sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): We couldn’t have asked for much more from the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. We got three upsets, all won on last-second field goals by the road team, and the one game won by a favorite was perhaps the best playoff game in history. (Shut up, recency bias.)
Let’s start with that, the Kansas City Chiefs vs. the Buffalo Bills — the frenzied, overtime end to the weekend that pitted the two best quarterbacks of their generation in a wild, blink-and-you-missed-a-touchdown battle. I mean, just look at the win probability swings in this game!
We’ll be talking about the game — and the brilliance of the two quarterbacks — for a long time.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Me throughout the game and for hours after: 😮
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I loved the game. They’ll be watching it for 100 years. It was a classic.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Neither team — nor its QB — deserved to lose this game. It was down to overtime structure, and the last team with the ball won. That’s epic football.
neil: Yes, it was the two best QBs in the sport (is that a hot take? sure hope not) going toe-to-toe in the most epic playoff battle I’ve ever seen.
With apologies to Cincinnati, San Francisco and Los Angeles, it was the de facto Super Bowl.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Neil. It was a little like back when the Cowboys and Niners would meet (though usually in the conference championship), and we all knew we just watched the real Super Bowl.
Salfino: I hate the coaching misfire on the kickoff with 13 seconds left in regulation, when Sean McDermott did literally the only thing he could do to lose the game — kick the ball into the end zone and take no seconds off the clock. The Bills needed to kick a pop up between the 10 and 5 — every team should practice this. You can’t give them any hope.
Then the Bills defense rushing four was terrible. Why? Joe Sheehan said they should have just tackled everyone at the snap and taken the 5 yards for holding to run seconds off the clock. I like that, too.
neil: I agree with all of that, Mike. I hated how they handled the kickoff and the subsequent defensive calls.
Going back to 2001, I could only find two other games in which a team started a drive down 3 after a kickoff with under 20 seconds left, and ended up winning.
One of them was a 2003 Cowboys-Giants game, which did feature a squib kick (and the ball went out of bounds, setting up a Quincy Carter game-tying drive). And one was an epic Blaine Gabbert/Christian Ponder duel that had very similar circumstances to K.C.-Buffalo at the end.
Yes, the irony of a comparison between the best QB duel ever and one between two of the worst QBs ever is not lost.
sara.ziegler: I’m sorry, I can’t get over “epic Blaine Gabbert/Christian Ponder duel.”
Salfino: The squib is horrible — someone cited this Falcons game as proof. The receiving team can quickly corral and down it with no time taken off (or very little).
joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree with the critique of the kickoff. I also think the Bills’ no-go on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter was a massive blunder. But if the Bills did as Sheehan suggested, we all would be poorer for it. What a terrible way to end a game — by not actually playing football.
sara.ziegler: I will say that I sympathized with the Bills on the decision to kick it out the end zone. The Chiefs had been returning kicks/punts well all night.
Salfino: Sara, I don’t think Tyreek Hill was out there on that kick. But if you’re afraid of that, you should be more afraid of playing defense, IMO.
sara.ziegler: Well, their defense had been better than their return game up to that point!
I think it’s understandable to criticize the decisions made by the losing team here, but truly, what Patrick Mahomes did just simply isn’t done by normal human football players.
He moved his team down the field in less time than the Cowboys took to run one quarterback draw play…….
Salfino: I give Mahomes credit. He had only 5.1 air yards per attempt and did not throw a single pass that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. But he got it done.
neil: That last drive of regulation aside, the bottom line for the Bills is that the best scoring defense in the league during the regular season allowed 552 total yards and had 0 takeaways. In the past five years, teams are 1-30 when they allow 500+ yards and have no takeaways.
Salfino: Neil, this says everything about how meaningless defensive stats are.
I never saw a pass rush get so much pressure and so rarely get home. They had two sacks.
joshua.hermsmeyer: In the end, the Bills couldn’t rely on a generationally efficient defense against Mahomes.
