It’s hard to imagine playoff football topping what we witnessed last weekend in the divisional round, but the games on Sunday have a shot. The storylines are set, and they are compelling.
Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay must find a way to defeat San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan for the first time since 2018 in order to return to the Super Bowl. And in Kansas City, Joe Burrow will try to make history by defeating the game’s best quarterback in Patrick Mahomes and advancing to the Super Bowl in just his second year in the league.
The path to victory for each team goes through its quarterback, so we broke down the matchups we think will ultimately decide the conference championships. We look at the similarities between where Mahomes gets his completions and where the Bengals tend to allow them, consider how Burrow conquered the deep out, ponder where Matthew Stafford should attack the 49ers defense along with the area he should probably avoid, and marvel at Jimmy Garoppolo’s ability to win almost exclusively in the middle of the field.
Mahomes and the Chiefs are coming off one of the greatest games ever played, and by the end, Mahomes looked absolutely unstoppable. If that carries over to the Bengals game, schematic considerations and team tendencies are out the window. Mahomes is entirely capable of taking over a game on his own. But to the extent that the matchups do matter, and the Bengals aren’t just another nameless, faceless opponent, it appears that the Cincinnati defense surrenders completions almost exactly where Mahomes has thrown his this season.
The most crucial area of the field to defend — the area 8-to-10 yards past the line of scrimmage — appears to be available for Mahomes from sideline to sideline. On throws that traveled 8-to-10 yards between the numbers in the regular season, Mahomes went 30-for-40 and averaged 9.7 yards per pass attempt (including yards after the catch).
Deep passes up the seam to Travis Kelce or along the boundary to Tyreek Hill are scarier for the Bengals than successful 10-yard completions, though. In their previous meeting this season, the Bengals contained the deep threat by playing a variety of zone looks and keeping Hill and Kelce in front of them, then rallying to make the tackle. Hill was limited to six catches on 10 targets for 40 yards, and Kelce had 5-for-7 for 25 yards and a touchdown.
Some of the Bengals’ success against the Chiefs in Week 17 had less to do with what Cincinnati was doing and more to do with what Kansas City was not — like catching the ball (and hanging onto it) for big gains when the Bengals’ carefully crafted coverage finally broke down. This play by Hill is a good example:
What the Chiefs really need is for Mahomes to be Mahomes. But if things start off on the wrong foot with turnovers, penalties or poor execution, the way forward will likely involve the Chiefs’ playmakers seizing opportunities instead squandering them, and Mahomes methodically attacking a defense that looks primed to give him an entire afternoon of medium-sized gains.
Burrow’s comeback from a gruesome knee injury and his growth as a passer this year are nothing short of remarkable.
During the runup to the 2020 draft, one of the few negative marks on Burrow’s scouting profile were questions about his arm strength, and in his first season, the Bengals coaching staff did little to hide them. On deep out routes traveling 5 to 20 air yards , Burrow completed just 44.4 percent of his passes and was 25th in the league in Raw Quarterback Rating (52.1) among passer rating-qualified QBs, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. Yet despite his struggles, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor asked him to attempt the second-most deep out routes at those depths in the league (18) before his injury.
This year, Taylor has nothing he needs to hide. Burrow ascended to first in the NFL in Raw QBR (98.8) on those deep sideline outs. He completed 79.2 percent of his passes (19-24), 20.1 percentage points higher than league average, and he averaged 13.6 yards per pass attempt on those routes.
While our heat map shows that Burrow and the Bengals completed fewer passes to the left side of the field than the rest of the league, when Burrow did aim and fire in that direction, he did very well. In the regular season, Burrow attempted 69 passes to the outside the numbers on the left side of the field that traveled 15 air yards or less, good for 15th in the NFL, but he completed 52 of them. And his QBR of 91.5 on those throws again led the league.
Burrow’s arm was never in the same league as gunslingers like Mahomes, the Bills’ Josh Allen and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert, and that hasn’t changed. He still can struggle to zip the ball to the sideline from the far hash. But what has changed this season is his anticipation on those tougher throws, something that is especially evident on the deep to intermediate out routes.
If the Bengals are going to get past the Chiefs, Burrow will need to leverage his football IQ and dissect the Kansas City defense with timing and precision. His performance this season after injury cut his rookie year short has been historic: He’s the only starting QB selected first overall to play in a conference championship game within his first two seasons. With poise and solid execution, he can become the first to make a Super Bowl.
Stafford’s completion heatmap looks a lot like what you might expect from a Sean McVay offense: lots of catches over the middle of the field, but with a bit more success near the sidelines than in years past. Stafford’s ability on these throws — as opposed to that of his predecessor in Los Angeles, Jared Goff — opened up new possibilities for McVay in designing the Rams passing scheme this season.
What’s interesting about the 49ers’ heat map of completions allowed is their stinginess on the short right side of the defense. If we draw a box starting at the line of scrimmage, going 10 yards up the right hash, then trace over to the sideline and back, the Niners pass defense looks strong. The heat map color is mostly teal, indicating the defense allowed fewer completions there than league average. In fact, the Niners have allowed completions on just 63.8 percent of passes thrown into this area through last week’s game, 6.8 percentage points below league average and the third-lowest completion percentage in the league.
Stafford’s chart color in most of the top half of that area is a rosy, blushing pink, indicating more completions than league average. It seems on paper like a clash of strength-on-strength, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. It turns out that quite a bit of that teal we see in the Niners’ chart came from Stafford himself. In the Rams’ two losses to the 49ers this season, Stafford attacked the short right relentlessly, targeting the area 19 times, good for over a quarter of his pass attempts against San Francisco. The Rams netted a terrible -0.29 expected points added per passing play on those throws.
McVay and Shanahan are intimately familiar with each other’s schematic tendencies, and so far that familiarity has provided Shanahan with the edge. He holds a dominating 7-3 record in head-to-head matchups. If McVay hopes to beat the 49ers for the first time in seven games, it’s likely that the Rams will need to find ways to open up deep shots for Stafford rather than throw short. In their first meeting in Week 10, Stafford was 0-for-3 on passes over 20 yards downfield, and the Rams lost 31-10. In Week 18, he went 3-for-5 for 100 yards with two interceptions on throws of 20-plus, and the Rams narrowed the gap substantially, losing by just 3 points in overtime.
Garoppolo doesn’t do much except throw the ball over the middle, often to open areas vacated by the defense due to the schematic innovation of his coach. But that has been enough for the 49ers.
It’s certainly no secret to the Rams that Garoppolo will target the middle of the field, but they were incapable of stopping him there in their two meetings this season. Jimmy G is 20-for-23 throwing to the middle at any depth against L.A., with a Raw QBR of 97.9. Meanwhile, Garoppolo’s QBR on throws outside the numbers against the Rams is a dismal 43.9 with zero touchdowns and one interception on 13 attempts.
Garoppolo’s middle-of-the-field success against the Rams hasn’t come in the obvious way, though: through play-action. Shanahan called just seven play-action pass plays against L.A.’s defense to any part of the field in their regular-season meetings. Two passes were incomplete, another was intercepted, and one of the plays ended in a sack.
If the 49ers win, it will be because Shanahan outcoached McVay by continuing to cater to Garoppolo’s strengths over the middle while avoiding his obvious limitations outside the numbers. And he’ll need to do it without telegraphing where those throws near the hashes are going. Jimmy G will still have to do his part by avoiding the costly interception, sack or fumble, but if there’s one team among these four that can afford to absorb less-than-elite play from its quarterback, it’s San Francisco.
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