The Final Four: Chiefs, Rams, and Also-Rans
NFL Divisional - Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs have practically been playing a different sport over the last three years. Most of the time they dominate that sport. Occasionally, they beat themselves in it. But until Josh Allen and the Bills faced them on Sunday, no team had figured out how to play by the Chiefs' rules. Yet the Chiefs still won.
The Los Angeles Rams, who have played some of the best and a little of the worst football of the 2021 playoffs, are dangerously overdependent on their stars-n-scrubs roster model. They expect a handful of players to shoulder the burden of victory: Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, Odell Beckham, Andrew Whitworth (when healthy), and Von Miller, plus semi-stars such as Van Jefferson, Leonard Floyd, Eric Weddle, Taylor Rapp (when healthy), Rob Havenstein … wait a minute. This isn't a "stars-n-scrubs" roster. It's your typical everyday championship-caliber roster!
The San Francisco 49ers, who excel at all things within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage but are helpless beyond, received some help on Saturday from an unlikely ally: an often unstoppable but usually hazardously unpleasant force of nature. We're talking about the Wisconsin winter, not Aaron Rodgers: he's full of hot air.
The Cincinnati Bengals are led by a lovable, unflappable young sharpshooter who is lethal in clutch situations. That young man's name is Evan McPherson.
The NFL's Final Four is set, and it looks like a pair of mismatches. Yes, the Bengals beat the Chiefs in the regular season. Yes, the 49ers swept the Rams. But the Chiefs opened as 6.5-point favorites over the Bengals after Sunday's win over Buffalo: after all, they beat the Bills as Allen was evolving into a legendary Pokemon, while the Bengals could barely keep Joe Burrow upright against the Titans. The Rams are more modest 3.5-point favorites against the 49ers, but based on the way each team has performed in the postseason, the 49ers need a nearly perfect game to win next week, while the Rams merely need to eliminate about half of their mistakes.
So here we go: two relative Goliaths, two Davids who already put their best slingshot-to-the-forehead plays on film, two matchups that have Walkthrough heavily leaning towards chalk. We're already licking our chops for a wild Chiefs-Rams Super Bowl in Los Angeles, where one of the teams might enjoy a homefield advantage, conceivably the Rams. The next few segments will explain why.
Kansas City Chiefs
How the Kansas City Chiefs Got Here: They won one of the greatest games in NFL history: a 42-36 overtime victory that defies encapsulation.
What to Love About the Chiefs: It's one thing to be a Raiders or Broncos fan and loathe your team's historic rival. But otherwise, if you don't enjoy the Chiefs' style of play, maybe NFL football isn't the spectator event for you. Might we suggest opera, crime procedurals, or curling?
What to Hate About the Chiefs: For every four moments of transcendent brilliance, the Chiefs do one thing that looks like it's a reenactment of something that happened during a kindergarten recess. The Chiefs are a Super Bowl team as long as they keep up that 4:1 ratio. When it reaches 3:1, they're vulnerable.
What We Learned About the Chiefs on Sunday: Give Patrick Mahomes 13 seconds and a three-point deficit (and all three timeouts), and he will complete passes to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce for 44 yards and still have three seconds left for a 49-yard Harrison Butker field goal. That's valuable and terrifying new information.
Bottom Line: We all remember what the Bengals did to the Chiefs in Week 17. That was the Bengals operating at absolute peak capacity. We may not have even seen the Chiefs' peak capacity yet: even Sunday's win featured a variety of unforced errors (missed extra point, funky third-and-short call, defender slipping in coverage on fourth-and-long) that could have ended the game early. It's easy to stack up a bunch of qualifiers and hypotheticals to support the possibility of another Bengals upset in the rematch. The argument for the Chiefs boils down to: they're better.
How the Bengals Got Here: The Titans used Joe Burrow like a piñata. Heck, Burrow took a hit from a defender after the Bengals called a timeout at one point on Saturday. Yet Burrow kept on ticking; Jessie Bates, Mike Hilton, and Tre Flowers each recorded interceptions; Evan McPherson drilled four field goals; and the Bengals did just enough in all three phases to beat—let's say it together one last time to cheese off Titans fans—the weakest No. 1 seed in playoff history.
What to Love About the Bengals: Burrow combines Tom Brady's frosty-ninja on-field presence and Peyton Manning's aw-shucks off-field persona with the relatable charm of a video game character that dies a hundred times before finally figuring out the combo move that takes down the level boss. Ja'Marr Chase: also fun.
What to Hate About the Bengals: Zac Taylor's game plans, executed with the help of the Bengals' coffee filter of an offensive line, border upon reckless endangerment.
