a couple of losses, there of course aren’t 32 legit Super Bowl contenders.
This doesn’t and shouldn’t stop teams from dreaming of the ability to shock and awe the masses as some level of “why not us?” permeates through at least 90 percent of the league’s locker rooms.
The long and grueling NFL regular season that just got even longer with a Week 18 added across the league, ended with 14 teams entering the playoff picture and keeping that dream alive.
Now, after two weeks of win or go home NFL playoff action that blessed us with some of the best playoff games the league had ever seen, we turn to the final four that remain on the quest for greatness.
Reg Season: 10-7, Finished 1st in AFC North
2021-22 NFL Playoff Performances: Defeated the Las Vegas Raiders 26-19 in the WC Round and The No 1. Seed Tennessee Titans 19-16 in the Divisional Round.
Why They Can Win It All: The NFL Playoffs haven’t been so kind to Cincinnati in the past, but fans of this franchise who waited 31 years between playoff wins saw the Bengals snap an eight-game playoff game losing streak and then follow that up with slaying the No. 1 seed on the road.
The ability of this team to win with their explosive offense that put up the eighth most yards and seventh most points in the league per game this season, makes them a dangerous opponent for anyone. A deadly offensive nucleus of running back Joe Mixon, wide receivers Ja’marr Chase and Tee Higgins, and quarterback Joe Burrow, are currently setting the league ablaze and are all 25 years old or younger.
The Bengals defense, which was more solid than great during the regular season, has hit a whole new stride generating five turnovers over the past two playoff wins while keeping both opponents from scoring into the 20’s.
Burrow, who is sure to win the NFL’s Comeback Player Award and is even a dark horse candidate for MVP, became the first former No. 1 pick to reach a conference title game within his two seasons in the league. He now has a legit shot at becoming the first to win it all within that period.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Reg Season: 12-5, Finished 1st in AFC West
2021-22 NFL Playoff Performances: Defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 42-21 in the WC Round and No 3. Seed Buffalo Bills in overtime 42-36 in the Divisional Round.
Why They Can Win It All: The Chiefs and star QB Patrick Mahomes took more time to get things right than most people expected. This had some media members burying this team after a 3-4 start that saw their defense give up an average of 29 points during the stretch, which had that continued, would have seen them ranked 31 out of 32 teams in the league only .6 points better than the New York Jets.
Over the next 10 games the Chiefs of the past few seasons started to emerge going 9-1 in those games and that white hot team has continued to shine bright in the playoffs. The Divisional Round duel between Mahomes and Buffalo’s Josh Allen, will go down as an all-timer and saw Mahomes pull off the improbable, leading his team 44 yards on three plays with just 13 seconds left on the clock to force the overtime.
Mahomes is a lightning rod who can make the impossible possible on any given play and his cast of supporters in superstars tight end Travis Kelce and Wide Receiver Tyreek Hill, share that exact same ability to turn routine plays into explosive gains.
Hosting their fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game, a first that not even Brady and Belichick had ever done, goes to show their dominance in the conference and they show no signs of letting that crown go.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Reg Season: 12-5, Finished 1st in NFC West
2021-22 NFL Playoff Performances: Defeated the Arizona Cardinals 34-11 in the WC Round and the No 2. Seed Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30-27 in the Divisional Round.
Why They Can Win It All: After losing the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots in 2019 and two consecutive seasons being cut short with Divisional Round losses, it was evident that newly paid QB Jared Goff had a limited ceiling and in return, so did the Rams.
Prior to the Bucs even winning Super Bowl LV, the bombshell news dropped that the Rams found that option with a deal for Detroit Lions QB Matt Stafford once the new league year started in March.
This was the first domino to fall for a team considered to be “all in” for that Lombardi in 2022 but surely wasn’t the last as they continued to acquire pro bowl caliber talent in Outside Linebacker Von Miller and Wide Receiver Odell Beckham Jr over the course of the season.
This coupled with Wide Receiver Cooper Kupp’s record setting season of 1947 receiving yards off of 145 receptions and adding 16 touchdowns, has unlocked the true dangers of offensive wunderkind Sean McVay’s playbook.
On the defensive side of the ball, they aren’t slouches either having who most people would consider the best Cornerback in the game in Jalen Ramsey and who most would not only consider to be the best NFL defensive player overall in Defensive Tackle Aaron Donald, but possibly the best pound for pound player period.
They have already become the first team in NFL history to host both a Conference Championship game and the Super Bowl in the same season, let's see if they can join last year's Buccaneers as the only teams to finish the job at home too. *
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Reg Season: 10-7, Finished 3rd in NFC West
2021-22 NFL Playoff Performances: Defeated the Dallas Cowboys 23-17 in the WC Round and the No 1. Seed Green Bay Packers 13-10 in the Divisional Round.
Why They Can Win It All: The San Francisco 49ers have a legit shot to see their second Super Bowl appearance in three years. And they’re doing it with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo under center.
Garoppolo was thought to be a lame duck starter until the reins were handed over to Trey Lance, drafted with the third overall selection this past draft.
Garoppolo is an enigma in NFL circles as he lacks most of the top end athletic talent that teams are building on in the modern game and whose style of play is more reminiscent of an Alex Smith like game manager than the kind of guy who wins you a championship.
To his credit, he has had no trouble running this Kyle Shanahan west coast offense that is built on outside zone runs and quick decisions.
Rookie Running Back Elijah Mitchell and all around do it Wide Receiver/Running Back hybrid Deebo Samuel have joined all-pro stalwart Tight End George Kittle as consistent playmakers who keep the machine rolling.
Defensive Coordinator DeMeco Ryans has stepped in right where Robert Saleh, who took the Jets Head Coach job, left off and has been able to put his studs on that side of the ball like Linebacker Fred Warner and Defensive End Nick Bosa in positions to succeed.
This team has owned the McVay led Rams over the past three years winning the last 6 contests between the two sides, but this marks the first time they will be meeting in the playoffs since the 1989 NFC Championship game and for only the second time ever.
Not every day you get a chance to not only secure a Super Bowl berth but do it against your division rival whose home stadium is the site of the big game. *
AFC Championship: Kansas City over Cincinnati 33-27
NFC Championship: Los Angeles over San Francisco 29-24