NFL Review: Divisional Weekend

Just forewarning you… this might be a long one… after all, that might have been the greatest four-game consecutive slate of NFL games ever. Certainly, Sunday is the best back-to-back pair of games I can ever remember. Four games, all walk-off wins. 3 game-winning Field Goals (Kickers are people too guys, and they REALLY matter – don’t forget it!), and a walk-off overtime Touchdown.

It had everything. Pure magic that I wish we could bottle and sell. I guess the NFL already does that if we’re honest, huh? We’re down to 4 teams left fighting for the Super Bowl in February. Bengals, 49ers, Rams and… after maybe the best game in NFL history… the Chiefs. We start there.

The Best Game in NFL History (?)

Credit: Ed Zurga (Associated Press)

To borrow (and slightly alter) a phrase from last season’s playoffs… the Chiefs is the Chiefs. Thirteen seconds. Not 30. 13. One-three. That’s all Patrick Mahomes had to keep the Chiefs’ dreams of 3 straight SuperBowl appearances alive, needing about 45 yards to get into game-tying, game-saving field goal range. It was over, right?

Josh Allen had just completed the 2nd of two straight unbelievable Playoff performances (9TDs, 0 INTs), and had just found Gabriel Davis for his FOURTH touchdown reception of the game, the first time in NFL Playoff history ANYBODY had ever had 4 receiving TDs. Bills Mafia were prepping the tables. But then… with the aforementioned “13 seconds” left… Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, & Travis Kelce said “Hold on just a minute…”

The Chiefs miraculous jump into Field Goal range DOES raise some questions about the Bills defensively, starting from the fact that Buffalo didn’t squib kick it to run time off the clock… or just tackle ALL the Chiefs receivers at the line of scrimmage, take the 5 yard penalty, but run time off the clock… but let that not distract you from the QB wizardry we saw.

Patrick Mahomes was being compared to Michael Jordan in the 90’s on ESPN last night (shoutout Ryan Clark, excellent analyst), and it’s hard not to argue with casting him in that role, and the Chiefs as the Chicago Bulls. Two quick hitters and the Chiefs had a manageable Field Goal to tie the game up at 36…

Chiefs’ Kicker Harrison Butker was unusually askew with his kicking last night, but still managed to stand and deliver when really needed. Can you imagine if (after that 13 second miracle drive from Mahomes) Butker had slid the game-tying Field Goal from 49 wide right?! Ooooof that would have been a killer. But it wasn’t to be. Into overtime, and the coin toss – which killed the Chiefs in the 2019 AFC Championship Game – this time gave them what turned out to be the sole possession.

Be prepared for lots of discussion of NFL overtime rules this offseason. Travis Kelce broke away from Matt Milano, adjusted his body in the corner of the endzone, got two feet down, sent Arrowhead into absolute raptures, and condemned Buffalo to the most heartbreaking of losses.

To say I’m “gutted” for Josh Allen, Sean McDermott, Gabriel Davis and that entire Bills organisation and fan base would be an understatement. It’s a cruel twist of fate that having improved so much since last year, they wound up back in Kansas City, one round earlier than last season, unable to get past this Chiefs’ juggernaut again. This could really be the story of the next 10+ years in the AFC if Kansas City can continue to draft well and manage their salary cap efficiently.

If Buffalo want to win the AFC, and the Super Bowl, they may have to find a way to overcome this Chiefs team when it matters most. Mahomes is still yet to lose at home in the playoffs to anyone other than Tom Brady, and even that was only after a defensive offside had given the then Patriots’ QB a reprieve. The Chiefs – understandably celebrated incredulously, but Mahomes went straight to Josh Allen. The mutual respect between the two is obvious to see.

Josh Allen. Where to begin? The man is a myth. To be that big, that quick, that strong, with that much of a rocket arm… with the entire Bills offense revolving around his toughness, accuracy, and execution… the weight of the rabidly passionate city of Buffalo on his shoulders… he’s incredible.

Last night was the only time in NFL Playoff history both QBs threw for 300+ pass yards, 3+ pass TDs, and 0 INTs, both completed 70+% of passes, plus both led their teams in rushing. It was two goliaths butting heads and – I know it’s cliche – neither deserved to lose. What’s more? Allen is a class act. In his postgame press conference, when the OT rules questions was raised, Josh simply said “We’d be celebrating just the same if things were the other way around.” To have that level of level-headedness after a defeat that heartbreaking deserves a lot of credit.

When Allen found Gabriel Davis (himself having a breakout game for a lifetime) with 13 seconds left EVERYONE was convinced Buffalo had just won the game. Allen never touched the ball again and is now eliminated. A cruel world. Josh Allen has progressed and improved so much over the last few years, that he is almost Patrick Mahomes’ equal. In almost any other game, what Josh Allen did would have been enough… BUT… the Chiefs is the Chiefs.

Special word for the broadcasting team of Tony Romo, Jim Nantz, and Tracy Wolfson who I thought were truly perfect yesterday (until Romo suggested that Kelce may not have gotten two feet down on the game-winner). The quality of their words, their understanding of the magnitude of what they were seeing, and their genuine unbiased excitement for both teams was infectious and REALLY added to the experience of watching that game. Long may that calibre of broadcasting continue. 

