You don’t need a lot of flowery prose to know that this weekend was unparalleled in NFL history.
The Cinderella Bengals overcoming a ferocious Tennessee Titans defense and knocking out the No. 1 seed on the road to earn their first AFC Title game appearance since 1988 on a last second field goal by a rookie kicker. The 49ers scoring their only touchdown on a blocked punt and somehow shutting down Aaron Rodgers, on the road, in snowy Lambeau Field, to upset the No. 1 seed Packers on a walk-off field goal. The Rams nearly gakking away a second half 27-6 lead before somehow pulling off the walk-off field goal as time expired, the third straight game of the weekend in which the road team won on a game-ending field goal. And then the capper, potentially one of the five greatest games in NFL history, and the insane final two minutes of Chiefs vs. Bills.
We’ve never seen anything like it, and we’ll never see anything like it again. It’s almost impossible to conceive that the two title games this weekend and/or the Super Bowl will surpass the sheer drama of what we witnessed over the weekend, and that’s OK. Sometimes, sports just gives you gifts and you must simply say “thank you” in return.
We saw so much over the weekend, but here are 15 takeaways from four football games that defy explanation.
This was the greatest weekend in American football history
Just to hammer the point home...
Mahomes-Allen is this generation’s Montana-Marino/Brady-Manning
Not only was Bills vs. Chiefs an all-time classic, it was a quarterbacking clinic put on by the two best quarterbacks in the NFL right now, and yes I am aware Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are still, for the moment, in the league.
• 1st playoff game where opposing QBs each threw for 300 Pass yds, 3 Pass TD and 0 Int— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 24, 2022
• 1st playoff game where opposing teams completed 70% of their passes (at least 35 Att each)
• Both QBs led their teams in rushing, (2nd such playoff game since 1950)
Best QB game ever? pic.twitter.com/lG8d7uUymR
Rodgers is going to win the MVP and Brady has shown no signs of slowing down, but Mahomes and Allen are the next generation and, oh boy, Mahomes vs. Joe Burrow this weekend could add a third element into the mix. It harkens back to the 1980s and the too-infrequent match-ups between 49ers QB Joe Montana and Dolphins stud Dan Marino as well as the 2000s battles between Brady and Peyton Manning. The three-headed monster of Mahomes/Allen/Burrow could be the next Brady/Manning/Roethlisberger, and that would be pretty amazing.
You can do a lot with 13 seconds
When Mahomes and the Chiefs took possession of the ball with 13 seconds left at their own 25-yard line, it seemed inconceivable they would find a way to force overtime. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Bills had a 91% chance of moving on to the AFC Championship Game.
Mahomes had one timeout left. He needed at least 35 yards in order to have a prayer at a low percentage field goal. And he pulled it all off in 13 seconds. Compare that to this.
Meanwhile, with 14 seconds left in their wild card loss to the 49ers, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys had the ball on San Francisco’s 40-yard line, granted with no timeouts, and did that.
Kansas City’s last second drive was reminiscent of the Eagles’ drive just before the two-minute warning in their NFC Championship Game win over the Minnesota Vikings in 2017. With a couple of smart play calls and all three timeouts, the Birds, with 29 seconds left, moved from their own 20 to the Minnesota 20 and used only one timeout in the process before kicking a 37-yard field goal to push their lead to 24-7.
With smart coaching, talent and good execution. you can do a lot with a little bit of time.
Aaron Rodgers comes up short again
Rodgers is a surefire, first ballot Hall of Famer. He’s an inner-circle great. He’s won three MVP awards, is second all-time in passer rating, 5th in TDs and 10th in passing yards. He has won at least 10 regular season games in a season 10 times, has gone 13-3 each of the last three seasons and will almost certainly win a 4th MVP award after this season is over.
And yet, he has not appeared in a Super Bowl since following the 2010 season.
