Championship Conference Weekend: Now We’re Talking
In my last post, I was hoping for a better divisional round and, boy, was it.
After a wild-card weekend that featured the home team going 5–1 and four of the six being blowouts, the NFL divisional round may have been the best ever at its stage. Only one of the four home teams won, which happened to be a thriller that may have been the best playoff game ever. And for those three, the road team won each on a walk-off field goal while the home team who won did so on a touchdown. (I went 1–3, but at least it was fun to watch.) Here is a recap of that exciting round and a preview of the championship conference matchups, which are also regular-season rematches, on Sunday.
AFC Championship Game: (4th) Cincinnati Bengals (10–7) at (2nd) Kansas City Chiefs (12–5); 2:00 CT on CBS
The Bengals are going to have beat the Chiefs twice this year to get back to the big game, but the path in the playoffs has gone pretty nice for them.
Cincinnati showed they came to play the AFC’s top-seeded Tennessee Titans on the first play of the game, picking off Ryan Tannehill, which lead to a field goal. Later in the half with a 6–0 deficit, Titans star running back Derrick Henry, who had been gone since the middle of the season, got a wildcat touchdown run. And after a Cincinnati offsides, head coach Mike Vrabel went with the new trend this year and attempted a two-point conversion since it enabled the ball to be moved from the two to the one-yard-line. They failed, which bit them back later, and it remained tied at six before the Bengals got a field goal before the half to lead 9–6.
After a Joe Mixon TD run to go up 16–6, Tannehill started the second half just like the first: with an interception on a nice tip-and-catch by Mike Hilton. After a Titans field goal later in the third quarter cut the lead to seven, Joe Burrow returned the favor with an interception. With a short field of just 27 yards, Tennessee took advantage with a sweet back-shoulder TD pass from Tannehill to AJ Brown, tying the game at 16.
On their next possession, Tennessee was halted at the Cincy 35 on 4th-and-1 as Vrabel’s second risky decision cost them points as they could have taken the lead with just over seven minutes left. After a Cincy punt, Tannehill and co. had another chance to make a game-winning drive, but as they took time off the clock, he threw his third interception of the day, this one on a tipped-ball to Logan Wilson with just 20 seconds left at the Cincinnati 47.
After receiving that gift with two timeouts, a 19-yard pass from Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase set up a 54-yard game-winner by Evan McPherson as the Bengals won, 19–16, and advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1988.
Burrow, the №1 overall pick from 2020, threw for 348 yards and an interception. His favorite target, Chase, had another great game with five receptions and 109 yards. Tannehill, on the other hand, threw for 220 yards, a touchdown and three picks with a QBR of just 10.4. Brown had five receptions for 142 yards. McPherson kicked his 11th FG from 50 or more yards, a league record for a season.
The Chiefs were set up for a great game between Patrick Mahomes and Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen and, boy, did it deliver. Both teams reached the end zone on their first possession in the first half and they closed the half in the same way. Mahomes threw this sick spin-around touchdown pass to Byron Pringle with 1:52 left before Allen connected with Gabriel Davis, leaving just 37 seconds left in the half. Kansas City nearly scored again but a 50-yarder from Harrison Butker went wide right as the half ended tied at 14.
A field goal and touchdown in the third quarter put K.C. up 23–14 after a missed extra point by Butker. Then on the next play, Allen hooked up again with Davis for this beautiful, deep 75-yard pass to cut the deficit to two.
After a few possessions, a 45-yard punt return from Tyreek Hill got the Chiefs in the red zone, only to settle for a field goal. Then the magic happened. Down 26–21 on a time-consuming drive, Allen faced a second fourth-down attempt on the drive with this being 13 yards and possibly the game with just two minutes left. With blown coverage, he found Davis in the end zone for his third TD along with a two-point conversion to Diggs with Allen mimicking Mahomes on a spin-around to make it 29–26. Being in their first deficit since the first quarter, Mahomes answered right back with a 64-yard catch-and-run by Tyreek Hill to make it 33–29 with 1:02 left.
