Tom vs Time is a knockout
Tom Brady continues to make a mockery of age, New Orleans cops a bum call and Super Bowl LIII is all locked in.
Here's what we learned from the conference championship games.
New England Patriots 37, Kansas City Chiefs 31
1. Tom vs. Time has become the most lopsided rivalry in football, with the greatest of all time once again stiff-arming the inexorable march toward retirement.
Although Hall of Famequarterbacks Bobby Layne and Johnny Unitas invented the two-minute drill in the 1950s, Brady has spent the bulk of his career perfecting the clock cheat code and slowing the sands of the hourglass. After directing a six-play, 65-yard drive to take a momentary lead with 39 seconds remaining in regulation, Brady channelled the platonic ideal of the athletic "zone" in overtime, using impeccable ball placement and timing to climb out of three separate third-and-10 pitfalls on the game-winning drive.
Already the most decorated hero in football's pantheon, Brady continues to increase his insurmountable lead over fellow quarterback legends.
His latest exploits leave him with 28 more touchdowns, 3,578 more yards, 13 more victories and four more Super Bowl appearances than any other signal-caller in postseason history.
2. Echoing his Week 6 performance that featured four second-half touchdowns in a seesaw shootout with Brady, MVP favourite Patrick Mahomes overcame a sluggish start to lead another quartet of expeditions to the end zone after halftime. Matching Brady's late-game magic, Mahomes took control with 32 seconds remaining, showcasing his game-breaking ability with downfield strikes of 21 and 27 yards to set up Harrison Butker's 39-yard field goal and force a fifth quarter. Due to the peculiarities of the NFL's overtime rules, Mahomes was left high-and-dry on the sidelines as Brady marched down the field for the winning score.
3. Belichick's post-game comments steered the credit toward his players for executing with legacies on the line, but the plans drawn up by his coaching staff the past two weeks have fashioned two of the most dominant 30-minute sequences in playoff history. Tag-teaming with offensive boss Josh McDaniels and defensive play-caller Brian Flores (expected to be the Dolphins' choice as next head coach), the gridiron's pre-eminent strategist has overseen an operation that has amassed an astonishing 40 first downs versus 39 total plays for the Chargers and Chiefs in their respective first halves. If not for Sunday's 14-0 halftime cushion, Belichick's troops would not have withstood Kansas City's furious fourth-quarter flurry.
Rams coach Sean McVay has emerged as the poster boy for precious offensive innovation, with right-hand man Zac Taylor set to take the reins in Cincinnati next month. Wade Phillips is regarded by many as the greatest defensive co-ordinator of the past four decades. Special teams co-ordinator John "Bones" Fassel might be the most valuable special teams co-ordinator in the league today. That said, Belichick's staff takes a back seat to no coaching coven. Much like Super Bowl LII, this year's run for the Lombardi Trophy promises to showcase a compelling battle of wits in the meeting rooms as well as on the sidelines.
4. While the NFC Championship Game was haunted by a controversial no-call that will live in Big Easy infamy, the instant-classic AFC title showdown featured a series of game-altering replay reviews. A muffed punt return was overturned on replay review when multiple angles showed just enough evidence that the bouncing oblong spheroid narrowly missed Julian Edelman's gloves before the Chiefs recovered. On the heels of that ruling, the review system upheld one key third-down catch by Chris Hogan and rejected an ensuing Hogan catch that left the Patriots in yet another third-and-10 predicament with the game on the line. Brady's next pass clanged off Rob Gronkowski's hands for an interception only to be nullified by Dee Ford's offsides penalty. Brady dialled Gronkowski's number in the friendlier third-and-5 scenario, setting up the first of Burkhead's two late-game touchdowns with a beautiful 25-yard fade to the door step of the end zone.
5. Relegated to past-prime punchline status as his role in the aerial attack evaporated over the past month, Gronkowski re-emerged as a legitimate receiving threat with 79 yards on six receptions. Formerly the gold standard at tight end, Gronkowski no longer separates from coverage or rampages through a phalanx of defenders after the catch, but he can still punish man-to-man coverage with his behemoth frame and vice-grip hands. The Rams can't assume Gronkowski will be relegated to bone-jarring blocking duties in a game that may stand as the last of his unparalleled career.
6. Burkhead wasn't the only backfield star for New England. A third-down conversion machine, perennial postseason stud James White totalled 72 yards on 10 touches, enabling the Patriots to play keep-away from Mahomes in the early portion of the festivities. Even better, rookie power back Sony Michel carried a career-high 29 times for 113 yards and two more trips to pay dirt -- bringing his two-game postseason total to five touchdowns. This three-headed hydra will do battle with an improved Rams run defence that has shut down the ground attacks of Dallas and New Orleans the past two weeks.
7. Undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson reached a stumbling block in his bid to recreate Malcolm Butler's postseason star turn to close out the 2014 campaign. Although Jackson boasted the lowest opposing passer rating of any cornerback this season, per Pro Football Focus, he wore a target on his back Sunday. The Patriots double-teamed Tyreek Hill at the line of scrimmage and assigned top corner Stephon Gilmore to trail Sammy Watkins. That left Jackson in a one-on-one mismatch versus All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce. Jackson ended up surrendering not only his first career touchdown but also Robinson's 27-yard gain that led to Butker's game-tying kick at the end of regulation. Along the way, Jackson was guilty of a pair of pass interference infractions as well as a holding penalty. Hailed as an especially confident young coverman, Jackson will be tested by the Rams trio of Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks and Josh Reynolds in the season's ultimate showdown.
