Clutch Encounters: Conference Championships
by Scott Kacsmar
After a postseason that had been lacking in drama and memorable moments, Championship Sunday delivered with two overtime games that will be remembered for a long time. They just may not be remembered for the right reasons in New Orleans and Kansas City, as the home teams both fell for only the fourth time in this round since the merger. 2018 joins 1992, 1997, and 2012 as the only seasons where that happened.
You could say one game got to overtime after a travesty (a no-call), and the other got to overtime after an absurdity (38 points in the fourth quarter). Since neither game was the Super Bowl, it's hard to say if the NFL will feel pressured enough to expand replay or overtime for next season. Personally, I feel both changes are long overdue and will give my thoughts below on how the NFL could improve those areas of the game. One group that won't get any scorn this week is the kickers, who made all nine of their field goals and had no missed extra points.
Game of the Week
New England Patriots 37 at Kansas City Chiefs 31
Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 4 (28-24)
Game-Winning Chance Before: 56.1 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 43.9 percent
Head Coach: Bill Belichick (55-81 at 4QC and 71-82 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Tom Brady (44-40 at 4QC and 57-42 overall 4QC/GWD record)
This is the NFL's 99th season. Ten teams have scored at least 540 points in a regular season and none of those teams won a championship. The 2018 Chiefs, third all-time with 565 points, are the latest to fall short of the ultimate goal. Trailing 14-0 at halftime, it looked like the Chiefs might suffer one of the worst crash-and-burn efforts by one of those scoring juggernauts, but that was not the case for Patrick Mahomes. He found a way to drop 31 points in the second half alone, but once again fell victim to a defense that could not get him the ball back.
That was always going to be the question with Kansas City this postseason. Could the defense that ranked 32nd in yards per drive, 28th in points per drive, and 26th in DVOA (32nd against the run) close things out against a top quarterback? I thought they would be in that late-game position against Andrew Luck last week, but the Colts were shockingly poor in that divisional-round matchup. The Patriots were of course much better prepared with a run-heavy approach early that threatened to significantly limit Mahomes' possessions. The Chiefs only had the ball four times in the first half, including a drive that started with 21 seconds left in the second quarter. On one of those drives, Mahomes missed a wide-open Damien Williams for a touchdown; the drive then came up empty after Mahomes also took a bad sack to move out of field goal range. At halftime, Tom Brady's red zone interception was the only thing keeping this from a rout.
Pressure was significant to the outcome. According to ESPN Stats & Info, what these teams did pressure-wise last week really carried over to Sunday night as well. Last week, Mahomes suffered four sacks and was pressured just over 40 percent of the time against the Colts. This week, Mahomes was pressured 44.4 percent of the time and took four more sacks, losing 45 yards in the process. The Patriots pressured Philip Rivers 45.3 percent of the time last week and kept Brady clean (11.4 percent). Brady's pressure rate was even lower this week (10.9 percent) despite the fact that the Chiefs had the best pressure rate by any defense at home this season. Brady never took a sack and was only hit once on the night. That's a sure-fire way to lose to this team, as only the 2015 Broncos and 2017 Eagles have been able to keep up the pressure on Brady in crunch time of the playoffs in recent years.
The score was actually low for a while, with the Patriots taking a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter before the Chiefs added another touchdown. After stopping Rex Burkhead on a fourth-and-1 run, the Chiefs had an opportunity to take a lead, but the offense went three-and-out. That's when the officials became heavily involved, but they actually seemed to get four replays right in the final nine minutes. The first was an apparent muffed punt by Julian Edelman that he likely didn't even touch. If there wasn't a rule that a muff can't be advanced for a touchdown, Chiefs fans would probably be really up in arms on this one since the call on the field was a turnover and the review is supposed to be conclusive to overturn it. Either way, Edelman should not have tried going for that ball, and two plays later he tipped a pass for an interception anyway. That led to the first go-ahead touchdown by the Chiefs after they got Williams wide open again for a 23-yard touchdown on a screen with 7:45 left.
One thing the officials got badly wrong was a roughing the passer penalty on Chris Jones that otherwise would have put the Patriots in a third-and-7. Jones did not hit Brady's face, and the frustrating part about that call was the inconsistency since Mahomes had a similar play earlier where the officials correctly let it go. Given the way the Chiefs played defense on third down, the Patriots may have overcome that situation anyway, as they were 13-of-19 on third down. Chris Hogan converted a big third-and-8 by pulling in a pass with one hand and getting his arm under the ball for enough control to avoid an incompletion. That led to a 10-yard touchdown run by Sony Michel on fourth-and-1 when most were expecting the Brady sneak.