What We Learned About the Bengals on Saturday: McPherson has gone 8-for-8 on field goals through two playoff games. His last miss was a meaningless 50-yarder in the fourth quarter of the Ravens blowout in Week 16. He went 9-of-11 from 50-plus yards in the regular season and 2-for-2 from that range on Saturday. His regular-season resume is full of game-winning kicks and afternoons (like the Broncos win, or Saturday) where he provided much of the Bengals' scoring.
"Clutch kicking" is not really a thing, nor is long-range accuracy all that reliable. But UN-clutch kicking and the inability to drill 50-yarders can be very real, especially for a rookie. McPherson has proven that he's at least as capable of making important field goals as any veteran kicker left in the playoff field.
Bottom Line: The Bengals faced the third-easiest regular-season schedule in the NFL, then beat a Raiders team that did not belong in the playoffs before squeaking past the Titans in a game that Burrow was lucky to survive. This is not a sustainable path to success. Burrow-to-Chase is the only thing "Super Bowl" about the Bengals, and while that combo was enough to stage an upset of the Chiefs in the regular season, the Bengals will need a lot more next Sunday.
San Francisco 49ers
How the 49ers Got Here: The Packers overwhelmed the 49ers for the first 10 minutes of Saturday night's game, declared Mission Accomplished, then grew cold, bored, and distracted. Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead then took over in the trenches, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel provided an eyedropper's worth of offense, and the 49ers stuck around until the Packers special teams' regularly scheduled catastrophic malfunction.
The 49ers' 13-10 victory did not win any style points, but road wins in single-digit temperatures are about perseverance, not artistry.
What to Love About the 49ers: The pass rush. The YAC. Kyle Shanahan's game plans through the first three quarters.
What to Hate About the 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo trying to throw a frozen football with a bad thumb. Garoppolo trying to throw a normal football with a normal thumb. Shanahan's game management in the fourth quarter when the 28-3 flashbacks start.
What We Learned About the 49ers on Saturday: Armstead was the unsung hero of the 49ers' 2019 Super Bowl defensive line: a versatile defender who combines the best attributes of a 3-technique tackle and a complementary edge rusher but is often overshadowed by Bosa and others. Armstead slid all over the line this season but has settled in at left tackle next to D.J. Jones, typically with Bosa on his outside shoulder. The result: Armstead has registered 5.5 sacks in the Rams, Cowboys, and Packers victories.
Also: if we didn't see Trey Lance when Garoppolo was bumbling around on Saturday night and the 49ers couldn't convert crucial short-yardage runs, we won't be seeing Lance at all this postseason unless Garoppolo falls down a mine shaft.
Bottom Line: A team with a great pass rush, a serviceable ball-control offense, and little else can win the Super Bowl if lots of things break their way, but it's a steep uphill climb. The 49ers are already midway through that climb and have had many things break their way against a pair of self-destructive playoff opponents. Now they face an opponent they have beaten six straight times, most recently three weeks ago, but which looks superior on paper and has played (mostly) better football in the postseason. It's hard to beat a team three times in the same season, harder still to win four straight must-win road games, and hardest of all to win while trying to hide your own quarterback's limitations. For all their accomplishments this year, the 49ers look like a team that's about to have a lot of streaks broken next week.
Los Angeles Rams
How the Rams Got Here: The Rams took a commanding lead against the Buccaneers, then did everything they could to succumb to Tom Brady's 28-3 (27-3 in Florida, due to lower tax rates) juju. The Rams fumbled at the 1-yard line. A snap whizzed past Matthew Stafford's face at 90 mph after a Brady strip-sack. Matt Gay missed a 46-yard field goal short. Jalen Ramsey gave up a 55-yard touchdown bomb to Mike Evans when the Bucs were out of timeouts. The Rams fumbled again within inches of a game-clinching first down. But just as Brady finished drawing the pentagram which would teleport the game into overtime, Cooper Kupp got open behind the Bucs defense for a pair of deep Stafford passes to set up a Gay chip shot to seal a wild 30-27 win.
What to Love About the Rams: They play the early-2000s arcade version of NFL Blitz every week.
What to Hate About the Rams: Does anyone really hate the Rams? Most folks are probably indifferent about the Rams. Especially Rams fans: the team started trying to make it harder for 49ers fans to purchase tickets to the NFC Championship Game before Sunday's game even started.
Maybe they should ship some tickets to St. Louis. The box would probably return postage due, and also on fire.
What We Learned About the Rams on Sunday:
- Joseph Noteboom isn't a Hall of Fame-caliber left tackle like Andrew Whitworth, but he proved once again to be a capable replacement against one of the fiercest pass rushes in the NFL.
- Third-year safety Nick Scott, who intercepted a Brady pass before halftime and broke up another pass late in the game, is a solid dime defender and adequate fill-in for Taylor Rapp, who could be back next week.