-- Chris Wesseling
Los Angeles Rams 26, New Orleans Saints 23
1. If last week's divisional round action underwhelmed, Sunday's NFC title tilt slowly morphed into a memorable thriller capped by Greg Zuerlein's money-in-the bank, 57-yard field goal in overtime to airmail the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.
Saints fans were left stunned as Zuerlein's kick -- off a bad snap -- came just minutes after Saints quarterback Drew Brees was hit by Dante Fowler Jr. on a wobbly lob that wound up in the arms of safety John Johnson.
Trailing the entire way, the resilient Rams now make Jared Goff the youngest NFC quarterback in NFL lore to reach the big game.
2. So how did we get to overtime -- and this stunning loss for the Saints?
After digging themselves out of a 14-0 hole last week against the Eagles, New Orleans on Sunday never trailed until the final play.
Still, they hardly operated at the height of their powers. After teaming with Los Angeles for 80 points in their Week 9 tussle, Sunday's showdown felt comparatively formless for minutes at a time.
The Saints built a 20-10 advantage midway through the third quarter when Brees (with 249 yards and two scores) hit the ultra-dynamic Taysom Hill for a 2-yard touchdown on a drive that saw Alvin Kamara punch through Los Angeles for 34 yards off four grabs.
It felt as if the home-team Saints might pull away from there, but the Rams defence refused to die -- helped along the way by a play that will be discussed for months. With the game tied 20-20 at the two-minute warning, Brees airmailed a 43-yard bomb to Ted Ginn to the Los Angeles 13. The crowd melted seconds later -- on third-and-10 from that same spot -- when Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman was somehow not flagged on a pass breakup that saw him clearly collide with wideout Tommylee Lewis.
Robey-Coleman was fortunate, but he likely could have pulled down an interception had he turned to see the ball.
It's also fair to wonder if New Orleans would have been in that situation to begin with had coach Sean Payton done a better job with clock management.
3. The Rams showed their own brand of fight, overcoming a mistake-prone, out-of-sync start to go punch-for-punch with the Saints down the stretch. A collection of big-money plays led the way:
» Los Angeles finally quelled the Superdome noise early in the second quarter when coach Sean McVay and special teams co-ordinator John "Bones" Fassel dialled up a fake punt that saw Johnny Hekker peg Sam Shields on a catch-and-run that kept the march alive.
» That series ended with a field goal, but Goff spun hope two drives later with a beautiful 36-yard, over-the-shoulder dart to Brandin Cooks to set up a 6-yard scoring burst by Todd Gurley to cut the New Orleans lead to 13-10 before the half.
» Down 20-17 in the fourth, Goff hit tight end Gerald Everett for a catch-and-rumble 39 yards before unfurling a 33-yard lob to Josh Reynolds to set up a field goal that triggered a 20-20 tie with five minutes to play.
Later faced with fourth-and-goal from the New Orleans 1, McVay opted for the kick. Would he have done so if a different version of Gurley were waiting in the wings? More on that below.
» Down 23-20 with the game on the line, Goff was money hitting Reynolds for 19 yards before Woods made a leaping grab for 16 yards to put the ball at the New Orleans 33.
Goff panicked on third down by unfurling a quick incompletion, but Zuerlein's wavering-but-successful 48-yard game-tying kick sent the game into a fifth period .
» Come overtime, Goff -- to me -- appeared more at home in the Superdome, sensing pressure and finding tight end Tyler Higbee on a handful of game-changing completions.
4. Get ready for two weeks of breathless coverage around Gurley, who finished with just 10 yards off four totes.
His touchdown gallop failed to mask over an otherwise ugly afternoon. It began when Saints linebacker Demario Davis got the best of Gurley early, stuffing the runner for a loss on his first carry before turning a dropped pass by the star back into a killer pick of Goff.
Gurley's ups and downs quickly became a narrative as cameras showed him nestled on the sideline as McVay used C.J. Anderson (16/44) on the ground for long chunks of time. Gurley buzz-killed a subsequent series with another drop on a key third down in the red zone before also appearing to miss a block on a Goff incompletion.
The bright spot here is a Rams offence that just beat the Saints with their best player operating as a non-factor. They'll need Gurley at his best, though, two Sundays from now.
5. The Rams' defence deserves credit for holding the Saints to a pair of field goals out of the gate, especially when that Davis interception set New Orleans up at the Los Angeles 16-yard line.
Ndamukong Suh followed up last week's blue-ribbon effort with a strong outing against the run and 1.5 game-changing sacks. Aaron Donald didn't light up the box score, but showed flashes of dominance in the second half.
6. Davis and Cam Jordan helped a Saints defence that gave the offence a chance to win and drew energy from a home crowd that operated at a fever pitch.
McVay called it the most noisome throng in memory, while the FOX broadcast showed Los Angeles equipment staffers feverishly working on the communication technology inside Goff's helmet.
The Rams also struggled to call plays in the huddle, but McVay's boys ultimately found a way out of this madness.
7. With veteran Saints tight end Ben Watson out of the line-up battling appendicitis, Payton could only watch as reserve Dan Arnold dropped a would-be touchdown. A fellow reserve stepped up two drives later, though, as tight end Garrett Griffin hauled in the game's first score.
That was made possible when Michael Brockers was flagged for encroachment on fourth-and-2 from the Rams' 10.
8. Michael Thomas set a Saints single-game record with 211 receiving yards in the team's Week 9 win over the Rams -- and carried New Orleans in last week's win over the Eagles. On Sunday, facing variations of Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, Thomas finished with just 36 yards off four grabs. It was Kamara who paced the Saints with 96 yards off 11 grabs, but the big plays to Thomas were sorely missed.
9. Prepare for a Biblical flood of McVay written think-pieces and televised featurettes. They're coming -- in hordes -- and, well, he's earned them.
-- Marc Sessler
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