After the greatest Divisional Round in NFL history, we were bound to get a dud of a Championship Sunday.
What a day! First, the Bengals came all the way back from 21-3 to stun the Chiefs in overtime, 27-24. Then the Rams erased a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to nip the 49ers, 20-17. And now we have ourselves a fascinating Super Bowl LVI matchup between the upstart Bengals and the star-studded Rams, the latter of whom will follow in the 2020 Buccaneers’ footsteps of hosting a Lombardi Trophy game in your home stadium.
But we have two weeks to preview Bengals-Rams, so, before we completely spin forward, let’s take a look back at a classic doubleheader. Here are the winners and losers from Championship Sunday, Schein Nine style.
Color me obsessed. You had to know that the moment wouldn’t be too big for Burrow. But still, overcoming an 18-point deficit in one of the league’s toughest road venues to beat Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs in overtime? That’s next-level Joe Cool. Truly legendary stuff.
Watching the Bengals take their cue from the young gunslinger was pretty remarkable. Wise beyond his quarterbacking years, Burrow didn’t force the ball to Ja’Marr Chase when the rookie sensation was bottled up early by a Chiefs defense intent on stopping him. Instead, Burrow peppered passes to Tee Higgins, Cincinnati’s other wunderkind wideout. The second-year signal-caller used his underrated legs to keep drives alive, while Cincy let Joe Mixon go to work on the ground. And another Bengals back, Samaje Perine, completely shifted momentum by taking a perfectly executed screen pass 41 yards to the house just before halftime. But of course, late in the third quarter, Burrow went back to his bestie, connecting with Chase for a touchdown that — along with the ensuing two-point conversion — tied the game at 21-21.
It was a well-rounded effort from a Bengals offense stocked with enticing young playmakers. But Burrow makes it all hum. He buys time to deliver clutch downfield gains. He flashes striking athleticism by avoiding Pro Bowl DT Chris Jones twice on the same third down before scrambling to move the chains. He covers for a porous offensive line and gives the Bengals an identity of swashbuckling swagger.
Joe Burrow just became the first No. 1 overall pick to quarterback his team to a Super Bowl within his first two NFL seasons. Incredible. Ironically, he’ll be facing another former No. 1 overall pick at the position …
What a story. Take the monkey off Stafford’s back! This cat has now delivered three straight playoff wins, completing 72 percent of his passes for an average of 301.7 yards per game with a 6:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 115.6 passer rating. In sparkling fashion, Stafford has guided his team to the Super Bowl. Wow.
Stafford, of course, had never won a playoff game in Detroit. Key words there: in Detroit. One man can only do so much against the Curse of Bobby Layne. The Lions, after all, have one playoff win since 1957. Stafford certainly wasn’t the problem in Detroit, and unsurprisingly, he’s proven to be the solution in Los Angeles. This is why I was calling the Rams NFC favorites right after the trade this past offseason. Trailing by 10 points last in the third quarter on Sunday, Stafford led the Rams on three straight scoring marches, including his 44th career game-winning drive. That’s the eighth-most game-winning drives in the Super Bowl era. The seven QBs ahead of Stafford in this metric? Brett Favre (45 game-winning drives), John Elway (46), Dan Marino (51), Drew Brees (56), Peyton Manning (56), Ben Roethlisberger (57) and Tom Brady (67). Those are all Hall of Famers, currently or in the very near future. Which brings me to my next point …
Stafford has put together a Hall of Fame career. A ring will solidify that take.
He’s a Mount Rushmore defender, an all-time game wrecker. That’s not hyperbole. In fact, given all of the accolades Donald has piled up in his first eight NFL season — eight Pro Bowl bids, seven first-team All-Pro nods, a Defensive Rookie of the Year award, three Defensive Player of the Year honors — you could make a legit argument he’s the defensive G.O.A.T. But I can understand ranking Lawrence Taylor and/or Reggie White ahead of the Rams defensive tackle, especially since LT has two rings and White has one.
But now Donald gets another crack at winning his first Super Bowl. This is a legacy play, and AD’s clearly a man on a mission. Just look at the incredible pep talk he gave to his teammates when L.A. was trailing by double digits on Sunday. As captured brilliantly by FOX and Erin Andrews during the broadcast — and in the postgame by my colleague Jim Trotter — Donald empowered his teammates to reclaim the game.
“We were down and out,” safety Eric Weddle said. “AD rallied us. He asked us to give more. He said to let us be the reason we win this game. We knew what it meant to him.”
He tormented Jimmy Garoppolo in crunch time. Because that’s what he does. He was a monster and a leader. Because that’s who he is.
Aaron Donald has done it all in this league — except hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Now he has a chance to do just that in his home stadium.
I love Les Snead, and not just because the Rams general manager told me he spends more money on hair product than I do. Snead has spent wisely on his Super Bowl team, too. The Rams went for the jugular with an Ocean’s Eleven approach to roster building, flipping substantial draft currency for established NFL stars, and it’s paying off brilliantly. Four first-round picks for Stafford and Jalen Ramsey? Well, when you deal for stars at vital positions — and they deliver in spades — who cares about the draft compensation? I love the college marketplace, but there’s a huge crapshoot factor. And hey, it’s not like the Rams have gotten nothing from recent drafts. Despite having not made a first-round pick since 2016, Snead has nabbed valuable players like Cooper Kupp, Cam Akers, Greg Gaines and Van Jefferson, just to name a few.
