In 25 hours on the greatest playoff weekend in the 102-year history of professional football, the headlines, one by one, kept overtaking the last one:
BENGALS KNOCK OFF 1 SEED TO REACH FIRST AFC TITLE GAME SINCE 1988
NINERS KNOCK OFF 1 SEED ON 45-YARD FIELD GOAL AT :00
RODGERS’ FUTURE UNCERTAIN; WON’T SAY IF HE’LL STAY A PACKER
BRADY, IN A STUNNER, MIGHT WALK AWAY TOO
RAMS AVOID MEGA-COLLAPSE, WIN ON FIELD GOAL AT :00
HAS BRADY PLAYED HIS LAST GAME?
MAHOMES, ALLEN IN A DUEL FOR THE AGES
KC WINS ON GREATEST COMEBACK OF REID’S LIFE
OVERTIME RULES STINK
ALL FOUR DIVISIONAL GAMES DECIDED ON FINAL PLAY
I’m sitting here, just after 11 Sunday night, trying to process the last day-plus. Or, as Jack Buck once said: “I don’t believe WHAT I JUST SAW!!!” We came within 13 shocking seconds of the road team winning all four divisional games for the first time in history. The heroes/newsmakers: Evan McPherson (who’s he?), Joe Burrow, Jeffery Simmons, 39-year-old Robbie Gould, Deebo Samuel, the conflicted brain of Kyle Shanahan, Jordan Willis (former Jet, of all things), Cooper Kupp, Matthew Stafford, the unblockable Aaron Donald, Josh Allen, Josh Allen, Josh Allen, Gabriel Davis the touchdown machine, the tough-as-nails Patrick Mahomes, the incomparable Tyreek Hill. And Josh Allen.
After the first three games of the weekend, drama-laden all, ended on last-play field goals, no way the fourth game could match them. Then KC 42, Buffalo 36 was better, and by a lot. “I’ve been watching football for 75 years,” said 84-year-old Upton Bell, the son of Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner who preceded Pete Rozelle, “and nothing compares to this Buffalo-Kansas City game. I have never seen two quarterbacks in a playoff game play at a higher level than Allen and Mahomes. I was at the 1958 Colts-Giants championship, and that doesn’t compare to this game.”
How amazing is it that we might be on the cusp of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady walking away from football, and the talk on all your Zoom meetings this morning is: “Holy bejeezus! That game last night!”
Thirty-one points scored after the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter.
One thing I loved most about the last game, and that’s the indomitable spirit of the Buffalo and Kansas City players. That a cliché, I know. What is indomitable spirit? It’s what Tyreek Hill told me after the game. He talked to his parents a lot during the week, and they told him this was going to one of those who-wants-it-more games. Again, another cliché.
“I told the guys in the receiver room that,” Hill said from the KC locker room. “Buffalo’s great. You saw that. To win, we had to have guys who wanted it more. That’s the truth. Thirteen seconds left, fourth quarter, Buffalo scores and now we’re down, and [offensive coordinator] Eric Bieniemy comes up to me and says, ‘We’re coming to you, T.’ Patrick says, ‘Coming to you, T.’ And that’s the way I want it. I love it. I love to feel like it’s on me.”
That’s the kind of competitor you want in a game for the ages. Maybe The game for the ages.
There’s no good, logical way to write about this weekend. But it’s my keyboard, so we’ll start at the game I covered Saturday night up in northern Saskatchewan, Niners at Packers.
San Francisco 13, Green Bay 10
GREEN BAY, Wis. — A football game is a series of hundreds of decisions, many of them made by coaches in split-seconds in high pressure. Rarely does one of those decisions impact so many lives and teams as monumentally as something Kyle Shanahan decided while Brandon Aiyuk was in motion from left to right across the Niners’ offensive formation with 1:03 left in the San Francisco-Green Bay divisional playoff game Saturday night.
“What was the time left?” Shanahan asked me, 70 minutes after the game ended. He was finally settling down just before boarding the team bus for the airport.
