Normally, the NFL likes to point to its annual extravaganza — the Super Bowl — as its biggest event and the league pushes it as such. And while it’ll have the cost-per-ad numbers to quantify its assertion, it’s pretty hard to argue against this past weekend’s four-game divisional round as the highlight of this season.
If you were glued to your television set for roughly 14 hours like I was, you witnessed four games that were separated by a total of just 15 points.
In Saturday’s first game, the Cincinnati Bengals were able to outlast the Tennessee Titans, 19-16, despite the fact that Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked nine times, tying a single-game playoff record. The game-winning 52-yard field goal was kicked by Evan McPherson, who is the closest I have seen to Ravens kicker Justin Tucker.
This was the Bengals’ first playoff road win in franchise history — a history that started in 1968. Their win against the Titans will send them to Kansas City in what will be the Bengals’ first conference championship game since 1988. That’s 33 seasons if you are as slow as I am on the math.
An amazing fact to come out of the nine-sack performance by the Titans’ defense is that not once did Burrow fumble the football. He did throw an interception, but Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw three interceptions that continually short-circuited his offense’s ability to put important points on the board.
The key moment in the game might have come about halfway through the fourth quarter after the Titans moved the ball from their own 17 down to Cincinnati’s 35. On third down, Tannehill tried to move the chains himself, but he was stopped for a no gain. Opting to go for it rather than attempt a 52-yard field goal, the Titans predictably handed the football to their beast Derrick Henry, who couldn’t do better than losing 2 yards.
Look, it’s pretty hard to vote against Henry when you need a single yard, but the combination of the Bengals counting on that being the play call and Henry’s underwhelming performance (62 yards on 20 carries) after long absence made that a head-scratching play. Meanwhile, backup running back D’Onta Foreman had 66 yards on just four carries. Why didn’t Foreman get the ball on one of those plays?
The nightcap on Saturday saw the rampaging, speedy and dangerous San Francisco 49ers come into Lambeau Field — with temperatures near zero degrees and a wind chill a couple degrees below zero — as 5.5-point underdogs.
Underestimated due to an injury-plagued regular season, the 49ers were 3-5 early in the season. However, the 49ers went 7-2 down the stretch to finish 10-7 and snag a playoff spot. They were three-point underdogs in Dallas during the wild-card round, but their speed and smarts proved to be too much for the favored Cowboys. It was an upset, but if you were watching, it seemed to be anything but a huge upset.
Green Bay marched down for a quick touchdown to open the game and marched down the field a second time only to lose a fumble. Still, the Packers led, 7-0, at the half. Very early in the second half, the 49ers kicked a field goal to cut the lead down to four. The Packers would add a third-quarter field goal to make it 10-3.
And then in the fourth quarter, the Niners drove from their 28-yard line to the Packers’ 19-yard line, only to be stopped on a crucial fourth-and-1. The Packers got the ball back on their own 21-yard line with a little more than six minutes to go.
The Packers couldn’t even get one first down, and then the unthinkable happened, as the 49ers blocked the punt and ran it in for a game-tying touchdown.
Surely, the great Aaron Rodgers would move his team down the field for a go-ahead touchdown and field goal. Instead, Rodgers and his offense couldn’t muster a first down again. With 3:33 left in the game, the Packers punted the ball to San Francisco’s 20, and a 9-yard return brought the ball out to the Niners’ own 29.
After a massive third-and-7 pickup by Deebo Samuel with just under a minute to go, the 49ers still had the ball and a timeout at the Packers’ 28 yard-line. They handed the ball to former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk for a 1-yard gain, and the 49ers called a timeout with just four seconds remaining. Kicker Robbie Gould sent the Lambeau Field audience home stunned, as Rodgers and his offense never got to touch the ball on offense again.
Given the way the 49ers rushed him and covered his receivers, it was just an awful game from Rodgers, who will now have to digest this stinker before committing to the Packers for the 2022 season. To be sure, this was not how Rodgers drew it up.
Sunday’s first game — Los Angeles at Tampa Bay — started out with a nearly perfect first half by the Rams. Los Angeles appeared poised to score a touchdown at the end of the first half that would have extended its lead to 27-3, but running back Cam Akers fumbled as he was about to go into the end zone and the Buccaneers recovered.
Ultimately, the Rams did extend their lead to 27-3 about halfway through the third quarter. After the Buccaneers kicked a field goal to make the score 27-6, disaster began to strike the Rams repeatedly.
The second half had to evoke memories of the Rams’ inability to produce in the really big moments of the Sean McVay era. The Rams lost three second-half fumbles, two of which led to Tampa Bay touchdowns. While credit has to go to Tom Brady for getting his team back in the game, it was the Rams’ mistakes more than anything that allowed the Buccaneers to tie the game with 42 seconds remaining.
Amazingly, Matthew Stafford engineered a game-winning four-play drive, including two big gainers to Cooper Kupp, the second one down to the 12-yard line. Stafford ran all the way down to the line of scrimmage to spike it with just six seconds left. Matt Gay kicked the field goal to give the Rams a sloppy-at-times 30-27 win against the Buccaneers.
The best game of the day didn’t kick off until about 6:40 p.m. EST. What followed was one of the greatest games in postseason history.
Perhaps the fact that Josh Allen didn’t get a chance to come back and keep his team alive may spark a debate about substantial changes in the overtime rules. As overtime currently stands, a coin flip decides which team makes the decision about whether to receive or kick off. (The winner of the coin flip almost always chooses to receive.)
If the team getting the ball first kicks a field goal on its initial drive, the other team gets the ball and can match that field goal or win the game with a touchdown. However, if the first team does in fact score a touchdown, the game is over. There is another quirky rule to overtime: While it has not come into play yet, the game can end on a safety on the first possession.
While I could write at some length on this epic contest that saw a record 25 points scored during the last two minutes of regulation, the decision by Bills head coach Sean McDermott to kick the ball out of the end zone after taking a 36-33 lead with just 13 seconds remaining in regulation was a curious one.
That left Patrick Mahomes with the full 13 seconds to pull off what we now know was his latest miracle in getting his team in position to kick a buzzer-beating field goal that tied the game and sent the game into overtime.
If McDermott opted for a squib kick, the Chiefs would have had to use about two seconds to field the kick and stop the clock. Even more time would have come off the clock had the Bills simply kicked deep but short enough to force a return.
We’ll never know for sure, but the difference may not have allowed the Chiefs to tie the game and win it in overtime.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox