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The AFC and NFC Conference Championship Entrance Survey

The matchups and players to watch in this weekend’s games. Plus, thoughts on the futures of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Ringer’s NFL writers answer the pressing questions ahead of this weekend’s conference championship games.

1. What’s your biggest takeaway from this postseason so far?

Kevin Clark: I’ve said this a million times, but I’ll say it again: The barrier to entry to the sport’s elite is higher than it ever has been. You either need a near-perfect roster and coaching staff or an elite quarterback with elite skill guys. In a few cases, you need all of those things. This isn’t much of a surprise, but it should be a warning to all teams hoping to get to this round of the playoffs: The Mahomes-Allen duel was one of the most special games in history, but it is not a million miles away from what we’ll see in future playoff games. You gotta score an unreasonable amount of points to consistently compete and make stops when you absolutely have to.

Danny Heifetz: I wish I had worn my Apple Watch this weekend so I could see precisely how many years these games took off my life.

Kaelen Jones: Quarterback play matters.

Danny Kelly: That it’s a damn shame the Bills are out! Josh Allen played about as perfect as a quarterback can, only to be foiled by Patrick Mahomes being slightly more perfect. Other than that, though, just struck by how much fun the divisional round was, and can’t wait to see what type of magic Mahomes, Matthew Stafford, Joe Burrow, and, uh … Kyle Shanahan can cook up next week.

Nora Princiotti: That special teams comes for us all. Three games were decided by kicks on the final play this weekend, plus a Kansas City–Buffalo game in which a Chiefs field goal sent the game to overtime—and it’s possible that a squib kick by the Bills could have prevented it. Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson hit all four field goal tries against the Titans, including a 52-yarder to win it. The Rams had great field position thanks to some errant kickoffs by Tampa Bay’s Bradley Pinion and, in one instance, a 33-yard punt return by Brandon Powell. On the other hand, Los Angeles’s Pro Bowl kicker Matt Gay missed a 47-yarder short, which was downright bizarre.

Then there was the Packers’ special teams implosion. A unit that ranked 32nd by DVOA this season had one of the worst performances in history in the divisional round against San Francisco. Green Bay had a field goal attempt blocked at the end of the first half, then had a punt blocked and returned in the fourth quarter for the only 49er touchdown of the game. The Packers also gave up long kickoff returns of 45 yards to Deebo Samuel and 32 yards to JaMycal Hasty, and had only 10 men on the field for Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal at the end of the game. Special teams is the last thing you see before you go into that sweet, sweet light.

Steven Ruiz: I wrote about it in a column on Monday, but I’m going to repeat it here: If you don’t have a stud quarterback, you’d better do everything in your power to try to get one. Especially if you play in the AFC, where Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen reside. There will be some guys who slip through the cracks—most will be on rookie quarterbacks with loaded teams around them—but if an NFL team wants to compete annually for a championship in the next decade, it will need to find its own version of Mahomes or Allen. That’s a lot easier said than done, but it doesn’t mean teams couldn’t do a better job trying!

Rodger Sherman: This isn’t a groundbreaking observation, but it’s barely worth trying if you don’t have a great quarterback. The only team left standing without one is the Niners, who have survived a million little miracles in two games just to make it to championship weekend, and they’ll surely lose to the Rams.

Ben Solak: Quarterbacking will never be better, quarterbacking will never stop getting better, and every year quarterbacking will be better than it’s ever been. And it will forever seem like it will never get better and then it always will and it will be the greatest thing ever.

2. What are you most excited to see in the NFC title game?

Clark: I’m excited to see DeMeco Ryans’s defense against Sean McVay’s offense. Ryans, a former All-Pro linebacker, has developed into a coaching star in the past few months. Now he faces the biggest game he’s coordinated and we’ll see whether he can defeat the Rams’ high-powered receivers without the luxury of elite defensive backs. The 49ers defense is full of amazing athletes who can do special things, but so is the Rams’ offense. And in both cases, really smart guys are in charge of them. This is amazing.

Heifetz: Aaron Donald reshaping Jimmy G’s immaculate jawline.

Jones: If the all-in Rams can actually pull it off and make all of their investments worth a trip to the Super Bowl. I’ve spent some time around the team throughout the season, so it’s been interesting to see things unfold as they have. As Aaron Donald put it, “If you were to write a book, this is how you’d write a book.”