“A minute and three seconds,” I said.
“The 38,” I said.
Now Shanahan was back in the moment, the moment of the call that would significantly impact:
• The future of Aaron Rodgers’ life in football.
• The legacy of the two-time top-seeded Packers, now on the edge of a cliff.
• Perhaps the last chance for the Pack to prove they hadn’t underachieved with just two Super Bowl titles in 30 years with Hall of Famers Brett Favre and Rodgers.
• The coaching chops of Shanahan, trying to eke out an unlikely win with a wounded quarterback.
• The surprising run of the Niners, trying to make their second NFC title game in three years.
One decision. Shanahan had called a pass play, a deep throw to George Kittle if he was open; the 49er coach thought Kittle would be behind the coverage because the Packers would be sucked up into the box thinking run here. But as Jimmy Garoppolo got his team to the line, three receivers including Kittle in a bunch to the left and Deebo Samuel alone to the right, Shanahan’s second thoughts bubbled to the surface.
The play clock leaked down … :06 … :05 … and Shanahan found the nearest ref. “Time out! TIME OUT!”
:04. That was close.
“In those conditions,” began Shanahan, beat, like he’d just run a half-marathon, “the gotta-have-it yard line was the 35. That was where we had to get to for the longest possible field goal. So I was thinking, man, to have a good chance at this we gotta get a four- or five-yard gain. I was worried we couldn’t do that with the run so I went to a pass.
“But I also knew they had no timeouts. If we did a pass and it didn’t work, Aaron was gonna get it back with 40 or 45 seconds, which …”
I interrupted, “You’ve seen that movie before.”
“Yeah, we’ve seen that before.” In Week 3, at Santa Clara, Rodgers drove the Packers to the winning field goal in the last 37 seconds.
“So we called the pass, the pass I liked. I let them go to the line and then I just thought, It’s not worth it. I’ve seen it with Aaron. We had a motion on, but once we got to the line, I thought I was gonna call a timeout. So I let us start the motion and then I called time. Then I was like, ‘Guys, we gotta run it. At least if we don’t get five yards, at least I know we’re going to overtime. We’ll let it run down to 15 seconds or whatever and punt.”
— NFL (@NFL) January 23, 2022
You saw the rest—probably 10 or 15 times by now. Deebo Samuel, the rusher/receiver, lined up to Garoppolo’s left, took the handoff, sprinted right into a hole over right tackle, sloughed off a shoulder-tackle by Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander at about the 37, then sprinted down to the 29. Field-goal range. Robbie Gould (20 of 20 on postseason field goals) was perfect from 45 yards as the clock hit :00. Niners 13, Packers 10. Final.
One heck of a timeout. One heck of a change-of-mind on the fly. One heck of a run. One heck of a game.
“I guess it ended up being a great decision,” Shanahan said, and he finally allowed himself to smile before heading out into the Wisconsin night.
Sometimes, you just have to look up in the sky at the midwinter flurries enveloping the football game you’re playing in, and you just have to feel the zero-degree wind chill, like you’re playing in the Arctic Circle.
Sometimes, you have to consider what you’ve just done. Rodgers had home-snow-globe advantage Saturday night, and he owns Lambeau Field in weather like this. But on a night most Niners will never forget as long as they breathe, this is what the California underdogs did in perhaps the 38-year-old Rodgers’ last game at Lambeau Field, or his last game period: The 49ers held one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, in the last 54 minutes of this NFC divisional playoff game, to three points in nine possessions in a shocking 13-10 victory.
“Yes,” said linebacker Fred Warner, the leader of this great defense, “I made sure throughout the game to look up at the sky and take it all in, because you don’t get to play in games like this very often. It’s one of those games I’ll remember forever. And how we played against Aaron, who is such a great player … it’s legendary. Truly.”
I could see Warner, outside the Niners’ locker room, giddy equipment guys packing up gear for the 1,850-mile trip home, smiling broadly beneath his black KN95 mask.
