I never got around to talking to anyone at the NFL, but I feel like someone needed to ask the league to push the conference title games back a week because I think we all needed some extra time to recover from the divisional round.
After going to the Bengals vs. Titans game last Saturday, I was pretty sure there was no way any of the other divisional games would top it in terms of excitement, but then THEY ALL topped it. Somehow, each game was progressively better than the one before it.
And by the time the Bills-Chiefs game went to overtime last Sunday night, I think I had spit coffee out of my mouth at least three different times, which was crazy because I wasn't even drinking coffee.
For the first time in playoff history, EVERY GAME CAME DOWN TO THE FINAL PLAY.
Alright, now that we've relived the divisional round, let's move on to the conference title game picks.
The crazy thing about the title games this year is that they're both rematches of regular season games and the teams that WON those games are both underdogs. The 49ers and Bengals went a combined 3-0 against the Rams and Chiefs, but neither team is favored to win this week.
I think the oddsmakers are trying to confuse me. I've spent the past 19 hours trying to figure out who I'm going to pick and I'm still not sure. I made my original picks, but then I flipped from those, then I flopped back, then my family in Cincinnati called me and said they'd disown me if I didn't pick the Bengals, so then, I had to turn off my phone and bury it in my backyard so they couldn't reach me.
Since they clearly want me to pick the Bengals, I decided to do some research to see if it makes sense to pick them in this spot and what I found was quite intriguing.
One reason to like the underdogs in this round is because they both played on Saturday in the divisional round and teams that play on Saturday -- which means they get one extra day of rest -- have gone 16-8 in the conference title round over the past 12 years. To add to that, at least one team that played on Saturday in the divisional round has won one of the conference title games in 14 of the past 16 years, which means it's highly unlikely that the Rams and Chiefs both win.
The one day advantage doesn't sound like much, but just think about it like this: While the Chiefs were busy playing a crazy game that went to overtime on Sunday night, the Bengals were sitting around tweeting out SpongeBob SquarePants memes.
Although the Bengals and 49ers will both be more rested, they will be hitting the road this week, which definitely is a disadvantage in the conference title round.
In six of the past eight years, the home team has won the NFC Championship Game, while in the AFC, the home team has won SEVEN of the past eight conference title games (Advantage: Chiefs and Rams). Of course, that might not actually be an advantage for the Chiefs since they were the only AFC team to lose in that span.
All of those stats I just gave you were actually a diversion so I could go find my phone in my backyard so I can call my family and let them know who I'm picking. I couldn't get a hold of them though, so they'll just have to find out here like everyone else.
Let's get to the picks.
Conference title game picks
(4) Cincinnati (12-7) at (2) Kansas City (14-5)
3 p.m. ET (CBS, Stream on Paramount+)
For the first time since the 1988 season, the Bengals are in the AFC Championship Game. If you're wondering how long ago that was, let me put it this way: Ronald Reagan was still president (for 12 more days), Jessica Rabbit was considered the most attractive woman on earth (even though she wasn't technically real) and Outback Steakhouse didn't even exist yet. Try to imagine living in a world without Outback Steakhouse. You can't. It's impossible. I mean, where else is there to go when you're in the mood for Australian food at a family-friendly price?
In the 33 years since that appearance, not much has gone right for the Bengals. For years, they've been the laughingstock of the NFL, just like Cincinnati chili has been the laughingstock of the culinary world, but let me tell you something, both are extremely underrated.
The Bengals are so underrated that the oddsmakers in Vegas have made them a seven-point underdog for this game, which seems a little crazy when you consider that the Bengals beat the Chiefs earlier THIS MONTH. Back on Jan. 2 (Week 17), the Bengals topped Kansas City 34-31 in a game where Joe Burrow threw for 446 yards. More importantly, it was a game where I predicted the exact final score, which clearly means that I will likely predict the exact final score of the AFC title game.
The one thing about rematches is that they usually don't work out so well for the team that lost the first game, at least when a regular season rematch happens in the conference title game.