Rodgers loses NFC playoff games with regularity and he ultimately plays poorly in most of those losses. That was the case on Saturday as he went 20-for-29 for 225 yards with 0 TDs and a rating of 91.9. The offense scored just 10 points, allowing San Francisco to steal a win and escape to Los Angeles for the NFC title game. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise, even if Green Bay was the No. 1 seed. In the postseason, this is what Rodgers does.
Rams’ defense may be McVay-proof
Sean McVay’s offense raced out to a 27-6 lead over the favored Bucs in Tampa Bay, seemingly running Tom Brady out of his own stadium. Of course, any team led by Sean McVay is going to shrink in big moments, as McVay routinely plays situations too conservatively, with too much deference to his opponent. He coaches scared, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been a shock when McVay’s Rams let Brady and the Bucs back into it.
#Rams final 7 drives...— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) January 23, 2022
- Missed FG
- Game-Winning FG
Now, McVay certainly can’t be blamed for his running back’s fumbles, but the offense clearly lost its way over the game’s final 18 minutes. Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp saved his coach’s bacon with their last-second heroics but, more importantly, it was the L.A. defense that won the day.
Because of the fumbles and missed field goal, the Rams’ defense was forced to defend a short field on a number of occasions and, yes, they could have held Tampa to a field goal on one of those drives. But if you look at the numbers, you see a tremendous effort behind what might actually be the league’s best unit.
Through the first two rounds of the postseason, the Rams defense is playing with some of the greatest defenses ever.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakDTR) January 24, 2022
2021 Rams: -0.254
2015 Broncos: -0.127
2013 Seahawks: -0.022
2002 Bucs: -0.367
2000 Ravens: -0.302
They may just be good enough to save themselves from their head coach.
Questionable coaching decisions
What were the Bills thinking by rushing four against Mahomes on his last gasp drive at the end of regulation, even allowing for the possibility of Travis Kelce getting that kind of chunk yardage? With two defensive-minded coaches in Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier and the No. 1 defense in the NFL, it’s inconceivable that play was allowed to happen.
How does Tampa’s defense blitz a slot corner on the definitive Cooper Kupp reception that set up the game-winning field goal? Should McDermott have squib kicked the ball to drain more time off the clock at the end of regulation? Should Mike Vrabel have kicked the extra point after their first touchdown after Cincinnati committed a penalty, making it 7-6 instead of 6-6? Had they done so, they would have been up 17-16 in the final two minutes and trying to run out the clock rather than trying to get into field goal range, a drive that ultimately ended in Ryan Tannehill’s killer interception (IMO, it was the correct decision).
As is the case in most close games, even the best coaches can make a misstep that will cost his team a win. Credit Andy Reid, who seemed to make those kinds of mistakes on a yearly basis in the playoffs, for being one of the few rock solid head coaches in the postseason the last few years.
Josh Allen has made the “leap”
We all knew Josh Allen had become an elite QB in the NFL though, if I’m being honest, I still was not 100% convinced even leading into this year’s playoffs. Of course, I’m an idiot. Allen cemented himself as one of, if not the best QB, in the league.
Josh Allen in the playoffs:— PFF (@PFF) January 24, 2022
9 touchdown passes pic.twitter.com/oMtaaPqQr6
Josh Allen’s 2 playoff games:— Peter King (@peter_king) January 24, 2022
9 TD, 0 INT
83 points produced
Stunning that his year's over.
Allen’s 97.9 passer rating was 9th-best in the NFL and he led all quarterbacks in rushing yards, 897. He’s what we hoped Randall Cunningham would become at the start of his Eagles’ career.
There has never been another coach like Andy Reid
The Kansas City Chiefs are now the first team in NFL history to host four straight conference title games. It is the second time in his career Reid has led a team to four straight conference title games, doing it in the NFC with the Eagles following the 2001-04 seasons.
He is the only coach in NFL history to lead two separate franchises, let alone in two conferences, to four straight conference championship games. Obviously, most of the rooting interest this weekend will side toward the Bengals, but Big Red really deserves one more Super Bowl victory to cement his status as perhaps the second-greatest head coach of all-time.