“It’s hard to wrap my brain around what we just did.”
I could write 10,000 words about this game. I just might. The game wasn’t pristine. The drama was.
Rodgers defers decision on future. He could request a trade in the coming weeks and the Packers would have to oblige, or he could play one more year and be an unrestricted free-agent in 2023 at 39, or he could quit now. “I’ll have conversations [with Packer management] in the next week or so and start to contemplate after that,” he said after the game. No sign of which way he’s leaning, but he did say he didn’t want to be part of a rebuild.
Mr. Clutch won it. “Our kicker’s perfect!” screamed one Niners exec as a group of them exploded in joy seconds after Gould’s dead-perfect 45-yard kick as time expired won it. And wait till you hear the story of Gould’s new cleats, and the role a small soccer shop in Lancaster, Pa., played in Gould’s golden moment.
Shanahan’s Deebo decision: likely the biggest in his five-year head-coaching career. Changing from pass to run, and Samuel responding with the biggest play of his NFL life, shows Shanahan will live or die with his calls, and he’s comfortable with that.
Packers lousy in crunch time for second straight year. Last year, in the NFC title game, it was Rodgers going incomplete, incomplete, incomplete in the game-deciding series against Tampa Bay. This year, it was the worst offensive performance by the Pack in Rodgers’ 22 playoff starts. You can look it up: They’d never scored less than 20 points in any of Rodgers’ playoff games till this one. Ten. Jordan Love-like. Two top seeds, two crushing disappointments.
Is this it for Rodgers? The weird, painful symmetry of Rodgers and predecessor Brett Favre cries out. Fourteen years and two days previous to Saturday night’s game, Favre’s 14-3 Packers lost to the Giants on a Lawrence Tynes 47-yard field goal as time expired in a minus-23 wind chill game. Here, Rodgers’ 13-4 Packers lost to the Niners on a 45-yard field goal as time expired in a zero wind-chill game. If this was Rodgers’ last game as a Packer, it will be hauntingly familiar to Favre’s.
This was not quite a Vinatieri game at the end, but Gould would have to kick through some snow to win it from 45 yards. Early in the week, he’d called a kickers fraternity brother, Lawrence Tynes, whose 47-yarder 14 years ago lifted the Giants to a Super Bowl berth. Shorten your warmup, stay as warm as possible and slow your stride into the ball because of the soft ground. In other words, don’t use the usual speed to get to the ball. The rushers won’t be able to be quick either, so they’re not going to have an edge coming around the corner.
It worked. Gould slowed his approach to the ball and kicked it perfectly off the soft, heated Lambeau field.
Gould buys his cleats from the store of a guy who used to play soccer with his dad, Angelo Zalalas, who runs Angelo’s Soccer Corner in Lancaster, Pa. “My cleats didn’t fit anymore, and I don’t have. Nike deal,” Gould told me. “So I ordered some from Angelo—shout out to Angelo!—because it was just time for a new pair. He overnighted them to me. The first ones didn’t fit right. So he sent another pair, and those were good. I used those tonight. They felt great.”
After the game, Tynes texted Gould congrats, and Gould thought how cool it was that a guy who won a huge January game in this place helped him win a huge January game in this place. “Dude,” Gould texted Tynes, “you’re my good luck charm.”
