Two games, two spots in the Super Bowl on the line, and the first time in NFL history where two playoff games went into overtime on the same day.
The Super Bowl is set, and the way the Rams and Patriots advanced to Atlanta to play in the big game showcased everything this sport has to offer.
If you were with somebody who had never seen football before, you could make a presentation about today’s events in Kansas City and New Orleans to distil everything good and bad about the NFL neatly.
It was wonderful to see unfold, but at times infuriating. Both sides of the emotional coin that we love in the NFL were on display all day, often at the same time. The duality of the overtimes summed it up perfectly.
What must Patrick Mahomes be thinking right now?
He took the league by storm this year in his first season as a starter. He re-energised a fan-base starving for any kind of success behind 50 touchdown passes and probably winning the MVP. All the while, he became arguably the most exciting player in the league to watch.
Naturally, he spent the entire overtime standing on the sideline watching the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl. New England won the coin toss, and scored a touchdown.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. In 2017, MVP Matt Ryan had to endure the exact same thing in the first-ever Super Bowl overtime after losing the coin toss, and the same stroke of bad luck hit Aaron Rodgers in the 2015 NFC Championship Game as Seattle knocked Green Bay out.
The notion of something as arbitrary as a coin deciding who gets the first (and sometimes only) chance to advance to the Super Bowl is absurd. It’s a cruel way to end a season. But it doesn’t have to be.
The Rams stared down the face of a lost coin toss in a hostile environment and won the game anyway. John Johnson III intercepted Drew Brees, giving his offense a chance to win the game. It was what’s great about this league.
Patrick Mahomes and John Johnson. Both born in 1995, both drafted in 2017 out of non-traditional football powers, and both important members of their respective teams.
One got to step on the field in overtime, while the other helplessly watched. It was great to see Johnson, a third-round pick who doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves on a defense that expensive defensive player ever in Aaron Donald, get to make a play that will live forever. It was awful to see a player as electrifying as Mahomes stranded.
It was good, it was bad, it was the NFL.
Questionable refereeing reared its ugly head in both games. Saints fans will spend all offseason and beyond wondering what would have happened if one of the most blatant pass interferences you will ever see had been called in the final two minutes when Nickell Robey-Coleman took out Tommylee Lewis on third-and-10.
A possible muffed punt, and a pair of controversial catch/no catch plays turned the fourth quarter in Kansas City into a game of booth reviews with a little bit of football intervening. An egregious roughing the passer call on Chris Jones gave the Patriots a key first down in the fourth quarter. New England cornerback JC Jackson saw two big but questionable penalties go against him in the fourth quarter as well.
It really was a perfect cocktail of poor officiating. Nobody knows what a catch is, nobody knows what pass interference, and absolutely none of us understand the new roughing the passer rules. Everything fans have struggled with for years, and especially this year, came out in those games. It was brutal watching the “Best officials in the NFL” muddle through plays and just generally look like they didn’t know what they were doing.
But it’s a huge testament to the four teams who played that on a day with refereeing like that, the big story was the action on the field. Even for all of it’s faults, the NFL has some of the best athletes in the world on display, and seeing them do what they do best with everything on the line is why we watch the sport.
Tom Brady was at his best again, as he and Mahomes combined to put up 38 points in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime. This included four lead changes in the space of 7:08, and incredible swings of momentum. The were 422 yards of offense in the fourth quarter and overtime alone, and every last one of them contributed to the outcome of an instant classic.
In the Superdome we were treated to Drew Brees taking on one of the best defenses in the NFL with everything on the line. The Rams looked like they were going to be run out of the building in the first quarter, but the defense tightened up to allow 10 points over the final 48 minutes of football.
When they absolutely knew they couldn’t allow another first down, they got a stop in the last two minutes. When they knew allowing a touchdown would mean the end of their season, Aaron Donald made a huge play to stop Mark Ingram for a loss of six, and Johnson came up with his interception.
Jared Goff was good too, going 25-40 for 297 yards in the toughest environment of his young career. He rose to the occasion in the second half, and on the final drive of regulation when the Rams needed points to extend the game. He showed why the Rams traded a fortune to draft him first overall.
What you saw Sunday was the best players in the NFL stepping up. When you watch enough putrid Arizona vs. San Francisco and Oakland vs. Cincinnati games in half-empty stadium that more resemble Benny Hill scenes than an NFL game, it’s easy to forget how great the league can be. It slips out of your mind for most of the year between the chaos of the draft process or the litany of aspects about the league that are bad.
But when great teams meet in raucous atmospheres with the highest stakes, it serves as the reminder for why we put up with everything that goes with this league.
The unwatchable games you watch from September to December are the reason you’re unable to take your eyes off these in January.
There were so many more layers the Championship Sunday. The juxtaposition of one winning quarterback being drafted first, and the other 199th. The battle between one team who has had nothing but winning in the last two decades against one who just came out of a 12-year playoff drought last year.
Chiefs fans seeing everything they’ve wanted since 1970 dangled in front of them and snatched away in just about the worst manner imaginable. The irony if New Orleans spending two years enjoying their biggest rival’s Super Bowl collapse before falling apart in their own huge game. The list goes on and on, a fitting metaphor for a league that dominates sports headlines 365 days a year.
Depending on your persuasion, your perspective on whether Sunday’s action was good or bad will be vastly different. But one thing was clear as we embark on the two weeks before Super Bowl Sunday.
Sunday was everything the NFL has to offer in its purest form.