Snead didn’t rest on his laurels once this season started, either. He acquired Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. in November, and then lured Eric Weddle out of retirement earlier this month. On Sunday, Miller helped wreak havoc in San Francisco’s backfield, while Beckham caught nine passes for 113 yards and Weddle logged a team-high nine tackles.
Snead truly went for it, and now he’s one (home) win away from reaching the mountaintop.
Joe Burrow is the man of the moment in the NFL. And rightfully so. But don’t overlook the inspired effort Cincinnati’s defense has provided all season. Coordinator Lou Anarumo has done a spectacular job with this group, which underwent a highly productive makeover this past offseason. DE Trey Hendrickson has been worth every bit of the four-year, $60 million deal he signed in March. He made his first Pro Bowl with 14 sacks in the regular season, and then he recorded 1.5 QB takedowns on Sunday. CB Eli Apple, another March signing, flipped the momentum at the end of the first half by corralling Tyreek Hill short of the goal line as time expired. And then in the third quarter, DT B.J. Hill, whom the Bengals acquired via trade in August, picked off Patrick Mahomes to set up Cincinnati’s game-tying score.
In the second half and overtime, Cincy’s defense held the high-powered Chiefs offense to three points, 83 total yards and just 16(!) net passing yards. Of Kansas City’s seven drives in this span, four ended with punts and two with turnovers. Bravo, Mr. Anarumo!
6) Adam Schein and the NFL overtime rules
Oh, you can play defense in overtime! Who knew?! Actually, me. As I wrote last week, the NFL’s overtime rules aren’t anywhere near as flawed as some people suggest. Could they be tweaked a bit? Sure. I suggested a couple potential adjustments: 1) The home team automatically gets the ball first in overtime; or 2) you just add overtime possession into the initial pregame coin flip, allowing the winner to take the ball at the start of the game OR in the second half and overtime.
I think fans just get angry with a coin flip at the beginning of overtime. OK, sure. But there are three phases in football, as the Bengals showed Sunday. Kansas City won the OT coin toss and took the ball. Cincinnati responded by … picking off Mahomes and driving for the game-winning goal. No excuses. Just win, baby!
7) Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid
They get lumped together because this was a collective train wreck. Make no mistake: The Chiefs choked.
The end of the first half was an epic failure. Second-and-goal with five seconds left and no timeouts? Kick the field goal! Why is everyone SO averse to taking three points nowadays? The Bengals had just cut the deficit from 18 to 11. Push it back up to a two-touchdown edge! The arrogance and ignorance of that moment was wild. Ultimately, Mahomes tossed it to Hill behind the line of scrimmage and the receiver was stuffed. Then, with zero seconds on the clock, Mahomes tried to call a timeout he didn’t have. What a mess.
The sequence at the end of the fourth quarter was mind-numbing, too. Reid needed to run the football. This was reminiscent of the old Philadelphia days. On second-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Mahomes went backward and took a 5-yard sack. Then on third-and-goal, Mahomes again went the wrong way, held onto the ball for an eternity and took a 17-yard sack, nearly fumbling the game away.
On the second play of overtime, Mahomes nearly threw a devastating pick. On the third play of overtime, Mahomes did throw a devastating pick.
Mahomes was prolific in the first half, completing 18 of his 21 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns, with zero sacks taken and a 149.9 passer rating. In the second half and overtime, he was Blake Bortles: 8 for 18, 55 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 4 sacks taken, 12.3 passer rating.
More “Oh, jeez, Jimmy” throws, especially toward the end. The problem with Garoppolo is that he is an obstacle. To his credit, he handled this past year with grace and aplomb, operating admirably with his hand-picked replacement on the roster. But there’s a reason why the Niners wanted to make a change at the quarterback position — and will do so this offseason.
Jimmy is class. He played hurt. He’s a starting quarterback in the NFL. But it’s just over in San Francisco. The writing’s on the wall. In permanent ink.
Kyle not calling a timeout before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, thus allowing valuable seconds to wind off the clock, was infuriating for Niners fan. Kyle apparently passing on Tom Brady in favor of Jimmy G leads the league in infuriating. And Kyle then trading up for Trey Lance to replace Jimmy G … Well, that didn’t really work out in Year 1.
Being fair, Lance could take the job and run with it in Year 2. And all things considered, Kyle still led the 49ers to the NFC title game, logging road playoff wins at Dallas and Green Bay. He made Deebo Samuel one of the stars of the season, unlocking the wideout’s full potential with creative usage down the stretch.
But, man … When you blow a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead on Championship Sunday, everything’s gonna be viewed with a critical eye. I was shocked when Shanahan didn’t go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Rams’ 45-yard line with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Niners were clinging to a 17-14 lead — they needed to re-shift the momentum. But Kyle punted the ball away, and the 49ers proceeded to give the game away.