It was just a matter of time…
Watching the Conference Championship games you could make a good case that the two best teams in the NFL did not win today. (Sorry, Patriot fans, you might have the best coach and the best quarterback, but the Chiefs lost this game with huge mistakes at the end of both halves before Brady had the game winning drive.)
Let’s look at the biggest plays and coaching decisions from each game that ended up changing the final outcome, and see if that provides an indication of how the Super Bowl will be played.
NFC Championship, Rams 26 Saints 23 (OT)
The biggest takeaway from this game was the refs robbed the Saints because of a horrible pass interference non-call on the Rams. It is a shame that the Saints have lost two games on fluke plays in two straight post seasons.
But the more I review the game and the play by play, the more I see a game where a young, inexperienced team may prove to be the best overall team after all. Here’s why:
- The Rams played as poorly as they could play to start the game, in front of one of the toughest home crowds in the NFL (is it possible Seattle is actually louder than the domed stadium in New Orleans?) but found a way to get back in it. After getting down 13–0 and being outgained 130 to 5 in the first quarter, the Rams outgained the Saints 373 to 160, and outscored them 23–10 in regulation. New Orleans came into the game with the #4 offense and #11 defense, by far the most balanced team.
- The Saints had multiple opportunities to put the game away early, but the Rams defense turned back New Orleans. The football gods can be very cruel to teams that kick field goals when they are dominating a game early. I don’t know the exact statistics, but it seems like a lot of teams that take 6–0 and 9–0 leads end up losing when the two teams are evenly matched. The coaches and players are too good for there not to be second half adjustments that change the balance of these kinds of games. The Rams got stops (punt, field goal, or turnover) on 8 of the Saints possessions (not counting the kneel downs at the end of each half).
- Sean McVay took a page from Sean Payton, and the momentum completely changed. Down 14–0 against the Eagles, Payton went for a fake punt in their own territory that completely changed the course of their divisional playoff game. McVay took the same chance, and the Rams offense suddenly came alive, driving to a first down at the New Orleans 22. While it didn’t lead to a touchdown (more about that later), the Rams got back into the game, and the defense got two straight stops.
- I can’t believe how coaches think that they are the only ones who can be tricky and don’t anticipate the actions of their opponent. In the Bears win over the Rams, coach Nagy did a number of plays that surprised the Rams, and a lot of people in the media said the Bears’ attitude was one of being sick of hearing about McVay’s briliant coaching, so they pulled out all the trick plays and formations. After Payton saved the Saints game with his fake punt, why on earth would they not defend against the one play that could give the Rams life? Up to that point, the Rams gained 5 yards and the Saints marched down the field at will. Hoping for a big punt return was unnecessary and unrealistic. Getting back the ball with the momentum might have given them the chance to go up 20–0 and probably put away the game. (NOTE: the Rams overcame a 21-point deficit in the first New Orleans game, so it wouldn’t have necessarily ended the game, but it was a small blunder that opened the door for the Rams to get back into the game.)
- One player can completely change the balance between two teams — Aquib Talib. When the Saints beat the Rams in November, Talib was injured and Marcus Peters got destroyed by Michael Thomas with 12 catches for 211 yards. Last week, in their tough come back win against the Eagles, Thomas caught 12 passes for 171 yards. Guarded by Talib on most plays, Thomas only caught 4 passes for 36 yards. Without Thomas, the Saints were forced to dink and dunk with running backs and tight ends. Only two passes of over 20 yards completed in this game, with the third big gain off a broken play with Brees scrambling and dumping a short pass to a blocker who ran into the flat to save his quarterback. Even the long pass completion to Ted Ginn Jr, was an ill advised play that should have been batted down or intercepted had the safety judged the ball correctly.
- Having fresh players makes more of a difference than we realize. Not only Talib was fresh, having missed 9 regular season games, but the signing of C.J. “the Battering Ram” Anderson in December when Todd Gurley got hurt was an enormous addition to the offense. Anderson gained 422 yards with 4 touchdowns in his first three games with the Rams, after carrying the ball only 24 times over 7 games with Carolina this season. In the Saints game, Todd Gurley (who didn’t look 100% healthy against Dallas) started off poorly, dropping an easy pass that turned into interception on the Rams’ first possession, and dropping another pass that would have either scored a touchdown or given the Rams a first down inside the Saints’ 10 yard line. Anderson softened up the Saints’ interior line, gaining enough yards to set up some shorter 3rd down situations, as well as slowing down the Saints pass rush, which dominated Goff early in the game. As the game progressed, New Orleans started to use more and more blitzes, hoping to pressure Goff, and that opened up a lot of big Rams plays for the remainder of the game.
