The NFL playoffs started out with a dud on wild-card weekend, with only one of the six games being decided by a single possession. The divisional round was just the opposite, with all four games being won with walk-off scores by the Bengals, 49ers, Rams and Chiefs.
And so we’ve now reached the conference championship where the Bengals and Chiefs will battle for a spot in Super Bowl LVI, and two NFC West rivals – the Rams and 49ers – will meet for the third time this season.
For three of these teams, it hasn’t been long since they last made the conference title game. The Chiefs have been here in each of the last three seasons, while the Rams and 49ers represented the NFC in the Super Bowl two of the last three years. The Bengals, however, haven’t reached the AFC Championship since 1989.
Coincidentally, all four teams won their most recent conference title game, and we looked back on those four victories with Sunday’s marquee matchups looming.
Cincinnati Bengals: January 8, 1989 vs. Buffalo Bills
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“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was the top-grossing movie. “Faith” by George Michael was Billboard’s No. 1 song. Less than five players on the current 53-man roster were alive. The author of this segment…was not.
So yeah, it has been a long time since the Bengals were in a conference title game. The year was ‘88, Boomer Esiason was MVP and, coming off a divisional round win over the Seahawks after 12 wins and an AFC Central (this was also a thing then) crown, the Bengals beat the Bills 21-10 to advance to Super Bowl XXIII.
In that AFC title game, the Bengals picked off three passes and the offense sat on the ball for 39:29. Future Hall of Famer and Bills running back Thurman Thomas rushed for six yards on four attempts. Fellow Future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly threw those three picks. It was Ickey Woods, not Esiason, who carried the Cincinnati offense via 102 rushing yards and two scores. Before the game, Bills coaches said Cincinnati’s no-huddle offense was unfair and there was a suggestion the team might fake injuries to slow it, as others had allegedly done. Again, it has been a while.
Granted, this was the last time the Bengals would defeat the Bills until 2011. They’d win one more playoff game (1990 over the Oilers – also a thing back then), then go winless in the postseason for 31 years. They’d suffer through the miserable 90s, the 0-7 playoff record of Marvin Lewis over 16 years and six wins over two seasons from Zac Taylor before rebounding this season. So while the first playoff win a few weeks ago was something of a generational event for a large majority of the team’s fanbase, so too is Sunday’s title game at Arrowhead Stadium. – Chris Roling, Bengals Wire
Result: Bengals 21, Bills 10
Kansas City Chiefs: January 24, 2021 vs. Buffalo Bills
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The Kansas City Chiefs have hosted the past three AFC title games, but the most recent matchup was a tilt with the Buffalo Bills at Arrowhead Stadium. After a stressful game against the Cleveland Browns that saw Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes knocked out in the divisional round, the AFC championship game against the Bills started off in dramatic fashion.
An early nine-point deficit in the first quarter had fans in Kansas City as anxious as could be, but Mahomes answered as he always does. Some big plays from Mahomes, Mecole Hardman, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams, plus some good stops on defense, had the Chiefs retake a nine-point lead at halftime.
From that point onward, it just felt like the Bills were scrambling to play catch-up. One of Mahomes’ patented underhand tosses to Kelce resulted in a 16-point third-quarter lead and that’s when Josh Allen began pressing. Buffalo’s signal-caller threw into double-coverage, resulting in a Rashad Fenton interception that would ultimately put the game on ice for Kansas City.
The game ignited a bit of a rivalry between the Bills and Chiefs, with Stefon Diggs watching as his opponents celebrated their second consecutive Super Bowl berth. The two teams met this year in the divisional round for what became an instant classic of a game. Buffalo went ahead with 13 seconds remaining and started celebrating on the sidelines, but Kansas City wasn’t done yet. Now, they’re onto their fourth consecutive AFC title game. – Charles Goldman, Chiefs Wire
Result: Chiefs 38, Bills 24
San Francisco 49ers: January 19, 2020 vs. Green Bay Packers
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This game feels like it happened a million years ago given what transpired just a couple months after. Before the world fell into the grips of a global pandemic, Raheem Mostert and the 49ers throttled the Packers to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl and start the onslaught of rumors about Aaron Rodgers’ eventual departure from Green Bay.
Depending on the fan, this game can be viewed through two lenses. There are some that remember it for Mostert’s dominant day on the ground. He ran 29 times for 220 yards and four touchdowns, including three in the first half that helped San Francisco jump out to a 27-0 lead at the break. They cruised in the second half, which allowed a couple of late scores from the Packers that made the final look more respectable than the game actually was.
There’s another subset of fans that views this game as the turning point in the 49ers’ relationship with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He threw it only eight times, completing six throws for 77 yards. While the ground game was working to perfection, it was strange to see a quarterback only put the ball in the air eight times and led some to believe head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t necessarily trust his quarterback. That storyline has carried over into this year, and continues to dominate the conversation even with the 49ers going back to the NFC championship game. – Kyle Madson, Niners Wire
Result: 49ers 34, Packers 20
Los Angeles Rams: January 20, 2019 vs. New Orleans Saints
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Who could forget this one? It’s one of the most memorable playoff games ever, and not necessarily for the right reasons. Nickell Robey-Coleman was made famous for his hit on Tommylee Lewis before Drew Brees’ pass arrived, a clear case of defensive pass interference.
Except, the officials didn’t throw the flag, resulting in an incompletion. Sean Payton was livid. Brees couldn’t believe it. Saints fans were up in arms over the no-call. It was one of the biggest officiating gaffes in NFL history – a play that even Robey-Coleman admitted was obviously pass interference.
The Saints had to settle for a 31-yard field goal with 1:45 left in the game, putting them up 23-20. Had interference been called, they would have had a fresh set of downs and could’ve run down the clock before kicking a game-winning field goal, since the Rams only had one timeout left.
Instead, the Rams got the ball back down three with 1:41 to play, and Jared Goff came through in the clutch with a drive to tie the game with 15 seconds left thanks to Greg Zuerlein’s 48-yard field goal.
In overtime, the Saints got the ball first but Brees was intercepted by John Johnson, which set the Rams up at their own 46-yard line. Only needing a field goal, Goff connected with Tyler Higbee twice and got the Rams to the 39-yard line. Zuerlein drilled the 57-yarder to send the Rams to the Super Bowl.
It was a wild game that the Rams never led until overtime, even falling behind 13-0 in the first quarter. But Goff willed them to a second-half comeback, with the Rams outscoring the Saints 16-10 after halftime. – Cameron DaSilva, Rams Wire
Result: Rams 26, Saints 23