Down 24-21 with 3:26 left, Mahomes needed to be mindful of the clock, but he did launch an ill-advised bomb with 3:02 left that was nearly intercepted in the end zone. One play later, the Chiefs got Sammy Watkins open on a pick play for a 38-yard gain on a night where Travis Kelce had the dropsies and Tyreek Hill wasn't much of a factor. The Chiefs only ran the ball 10 times for 30 yards with Williams, but he did come through with a touchdown to give the Chiefs a 28-24 lead with 2:03 left.
Brady had all three timeouts left. The situation dictated it, but the Patriots also clearly moved to a more pass-happy approach later in the game after seeing how well they could handle the rush from the Chiefs. Kansas City did force the offense into one third down, and it looked like a Super Bowl berth was on the horizon after Rob Gronkowski tipped a pass for Brady's third interception with 54 seconds left, but Dee Ford was lined up offsides to nullify the play. That was just terrible awareness by Ford, and this is the last team and quarterback to give an extra chance to in this spot. Gronkowski delivered on the very next play with a 25-yard grab to the 4. The Chiefs basically let the Patriots score with Burkhead, which was really the right move at that point given how inevitable the touchdown felt.
Down 31-28, Mahomes still had a timeout left at his own 31 with 32 seconds left. That's still doable, and he bought time to hit a play for 21 yards before using his timeout. With the Patriots jumping offsides, Mahomes had a free play and used it wisely for a 27-yard gain that also stopped the clock. In just 16 seconds, the Chiefs moved 48 yards with two clock stoppages (one being a timeout), so keep that in your memory bank when you see an offense just kneel to end a half. The Chiefs were in a tough spot at the 21, and Mahomes took one shot to the end zone that was basically a throwaway. He really could have tried one more for the win with 11 seconds left, but given the low probability of success and the way the Patriots were getting pressure -- the game would have ended with a sack -- the field goal was probably the wise move. Harrison Butker doesn't have a long history of clutch kicks, but he delivered from 39 yards to send the game to overtime.
In overtime, the Patriots won the toss and of course elected to receive. In 16 career overtime games, Brady has gotten the ball in his possession 14 times. One of the only two times he didn't was in 2015 against the Jets when Bill Belichick actually kicked off after winning the toss. Even though the Chiefs forced third-and-10 three times in overtime, Brady converted all of them. They even toyed with the Chiefs by throwing incompletions to Cordarrelle Patterson twice and attempting a weird flea-flicker, but when it came down to it on third-and-long, the usual suspects showed up and the Chiefs had no answers for them. After getting to the red zone at the 15, the running game took over and Burkhead finished off the Chiefs with three runs, including the 2-yard touchdown to end the game at 37-31.
All Mahomes could do was watch from the sideline, much like he did in Week 6 when Brady got the ball late in a 40-40 tie and led a game-winning field goal drive. The Patriots had two games this season with over 500 yards of offense and both were against the Chiefs. Brady's 56th game-winning drive ties him with Peyton Manning for the most in NFL history. It was a historic type of win all around. The Patriots join the 1971-73 Dolphins and 1990-93 Bills as the only teams to appear in at least three straight Super Bowls. Home teams had been 16-0 in the conference championship round when committing zero turnovers, but the Chiefs lost this one. Since 1940, playoff teams that scored at least 31 points with zero turnovers had been 64-1. The only other loss was the "Ghost to the Post" game in 1977 when Oakland beat the Colts, also by a 37-31 final in overtime. That was actually in double overtime, so both teams touched the ball in overtime that day.
Both offenses certainly didn't touch the ball in overtime in this one, and it's hard to see how the NFL can continue to be the most popular league with the worst overtime system. Even a Super Bowl where one team with the reigning MVP quarterback never touched the ball failed to change anything. High school football, college football, the Arena Football League, and the CFL understand that this isn't a game celebrated for someone to score first, but as a challenge to see who can score the most points. Hell, even NFL Europe used to give both teams a possession. It's just the fair and logical thing to do in a game where both sides of the matchup matter.