The T-shirts are printing themselves. https://t.co/ckXntY4h4F— John Stolnis (@JohnStolnis) January 24, 2022
Cooper Kupp is legit
How does this guy continue to get this wide open?
Coming into the season, Kupp was already known as one of the better wideouts in football but, in 2021, with Stafford as his QB, he became a full-on legend. Including the postseason, Kupp has put up the most receiving yards (2,191) of any receiver in history, besting Larry Fitzgerald’s 2008 regular season and playoff run (1,977). On Sunday, the Rams needed every one of his 9 receptions for 183 yards and one can make the case it is he, not Rodgers, who should be the league’s MVP.
No. 1 seed byes meant nothing
This was the second year that only the top seed in each conference secured a first round bye and, this year, it didn’t matter a lick.
Of course, the Titans and Packers were widely regarded as some of the weaker No. 1 seeds in recent NFL playoff history, and those declarations were backed up by the play of those two teams. That being said, getting a first round bye in the playoffs is usually an express train to the conference title game. This note via The Score says a lot:
Since the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams in the 1990 season, clubs coming off a first-round bye are 64-55-3 against the spread (53.8%) and 91-31 straight up (74.6%). Since 2015, those marks have jumped to 13-8-1 ATS (61.9%) and 18-4 SU (81.8%), including a 7-4 ATS / 10-2 SU run for No. 1 seeds.
Of course, nothing made sense this weekend so why should this be any different? Let’s not kid ourselves, though, getting a first round bye in the NFL postseason is still the surest way to get to the Super Bowl.
Kickers & Special Teams matter
When we break down key match-ups ahead of big games, most of the time we look at QB play, defensive schemes, injuries, etc., but rarely do we take a look at special teams or the kicking game.
This weekend, those units mattered a great deal. Cincinnati took a lot of heat when they drafted kicker Evan McPherson in the fifth round with the 149th pick last April, but he’s been money all year and calmly knocked down a game-ending 52-yard kick like he’d been doing it for a decade.
Unlike McPherson, San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould is a veteran, kicking in the league since 2005. But while he’d been in these situations before, kicking in snowy, icy conditions at Lambeau Field in mid-January is a much different animal. And yet...
For the win!!! On to the next! pic.twitter.com/rd2oJ24fpi— Robbie Gould (@RobbieGould09) January 23, 2022
This capped off a game in which Green Bay’s much maligned special teams unit simply handed a game to a 49ers team that could do nothing on offense. Their only touchdown came on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown and they saved themselves three points with a blocked field goal just before halftime.
Rams kicker Matt Gay kicked L.A.’s way into the conference title game with his last second shot in Tampa, and his story is one of perseverance.
Matt Gay entered the NFL as 2019 5th round draft pick of the Bucs. He lasted just one season, was waived and later signed with the Rams.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 23, 2022
He became a Pro Bowler this year and just hit the game-winning kick back in Tampa Bay.
Always keep pushing forward.
And then, of course, all of Mahomes’ heroics would have been for naught if Harrison Butker doesn’t knock down his 45-yarder as time expired to send the game into OT. Kickers ruled the weekend.
Joe Burrow is the toughest dude around
The Titans sacked Joe Burrow a playoff record nine times and he was held without a touchdown throw in Cincy’s victory over Tennessee and yet, Burrow kept his team in the game with a terrific fourth quarter that showed his toughness and resilience. Consider...
Joe Burrow's stats in the 4th quarters of the Bengals AFC North clinching win over the Chiefs in Week 17 and their two playoff games:— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) January 24, 2022
22-24, 271 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
He certainly didn’t have his best game on Saturday, but he did go 28-for-37 for 348 yards, good for a QB rating of 93.1, and led the team on a final, last-minute drive to win the game. He deserves to be spoken about in the same breath as Mahomes and Allen.