Salfino: The game was lost by the Bills coaching more than won by the Chiefs. I’m not going to lose sight of this.
neil: And it was tragic because it spoiled what was one of the best playoff receiving performances ever (according to adjusted catch yards), by Gabe Davis:
|Steve Smith Sr.||CAR||CHI||1/15/2006||W||12||218||2||318|
Salfino: Imagine getting four touchdowns from Gabe Davis and losing.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Josh Allen also had an incredible playoffs: 94.4 QBR on nine TDs and zero interceptions. 77.4 percent completion percentage. Ran the ball all over the field.
neil: We would be talking about Allen and Davis and the explosive Bills now if not for Mahomes just being Mahomes.
Salfino: Or if McDermott had not done the only thing he could have done to lose.
I also hate blaming the OT rules for this. This game was lost horribly by the head coach. This is a fireable offense. It could have cost the Bills a Super Bowl. It’s just unforgivable.
sara.ziegler: It’s annoying to me that we have to be talking about the overtime rules again. But, like … they suck.
Salfino: Look, I give Mahomes credit. But McDermott handed Mahomes the dagger, and Mahomes gutted him.
neil: The OT debate does fit into our convo about offense vs. defense, though. If great defense cannot reliably stop great offense, where is the logic in not giving the opposing offense a chance to answer when the team that wins the toss scores a TD?
joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s a great point, Neil. I agree the overtime rules are probably broken — for the playoffs.
Salfino: But say the Bills got the ball after the Chiefs’ TD and scored a touchdown themselves (and assuming they don’t go for 2). Then the Chiefs just need a FG, and everyone would be complaining because that feels like about 98 percent probability.
neil: Maybe they just need to play all 15 minutes. Death to sudden death!
joshua.hermsmeyer: But I also think ending these games as soon as possible is better for the health of the players. Sudden death has a lot of appeal in terms of dramatics as well.
Salfino: I sort of like the extra period no matter who scores what. Just for the playoffs.
sara.ziegler: I do, too.
neil: You know, if they played, idk, a 16-game season instead of 17, we could carve out wear-and-tear allowance for unlimited playoff OT.
Just food for thought.
They’re not going to change it though, right? There have been really interesting alternatives offered over the years that have gone nowhere, and though it seems like an outcome like this would drive momentum for a change … we’ve been here before.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, we all know momentum doesn’t exist, so …
And knowing the way football usually responds to widespread critique, the NFL will probably just implement an even worse system if it is changed.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Too real.
The earlier game on Sunday had a similar frenzied vibe, though instead of the teams trading blows, one had to climb out of a deep hole. It really seemed like Tom Brady was going to lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back from the brink in classic Tom fashion — the score even a very familiar 27-3, just 1 point off of Brady’s infamous deficit in Super Bowl LI. But the Los Angeles Rams had just enough time for a game-winning drive … aided by some questionable defensive decision-making from the Bucs.
Salfino: Well, after what I said about McDermott, I have to say that THE SINGLE WORST coaching decision I have ever seen, maybe not even factoring in the magnitude of the game, was the blitz on the Cooper Kupp bomb that set up the winning FG. Todd Bowles has been a top head coaching candidate and rumored to go to Minnesota, Sara, but I don’t see how you can hire him after that. Again, like McDermott, he did the only thing you could do to lose that game.
sara.ziegler: The Vikings haven’t hired him yet! LOL
Salfino: Never mind that Matthew Stafford just destroys the blitz, as noted on FiveThirtyEight. That’s the cherry on top.
I would have fired Bowles before we got to the locker room.
neil: I couldn’t fathom how Kupp was able to get behind the defense in that situation.
Salfino: Zero coverage and a blitz. And head coach Bruce Arians said they were supposed to blitz more than two. So fewer guys covering Kupp!
joshua.hermsmeyer: No. 31 bit on the short stuff and let Kupp by him, though. There were execution errors as well as tactical missteps on that play. It was bewildering.
Salfino: And again, why rush even four guys there, let alone six? Two max. Nine in coverage. This isn’t complicated.
sara.ziegler: And it negated a really incredible comeback. How is it possible that Tom Brady is still doing this stuff at 44?
Salfino: He’s the most amazing athlete ever.