Kansas City 42, Buffalo 36
After soaking in one of the greatest games ever (by any metric), and exhaling, I have a few points to make here:
Kansas City has drafted so many players with the Mahomes mindset (talent, plus drive, plus intense competitiveness) who showed up in this ultimate test to their greatness. I thought coming back in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl two years ago, using signature-play 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp to come back on the Niners, was the best illustration of Kansas City’s determination. Maybe not. Mahomes is amazing, obviously. Nothing bugs him. He’s got a chance, long-term, to be one of the all-time great with his magical style and accompanying grit. “But what people don’t see,” Tyreek Hill told me post-game, “is the way he makes us all better.” With 73 seconds left and the Bills up 29-26, Mahomes pierced a look into Hill and said, “Ten! I’m coming to you, no matter what.” Of course, “10” is Hill’s number. Hill got a step on his defender, and Mahomes hit him, and Hill sprinted through the crowd of Bills for a 64-yard score. “So well do that, we all lean on each other,” Hill said. “Like, in this game, I told our receiver group, ‘If it’s not coming to you, block! Block for one another.’ “
CHIEFS RETAKE THE LEAD. #NFLPlayoffs
— NFL (@NFL) January 24, 2022
Josh Allen. That is all. A conversation I won’t forget from last August: Allen’s off-season workout guru, former quarterback Jordan Palmer, told me the season would come down to the last four minutes against Kansas City. So I went back and looked at those four minutes: Allen led two touchdown drives, throwing for 107 yards and two touchdowns. He rose to the moment. And here’s something no one’s thinking about in the wake of the game. Allen, as brilliant as he was throwing the ball, was superb and forceful running it. Michael Vick’s career rushing average was 7.0 yards per rush. Steve Young’s 5.9 yards. In his two playoff games this year, Allen is bulling/deking/sprinting for 7.9 yards per carry. When you don’t throw picks, and when you’re putting up 83 points in two playoff games, you’re a great quarterback. That’s Allen.
What depth the Bills have. In the regular season, Gabriel Davis was Buffalo’s sixth-leading receiver, with 35 catches. How does a team’s sixth-leading receiver set an NFL playoff record with four touchdowns in one postseason game? Davis (eight catches, 201 yards) shows how well the Bills have done building this roster under GM Brandon Beane.
Sean McDermott showed he has a smart, disciplined team that will be in games of this magnitude for years. One play illustrated to me what McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have drilled into this team. With Kansas City up 23-21 with nine minutes to play, KC had a third-and-one from the Buffalo 7-yard line. No idea (other than the element of surprise) why the home team would take Mahomes out from under center and position tight end Blake Bell at quarterback, but that’s what happened. Bell took the snap and veered right and pitched to running back Jerick McKinnon. And in a brilliant bit of defensive strategy, defensive back Dane Jackson leveled McKinnon for a loss of three. I would have had the ball in Mahomes’ hands there, but the fact that Reid didn’t, and the fact the Bills sniffed it out is a great credit to their coaches.
McDermott will regret one coaching decision from this game. Buffalo just had the greatest drive of the day to go up 36-33 with 14 seconds left, and it looked like the Bills would have their great victory of the century. But Buffalo then kicked the ball into the end zone, allowing no time to run off the clock and allowing Kansas City to take over at its 25. They were 40 yards away from trying a field goal to tie it. Moments after it happened, one NFL coach texted me and said, “No! The Bills should have made the Chiefs return the ball and start the drive with only eight or nine seconds left. That way, they’d have had one play, not two, to get into field-goal position.” Correct. Absolutely correct.
L.A. Rams 30, Tampa Bay 27
I don’t know if Tom Brady will retire. I do know that there are some close to Brady who wonder if he will, including one person Sunday night who told me when I asked about Brady walking away at 44, “Friday I would have said no. Today, I don’t know.”
Don’t take that to mean Brady had some epiphany over the weekend that told him he should retire. I’ve always felt—as someone who knows Brady in passing; I am not close to him—that when he retired, it would not be because he felt he was incapable of playing at a high level. God knows anyone who leads the NFL in passing yards at 44 can and is still playing at a high level. But I’ve thought there’s something else that’s important for Brady, who knows he has focused so much energy for exactly half of his life on being a great professional football player. At some point he’s going to want a different focus in his life. And at a time when the Bucs were all-in on 2021 and it didn’t result in a second Tampa Super Bowl, Brady knows 2022 is going to be worse because of the cap and because some of the vets are not going to be able to be the impact players they were in the Super Bowl season. So maybe this is time to go. But I stress: I don’t know if he will. Brady might come back and throw for 5K again next fall. We’ll see. He does deserve to take his time and make the choice he wants to make.