But, as I wondered, did they leave too much time?…….Maybe. Allen answered Mahomes right back with his own perfect drive of just plays on a fourth TD pass to Davis with just 13 seconds for what looked like the dagger…..until it wasn’t.
With two timeouts and their season looking over, Mahomes took his head coach Andy Reid’s advice: “When it’s grim, be the grim reaper.” The offense then executed the perfect two plays with a Hill and Travis Kelce reception to set up a game-tying FG from 49 yards by Butker, who sent it to OT, tied at 36.
After three touchdowns and a field goal were scored in the last two minutes, the anticipation was who would win the coin toss since a touchdown wins the game. It was Kansas City and they took it right down the field for a back-shoulder Kelce touchdown to win the thriller as the Chiefs are now in their fourth-straight AFC Championship Game at home.
The quarterbacks were flawless. Mahomes was 33-of-44 for 378 yards and three touchdowns with a quarterback rating of 123.1 to go along with 69 rushing yards and a touchdown. Allen completed 27-of-37 passes for 329 yards and four touchdowns with a rating of 136.3 and 68 rushing yards.
Hill had 11 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown. Davis had eight catches for a ridiculous 202 yards and four touchdowns. The Chiefs had a total of 182 rushing yards while the Bills had 109. Both quarterbacks led their team in rushing. There were no turnovers and only four penalties. The game couldn’t be any better.
These two teams had a crazy Week 17 affair in Cincinnati that kept Kansas City from getting home-field advantage. The Chiefs got off to a blazing start in the first half, getting up to 28–14 before McPherson kicked a field goal before the half. After a couple of Bengals touchdowns put them up 31–28, the Chiefs answered with a field goal to tie it with six minutes left.
Cincinnati then went down to the red zone and took up all the time they could. They got to a first-and-goal at the 1 at the two-minute warning and reluctantly tried to score, so Mahomes wouldn’t get the ball back. It even got to fourth-and-goal, being inches away and head coach Zac Taylor opted to go for it. Both teams got penalized on the ensuing play, offsetting the play. They tried again and a flag flew, but it was only on the Chiefs this time, setting up first-and-goal. After a few kneel-downs, McPherson kicked the game-winner for a 34–31 victory, which won the Bengals the AFC North division.
Burrow completed 30-of-39 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns. Chase had 11 receptions for a franchise and rookie record-266 yards and two touchdowns. Mahomes went 26-of-35 for 259 yards and three touchdowns but only helped his team get three points while not having the ball much.
It’s the weirdest thing seeing the Bengals in the AFC Championship. They finally got their playoff win that was set up nicely with the Raiders and beat maybe the worst №1 seed ever in the Titans, but this week they got the AFC perennial powerhouse. Burrow, behind that poor offensive line, was sacked nine teams by the Titans and won, which is a playoff record with such a result.
Yes, Burrow said they would beat Tennessee and they did. Now, he says they’ll beat Kansas City, but this team is a different beast. Mahomes will make you pay (and they’ll do a better job against Chase). I think Burrow has a bright future as you can see on this unbelievable run and he did win the Heisman Trophy and national championship two years ago, but this Chiefs team is a step ahead as contenders. I got them going back to the Super Bowl for a third straight year. Chiefs 34, Bengals 24.
NFC Championship Game: (6th) San Francisco 49ers (10–7) at (4th) Los Angeles Rams (12–5); 5:30 CT on FOX
It’s just fitting that the 49ers, who had to make a 17-point comeback against the Rams in Week 18 just to get into the postseason, are going to L.A. again for the NFC Championship.
Now, how the 49ers are in this game is what’s hard to believe. They headed up to Lambeau Field on a freezing Saturday night against Green Bay where temperatures at kickoff were at 13 degrees with a wind chill of 2. Advantage Packers, right? Jimmy Garoppolo, who had never played a pro game below 30 degrees, along with his team seemed to be bother by it early on. After the Packers stormed down the field on their opening-drive touchdown, Jimmy G missed his first five passes, two of them being terrible drops by the sure-handed George Kittle and Jauan Jennings, and the Niners had four straight three-and-outs with minus-10 yards.