- There were a lot more game-changing bad calls by the refs than just the missed PI call at the end. I’m sure New Orleans fans are going to remember another pass interference play by Robey-Coleman on a 3rd down pass that would have kept a Saints drive going, and others, but there were two horrible non-calls that went against the Rams, and both of them had a huge effect on the game:
A) With a 3rd and 6 at the New Orleans 18, a Saints defensive back held Brandin Cooks while a shorter pass was thrown to Gurley in the flat. The referees actually thought that Cooks was running a pick route and wanted to call offensive interference, but he was running to get open at the sideline. If they call PI, the Rams would have had a first down near the Saints 10-yard line. Instead, they were forced to kick the field goal that made it 13–3.
B) With 2nd and goal at the 5, and 6:04 left in the game, Goff ran out of the pocket, cost himself a touchdown by hesitating and then cut back to gain two yards. The defender got a piece of his face mask, but there was no call. Instead of 1st and goal at the 2, the Rams failed to score on 3rd down and kicked a field goal to tie the game 20–20. A touchdown would have made the score 24–20 and put even more pressure on the Saints on their last drive.
- New Orleans never recovered fully recovered their mojo since the Dallas game. In 9 of their first 11 games in the regular season, the Saints scored 30 points or move, including 5 games of 40 points or more. Since the Dallas game, the Saints scored 30 points in only 1 of 7 games. Drew Brees looked human in both of their playoff games, with a number of missed throws, a couple of interceptions, and average QBR rating of 63. The Saints became a very good defensive team, sporting the #1 rated rush defense in the league, but the loss of offensive fire power made them vulnerable.
- The young Rams showed that they learned how to kick it up to another level. During the regular season, the Rams gave up 5.1 yards per carry, the worst in the NFL. In the playoffs, the Rams held Dallas (#10) and New Orleans (#6) to 98 yards combined. On offense, Jared Goff made quite a comeback from those disastrous games against Chicago and Philadelphia. In spite of the insane levels of crowd noise, Jared Goff was able to get plays executed from the second quarter on, and ended up with a 75.1 QBR. Also, he made two huge plays with his legs, running for a first down and making a deep throw off of a scramble. Those plays forced the Saints to play him more honestly, further reducing the ferocity of the Saints pass rush.
- Sean McVay was the big difference maker in the team’s march to the Super Bowl. Will he be good enough to beat Bill Belichick? One of the most amazing things was to see how cool and confident McVay looked during that disastrous 1st quarter against the Saints. He reassured Gurley after his drop turned into that early interception. The announcers observed that he was calling the plays to Goff with a lot of confidence to keep his young quarterback pumped up. In addition, he made better decisions as the game wore on. Even though the Rams gained just under 3 yards a carry, the Rams still ran the ball 26 times to wear down the Saints pass rush. He threw in some new plays that he had been keeping under his sleeve the whole season, including a wide receiver reverse (not the jet sweep) and a couple of well disguised screen passes to non-running backs. He also showed that he learned something from the first first meeting between the two teams. In the November game, after trailing 7–0 and 14–7, the Rams tied the game, recovered a fumble and then tried a fake field goal instead of taking the lead. The Saints were psyched and scored 21 straight points. I thought this was a big mistake, because the Rams needed to take the crowd out of the game. In today’s game, McVay made enough right calls (admittedly, in hindsight) when it came to taking chances and playing it safe: he had to go for the fake punt in desperation to turn the game round; then, he trusted his defense by going for the field goal to tie the game at 20 — if they got stopped on 4th and goal at the 1, the energy from the crowd would been off the charts, and that last Saints drive and field goal puts them up by 6 with 1:26 left and no times out. That’s a much tougher climb than only needing a field goal to tie.
AFC Championship, Patriots 37, Chiefs 31 (OT)
There were a lot of similarities between the two games, besides the exciting overtime finishes. The Patriots and Saints both featured teams with great coaches and quarterbacks with Super Bowl title experience. The Rams and Chiefs were the new darlings of the league with high powered offenses and young, untested quarterbacks. Of the four teams, the Chiefs had, by far, the most explosive offense, but the worst defense, while the Patriots had the least talented offensive weapons and a defense that started the season as a sieve and is now doing all the smart things a Belichick defense traditionally does (hold receivers at the line of scrimmage on every play and hope the referees don’t throw flags on every play).
This game was once again decided by arguably the best coach-quarterback combination of all time versus a younger far more talented quarterback and a great coach who has consistently made terrible clock management decisions throughout his entire career.