- The Rams could not run the ball at all on Sunday, and Cam Akers fumbled in two inexcusable situations. Darrell Henderson was designated for return from the IR on Friday; his availability could make a difference against the 49ers.
- Crowd noise appeared to be a factor for the Rams, particularly in the second half. Maybe limiting ticket sales outside of greater Los Angeles isn't such a bad idea after all.
Bottom Line: Set aside the fumbles and passed-ball snaps and the Rams played outstanding football over the last six-and-a-half days. Of course, turnovers and negative plays still count, but the 49ers have committed their own brace of blunders. The Rams allowed the 49ers to come back on them in Week 18, but perhaps they exorcised their late-game collapse demons in the waning seconds on Sunday. The Rams look like worthy Super Bowl adversaries for the Chiefs (or, heck, the Bengals), right down to their self-destructive tendencies.
The Rams opened -3.5 against the 49ers. If you like the Rams, you might want to get your wager in before the sharps arrive.
Let's take one last look at the five teams that were eliminated since Walkthrough's wrap-up of last weekend.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills are set to be one of the two best teams in the AFC for years to come. They'll reach a Super Bowl or two once they get better at leveraging all the tiny advantages that forced them to go on the road in the second round of the playoffs and kept them playing from behind on Sunday. Losing executive Joe Schoen (now the Giants general manager) and possibly offensive coordinator Brian Daboll might cause a little brain drain, but that should not be a problem. In fact, Josh Allen might benefit from a new playcaller who doesn't worry and loves the bomb. Peyton Manning's Colts and Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers lost a few playoff games a little like Sunday's Bills loss earlier in the 21st century. Eventually, those teams ended up getting a shot or two.
Green Bay Packers: Now begins another winter of Aaron Rodgers' discontent. The melancholy philosopher king, who reportedly experienced brief pangs of contentment a few weeks ago, is once again disappointed with the mere mortals he's forced to share our humble planet with and is clearly gearing up for another rip-roaring offseason melodrama. The Packers organization also cannot be all that thrilled that Archduke Surlybottom delivered just as many pseudoscientific socio-political diatribes as touchdown drives this weekend.
Cutting Rodgers free is an unappealing option for the Packers, but so is ceding even more de facto decision-making power to a preternaturally peevish individual who keeps making it obvious that he's roughly half as smart as he thinks he is. So long as Rodgers broods in his tower, it would be missing the point to quibble about what the organization should do about Robert Tonyan or who they should draft.
Rooting for this franchise and this individual cannot be very much fun anymore, in large part because fans are left rooting for either this franchise OR this individual.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers assembled a dream team in 2020, won a Super Bowl, kept the dream team together, won 13 regular-season games, won their first playoff game, and nearly perpetrated a historic comeback in the second. That's some fair return-on-investment. The rent is now coming due as players such as Chris Godwin, Jason Pierre-Paul, Rob Gronkowski, and Ndamukong Suh approach free agency and Tom Brady retirement murmurs grow louder. The Bucs will fall from Super Bowl contention; the only question is how far and how fast. There's no question whatsoever that the ride was worth it.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans are always one player away from the Super Bowl, but that player keeps changing every year. They need an impact tight end to play the old Hunter Henry/Delanie Walker role and/or a real No. 3 receiver so Rando Whotheheck-Ishe isn't getting targeted with the game on the line. They could also use an upgrade over offensive coordinator Todd "Ask Madden" Downing. Worst of all, Derrick Henry's inability to pick up two-point or fourth-down short-yardage conversions is almost inevitably a preview of what's to come.
The Titans are tight against the cap and lack a second-round pick due to the Julio Jones trade, so reinforcements will be hard to come by. This is what it looks like when a team spends too many resources on winning a division, not the Super Bowl. The good news is that, based on the news from the carousel (Josh McCown could be coaching both the Texans and Jaguars in a few weeks), the Titans at least they should keep winning that division for the next few years.
Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals are improving every year: better DVOA, better record. It's hard to get too excited about their development, however, when the team keeps falling apart like a balsa wood go-kart late in the year. Slow, shaky development doesn't really cut it in the modern NFL, because important veterans can get old and younger players more expensive to retain while the team inches up the ladder. Chandler Jones, Zach Ertz, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, and punter Andy Lee headline a lengthy free-agent class for the Cardinals, who must soon begin beard-stroking about Kyler Murray's first big-guy contract.
Owner Michael Bidwill is reportedly miffed at Kliff Kingsbury, but has not yet reached "miffed enough to admit a mistake." To be fair, Kingsbury has probably earned one more chance. But next year's Cardinals will probably feature fewer big-name mercenaries. If they start out slowly, Vance Joseph will be coaching the them by Thanksgiving.
