Getting closer to the Super Bowl
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) hands the ball off to Los Angeles Rams runningback Cam Akers (23) during an NFL divisional play-off football game between the Los Angeles Ramsand Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, January 23, 2022 in Tampa, Florida
Conference finals: Bengals vs Kansas City Chiefs; Los Angeles Rams vs 49ers - Chiefs the JustBet Bowl favourites at $2.20

DURING the Divisional Round of the 2021/22 National Football League (NFL) season last weekend, the defence of all eight competing teams showed up and they certainly showed off (except during the closing minutes of the mind-bending game on Sunday night). All four contests were decided by a single walk-off score, with three of those being finalised by a field goal.

The two games last Saturday (January 22) were particularly low-scoring and featured the top seeds in both conferences. The American Football Conference (AFC) got the weekend going when the top-seeded Tennessee Titans welcomed upstarts Cincinnati Bengals into the Nissan Stadium for what was expected to be a formality — but the Bengals didn't read that script.

The Tennessee defence was brutal, and their onslaught resulted in nine sacks on quarterback (QB) Joe Burrow — but he still managed to throw for 348 yards (no touchdowns) in the middle of the sackfest. On the other sideline, QB Ryan Tannehill threw for a respectable 220 yards, suffered only one sack, but had three interceptions that trumped his team's defensive effort. With the game tied 16-16 at the end of the third quarter and both defences operating at full intensity, the game was at a stalemate until Tannehill's third interception set up rookie kicker Evan McPherson's fourth field goal — a game-winning, walk-off kick from 52 yards.

The kick sealed the Bengals' first-ever road play-off victory and the franchise's first trip to the AFC Championship Game since 1988. They will visit Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday (January 30) to tackle the Kansas City Chiefs, who participated in an epic thriller against the Buffalo Bills last Sunday night at the same venue. What was expected to be a shoot-out from the first whistle turned out to be a defensive exhibition for the first three quarters, but then fireworks exploded in the fourth that extended into overtime.

The Chiefs entered the fourth quarter with a slim 23-21 lead, and with fans expecting the action to fade into the chilly Kansas City night air. However, what resulted was a QB masterclass from two of the most fearless young gunslingers the NFL has to offer, and drama that felt as if it was scripted in Hollywood and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Bills' QB Josh Allen was super (329 yards, 4 touchdowns) but for the Chiefs, QB Patrick Mahomes reached into his superhuman bag of tricks to outlast his counterpart in the duel.

The Bills led 36-33 after a historic fourth touchdown pass from Allen to wide receiver Gabriel Davis (the first player with four receiving touchdowns in a play-off game), which left just 13 seconds on the game clock for Mahomes to march his troops towards a game-tying field goal. Amazingly, he did just that to force overtime during which the Chiefs subsequently won the toss, received the ball, then went on a drive that culminated in a Mahomes toss to Travis Kelce for the walk-off, game-winning touchdown.

The game was the first in play-off history with four go-ahead touchdowns in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter plus overtime, but for Bills fans it will go down as one of the most heartbreaking losses in franchise history alongside the four straight Super Bowl losses (1991-1994). The Chiefs have now secured their fourth-straight home AFC Championship Game, but Sunday's encounter is against the Bengals who overcame a 14-0 deficit to post a 34-31 win over the Chiefs in week 17.

The Chiefs are JustBet favourites to win it all but the Bengals had road wins over the Las Vegas Raiders and Titans to get to this party — and they will be more than a bump in the road for their opponents.

In the National Football Conference (NFC), the most decorated quarterback (QB) in American football history and the league's reigning Most Valuable Player (MVP) — who also happens to be a front-runner in this year's MVP ballot — both suffered eerily similar fates last weekend (as similar as the numbers on their shirt). Last Saturday night, in the fluttering Green Bay snowfall, QB Aaron Rodgers (AR12) led the Packers on an impressive touchdown drive to open the game but did not score again until a field goal early in the fourth quarter. In fact, there was no scoring after that opening touchdown until a field goal by the San Francisco 49ers midway into the third.

The defensive battle continued until, with 4:36 remaining in the game, the 49ers' special team blocked a Packers punt then scooped it up for a touchdown. Then, with the game tied 10-10 and 42 seconds remaining, a nine-play, 44-yard San Francisco drive was capped by a 45-yard Robbie Gould field goal for the 13-10 walk-off win and Green Bay's first home loss of the season.

With their ticket booked for the NFC Championship game, the 49ers watched on Sunday as defending champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers welcomed the visiting Los Angeles Rams into the scene of last year's mauling of the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. However, the Rams appeared to have done their homework and built a 27-3, third-quarter lead against the champs before a mini-collapse — including four lost fumbles — led to a 27-27 tie by QB Tom Brady (TB12) and the Buccaneers, late in the fourth quarter.

The Rams avoided total disaster after QB Matthew Stafford led a 63-yard drive in the closing seconds to set up the walk-off, game-winning field goal and ensure they have at least one home play-off game this season. The 49ers will visit their California neighbours for this heavyweight matchup and will need an equally impressive performance from their defence, but the biggemr concern is if the offensive production can match that of the Rams on Sunday evening.

Los Angeles will have the chance to do what Tampa Bay did last season and play in the Super Bowl on its home field — but only if they can get past these 49ers. The Chiefs and Bengals will have a dogfight to determine the AFC representative in Super Bowl LVI, and fans will be hoping for something close to the experience of the classic encounter that took place last Sunday night.

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Super Bowl LVI Champion

Team Odds

Kansas City Chiefs 2.20

Los Angeles Rams 3.05

San Francisco 49ers 5.50

Cincinnati Bengals 9.00

*Odds are subject to change

BY MARK ARCHER

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