Since 2014, there have been a total of 11 AFC or NFC title games that have been rematches from the regular season and in those 11 games, the team that won during the regular season has gone 9-2 in the title game rematch. I should also point out that one of those two wins only happened because the officiating crew decided not to throw a pass interference flag on the Rams when they beat the Saints in January 2019. So if we take that fluke game out, then the team that won in the regular season is 9-1 in the conference title game rematch, which is definitely an advantage for the Bengals (and the 49ers for that matter, since they swept the Rams this year).
This game feels like it has shootout written all over it. During the regular season, there were only seven teams in the NFL that surrendered more than 248 pass yards per game and two of those seven teams are playing in this game, and I think what I'm trying to say here is that Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes might both throw for 500 yards.
Since I'm fully expecting both offenses to go wild on Sunday, my pick is basically coming down to which defense I think will play better and right now and I think that's the Bengals. The Bengals are better against the run, they're better at getting sacks and although the two secondaries are about even, the Chiefs are dealing with a big injury this week with Tyrann Mathieu's concussion.
Before this postseason started, the Bengals had gone 31 years without winning a playoff game and they ended that drought. They had never won a road playoff game in franchise history and they put an end to that. And now, they have a chance to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years and the prediction here is that they get it done.
The pick: Bengals 34-31 over Chiefs.
Record picking Bengals games this season: 14-5 straight up, 10-7-2 against the spread
Record picking Chiefs games this season: 13-6 straight up, 11-8 against the spread
(6) San Francisco (12-7) at (4) L.A. Rams (14-5)
6:30 p.m. ET (Fox)
For the first time in NFL history, the NFC title game is being played in the same stadium as the Super Bowl, which means the winner of Sunday's game could just camp out at SoFi Stadium for the next two weeks if they wanted to, although now that I'm thinking about it, camping out probably isn't the best way to prepare for a Super Bowl.
Like the AFC Championship Game, this is a rematch, although most Rams fans probably don't remember either of the games from this season, because if they were smart, they immediately hired a hypnotherapist to help them repress the memories from both losses. In most cities, I'd have no idea where you would even hire a hypnotherapist, but Rams fans are in Los Angeles and you can find anyone to do anything there for the right amount of money. Well, you probably can't find a place that puts chili on spaghetti. I think only Cincinnati does that.
Anyway, the 49ers are the underdog in this game even though they've beaten the Rams SIX STRAIGHT TIMES and that is not a typo. The Rams haven't beaten the 49ers since 2018. As a matter of fact, since Week 6 of the 2019 season, the Rams have a record of 28-16 that breaks down like this:
- 0-6 against the 49ers
- 28-10 against everyone else
Although this game is being played in Los Angeles, I'm not sure the Rams are going to have any sort of home-field advantage and that's because I'm pretty sure 49ers fans outnumbered Rams fans roughly 700-to-1 the last time these two teams played in L.A. back on Jan. 9.
As a matter of fact, 49ers fans were so loud that Matthew Stafford had to use a SILENT COUNT during the game, which I only know because his wife, Kelly, revealed that information on a recent podcast, which, by the way, is definitely my favorite podcast by an NFL quarterback's wife.
Matthew Stafford’s wife complaining that the Rams had to use a silent count at home while Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t have to use a silent count on the road… the amount of press the 49ers’ fan takeover in LA is getting is wild.— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) January 13, 2022
How the Rams were caught by surprise is even wilder https://t.co/UvhqBhuWWx
The Rams are so concerned with 49ers fans taking over the stadium that they changed their ticket policy for the game. If you have a zip code that's outside the greater Los Angeles area, then you can't buy a ticket.
I don't live in Los Angeles, but I did used to watch "Beverly Hills 90210" and that zip code is in the L.A. area, so I think that means I'd qualify to buy a ticket.
When I look at both teams, the one player who I think is going to make or break this game is Matthew Stafford. Sure, I could say Jimmy Garoppolo, but then I would be lying to myself. The 49ers are a run-first team and as long as they can run the ball, they have a chance to win regardless of how Garoppolo plays. If Jimmy plays well, that's definitely a plus, but even if he struggles, they can still win. In Week 18, they beat the Rams 27-24 despite two interceptions from Garoppolo.