This is not how Brady is supposed to end, so I find it annoying from a historical perspective. And the Rams choked that entire game away in just epic fashion and still won. It feels all wrong.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I found myself rooting for Brady, against all reason or good taste. I felt like the Rams deserved to lose.
neil: Up to that point, the Rams’ last six possessions had been: Fumble-Punt-Fumble-Missed FG-Punt-Fumble. They left the door wide open for Brady.
And only one of those drives had been longer than three plays. If your defense keeps doing that, you have a chance to come back. (That stretch was eerily similar to the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, when Atlanta went Punt-Fumble-Punt-Punt on its last four drives, none of which lasted more than six plays.)
Salfino: And 27-3 vs. 28-3. So weird. If Brady had won, it would be just an unbelievable story.
sara.ziegler: The turnovers were kind of amazing. I couldn’t believe that snap past Stafford’s head.
neil: As much as the Rams tried to give away the game, Brady didn’t deserve to win, either. He had a 14.0 QBR to Stafford’s 67.7. He was off all game, and the pressure got to him, as we thought might happen with this Rams defense.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, it’s easy to forget that the Rams had bottled him up really well.
The Rams will now face the San Francisco 49ers in what could be the first of two home games (the second being the Super Bowl). The Niners went into a cold and snowy Lambeau Field on Saturday and took down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, unleashing more Rodgers/vaccine jokes on Twitter than I could keep up with.
neil: In a weekend of games decided by special teams, this was the most special teams-iest win of them all. As in, every point San Fran scored came from its special teams (and it also negated 3 Green Bay points on a blocked FG).
sara.ziegler: The Packers marched down the field easily on the first drive of the game, and then their offense just kinda stopped. What happened there?
Salfino: Rodgers made one play after the first drive, the 75-yard pass to Aaron Jones, that resulted in no points. Jokes aside, for such an ethereal talent, he’s super light in the trophy case. One Super Bowl? That’s a joke. He’s lost four postseason games at Lambeau now.
joshua.hermsmeyer: A defensive rock fight in the snow was a nice change-up with all the other insane action this weekend. But it also reminded me why I prefer to watch offensive excellence. Rodgers throwing for just 225 yards was sort of gross.
Salfino: Neil, the special teams stuff is so weird because it was PREDICTED. And when it was cited, I rolled my eyes, believing special teams to be mostly random. Yet it ended up unquestionably costing them the game. So it wasn’t that special teams won it as much as that was expected and it happened.
Nothing about the Packers-49ers game went as I expected; so I feel that even though I got the winner right, I was wrong.
neil: I thought the Packers blew a number of great chances. They had first-and-10 at the SF 42 and fumbled it away. First-and-10 at the SF 14, and they had their FG blocked. First-and-goal from the SF 7, only to get 3 points. They should have capitalized much more on their opportunities.
Salfino: And the Niners blew some of their few opportunities, too. Mostly with penalties near the end zone.
neil: BTW, as far as special teams go, the Niners are not great either. They were 26th in special teams expected points added during the regular season. So in that sense, it was not the predictable special teams collapse for Green Bay people were making it out to be.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I can offer no special teams analysis. It truly is random.
Salfino: Do you think this is it for Rodgers in Green Bay? The Packers are so far over the cap — $40 million right now — I can’t see how they move forward as a serious contender.
sara.ziegler: Matt LaFleur was saying all the right things about wanting him back, but do they really?
Salfino: At least Davante Adams has to go, I assume.
neil: Well at least Adams didn’t have nearly 40 percent of Green Bay’s receiving yards while on the field this season. Oh wait, he did.
(That ranked second only to Cooper Kupp.)
Losing Adams can be Rodgers’s latest excuse, though. He loves those.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Straight fire.
Salfino: I like the joke that Rodgers is Breitbart Starr.
sara.ziegler: I died laughing at Throw Rogan.