After the Niners’ defense kept stopping the Packers and even forced a fumble on their second drive, Garoppolo finally completed a pass, which required an insane one-handed grab by Kittle. They made it to the red zone until Jimmy G did what Jimmy G does: gifting the opponent an interception.
At their 11 with just 40 seconds left in the half on third down, Green Bay star quarterback Aaron Rodgers found running back Aaron Jones, who the 49ers somehow left wide open, on a 75-yard catch-and-run. Luckily, they made up for it by sacking Rodgers and blocking a 39-yard field goal to keep it at 7–0 at the half.
San Francisco finally got on the board with a field goal to open the second half after a kickoff return to midfield by “wide back” Deebo Samuel. Several drives later, the Packers got back in the red zone, but another sack of Rodgers led to a field goal, making it 10–3. Then the Niners drove down the field, looking to tie the game as head coach Kyle Shanahan opted to go for it on 4th-and-1 at the Green Bay 19 but failed.
With just over six minutes left and the snow starting fall, it looked like the Packers were on their way to an ugly win led by their defense. But instead it led to another sack and three-and-out. Then the Packers, whose special teams were the only Achilles heel of the season, got the ultimate back-fire as Jordan Willis drove through the line and blocked a punt with several 49ers looking for the ball in the air before it landed and Talanoa Hufanga picked it up at the 6-yard-line for the score to tie the game at 10.
Rodgers had the chance to make his game-winning drive as he’s one of the best to do it, but it ended up being another three-and-out. Then Garoppolo, who certainly isn’t Rodgers, led his team right down the field with a mix of the run game, setting up a 45-yard field goal for Robbie Gould, who’s never missed a postseason attempt, as he made his 20th, sending the Niners to the NFC Championship in an improbable upset of 13–10.
There was nothing special about the Niners offense in this win with Garoppolo throwing for 131 yards and the running game reaching 106, but the defense held the Packers to 67 rushing yards while Rodgers was 20-of-29 for 225 yards and wasn’t himself. The Packers, particularly Rodgers, were quite the disappointment as he’s now 0–4 against the Niners in the postseason and this comes on a year where the stars aligned for them to make it back to the Super Bowl with a third-straight 13-win season. He hasn’t done that in 11 years and this might be his last as a Packer or ever as he’s been disgruntled with the organization.
The Rams came out playing perfect in Tampa, getting out to a 17–3 lead just 43 seconds into the second quarter after a 70-yard pass from Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp. A few drives later, Bucs kicker Ryan Succop sucked it up, missing a 48-yard field goal before the Rams made theirs and Tom Brady threw an interception, being out of sync again with his receivers. As Los Angeles tried to get a touchdown with just 31 yards ahead and 1:53 left, they blew it as running back Cam Akers fumbled at the 1 with Tampa getting to breathe, being down 20–3 at the half.
Both teams traded punts to start the second half and a nice return to the Tampa 28 gave way to another Rams touchdown. The score then became 27–3 with 7:07 left in the third quarter.
Sound familiar? Brady was once down 28–3 with 2:12 left in third quarter to Atlanta in the Super Bowl, but this Buccaneers team is hurting with injuries compared to that New England team. But anything can happen with the GOAT, right?
I guess so. Brady then led his team down the field for a field goal to make it 27–6. Then things got interesting. Kupp fumbled at the Rams’ 43-yard-line, which led to a Bucs touchdown. L.A. went three-and-out and punted. Then on the next play, veteran Von Miller, who was traded for these moments, strip-sacked Brady before recovering the fumble. The Rams returned the favor on the next play as Stafford didn’t see the ball being snapped as his center, Brian Allen, inadvertently did so with Jean Pierre-Paul recovering it 25 yards back at midfield.