As for Stafford, two of his worst games of the year came against the 49ers. He threw two interceptions in both games and was sacked multiple times in both games (he got sacked twice in the first game and five times in the second game). The Rams are 0-3 this year when Stafford throws multiple interceptions AND gets sacked multiple times in the same game.
If 49ers fans take over the stadium, that could add even more complications, because Stafford might once against be forced to use the silent count, which could lead to more sacks and more mistakes. Imagine losing the NFC title game in your home stadium because your fans are outnumbered 700-to-1. If I were worth $10 billion like Rams owner Stan Kroenke, I'd just buy every ticket to the game and I wouldn't care if it meant playing in an empty stadium as long as it kept 49ers fans out.
It's not often that two division rivals meet in a conference title game, but it does happen. This is the eighth time since 1985 that two division rivals have played each other in a conference title game. In the previous seven games, the team that won the second regular-season meeting has gone 6-1 in the playoff rematch (Advantage: 49ers).
Also since 1985, there have been three prior games where one team swept a division rival in the regular season and then played them again in the conference title game. In all three instances, the team that swept the season-series ended up winning the third game (Advantage: 49ers).
These two teams have played nine quarters against each other this season -- two full games plus overtime -- and the Rams only outscored the 49ers in TWO of those nine quarters, which makes it feel like the 49ers wins weren't flukes (Advantage: 49ers). And now that I'm looking at the number below, I think I can definitely say the neither win was a fluke.
The 49ers have dominated 7 of the 9 quarters of football that they've played against the Rams this year.— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) January 25, 2022
Score in those quarters: 49ers 55, Rams 17
Yards: 49ers 701, Rams 342
Yards per play: 49ers 6.2, Rams 4.0
Every time the Bengals have been in a Super Bowl, they've ended up playing the 49ers and since I'm picking the Bengals to win this week, that leaves me with no choice here.
The pick: 49ers 23-20 over Rams.
Record picking 49ers games this season: 12-7 straight up, 11-8 against the spread
Record picking Rams games this season: 14-5 straight up, 10-9 against the spread
Best pick: Last week I predicted that the Bengals would advance to their first AFC title game in 33 years by upsetting the Titans and guess what happened? The Bengals advanced to their first AFC title game in 33 years by upsetting the Titans. Now, did I know that Ryan Tannehill was going to have a total meltdown and throw three interceptions? Of course I did. I get to watch Ryan Tannehill play every week because I live in Nashville and let me just say, there was no chance he wasn't going to meltdown. I was so sure it was going to happen that I literally wrote a short paragraph about it when the guys over at Pickwatch asked me last week which QB I trusted the least in the divisional round.
Now, I'm not saying Ryan Tannehill is the only reason they lost that game, OK, wait, actually yes, I am saying that.
Worst pick: Over the past three years, there's no team that has choked in the playoffs more often than the Green Bay Packers, and yet, for some reason, I still picked them to win last week. If there's one thing the Packers can't do, it's win big playoff games, and if there's one thing Aaron Rodgers can't do, it's win any playoff games against the 49ers. We all knew the choke was coming. That being said, the biggest upside of choking in the divisional round for the Packers is that it means they can't choke in the NFC Championship game for the third straight year, so that's kind of a silver lining, right?
Alright guys, unless I decide to do a Pro Bowl pick -- and I probably won't -- I'll be on a one-week hiatus, which means you should circle Feb. 8 on your calendar (or tell Siri to set a reminder), because that's when my Super Bowl LVI pick will be rolling out. If you can't wait that long, then I suggest following me on Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram.
If you want don't want to wait until Feb. 8, you can sign for the daily NFL newsletter that I write for CBSSports.com. Just click this link and enter your email and then BAM, I'll be in your inbox five days per week.
Straight up in divisional round: 2-2
SU overall in playoffs: 8-2
Against the spread in divisional round: 3-1
ATS overall in playoffs: 6-4
Final 2021 regular season record
Straight-up: 174-97-1 (Ranked second overall at CBSSports.com)
Against the spread: 138-131-3