I’m gutted for you Buffalo. I love watching your team Kansas City. Let’s hope Mahomes vs Allen IS the new “Brady vs Peyton” that everyone is tipping. The Chiefs become the first team ever to host 4 straight Conference Championship games: That’s the Mahomes effect. 

Rams Sneak By Brady & The Bucs

Credit: NBC

And the weird thing is that THIS looked like it was destined to be the game of the weekend with 43 seconds left. Tom Brady – working his magic again – had dragged this Bucs team back from a 27-3 deficit (sound familiar? Sorry @Falcons fans), with the help of the Los Angeles Rams wiping actual butter on their fingers before they went out for the remainder of the game, and Leonard Fournette had just scored his 2nd rushing TD of the day, and the game was tied at 27.

Same old Brady right? Inevitable, undeniable… the defending Champs were refusing to give up their crown… but then Cooper Kupp & Matthew Stafford SNATCHED it away. Busted coverage? Probably. But LA capitalised, and (former Bucs’ kicker) Matt Gay steered the ball through the uprights, and secured the potential of both a home NFC Championship Game AND the home Super Bowl should they win next weekend.

But… it must be said… the Rams tried REALLY hard to lose this game. Up 27-3 mid-way through the 3rd Quarter, the Rams should have been able to EASILY see this game out without much stress. No chance of that however, with drama guaranteed this weekend. A catalogue of mistakes gave Tampa Bay hope. Akers fumbled for the second time, Kupp – who was otherwise flawless – fumbled once, and a snap went over Matt Stafford’s head, leading to Tampa Bay getting ALL the momentum and feeling pretty good about overtime… but 43 seconds was enough for Cooper Kupp to make the difference.

Two big plays, and Kupp did what he’s done all year long, and been the gamebreaker for the Rams. I will say, I’m elated for Matthew Stafford. He’s deserved this opportunity to prove the doubters wrong following his time in Detroit, and he’s delivered in a big way for Sean McVay. The Rams have mortgaged their future for present success, trading away draft picks zero regard for the draft process, all in the aim of hosting (and winning) the Super Bowl in their own stadium in February.

This Rams team has everything they need to get back to the big game and try and erase the nightmare that was the 13-3 game vs New England. Since then, they’ve upgraded at QB, at all their skill positions, added Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller to the Aaron Donald-led defense AND they seem to have a reborn OBJ making plays like his old self too. The Rams dealt with Brady… and now WON’T have to deal with Aaron Rodgers. Lucky them.

I find it hard to believe this will prove to be Brady’s last game in either a Bucs uniform OR in the NFL as a whole. He’s clearly at worst a Top 3 candidate for NFL MVP this season (with Cooper Kupp and Aaron Rodgers the other two), and was playing arguably some of the best football of his career throughout the regular season. If not for injuries on his offensive line (Tristan Wirfs being the key one) there’s a huge chance he would be prepping for his 2nd straight NFC Title game today.

I really enjoyed watching “Man in the Arena” on ESPN+, which hurts me to say, being a life-long member of the “I hate Tom Brady” club. He’s at his most human now that he’s escaped Belichick’s clutches and… dare I say it… I WANT to see him play again next season. How weird is that? The NFC is a more exciting place with Tom Brady in it. 

It would be unfair of me NOT to mention Al Michaels & Cris Collinsworth in the same way I did Nantz and Romo… Michaels is – for me – the finest voice in NFL broadcasting, and has been for decades. These two ALSO added immeasurably to the viewers’ enjoyment of this game. And now, McVay has to prepare for his kryptonite… The 49ers.

49ers Steal One From Packers

Credit: Aaron Gash (Associated Press)

I honestly thought that THIS game was going to be the headline act of this article once it finished how it did… and somehow it ends up 3rd! This was… politely… respectfully… a travesty. A prime example of absolute highway, daylight robbery. The fraud-ty Niners (as they shall henceforth be known) escaped the frozen tundra, without scoring an offensive touchdown, after somehow managing to hold Aaron Rodgers’ Packers offense to just 3 points after the opening drive of the game.

Do they deserve credit for that? ABSOLUTELY. Kyle Shanahan’s defense played their absolute hearts out, clamping down on Davante Adams after he threatened to torch them on the Packers’ first possessions, and finding the perfect amount of “bend but don’t break” to implement. Green Bay struggled for rhythm and will look back at this as THE biggest missed opportunity to get Rodgers back to the Super Bowl. Matt LaFleur has had an incredible first 3 seasons as Head Coach at Lambeau Field, but has not been able to get the men in green and yellow quite over their playoff curse. Whatever you think of Aaron Rodgers’ vaccination status issues, his career has deserved more than one Super Bowl appearance… and yet…

AND YET – I’m sat here, 24hrs on, still bemused, befuddled and a little bit annoyed about the outcome of this game. Sure – Green Bay only scored 10 points so they can’t claim to have been dominant – but the game was under control throughout. The Niners NEVER led until the game was over. Deebo Samuel’s superhuman efforts to play through injury and drag this team downfield and into game-winning Field Goal range was incredible in and of itself.

