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The San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals are one win from Super Bowl 56 after each kicked game-winning field goals in the NFL play-offs.
The Bengals opened the divisional round on Saturday with a 19-16 win as time expired at the Tennessee Titans, the top seed in the AFC Conference.
They will play in the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1989.
The 49ers then upset the NFC’s top seed the Green Bay Packers, fighting back to claim a 13-10 away win at the death.
San Francisco will play in the NFC Championship game for the second time in three years, at either the Los Angeles Rams or Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday, while the Bengals will visit the Buffalo Bills or Kansas City Chiefs.
With the temperature dropping to -12C at a snowy Lambeau Field, the conditions were expected to favour the hosts rather than the visitors from California.
But a blocked field goal right before half-time and then a blocked punt in the final quarter, which resulted in the 49ers’ only touchdown, proved costly for Green Bay, denying them a third straight NFC Championship appearance.
It also denied the league’s reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers another chance of becoming a multiple Super Bowl winner, in what the 38-year-old quarterback has hinted could be his final season.
Rodgers was hoping for a first win in four play-off games against his boyhood team, who passed on selecting the quarterback with the first pick of the 2005 draft.
He is expected to be named the league’s MVP for a fourth time and steered the Packers to a touchdown on the opening drive, with AJ Dillon running it in from 16 yards.
But defences then took charge, and the 49ers’ offence had negative yardage before their final possession of the first half, which ended with Jimmy Garoppolo’s pass being intercepted by Adrian Amos four yards from the end zone.
San Francisco at least prevented Green Bay extending their lead by blocking Mason Crosby’s 39-yard field-goal attempt, and they cut the deficit by kicking a field goal right after half-time.
And although the Packers made it 10-3 with a field goal early in the fourth quarter, a blocked punt allowed Talanoa Hufanga to scoop up the loose ball and run in a touchdown with less than five minutes remaining.
The 49ers kicked the extra point to tie the game and forced the Packers to go three-and-out before getting into field-goal range, with Robbie Gould kicking from 45 yards to silence the home crowd.
Burrow steers Bengals to unexpected win
After claiming their first play-off win for 31 years on wildcard weekend, the Cincinnati Bengals have now registered their first ever away win in the play-offs.
The Titans levelled late in the third quarter after being 16-6 down but an interception gave Evan McPherson the chance to kick a game-winning field goal in Nashville.
The Bengals last reached the AFC Championship game in 1989, when they ultimately lost to the 49ers in Super Bowl 23, and are one win from returning to the sport’s biggest game, just two years after finishing with the NFL’s worst record.
That meant they had the first pick in the 2020 draft, with which they selected quarterback Joe Burrow, who has helped to transform the franchise and continued to show his rapid development.
The Titans sacked Burrow nine times – more than any other game in his burgeoning career – yet the 25-year-old threw for 348 yards and got them in position to make the game-winning kick.
The hosts also welcomed back fit-again running back Derrick Henry after 12 weeks out.
Henry was last season’s Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 2,027 yards and led the league with 937 when he fractured a foot during week eight of the regular season, but returned with a steel plate and five screws in his foot.
Although he got into the end zone untouched from three yards in the second quarter, he failed to do the same with the two-point attempt so the Bengals led 9-6 at half-time after kicking three field goals.
Joe Mixon made it 16-6 by rushing for a 16-yard touchdown, before a dramatic two-minute spell saw Tennessee draw level heading into the final quarter.
The Titans kicked a field goal and on the next play, Burrow’s pass was tipped by a receiver and Tennessee’s Amani Hooker dived to claim an interception.
Two plays later Ryan Tannehill made a pinpoint pass to AJ Brown for a 33-yard touchdown and the Titans added the extra point to tie it up.
And a tense final quarter climaxed as Tannehill was intercepted for the third time with 20 seconds left, by Cincinnati linebacker Logan Wilson.
Burrow then made two completions to get the Bengals within field-goal range, and rookie kicker McPherson held his nerve to convert from 52 yards.