Hire Eric Bienemy/Leslie Frazier/DeMeco Ryans/Brian Daboll/Byron Leftwich
It’s criminal Bienemy didn’t get a head coaching job last year, but here he is, once again in the AFC Championship Game, helping to lead one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history to the doorstep of another Super Bowl. Yes, Reid calls the plays, but are we really to believe that no offensive coordinator under Andy Reid can call plays? We know that not to be true.
Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll appears to be a perfect fit for the New York Giants job now that the Bills’ former assistant GM has ascended to the top job there, although defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier would be a great candidate as well, last night’s final minute meltdown notwithstanding. Byron Leftwich has done an outstanding job as Tampa’s offensive coordinator, keeping things humming in Tampa while losing Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette for much of the season then dealing with the loss of right tackle Tristan Wirfs just before Sunday’s game. He’s a rising star. DeMeco Ryans, the 49ers defensive coordinator, is already getting interviews and should be a head coach as soon as possible, too.
Things didn’t go perfectly for all these guys this weekend, but their units did enough during the season, and in these playoff games, to warrant head coaching gigs in 2022.
Tom Brady ain’t retiring
After the game, regarding retirement, Brady said, “I haven’t put a lot of thought into it.”
If you think Brady’s retiring after the way he played this season, after the way he led the team back from a 27-6 deficit while not playing his best, and after losing a crushing game like that, I’d like to speak to you about a crypto deal I’ve been working on (note: I am not currently working on any crypto deal FWIW).
Let’s tweak the OT rules
First, the Bills did not lose because of the overtime rules. They lost because their defense couldn’t get a stop with 13 seconds left on the clock and their opponent 40 yards away from field goal range. But that doesn’t mean the playoff OT rules shouldn’t be tweaked.
We had this same conversation in 2019 after Mahomes was victimized by the rules at the hands of Brady, who was then with the Patriots. After leading the Chiefs to a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, the Pats won the toss and proceeded to march down the field and score a TD. Mahomes never got the ball with a chance to score, just like Allen on Sunday night.
If the NFL wants to put the best product on the field in the playoffs, then it must figure out a way for both teams to touch the ball in the extra session no matter what. Again, this is only for the playoffs, but it would make sense to have a 5th quarter, 15 minutes, with no sudden death and then, if at the end of the 5th quarter the game is still tied, the teams go to sudden death. Or, just guarantee at least one possession to each team. Either way, there are simple solutions that would give fans more playoff football, which I think is what everyone wanted by the time Allen and the Bills sulked off the field in dejection.
Eagles still have a long way to go
If you, as an Eagles fan, felt like you were watching a different brand of football this weekend than what we were used to seeing this year, you weren’t hallucinating. It’s clear that the eight teams who entered the divisional round of the playoffs were substantially more talented across the board than the Eagles.
It’s funny that, for the first time since the 2009 season, neither Rodgers nor Brady will play in a conference title game, and yet Jimmy Garoppolo is. That’s the way it goes sometimes, but the other three QBs, Burrow, Mahomes and Stafford, are all upper echelon quarterbacks in this league who can all throw the ball. With Jalen Hurts, the Eagles appear to have someone who is limited in the passing game. It’s clear the Eagles need a QB, whether it’s Hurts or someone else, who can win games through the air.
That being said, the quality of defenses in this round was significant. The Birds need help along all levels of the defense, but especially on the edges, at linebacker and in the secondary. They also need another play-making wide receiver and a scheme that will take advantage of DeVonta Smith’s talents.
Nick Sirianni had a good first year with the Eagles and there are reasons to be positive, but while I don’t agree that Philadelphia is in QB purgatory (not with all their draft picks, potential free agents and Hurts’ rookie contract), they do have some extremely important determinations to make this summer regarding the quarterback position.
The Bengals went from a 4-win team in 2020 to the AFC Championship in one year. It’s possible the Eagles can mimic a turnaround like that, although they will need to hit on all their moves this off-season.
They still have a long way to go.