Kelly: Deebo Samuel has just straight up turned into one of the best players in the NFL. I turn on my TV because I want to see what he’s gonna do next. No one has the combination of explosiveness and grace that Deebo brings.

Princiotti: Odell Beckham Jr.’s comeback with the Rams has been exciting to watch. The 49ers’ cornerbacks weren’t exposed in their game against the Packers, which the Rams will have to try to change in order to advance to the Super Bowl. If the Rams are to beat Kyle Shanahan’s team, having Beckham on a roll and displaying the body control and hands that make him a special player is a good place to start.

Ruiz: There’s a lot of pressure on Sean McVay now that he has his hand-picked quarterback. He’s lost six in a row in this matchup with Kyle Shanahan, including two losses in 2021, but it looks as if the Rams offense has found a perfect middle ground between the play-action-heavy offense they were running for Jared Goff and the more open offense they employed for Matthew Stafford at the beginning of the year. This could be McVay’s best team yet, and wasting it with another loss to a direct coaching rival could be devastating for a franchise that is always in win-now mode.

Sherman: The Niners are ranked as the best run-blocking team per Pro Football Focus, and the Rams are ranked as the best run defense. The Niners won’t win by throwing the ball, so Kyle Shanahan will have to cook up something interesting to have a chance.

Solak: How the Rams try to stop the 49ers running game. In the last six games Shanahan has coached against McVay, the 49ers are 6-0 and have averaged 124 rushing yards. That includes two games against three different Rams defensive coordinators—Wade Phillips, Brandon Staley, and Raheem Morris. The Rams need to get great play from their second-level defenders to stand a chance, and that’s where they’re weakest on defense. The Niners’ improbable run will continue if the Rams don’t find a way to stop them on early downs—and I’m not sure that they can.

3. What are you most excited to see in the AFC title game?

Clark: I know it’s hard to say anything other than Patrick Mahomes, but I want to see Joe Burrow as much as possible. He’s changed the Bengals culture in an incredibly short amount of time and appears to get better when the games are bigger. What’s not to like?

Heifetz: Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase trying to top the Bills-Chiefs game.

Jones: Not sure how to answer this other than name-dropping Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow.

Kelly: We gotta figure out a way for the Bengals to protect Joe Burrow. The Bengals are a fun story, but they’re not going to get past the Chiefs unless Burrow can go ballistic, and they simply need to give him more time to operate.

Princiotti: Can Cincinnati’s receivers win one-on-one on the outside against Kansas City’s defense yet again?

Ruiz: I can’t wait to see what adjustments Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has cooked up for this one. The fun thing about Spags is that his playbook is THICK. Kansas City hasn’t been running a ton of different concepts this season, but the veteran defensive play-caller could bust out some new tactics to better defend the Bengals passing game that gashed his defense for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns in January. An aggressive third-down plan—similar to the one Tennessee used on Saturday—might be the way to go.

Sherman: How long it takes to hit the over.

Solak: I love what I’ve seen from Joe Burrow this year, but I’m not sold that he will end up as an elite quarterback with a decade-long career who can hang with Mahomes and Allen. Well, we just saw exactly what it looks like when those two titans clash. I don’t need the Bengals to win—I don’t think they can—but I do so desperately want to see Burrow try to match Mahomes and assert that he, along with Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert, is coming to make this AFC an absolute three-tent circus for the next decade.

4. What will happen next with Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay?

Clark: Rodgers says he doesn’t want to be part of a rebuild, and the Packers have cap problems, but if Rodgers were a free agent, Green Bay would still be the best place for him in 2022. Next season, Davante Adams will get the franchise tag, and the offensive line will hopefully be healthy and improved from what it was in January. I say Rodgers comes back for a real Last Dance, not one derailed by Jimmy Garoppolo and bad special teams play.

Heifetz: I laid out all of Rodgers’s options here. But I think this is supposed to be an answer in the form of a question. What is: pulling a Tom Brady and leaving in free agency in 2023.

Jones: I have no idea. But I’m sure we’ll get some “fun” sound bites and subliminal messaging before he’s either traded to a contender or returns.

Kelly: I have been waffling on this over the past few weeks, but after a loss like the one Green Bay had against San Francisco, my gut’s saying that the Packers will trade Rodgers and transition their roster and cap toward building around Jordan Love.

Princiotti: What happens when people stop being polite and start getting real? (I stopped predicting Rodgers’s thought processes when he admitted to planting an Ayn Rand book on his shelf during an interview just to tick people off.)