Sidenote – Robbie Gould. 19/19 in the playoffs in his career. Wow. And what a kick, in bad weather, for all the marbles, for the upset. The Niners – understandably – celebrated like they couldn’t believe what had just happened. And that was accurate – nobody watching that game could believe the Niners managed to eek out a win.

Garoppolo was errant at best; throwing to anyone other than George Kittle he was downright atrocious. I cannot believe he has as good of a record of wins in the playoffs as he does. That credit has to go to the calibre of defense and coaching he has. Garoppolo was carried to the Super Bowl two years ago, and couldn’t make the big play to win it against the Chiefs when they needed him. That will happen again, probably this Sunday against the Rams. Completing less than 50% of your passes cannot be the recipe for success.

The 49ers stout defense (and special teams) were the only reason this game remained close throughout. Rodgers and the Packers offense were unusually ineffective and wasteful. The “Last Dance” for Rodgers and Davante Adams went out with a whimper. Green Bay’s special teams had threatened to derail them all year, and it finally bit them. For the first time in months the offense was stifled.

A blocked Field Goal, a punt block TD, ZERO offensive touchdowns… I’m just sick. It’s absolutely horrific that the Cowboys and Packers have failed to beat this Niners team. They’re living a charmed life, and who’s to say at this point they can’t charm their way past the Rams (who they’ve beaten 6 times in a row, might I add) and back to the Super Bowl.

A Jimmy G redemption?? Not in my lifetime. Garoppolo – playing like he is, being like he is – does not have enough to win the Super Bowl. It just won’t happen for San Fran. That said, it now looks like it might never happen again for A-Rodg in Green Bay either… Another tumultuous offseason awaits for the Cheeseheads. For the Niners… they’re on game away from the Super Bowl. Unbelievable. 

Burrow & McPherson Deliver The Miracle For Cincy

Mark Zaleski (Associated Press)

Somehow, Joe Burrow taking Cincinnati to the AFC Championship feels like a footnote to the weekend. It’s crazy. That’s how much happened over the 4 games. The Tennessee Titans, the AFC’s Number 1 seed, fell to the up and coming buzzsaw that is Joe Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals team.

The Titans came into this full of confidence, allegedly back to full strength. Derrick Henry’s return was electric, with Nashville going absolutely bonkers as he emerged from the smoke-filled tunnel. But – as I expected – King Henry wasn’t quite himself, and the play of those around him meant that his comeback lasted no longer than one game.

It was not Ryan Tannehill’s finest game, starting with throwing the INT on the first play from scrimmage. We Should have known then what this weekend would have in store for us. Sure, a couple of Tannehill’s passes were tipped before they were picked, but when you get the ball back with a few minutes left in the 4th, ready to drive down and win the game, you just can’t throw the pick that allows the Bengals’ rookie phenom Evan McPherson to kick the game-winning Field Goal.

I’m sad for Tennessee, especially Mike Vrabel who again put forward an exceptional coaching season that ended in playoff heartbreak. Will the Titans ever get over the hump? It’s hard to see how this team could beat the Chiefs or the Bills in the Playoffs when it matters most.

It’s truly incredible that the Titans managed to sack Joe Burrow NINE times and lose this game. Give huge amounts of credit to the Bengals’ QB. He has changed this entire franchise’s fortunes in just two years, including a serious injury in the midst of that. Burrow is the real deal and will be winning games with Ja’Marr Chase in Cincinnati for a LONG time to come.

Can the Bengals complete the miracle story and get to the Super Bowl? I don’t see it, unfortunately. This Chiefs team is just too good. BUT there is zero shame in getting to the AFC Title Game and losing, IF that’s what happens. Burrow was superb on Saturday and, despite being beat up by the Titans’ D-Line, managed to find a way to make the throws he needed to carry the Bengals down the field.

McPherson’s quote about “Hey, I guess we’re going to the AFC Championship game” BEFORE he kicked the game-winner was fantastic. What confidence from a young man. I’m so happy for the Bengals and their fans. If this is the end of the road this year, enjoy every minute of it. You guys deserve it.

Championship Weekend Preview

And then… there were 4. Cincinnati fans could not have dared to dream of this at the start of the season, but with Burrow and Chase, plus the other weapons he has, and that defense playing their legs off, they have a chance. Not to mention, they’ve already beaten the Chiefs as recently as a month ago. Hard to beat the same opponent twice? Yup. Impossible? Never.

Similarly… the Niners have ALREADY beaten the Rams twice this year, including three weeks ago to get INTO the Playoffs… Can they complete the hat trick?! Well, maybe!? It is hard to beat a team 7 times in a row… but Jimmy G is now 3-0 when he throws 0TDs… what a world. I’m gonna be “boring” and say I think we’re looking at a Rams vs Chiefs Super Bowl, but what other choice do I have. They’re – for me – CLEARLY the two best teams remaining. We’ll find out next Sunday!

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. I’m @CallumJDSquires on Twitter and Instagram. Come say hi. Stay safe. Peace.

Callum Squires