These were the keys to the game:
- Against the Chiefs porous defense, the Patriots dinked and dunked to perfection. New England couldn’t have asked for a better start to the game, as their offense dominated time of possession, 12:38 to 2:22 in the first quarter, scoring a touchdown and driving to another. The Chiefs had -5 yards, as Mahomes started the game 1 for 3 for -2 yards and a sack.
- Brady showed the slightest hint of his mortality. On that second Patriots drive, with 3rd and goal at the Chiefs 1 yard line, Tom Brady threw an interception instead of delivering a knock out blow.
- Mahomes made a couple of rookie mistakes that prevented the Chiefs from taking control of the game. Any time there’s a significant momentum change, the winning team capitalizes. After a couple of punts, the Chiefs finally got their offense going, with two passes for 12 and 23 yards. With 1st & 10 at the Patriots 23, Mahomes missed an easy touchdown, overthrowing a running back who was 10 yards behind his defender. This one play was devastating, as the Chiefs could have tied the game and known their second half offensive explosion would surely win the game. The second play that killed their chances was Mahomes taking a stupid, unnecessary sack that took them out of field goal range. In a game this important, getting any points in the first half was vital.
- Andy Reid’s legendary time management problems raised its ugly head, Part I. With the Chiefs defense playing far above their level and tiring (New England’s time of possession up to the Chiefs botched drive was 18:53 to 8:26), Reid decided to call time out with 1:19 left in the first half and New England facing a 2nd and 9 at their own 22. Given the fact that New England ran up and down the field at will in the first half (11 first downs, 6 for 8 on 3rd down conversions, including the end zone interception and a stuffed 3rd down run), why on earth would Andy Reid give New England any extra time to score before halftime? The Chiefs were going to receive the second half kick off, and a 7–0 deficit would be nothing for Kansas City’s potent offense. Naturally, the Patriots scored with 27 seconds left on a long pass, as the Chiefs pass rush — their defense’s only strength — wore down, giving Brady enough time to throw deep. Imagine this game either tied 7–7, or with the Chiefs down 7–0 at worst. Belichick almost never makes these stupid coaching decisions, and he wins because his opponents do.
- The Chiefs offense started rolling but they couldn’t stay on the field long enough to let the defense rest. Once again, I think this shows the difference between Belichick and Reid as coaches. Belichick knew he had to dominate time of possession in order to have a chance to win. He didn’t have the offensive weapons the Chiefs had, and he knew his defense would tire and lose its effectiveness. Here’s a time of possession summary of Kansas City’s offensive explosion in the second half: TD (2:04); Punt (2:41); TD (4:11); Punt (0:54); TD (0:10); TD (1:29); Field Goal (0:31). The Chiefs scored on 5 of 7 possessions, but only controlled the clock for 11 MINUTES, 28 SECONDS.
- New England’s receivers saved Brady time and again in this game. Can they do it again in the Super Bowl? Tom Brady had one of the worst “good” games he’s ever had. He went 30 for 46 and 348 yards, but at least four times on crucial third downs he threw inaccurate passes that required ridiculous one-handed and/or diving catches in freezing weather. It should be said, as well, that two balls bounced off receivers hands on a couple of plays, with one of them resulting in an interception.
- Andy Reid’s legendary time management problems raised its ugly head, Part II. With 3:26 left in the game, and the Chiefs down 24–21, there was absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that Kansas City was headed for a go ahead touchdown. They had completely shredded New England’s defense in the second half. Without the blunders of the first half, the Chiefs would have been up by either 4 or 11 points with the chance to run out the clock, but the Chiefs were completely in the driver’s seat. All they needed to do was mix in a few runs and passes, to eat away at the clock and force New England to use their time outs before scoring the winning touchdown or sending the game to overtime. Here’s the actual list of plays they ran: deep pass, incomplete (clock stops), but given a first down off a defensive holding penalty (clock stops), incomplete pass (clock stops); deep pass, incomplete, but given a first down with a roughing the passer penalty (clock stops); incomplete pass (clock stops); completion on a wide receiver screen pass for 38 yards to the New England 2 (clock running); and, 2-yard touchdown run. All told, that 7-play, 68-yard drive took 1:29. Was there one person in America that didn’t scream at their TV “they left Brady too much time — Kansas City is dead”?