Baseball doesn't end even if a team hits a grand slam in the top of the 10th inning; the home team gets three outs too. Some will argue baseball isn't as physically demanding, but the NFL is a league that schedules Thursday night games well into December. A few extra minutes of action in a playoff game every once in a while isn't going to hurt anyone. Rules can be different for the playoffs too. We saw it this weekend with the clock going back to 15 minutes instead of the 10-minute idea in the regular season. Playoff hockey is physically taxing and those players can go for two or three extra periods while playing a game two nights later as well. That game is also so limited in scoring that sudden death works perfectly for it. Basketball is about who can score the most in an allotted time, and it's hard to see why the NFL isn't moving in a similar direction, even if it means playing a full 10 or 15 minutes in the playoffs to crown a winner.
Football has changed a lot. Joe Montana was 84-1 as a starter when his team scored at least 25 points. Mahomes is already 14-5, with at least 28 points in all of his losses. Before the NFL signed off on the first modified overtime game in the 2011 season, it did not expect we'd see so many 500-point teams or 5,000-yard passers, or see 400-yard passing games became a new norm. When the salary cap era started in 1994, teams averaged 1.64 points per drive. By 2004, it was only up to 1.73 after illegal contact was reinforced. In 2009, when the Saints beat the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game after Brett Favre never touched the ball in overtime, the league averaged 1.76 points per drive. But scoring has increased more recently. In 2016, the season where the Patriots beat the Falcons in Super Bowl LI in overtime, the average was 1.97 points per drive. Things topped out at 2.04 points per drive in 2018.
Rules should change along with an evolving game, and this season has shown that offense rules. So why are we still going to let a coin flip decide the most important games of the season? While the coin toss doesn't directly put the ball in the end zone, there is still an advantage to receiving first. If that wasn't true, then 116 out of 120 teams wouldn't have chosen to receive first. In the 120 modified overtime games, the team receiving first is now 60-53-7 (.529). The team receiving first has won immediately with a touchdown 24 times now, or 20 percent of the games. This is more likely to happen when good teams are involved. In 25 overtime games between teams that finished the season with winning records, there were eight first-drive touchdowns (32.0 percent), or almost double the rate of how often that happened in the other 95 overtime games (16.8 percent).
In the eight playoff games with modified overtime, the team receiving first is now 7-1, with New Orleans yesterday as the only loss. Five of those eight games have ended with a first-drive touchdown, meaning the 2011 Steelers (at Denver), 2014 Packers (at Seattle), 2015 Packers (at Arizona), 2016 Falcons (vs. New England), and 2018 Chiefs (vs. New England) never touched the ball in overtime. While this system may work well enough in Week 7 when FOX wants to make sure Buccaneers-Saints doesn't cut into the start time for Bob's Burgers, it's not good enough for the postseason.
The solution isn't to adopt a hokey college system where both teams start at the same point on the field. It's simpler than that. For the playoffs, the NFL should just guarantee that both teams get a possession. If it's still tied after that, then the game can go to sudden death. At the very least this will make sure both sides have a say in overtime, and teams may have to actually think about whether or not to take the ball first or go on defense. The common rebuttal that the losing team "should have played defense" should fall on deaf ears after the winning team didn't even get challenged. The reason this particular game got to overtime was because the New England defense allowed a field goal in the final seconds. That came on the heels of allowing two go-ahead touchdown drives. Yet that unit never had to be held accountable in overtime by making a stop because a coin toss dictated otherwise. If the rest of the football and sports world can do better than this, so can the NFL.
While the Patriots prepare for their ninth Super Bowl in 18 years under Brady and Belichick, the Chiefs have some work to do to get over this hump next year. Firing defensive coordinator Bob Sutton after years of diminishing returns should be the first step. CBS' Tony Romo sounded like he had a better grasp of what the Patriots were doing. Under Sutton, the Chiefs were abysmal in protecting one-score leads this season. The 4-4 record sounds bad enough, but consider that one of those "holds" was in Week 8 when Denver had four seconds to go 85 yards. In the first game against Denver, Case Keenum should have had a game-winning touchdown in the final 20 seconds, but badly missed the throw. Even in Week 14 against Baltimore, Robert Griffin III came off the bench and had a fourth-and-22 pass in overtime that Willie Snead should have caught, but didn't. The cleanest pressure stop the Chiefs got all year was against Arizona's rookie Josh Rosen, the worst statistical starter of 2018, and even that was an interception with over 12 minutes to play. Jared Goff, Philip Rivers, and Brady (twice) all picked apart the Chiefs in crunch time this season. If Brady didn't get the Chiefs twice, Goff may have just done it in two weeks. This defense simply wasn't championship-caliber.