Ruiz: If you had asked me a week ago, my answer would have been completely different. But after that loss and his postgame comments about Green Bay possibly going into rebuild mode—I’m reading between the lines a bit there—I’m leaning toward him skipping town for another team. Given the Packers’ cap situation, it’s unrealistic to expect the 2022 team to be as good as the team we saw in 2021. And if winning a second ring is at the top of Rodgers’s list of priorities, it would be in his best interest to leave for a team that’s better positioned to help him get one.

Sherman: Predicting football games is hard enough—you want me to predict an Aaron Rodgers offseason? Last year this guy tried to host Jeopardy!, got engaged to an actress in the 10th percentile of “most likely actresses to get engaged to Aaron Rodgers,” and went on vacation in Arkansas—and that was before becoming the surprise poster boy for the anti-vax movement. I’d have a better shot of predicting the plot of a telenovela.

Solak: They flirt with trades and free agency and contract adjustments for the next couple of months, and then Rodgers commits to Green Bay for another season before hitting free agency in 2023. They’re gonna want to run it back. I know Denver and Miami and Pittsburgh have a lot going for them, but are any of them really closer to competing than Green Bay is?

5. What about Tom Brady and Tampa?

Clark: Brady had one of the most productive seasons in history in terms of yardage and touchdowns, and he’s long talked about playing beyond 44—to 46 or even longer. Family pressure may change things, but if he was going to retire because he simply didn’t want to play football anymore, I feel like he would have done it long before his age-44 season. He does not get tired of playing football.

Heifetz: If Brady is going to go out on a loss, he can’t really do better than “doing the impossible Falcons Super Bowl comeback again” game.

Jones: Again, no idea. Considering how live Brady’s arm looked this season and how good he and the Bucs were, I’d be surprised if he left. But, maybe this is a hint he’s done. It’s certainly understandable.

Kelly: I don’t think Brady’s done. I hope not, anyway. I think they’ll run it back in 2022.

Princiotti: The single sentence Tom Brady has uttered about his retirement plans I have the most faith in is this, from back in 2014: “When I suck, I’ll retire.” Brady is as limber as ever and led the NFL in passing yards and touchdown passes this season. I say he sticks around for his age-45 season.

Ruiz: I know the podcast comments make it seem like Tom is ready to hang it up, but it feels like we hear similar comments every offseason, right? Here are similar comments from 2017, and Brady is still going. I think he’ll stick around for at least one more season.

Sherman: Brady can’t retire unless he goes out on top by winning a Super Bowl, and if they do win a Super Bowl he’ll justify playing another year because he’s still playing at a Super Bowl level. Long story short, he’s playing forever.

Solak: He’s back. Brady won’t end on this note—not when he’s playing this well. Brady led the league in pass attempts, passing yards, and passing touchdowns, and set a new single-season record for pass completions. Find a way to squeeze Chris Godwin into the cap for next season and let’s give this one more run.

6. Who is your non-QB MVP of the postseason so far?

Clark: Does Jimmy Garoppolo count? OK, how about Cooper Kupp, who leads the NFL in receiving yards in the playoffs—2 yards ahead of Gabriel Davis, who was last seen scoring every time he wanted to against Kansas City. Kupp is the perfect player to bail Matthew Stafford out of any overaggressive mistakes. He is simultaneously a security blanket and a true threat to break a huge play. That’s a very nice thing to have in January.

Heifetz: Aaron Donald and Von Miller just may have ended Tom Brady’s career (and perhaps reshaped Brady’s immaculate jawline).

Jones: Von Miller. Two sacks and 11 hurries. Everything the Rams could’ve imagined and more.

Kelly: It’s so hard to default to anyone but Aaron Donald. He’s the straw that stirs the drink for the Rams pass rush.

Princiotti: Cooper Kupp.

Ruiz: DEEBO! This is an obvious pick as he’s the only offensive player left who is clearly more important to his team’s success than his quarterback, who appears to be actively trying to sabotage the whole operation. The 49ers ran the ball on third-and-7 with the game on the line! And they handed it to a receiver in the backfield! AND IT WORKED!

Sherman: I’m going with Travis Kelce—not just for averaging slightly over 100 yards with a touchdown in Kansas City’s two playoff games, or for having the game-winning catch against the Bills, but for apparently single-handedly scheming up the Chiefs’ miraculous, game-tying 13-second field goal drive.