Walkthrough Divisional Round Awards
Lotta 49ers walked away with hardware this weekend.
Defender of the Week
Arik Armstead wrests this award from 49ers teammate Nick Bosa. Both recorded two sacks, but Armstead's occurred in the fourth quarter: one to force the Packers to settle for a field goal in the red zone, the other one play before that fateful blocked punt.
Offensive Line of the Week
Do we have to give this award this week? None of the offensive lines played all that well. The Chiefs line of Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, and Andrew Wylie win by default because the Chiefs scored 42 points against a great defense. Patrick Mahomes spent much of the evening running for his life, but the Chiefs did block very well on screens, and they were flagged for just one penalty the entire game.
Special Teamer of the Week
Jordan Willis and Jimmie Ward share this award, Ward for blocking Mason Crosby's field goal before halftime, Willis for his game-changing blocked punt that Talanoa Hufanga retrieved for a touchdown.
A quick note: Packers special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton will almost certainly be fired for his work this season. A Joe Rogan podcast episode speculating that Drayton is a lizard person involved in an elaborate point-shaving and kitten-eating scheme would be taking things much too far, but is unfortunately also likely.
Burn This Play!
Who is No. 81 for the Chiefs, why is he the trigger man for an option on third-and-1, and why is he not Patrick Mahomes?
Chiefs getting too cute on 3rd & 1... pic.twitter.com/I1qxumIsIo
— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTB_Vids_YT) January 24, 2022
Watch Mahomes' body language while watching the play from the far left of the formation. "Yeah, we just made things unnecessarily harder on ourselves."
Hey, Kyle Shanahan: you may be the NFL's most creative designer of running-game concepts. You have a variety of potential short-yardage weapons, from George Kittle to Kyle Juszczyk to backup quarterback Trey Lance. And all that talk about you needing the Heimlich in the fourth quarter of every big game is just narrative, right? So show us what you've got for the Packers on fourth-and-short in the fourth quarter!
— NFL (@NFL) January 23, 2022
Ummm, is that Trent Williams as a motion H-back, crossing the formation to block nobody? Where's Juszczyk? Where's Lance? Where's Deebo Samuel, who could at least threaten the backside defense with jet sweep motion or something?
The worst part of this play is how out of sync the 49ers looked getting their personnel group onto the field and getting everyone to the line. If Shanahan wanted to run something goofy with a left tackle in motion, he should have used his first timeout. If the goal was to preserve timeouts and catch the Packers off guard, a simple sneak made more sense than that flustercuck.
It's hard to get excited about the 49ers when Shanahan keeps doing dumb stuff in the fourth quarter but getting bailed out by the opponent.
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Taunting Penalty
This is what Detroit Lions alumni reunions look like:
Ndamukong Suh was flagged for taunting on this play and as the official announced the call, Suh could be heard asking, "Did you see him kick me?!" pic.twitter.com/ihUnZg1gyp
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) January 23, 2022
It's a wonder Calvin Johnson didn't paratroop onto the field and start pointing at both of them. Anyway, Matthew Stafford earns this week's award both for his blink-if-you-miss-it judo kick after Ndamukong Suh lands next to him and his golly-gee body language once he saw Suh launching into WWE heel interview mode.
Of course, playing things cool can be taken too far:
WHAT IS HAPPENING?!@Buccaneers get the ball RIGHT BACK.
— NFL (@NFL) January 23, 2022
Von Miller earns honorable mention for what technically should have been called roughing the passer but which absolutely should NOT have been a 15-yard taunting foul against the greatest player in NFL history for jawing after getting hit in the jaw:
— Sᴘᴏʀᴛs 24/7 (@Sports_24x7_) January 23, 2022
Eh, consider that karma for two decades of Brady Calls. And Miller's hit gave us Fat Lip Brady, which may turn out to be Brady's final meme-worthy on-field image. Tune in next season when Aaron Rodgers punches himself in the lip in an effort to appear more sympathetic.
Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight
Eric Weddle's late hit on Mike Evans in the fourth quarter was Shawn Hochuli's Macbeth dagger soliloquy, his chance to finally prove that he's as worthy of the spotlight as Sir Laurence Olivier or Ed Hochuli. Here he is Hochu-splaining that the penalty is a dead-ball foul (who knew?), so the Rams would take position because of the fourth-down incompletion:
— Jay (@jaybink2585) January 23, 2022
The BSASEH award goes, of course, to Leonard Fournette for his hands-on-hips, side-eyed, WTF body language at the end of Hochuli's dramatic monologue. Fournette should be photoshopped into every Hochuli explanation of one of his officiating fever-dreams from now until the referees are replaced by androids.