Tampa got into a 4th-and-14 at the 36, opting not to kick it down 27–13 with 12:28 left in the game. Brady threw an incomplete pass deep for Mike Evans but was hit late by veteran safety, Eric Weddle, who just came out of retirement after not playing for two years. The penalty was called but because it was after the play, it meant a change of possession and L.A. had to take it 15 yards back to the 21. (Tampa had two unsportsmanlike penalties in the first half, one including Brady for his first ever after barking at a referee, so they weren’t having it at this point.)
The Rams drove down the field and had a chance to inch towards icing the game, but kicker Matt Gay’s 47-yarder somehow wasn’t long enough. This gave the Bucs new life, still being down two possessions with 6:31 left. They got all the way to the Rams’ 31 before turning it over on downs. Tampa then called all their timeouts and forced another three-and-out with 3:56 left at their 23-yard-line.
But that’s when Brady and the offense stopped messing around with a three-play drive that ended with a beauty to Evans for a 55-yard score on All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey. With 3:20 left and up a possession, a couple of first downs would have iced the game for the Rams….but they fumbled again for a fourth time with it being running back Cam Akers’ second. Tampa got it with 2:25 left and just 30 yards keeping them from tying the game. With the game on the line in a 4th-and-1 at the 9, running back Leonard Fournette aka “Playoff Lenny” walked in for his second touchdown of the game, tying it with 42 seconds.
What a choke by the Rams, who were having a repeat of the regular-season finale except in worse fashion, right?
Well like Brady, Stafford also has a lot of game-winning drives and did his thing. After a sack and timeout, Stafford hit his favorite target, Kupp, the triple crown winner, on a 20 and 42-yard pass, which came on a blitz miscommunication by the Bucs, to set up the 30-yard game-winner by Gay. He redeemed it after his previous miss as the Rams finally caught their breath, beating the defending champs, 30–27, advancing to their first NFC Championship Game in three years.
Stafford threw for 366 yards on 28-of-38 passing and two touchdowns, getting his second playoff win. Kupp had nine catches for 183 yards and a touchdown. Brady was just 30-of-54 passes for 329 yards, a touchdown and an interception in what could be his last game, but I’d be shocked if the 44-year-old, who is the likely MVP, retires.
In that wild regular season finale, the Rams had a 17–0 lead before a San Fran field goal ended the half. The Niners came out and scored on their next two possessions to tie the game, and even had a chance to go ahead but Garoppolo threw an interception in the red zone. The Rams then got a touchdown with two-and-a-half minutes before the Niners tied it with 26 seconds. In overtime, the Niners got a field goal in the red zone and picked off Stafford to clinch the win and playoff spot. Garoppolo threw for 316 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Stafford threw for 238 yards, three TDs and two interceptions.
As you can see, it was a crazy game like the Chiefs-Bengals with both teams refusing to give up. I expect that level of competition as the 49ers had more fans the last time they were in Inglewood and will again this time after the Rams tried to only get fans in the L.A. area to go, which is partly to say how lackadaisical L.A. fans are of their sports teams outside of the Lakers and Dodgers.
Even though the Rams are the better team, especially at QB, on paper, the 49ers have won the last six meetings. Plus, the team who won the previous two has gone 14–7 in the playoff match. I know San Francisco just beat the NFC favorite in the toughest place to play in the postseason and they’re eager to get back to the Super Bowl in a possible rematch with the Chiefs from two years ago, but this opportunity is too good for the Rams.
They traded for stars in Ramsey, Stafford and Miller, and signed Odell Beckham Jr. for this moment. They have the chance to be the second team in a row and ever to host the Super Bowl in their own stadium. They can’t (shouldn’t) blow this. Rams 24, 49ers 20.
So there you have it. I got the Rams and Chiefs in Super Bowl LVI, a rematch of the regular-season spectacle in L.A. three years ago where the home team won the shootout. (It could have happened in the Super Bowl that year but the Chiefs lost in the AFC Championship Game while the Rams made it.) Then, of course, it could be a 49ers-Chiefs rematch or a 49ers-Bengals rematch of the Super Bowls in the 1981 and ’88 seasons where the former won both. Either way, it looks like it’ll be another intriguing weekend.