Perhaps the best news for Mahomes is that the Patriots are near the end of their run while he'll be 24 years old next season. The AFC should inevitably be going through some changes, but for at least one more year, the Patriots weren't ready to pass the torch just yet.
Clutch Encounters of the Winning Kind
Los Angeles Rams 26 at New Orleans Saints 23
Type: 4QC/GWD (OT)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (23-20)
Game-Winning Chance Before: 72.4 percent
Game-Winning Chance After: 100.0 percent
Win Probability Added: 27.6 percent
Head Coach: Sean McVay (6-6 at 4QC and 6-6 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Jared Goff (6-8 at 4QC and 6-8 overall 4QC/GWD record)
For a change, the latest playoff disappointment in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era came primarily with the offense on the field. It wasn't so much anything either of those guys did on Sunday, but the cumulative effect of missed opportunities that kept the Rams in the game even after a miserable first quarter left L.A. with a 13-0 deficit. A fake punt eventually helped get the Rams on the scoreboard, and Jared Goff finally was able to strike deep before halftime to take a 13-10 deficit into the locker room.
This wasn't any brilliant coaching turnaround by Sean McVay on the road, but greenlighting the fake punt and having the stones to banish a struggling Todd Gurley (six touches and two third-down drops) to the bench for C.J. Anderson were big moves for the Rams. The Los Angeles running game never really materialized, but getting Goff more comfortable and finding better spacing for Brandin Cooks really helped on a third-quarter touchdown drive to answer a New Orleans score.
The Saints led 20-17 to start the fourth quarter, and both of these teams had been 7-0 this season when protecting a one-score lead in the fourth. On the first play of the quarter, Nickell Robey-Coleman got quite handsy with Ted Ginn on a third down, but no flag was thrown. That was a precursor of things to come. After a Cam Jordan sack made the Rams go three-and-out, the Saints blew another golden opportunity with great starting field position at the Los Angeles 46. Instead of adding to the lead, a holding penalty set back the drive, and Brees was nearly intercepted by Robey-Coleman on third-and-17.
Next drive, on a third-and-3, Goff made one of the biggest plays of his career to find Gerald Everett for a 39-yard gain after a rare case of extending the play. The Rams eventually had a first-and-goal, but Goff was slow in deciding to scramble on second down, so he didn't get a touchdown. The officials also missed a facemask on the play that would have given the Rams a first down. Gurley has a great nose for the end zone, but Anderson got the third-down carry and was stopped a yard short, bringing up fourth-and-goal at the 1 with the clock beating down towards five minutes left. I think given the time, the field position, and the strength of your offense at running in these situations, going for it would have been the smart move. McVay settled for the conservative option of a 24-yard game-tying field goal following a delay of game penalty. According to EdjSports, the Game-Winning Chance for a run from the 1 was 46.9 percent, compared to 34.5 percent for a field goal. That's hardly the worst decision we've seen this season, but that's a pretty big error that nearly cost the Rams dearly.
While the game was tied at 20 and the Saints weren't going to be super aggressive, those short completions by Brees drain the clock quickly. After one nice find of Alvin Kamara on a third down, the clock was suddenly under three minutes. Brees rarely ever attacked down the field on Sunday. While Michael Thomas wasn't shadowed by Aqib Talib, the Rams did an excellent job in taking that connection away from the Saints. Thomas finished with 36 yards on seven targets, his third-lowest game of his career.
However, Brees was looking for Ginn in the fourth quarter and found him on a 42-yard strike in front of Lamarcus Joyner to get to the two-minute warning. That felt like a Super Bowl-advancing type of play with the Rams down to two timeouts, but the Saints didn't nail the execution afterwards. A low pass from Brees to Thomas on first down kept the clock still at 1:55. A no-gain run by Kamara quickly brought up third-and-10. Brees threw quickly to Tommylee Lewis coming out of the backfield, and Robey-Coleman blew him up near the sideline. Everyone expected a flag for defensive pass interference (the hit was early with the ball in the air) or for an illegal hit to a defenseless receiver, but the damnedest thing happened: no flag came.