As for the Rams, this was a franchise-impacting victory. It means they’ll play the NFC title game in owner Stan Kroenke’s jillion-dollar palace, SoFi Stadium, and if they win that game, they’ll play the Super Bowl in their home yard too.
On Sunday, they went on the road, beat the defending Super Bowl champions, knocked the greatest quarterback ever from the tournament, and proved that their way of building a team can work. The Rams are the only one of 32 franchises in the league choosing through trades and free agency to build with proven veterans and lesser, lower-cost mid-round young players. Watching Von Miller wreak havoc next to Aaron Donald on Sunday, and seeing Odell Beckham Jr. make the Final Four as a real contributor and seeing vet Matthew Stafford win the first and second playoff games—in the span of seven days—were measuring-stick accomplishments for the team.
Watching Stafford lead the team to the winning field goal after nearly blowing a 24-point lead says more to me about his poise and leadership than about how he and that offense almost blew the game. When McVay went out on a limb to deal for Stafford, he denuded future drafts in making the deal with Detroit. This was the day it was all about, Stafford going into Tampa Bay and dethroning Tom Brady and the champs.
Cincinnati 19, Tennessee 16
So it has become urban legend in the last 36 hours that Evan McPherson is the Joe Burrow of kickers—a young player (22) with an insane amount of confidence for his age, a guy who told holder Brandon Allen before banging his fourth field goal of the game, a 52-yard game-winner, “Looks like we’re going to the AFC Championship.” And of course McPherson drilled it right down the middle. In his first two NFL playoff games, McPherson is perfect, four-for-four in field goals in both.
Where’d this big-time player come from?
Well, the Bengals have the New England Patriots, and Christian Barmore, to thank for McPherson.
Go back to draft weekend. The Bengals did like McPherson, who came out a year early from Florida and the team scouted heavily. Special team coordinator Darren Simmons gave his seal of approval, which was big in the eyes of draft czar and director of player personnel Duke Tobin. They liked McPherson’s physical gifts and his moxie. But the team wanted to draft at least two offensive linemen and two defensive linemen (and maybe a third) in the draft, and they knew they were going to pick Ja’Marr Chase. To get Chase, the kicker (no sure thing if they didn’t deal for extra picks) and the linemen, they needed extra picks. “We definitely needed to fill in on both lines of scrimmage,” Tobin recalled from Cincinnati on Sunday. “But we also liked the kicker, because taking him would hopefully take us out of the grind cycle of manufacturing a kicker.”
The Bengals had the 38th overall pick in the second round. Tobin wanted to move down. He engaged with New England, picking 46th. The Patriots agreed to send pick 46, plus two fourth-round picks (122 and 139) to Cincinnati for the 38th pick. That’s a hefty sum, but only a slight overpayment per the note draft-trade value chart. But the trade allowed the Bengals to pick two offensive tackles and three defensive linemen by the time the fifth round began.
“I can’t say I’m Carnac in that way,” said Tobin, referring to the mind-reader Johnny Carson used to play on late-night TV. “You have guys on your board that you’re saying, okay, if we make this deal we could get three guys we liked instead of picking only one. It felt good to get three swings at picks in the fourth round.”
That freed Cincinnati to pick McPherson early in the fifth round. It also came with seal of approval of his father Bill Tobin, a long-time scout and draft chief.
“My dad told me in 1985, when he was with the Bears, they took a kicker in the fourth round who made a huge difference in their Super Bowl team that year. That kicker was Kevin Butler. So it’s not without precedent, taking a kicker and having him make a real difference in your team. We felt good about Evan being there in the fifth round for us, and the difference he could make for us.”
Some difference. McPherson scored 14 points in a seven-point wild-card win last week, and 13 points in sending home the AFC’s top seed this weekend. That’s pretty good value, making all 11 kicks in clutch playoff situations, for the 154th pick in the draft.