Salfino: Also good.
sara.ziegler: The Packers weren’t the only No. 1 seed to lose this weekend, of course. The Tennessee Titans also fell, and also in dramatic fashion, to the Cincinnati Bengals, despite sacking quarterback Joe Burrow approximately 900 times. (OK, fine, only nine times.) The Bengals picked off Titans QB Ryan Tannehill three times, and though Tennessee had Derrick Henry back, the bruising rusher didn’t quite seem like himself, collecting only 62 yards on 20 carries.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Henry seemed like a bit of a decoy to me.
neil: Twenty carries is a lot for a decoy, though.
Particularly when one of them is a slow-developing fourth-and-1 midway through the fourth quarter in a tie game.
Salfino: This game turned on a coaching decision that you needed a little imagination and foresight to see: Taking the extra point off the board after a touchdown in the second quarter to go for 2 was very bad. Who cares if you’re up by 1 or 2? The game was clearly going to be low scoring. And being tied is definitely way worse for losing. It ended up being the ballgame. But analytics can’t lose because it’s a process.
Henry is another reason the 2-pointer was bad. He hasn’t played in months, and he’s supposed to handle short yardage with no worries?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Disagree, Mike. It was pointed out to me that you should probably always go for it with just a yard to get it. The math is pretty clear that it’s plus expected value.
But I felt the same way as you at first blush.
Salfino: But this was not a generic situation, Josh, as it was clear the game was going to be low scoring since the Bengals couldn’t pass block.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I think you can induce your opponent to make future suboptimal decisions if you create uncommon early scores. Taking a sure point off the board does change the math slightly, but it’s still a go-for-it situation. As for knowing it was going to be a low-scoring game, I guess I just don’t buy it. You push your edges and try to score the most points regardless of what your large intestine is whispering to you.
sara.ziegler: I will say that thinking it’s going to be a low-scoring game would make me want to optimize the number of points I can get at any one moment.
neil: Credit to the Titans’ defense for even keeping them in the game, particularly given the way it started for them on offense.
Salfino: Burrow was sacked nine times and won. In the regular season and postseason, teams sacked that much are 10-147-3 all-time. And the Bengals won. Just nuts.
sara.ziegler: I don’t think the game turned on that go-for-it decision as much as it did on Tannehill’s extremely unfortunate picks, especially the one in the red zone.
Salfino: I believe, Sara, that Pro Football Focus said only one of those picks were turnover worthy.
sara.ziegler: So after all of that, we have our final four. Who do you like in the conference championships?
neil: I called the Chiefs winners of the de facto Super Bowl, so clearly Cincy will win. LOL
I’m taking K.C. And I think the Niners were extremely lucky to beat Green Bay — again, their special teams scored all their points. Jimmy Garoppolo is not impressive. I’m going with L.A.
Remember that incredible Rams-Chiefs shootout at the L.A. Coliseum in 2018? That will probably be our Super Bowl, except with Stafford instead of Jared Goff. Watch out.
Salfino: I like San Francisco and Kansas City. I did say that the Bengals were as good as the Chiefs, and they just beat the Chiefs three weeks ago, but I can’t get over those sacks. I’d rather be right than consistent. The Niners can get there with four pass rushers and are a tough matchup for teams because it’s obviously easier to cover with seven. They sacked Rodgers five times, and I don’t think one was a blitz.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m going to weirdly agree with Mike and take the Chiefs and Niners. Jimmy G has the worst playoff QBR of the remaining QBs, and that’s not a great sign to be sure, but I think it speaks to Kyle Shanahan’s excellence in scheming up a game plan. Also, Kyle is McVay’s dad. Edge: Niners.
Salfino: It’s weird that both underdogs beat the favorites so recently.
No one respects the Niners. I’m sticking with them.
neil: It would be very Jimmy G-like to play poorly for the vast majority of the NFC title game and then lead a game-winning drive. So I’m not counting that possibility out completely.
But eventually you have to lose games in which you play poorly. Right?
sara.ziegler: Here’s hoping next weekend’s game live up to last weekend’s, though I don’t know how that’s possible.
neil: Yeah, last weekend was truly awesome. It was the only time ever that all four divisional games were decided by 6 or fewer points.
Salfino: After saying the wild-card week was the worst postseason week ever, this was the best in my lifetime, easily.
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