Imagine not allowing the Saints to get to the Super Bowl because you thought this wasn't a penalty pic.twitter.com/cyPNmkGUiB
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) January 20, 2019
If that's not textbook pass interference, then nothing is. Any side judge should have been able to see that one. The head official, Bill Vinovich, actually had a petition this week for him to not be assigned to this game since the Rams had been on an 0-8 slide with him doing their games, but they got the gift of all gifts here. NFL history is loaded with egregious officiating blunders, but it's hard to think of an obvious no-call worse than this one. Reportedly, it wasn't long after the game that Payton received word from the NFL that they botched this one badly. Had the call been made, the Saints would have had a first down. They could have run three plays, with the Rams burning their final timeout on one of them. That would have set up a short field goal with 10 to 15 seconds remaining, which would have given the Saints an outstanding probability to win the game, of course. It was an atrocious miss, and Robey-Coleman didn't hold back after the game on it. He knew he was trying to blow up a receiver to and got away with one.
While the game didn't just end here, it pretty much should have. So what can the NFL do to limit these mistakes in the future? I think the solution is quite simple: leave coaches one challenge per game, but make everything challengeable. Since all scores and turnovers are automatically reviewed, coaches don't have to use their challenges as much anymore. By giving them only one, you can make them prioritize better. Instead of challenging a spot for 4 yards of field position in the second quarter, maybe they'll save that challenge for something important later in the game. The idea that a "judgment call" shouldn't be challenged is ludicrous. Anything that has to be judged by human eyes is a judgment call, including a completion, or whether there were 12 men on the field at the snap, or whether or not a lineman false started. If you've paid attention this season, you know false starts are being missed all the time. So if Mike Tomlin had been able to challenge here that the Chargers had a false start, then that touchdown would have been voided in Week 13. If a replay system exists to give a play another viewing and get it right, then why shouldn't everything be fair game?
I would be open to a coach getting a second challenge if his first is successful, but overall, I don't think this would lengthen games by any significant margin. It would also add some more strategy to coaching and hopefully cut down on the atrocious calls we see far too often in this league. This wouldn't be necessary if the officials were better, but as Sunday proved yet again, too often they are not even when the stakes are at their highest. It's always best to correct a call during a game rather than in a phone call afterwards.
Rant aside, the Saints still could have stopped the Rams after Wil Lutz's 31-yard field goal gave them a 23-20 lead with 1:41 left. Goff hung in against the pressure, and may have had a 51-yard touchdown right up the middle of the field to Robert Woods if the throw had been better to allow Woods to keep his feet. That converted the only tricky part of the drive on a third-and-3 at midfield, but it also cost the Rams their final timeout. The offense only gained 3 more yards and set kicker Greg Zuerlein up with a difficult situation. A 48-yard field goal with the season on the line in that hectic atmosphere with the crowd noise was not an easy kick, but Zuerlein nailed it to send the game to overtime.
No qualms with the Saints taking the ball first, and they even looked like they might get a make-up call or two after a pass interference penalty was finally called on the Rams for 14 yards. But after a 6-yard loss by Mark Ingram, Brees had to throw on second-and-16. The Rams traded for Dante Fowler this season for moments like this, and he delivered with a spin move that got to Brees and hit him in motion. John Johnson made an interception while lying on his back as the ball fluttered, and the Rams were at their own 46 to start the drive, only needing a field goal. Brees, who turned 40 this week, was intercepted once in six of his last seven games after starting the season with one pick in 10 games. This was the 120th game of his career (52-68) that presented a game-winning drive opportunity, but fewer losses will sting more than this one.
The Rams didn't exactly thrive on offense with the win in sight. On a third-and-7, McVay was again content with a bubble screen to Cooks, who looked like he was going to get buried even before he dropped the ball. That set up a 57-yard field goal attempt for Zuerlein, which would have given Brees the ball at midfield had he missed. This was another huge, pressure kick, but Zuerlein delivered right down the middle to send the Rams to the Super Bowl.
After edging the Chiefs 54-51 in Super Bowl 52.5 and coming back to steal one in the Superdome against the Saints, McVay and the Rams can finish off their run with a Super Bowl win over the Patriots in two weeks.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 73
Game-winning drives: 92 (plus three non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 154/266 (57.9 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 36
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass. Game-Winning Chance (win probability) data is from EdjSports.