- Attention to detail: why Belichick is an all time coach and Reid isn’t. There’s a reason Andy Reid has been one of the best regular season coaches to never win a Super Bowl, someone who has blown far too many post season games with home field advantage. It is in attention to detail. Besides the time management issues, and the poor recognition of how well or poorly his offense and defense are playing, attention to detail shows up in the choices made by the players on the field. The final play that could have won the game for the Chief in regulation came on New England’s last touchdown drive. With 54 seconds left in the game, Brady threw under pressure and the ball went off Gronkowski’s hands for a game ending third interception. Instead, New England was given 5 yards and a reprieve, as linebacker Dee Ford (who did nothing on the play) lined up in the neutral zone. This is one of the most basic plays in football, and yet under pressure, the Chiefs made a critical error and the Patriots did not.
Super Bowl Preview
Here’s what we’ve learned from the Conference Championships and how it might affect the outcome of the Super Bowl:
- Many teams have been better than New England in almost every facet of the game, except mentally. The errors made by the Chiefs players and coaches throughout the AFC Championship game were astonishing, but it’s nothing new. We’ve seen the Patriots win playoff games where Brady fumbled but the refs gave him a pass because they thought they understood his intention. We’ve seen playoff games where Brady has thrown the game ending interception ON FOURTH DOWN, only for the defensive back to stupidly try to return the pick and fumble it back to New England for a new set of downs. We’ve seen games where the Patriots used a little known rule to fool the opposition with a strange tackle eligible formation. We’ve seen games where the opponents have choked, dropping game winning passes in the end zone and then missing a game tying 20 yard field goal. We’ve seen games where the opponent actually caught the game winning touchdown, but the old catch rule allowed for these catches to somehow be overturned. We’ve seen the Patriots not use a time out at the end of a game and the opponent NOT run their biggest, baddest running back into the end zone from the 2 yard line and instead throw the stupidest interception in history. We’ve seen the Patriots hold opposing receivers for the entire first half of a Super Bowl because they knew the officials didn’t want to play too much of a role in the game. We’ve seen opposing teams do everything in their power to blow an 18-point lead, instead of running the clock and kicking a field goal that would have clinched the game. There’s never been a luckier team than the New England Patriots — since 2000, the Patriots have only played 8 of their 30 playoff games on the road, an amazing statistic aided by playing 6 games a year against the Jets, Dolphins and Bills. With the Chiefs catastrophic miscues, they evened their record to 4–4 on the road. The only two Super Bowls they should have won were the ones they lost to the Giants, when THEY were the superior team.
- Sean McVay could possibly match Belichick in terms of attention to detail. Two plays stand out from the Rams’ regular season to me, and both involved Todd Gurley. In each case, the Rams were holding on to a lead of 8 points or less. Gurley broke through the line, went on a long run and then intentionally fell to the ground in bounds a couple of yards short of the goal line. He understood that it was possible for a team to get the ball back after the touchdown, score, kick and recover an onsides kick and then score a second touchdown to tie or win the game. Instead of improving his personal stats, he created an opportunity where the Rams could run four plays at the goal line and run out the clock to guarantee the win. I’ve only seen one other player do this in all the years I’ve watched football, and I think that kind of strategic thinking can be attributed to coaching. As I’ve described above, McVay has been making a higher percentage of smart calls than just about anyone besides Belichick. Jared Goff was considered one of the all time worst busts (given the number of draft picks traded to get his rights) when coached by Jeff Fisher. Under McVay, Goff at his best has looked like one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, or, under incredibly difficult circumstances, a fairly reliable game manager who gets the ball to his playmakers. (Goff did not hold the ball too long against the Saints, which was a huge improvement to how he played in December.) Finally, McVay is smart enough and confident enough to hire a great coordinator with far more experience than him, instead of feeling threatened that a smart guy could take away his job. Which leads me to the third deciding factor in the upcoming Super Bowl.
- Could the Rams’ Denver connections do in the Patriots? Wade Phillips has been one of the great defensive coordinators in football. His defense led the Broncos to their title in 2016, beating the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, followed by winning the Super Bowl in spite of Peyton Manning waning skills. Since their bye week after the Kansas City game, Phillips tightened up the defense, giving up 23 points or less in 5 of their last 7 games (and allowing two garbage time touchdowns after leading 45–17 in the sixth game.) As described above, the Rams went from being the worst running defense to holding elite rushing offenses to 50 yards a game in the playoffs. He is joined by Aquib Talib, who has been a difference maker this season. (The Rams gave up over 30 points per game when he was injured, and only 18 when he was healthy. Wade’s defense seems to have finally figured out how to stop the run, and if they can turn New England into a one dimensional offensive team, the game will be decided by the amount of pressure that can be generated on Brady. Denver’s Von Miller almost single handedly beat the Patriots in that AFC Championship. For the Rams, Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are the keys to bringing the interior pressure to stop the run and make it difficult for Brady to throw. In addition the late signing of Dante Fowler has improved the Rams outside pass rush. Brady’s short passing game will still be effective, but the Rams defense has shown the ability to create some turnovers. Both the Rams and the Patriots are in the top 5 in total takeaways, so this will once again be the biggest key to winning the game.
