Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today’s installment focuses solely on the four Championship Sunday teams, specifically how their individual units stack up against each other …
And then there were four. Championship Sunday presents a pair of enticing matchups: Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game; San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams on the NFC side. While I believe the stars will ultimately determine which two teams will remain standing at the end of the weekend, it takes outstanding execution in each of the three phases (offense, defense and special teams) to win at the highest level.
In my playing days, I was constantly taught the importance of executing complementary football at this stage of the season. Head coaches will provide a general blueprint on what it’ll take to win, and the coordinators must build their game plans around that vision.
As a scout with the Panthers, I watched John Fox build a series of complementary game plans during the team’s run to Super Bowl XXXVIII that accentuated the strengths and minimized the weaknesses of a team viewed as an underdog in that postseason. The careful planning and flawless execution did not result in a Lombardi Trophy — Bill Belichick’s Patriots prevailed on an Adam Vinatieri field goal in the final seconds — but Carolina was in a position to pull off the unexpected in a high-stakes, single-elimination tournament.
Back in the present, I see four teams with the capacity to hoist the Lombardi Trophy if they are able to play on their terms. Typically, that boils down to imposing your will across the three phases of the game. With that in mind, I wanted to compare the individual units of these final four teams, assessing how all of them are playing right now.
Here are my Championship Sunday rankings — 1 through 4 — on offense, defense and special teams.
The high-powered Chiefs are back to lighting up the scoreboard behind a more deliberate approach from Patrick Mahomes. The former NFL MVP has shown more discipline and patience in attacking the umbrella coverages that opponents utilized to stymie Kansas City’s offense early in the season. With the quarterback willing to take checkdowns and underneath routes to Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and others — instead of forcing the ball down the field — the Chiefs are operating more efficiently while retaining potency in the passing game. On the ground, the emergence of Jerick McKinnon and the return of Clyde Edwards-Helaire balance an offense that has the potential to grind it out behind a rebuilt line that features more bullies at the point of attack. This variability is a weapon, especially when it comes to preparing for K.C. While these Chiefs might not produce as mesmerizing an air show as they did in seasons past, opposing defensive coordinators certainly appreciate the challenge this offense poses between the lines.
Los Angeles’ offensive star power gives opposing coaches headaches when trying to come up with plans to neutralize a lineup that features a talented collection of players in the pass and run games. Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. are the headliners on the perimeter, due to their “take over the game” potential in the aerial attack. That said, Van Jefferson and Tyler Higbee are capable of moving the chains as complementary playmakers. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is a five-star talent distributing the ball like a Las Vegas blackjack dealer doling out face cards in key moments. Despite some turnover woes through the years, Stafford is tied for the seventh-most game-winning drives in NFL history (42). The veteran’s savvy play in the clutch could make the difference in the championship rounds. Meanwhile, Cam Akers and Sony Michel each have the potential to churn out a 100-yard game as the feature back in a ground attack that can bludgeon opponents between the tackles. When L.A.’s able to control the game utilizing a balanced attack, Sean McVay’s squad is nearly impossible to slow down.
Credit Zac Taylor for unlocking the Bengals’ explosive potential by opening up the offense to suit Joe Burrow’s talents as a pass-first point guard. He’s a dynamic, quick-rhythm passer with outstanding anticipation and awareness. In Year 2, he’s already plenty capable of working through progressions and/or targeting mismatches on the perimeter. Burrow’s flexibility and versatility as a playmaker enable Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and C.J. Uzomah to feast on one-on-one matchups on the outside. Pro Bowl RB Joe Mixon steadies the offense as an electric runner/receiver with the ability to grind it out between the tackles or whip linebackers and defensive backs in space on a variety of routes. The Bengals are an unstoppable force when Burrow is upright and protected in the pocket. Of course, that’s not always the case, as Cincy’s leaky offensive line is a problem. Taylor and Burrow do their best to mitigate this major issue, but it could definitely be this fun, upstart team’s undoing.
Kyle Shanahan is touted as one of the most creative play designers in football, but he directs an offense that adheres to a “3 yards and a cloud of dust” principle, aiming to beat up opponents at every turn. The 49ers feature a dynamic ground game with a number of versatile ball-carriers taking turns running between the tackles and on the edges. Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel have done most of the damage throughout the postseason, but the Niners always have a trick up their sleeve when it comes to the run game. George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk bolster San Francisco’s ground attack with their exceptional blocking skills, but they are also key contributors as pass catchers. Kittle, in particular, is a nightmare matchup in space with his superior size and strength translating into big gains on a variety of catch-and-run plays. He is one of founding members of the “YAC Bros,” with the tight end, Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk gobbling up chunks of yards whenever they touch the ball in space. If Jimmy Garoppolo is able to stay within his pitch count (25 passes or fewer) and avoid the costly mistake, the 49ers can beat any remaining team in the tournament. It is not always pretty, but Jimmy G owns a 33-14 record in the regular season and a 4-1 mark in the playoffs. Even if you’re not into “QB wins,” those numbers are hard to completely ignore.
Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has been in his bag of tricks throughout the tournament, with his clever schemes and rock-solid tactics befuddling quarterbacks young and old. The 49ers have a dominant pass rush featuring a pack of wolves hunting from every angle. Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead are the headliners, but keep an eye on Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu and D.J. Jones, who create chaos at the point of attack. Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are sideline-to-sideline playmakers with outstanding instincts, awareness and diagnostic skills. Yes, the secondary is packed with unheralded defenders, but the ferocious pass rush enables those players to jump routes and aggressively attack short throws. With Ryans willing to mix in some heaters with a variety of umbrella coverages, the 49ers are a dominant defense with the capacity to lead a championship run.
The Rams have not played up to the lofty standard they established a season ago, but they are beginning to find their groove at the right time, with Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Jalen Ramsey playing like five-star talents in key moments. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has put together a clever game plan that mixes blitzes, man coverage and soft zones to keep opponents on their heels. Moreover, he has figured out how to best utilize the weapons at his disposal to create chaos at the line of scrimmage while exploiting mismatches along the front line. Keep an eye on speed rusher Leonard Floyd as the wild-card playmaker capable of delivering a game-changing moment. He has been relatively quiet during the tournament, but his pass-rushing skills can create problems if he gets it going early in games.
The Bengals’ blue-collar defense lacks star power, but it is hard to find a unit that plays better together. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo deserves kudos for utilizing a variety of aggressive tactics that challenge opposing quarterbacks to find open receivers while fending off pass rushers in their face. The Bengals are not afraid to send all-out pressures to set the tone while mixing in some “bluff and bail” tactics that create hesitation in the quarterback’s mind. Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard are active at the line of scrimmage, with non-stop motors complementing their rock-solid skills. Jessie Bates, Mike Hilton and Logan Wilson are complementary playmakers with outstanding instincts and awareness. The unheralded trio has a knack for delivering game-changing plays, and the Bengals’ propensity for creating timely turnovers gives them a chance against any opponent.
Kansas City’s defense is a “boom or bust” outfit that relies on high-pressure tactics to create turnovers and negative plays. When defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is on his game, the Chiefs can put opponents in a bind with a flurry of blitzes that overwhelm opponents at the line of scrimmage. Chris Jones, Frank Clark and Melvin Ingram take advantage of five- and six-man pressures by winning the one-on-one matchups created by the aggressive tactics. When the trio is able to harass quarterbacks within the pocket, the Chiefs are able to mask their coverage woes on the perimeter. The combination of coverage busts and communication breakdowns that we’ve seen from the secondary is concerning, but at least Tyrann Mathieu is trending in the right direction after missing most of the Divisional Round win over Buffalo with a concussion.
Matt Gay and Johnny Hekker are underrated weapons on a team loaded with star power. The Rams’ Pro Bowl kicker converted 94 percent of his field-goal attempts and 98 percent of his extra-point tries to lead L.A. in scoring with 144 points in the regular season. The consistency and reliability of the third-year pro gives McVay an option to take the sure points whenever the Rams reach their opponent’s 35-yard line. Hekker is an outstanding directional punter who routinely bombs moon shots with extraordinary hang time. He dropped the ball inside the 20-yard line 23 times while also forcing 25 fair catches in the regular season. With the Rams holding returners to fewer than 7 yards per punt (6.7), it is hard for opponents to pick up cheap yardage in the kicking game.
Chiefs special teams guru Dave Toub is a masterful tactician in the kicking game. He not only identifies and exploits vulnerabilities in opponents’ kick units, but he has the weapons at his disposal to make coverage teams pay for their mistakes. Mecole Hardman and Mike Hughes are dangerous returners, but the Chiefs can also trot out Tyreek Hill when they need a big play in the kicking game (SEE: early in the fourth quarter last Sunday). Harrison Butker is a solid kicker, but he is more of a small-ball specialist ideally suited to make kicks between 30 and 39 yards.
The Bengals’ rookie placekicker, Evan McPherson, has earned the trust of his teammates with his confidence and consistency as a clutch performer. McPherson has converted four game-winners this season and has demonstrated outstanding skills as a long-range kicker. He has made 11 of 13 field goal attempts from 50-plus yards (including the playoffs). His ability to split the uprights in high-pressure moments is a huge advantage for the Bengals.
Despite the 49ers’ spectacular performance in the kicking game in the Divisional Round, San Francisco has been inconsistent in the third phase of the game. Robbie Gould only connected on 87 percent of his field goal attempts in the regular season, with all of his misses coming from medium to maximum range (40-plus yards). Although the veteran has been a clutch performer in the postseason with a 100 percent career conversion rate, including 4-of-4 from 40-plus yards, the lack of range could be an issue in a close contest. Deebo Samuel is a wild card in the return game as a tremendous playmaker with big-play ability. With the 49ers willing to utilize him as a pinch hitter in “gotta have it” situations — remember how he opened up the second half last week? — the All-Pro could level the playing field in the kicking game.