- The Rams more balanced attack will match the Patriots in time of possession. In Kansas City, the Patriots had a 94–47 advantage in total plays run and a huge edge in time of possession at 43:59 to 20:53. In spite of losing the turnover battle (until overtime), the Rams ran more plays than the Saints (68–64) and won the battle of time of possession (32.36 to 30:41). The combination of CJ Anderson and a fresher Todd Gurley, along with the Rams intermediate depth passing game should give them a good chance of keeping the Patriots defense off balance, and wearing them down in the second half. They also have the ability to score a lot of points quickly, so they can match the Patriots in a shoot out.
- The Rams have shown remarkable resiliency over the last six weeks. They were left for dead after losing against Chicago and Philadelphia, considered the team most likely to get upset in the divisional round, and were an underdog in New Orleans. Now, they’re a slight underdog in the Super Bowl, and I think that’s going to be an advantage for the young Rams based on how the Patriots played when they were underdogs to the Chiefs. However, I have to wonder if either AFC team could have beaten the Saints in the Superdome on this day after trailing 13–0 in the first quarter. The Saints defense is much stronger than either Kansas City or New England, while the Patriots and Chiefs ranked 29th and 31st in yards per carried allowed. The Rams proved they could stop the run (against two top 10 running teams), overcame a big early deficit on the road, and tied the game in spite of losing the turnover battle in regulation. (Finally forcing a turnover put them in position to win in overtime.)
- Is New England really that good, or have they made another Super Bowl on smoke and mirrors? They had their usual September swoon, followed by a winning streak where they beat their toughest opponents (Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Chicago). With their 3–5 road record and a fluke loss to the Dolphins, New England was in danger of being the #3 seed, and being forced to play the wild card game followed by two road playoff games. They escaped that fate because Houston choked against Philadelphia. Overall, the Patriots had one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, which I find impossible to believe since the Super Bowl teams are usually supposed to have the toughest schedules the following year. However, in the playoffs, they looked like a completely different team as they destroyed the Chargers at home and then proved to be the more balanced, and better coached team against the Chiefs, building a big lead, scoring in the clutch and overcoming two turnovers.
- Will the Rams’ players struggles this season be enough preparation to handle the pressure of playing in their first Super Bowl against a team that almost never beats itself? To their credit, the Rams came through the NFC after playing the 5th hardest schedule. Aside from their divisional gimmes against San Francisco and Arizona, the Rams played almost every team when they were playing really well (or before we knew the team stunk). The Rams were tested in close games by the Chargers and Vikings, followed by road games at Seattle and Denver. After a rest week against San Francisco, they played Green Bay, at New Orleans, and then home to Seattle and Kansas City. Finally, they had to play in Chicago in the cold, followed by a Philadelphia team desperate to save their season and reach the playoffs. They played most of the season without Aquib Talib, and won in spite of giving up a lot of points.
The most likely scenario will be for New England to pull out all stops and try to build an early lead. In years past, Belichick would defer so the Patriots could get the ball to start the second half. I think he will elect to receive if New England wins the coin flip. I’m not sure McVay will do the same thing, which is unfortunate, because the Rams have been almost unbeatable the last two years when they score the first touchdown.
I think New England has a much smaller margin for error. Their have more limited players at the skills positions. When Michel is in the game, they run. When White or Burkhead are in, they are more of a threat as pass receivers. Gronkowski is still potentially a big threat as he only has to survive this one last game, but their wide receivers aren’t really deep threats. If they get behind early, the Rams pass defense would be in constant attack mode and pressure Brady into getting rid of the ball too early, or making a mistake that results in a turnover. The Rams were a top 10 pass defense this year in spite of teams predominantly passing because they trailed and Talib’s injury.
The thing I don’t know is how the Rams will react to the pressure of being in a Super Bowl. If they play sharp and score early, there’s a chance they could build a big lead. If that happens, Sean McVay will not make the same mistakes Dan Quinn made in Super Bowl 51.
The last Super Bowl held in Atlanta had one of the greatest endings ever, known as “The Tackle,” with the Rams beating the Titans on the last play of the game.
Rams 34, Patriots 31.