By: Brady Gardner
Last weekend’s conference championship games were some of the best in recent memory, and undoubtedly deserve some extra analysis. In no particular order, here are 10 things we learned from championship weekend in the NFL.
1) We got some great championship games
With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the four best teams in the NFL put on quite a show football fans nationwide last Sunday. These two conference championship clashes were the most highly-anticipated games of the year, and they both lived up to their expectations. In the history of the league, there have never been two conference championship games that both when into overtime, but we saw that happen this past weekend. With highlight reel plays, heart-pounding reviews, dramatic finishes and so much more, these games checked every box of what makes for an entertaining football game.
2) Sean McVay has no fear
Going toe-to-toe with an NFL champion head coach and down by two scores at the Superdome, the recently-turned 33 year old showed just what makes him one of the best coaches in the league at such a young age. Pinned deep at his own 30, McVay dialed up a successful fake punt that gave his team life and sparked their comeback to defeat New Orleans. His team may have been aided by some good fortune late, but it takes an impressive leader to bring a team to victory in the circumstances that the Rams faced, and that’s exactly what Sean McVay did.
3) The Rams can win without Todd Gurley
Todd Gurley was the centerpiece of the Rams’ offense in the regular season, but has been virtually a non-factor since the playoffs began. The former offensive rookie of the year was given only four carries against the Saints, as Los Angeles relied more heavily on Week 16 signing CJ Anderson, just as they had against the Cowboys the week before. Whether or not Gurley’s decreased workload has been health-related or purely a coaching decision, the Rams have proven that they can roll on without their star running back.
4) The Saints lost a major opportunity
Having finished the regular season with the best record in the league, the Saints were poised to make a deep playoff run. However, after going ahead by two scores on home turf, New Orleans squandered their lead over the Rams and surrendered the opportunity to go play for a second Super Bowl title in ten years. No one knows just how many more years the quarterback-coach combination of Drew Brees and Sean Payton may have left together, but it certainly feels like this season may have been their best chance to get a second ring.
5) NFL officiating needs to be better
Okay, so maybe this was something we already knew. But the reality is that in one of the biggest moments of the season thus far, the referees in New Orleans got the call wrong. A blatant pass interference penalty on Los Angeles late in the NFC Championship was missed, essentially opening the door for the Rams to come back and win the game. Yes, there may have been other potential penalties that went unnoticed over the weekend, but when a certain call can determine the outcome of a game such as this one, the officiating must be better.
6) Tom Brady is still as clutch as ever
After uncharacteristically missing offseason workouts, taking more time than usual away from the game, and playing unlike himself for much of the regular season, Tom Brady had his fair share of doubters ahead of the AFC championship against a likely NFL offensive player of the year in Patrick Mahomes. However, when the stakes were the highest in Kansas City, the 41-year old heroically led drive after drive to bring the Patriots to victory, just as he has throughout his career. When the Patriots needed Brady, he delivered.
7) Patrick Mahomes can handle the spotlight
In the nightcap of NFL championship weekend, Patrick Mahomes faced the most pressure of any game yet in his career – taking on Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots with Super Bowl berth on the line. While it took a half for the Kansas City offense get going, Mahomes was near-flawless in the second half, matching Tom Brady’s spectacular effort with improbable scoring drives of his own. The Chiefs may have come up just short in the end, but it is clear that Patrick Mahomes can succeed when the lights are the brightest.
8) Andy Reid didn’t mess it up this time
Andy Reid has a history for making mistakes in the postseason – everyone knows that. So it was expected that with potentially the greatest coach of all time in Bill Belichick standing on the opposite sideline, Reid would find a way to cost the Chiefs the game in one way or another. But he didn’t! While Kansas City’s game plan can be questioned, there was no clear point in the game when a coaching mistake greatly hurt the Chiefs. His team may have fallen to the Patriots in a big game once again, but at least it wasn’t Andy Reid’s fault this time.
9) Gronk can still be Gronk
After a season of mediocre stat lines and a lack of true game-changing plays for Rob Gronkowski, Patriots fans have grown to accept that the 4-time All-Pro tight end is no longer the animal on the field that he once was. However, Gronk’s play against Kansas City was reminiscent of past performances, racking up 79 yards on six catches, including a few crucial grabs late in the game. With impressive numbers and reliability in key situations, maybe Gronkowski can still be the force he once was, at least for the time being.
10) It is going to be an exciting Super Bowl!
Realistically, any combination of the four teams that played last weekend would make for a great Super Bowl matchup. That being said, there is undeniably something special about Rams vs. Patriots, and not just the fact that the first ring for Brady and Belichick came over the Rams. It’s the young coach and quarterback against the duo that has been doing it since the new millennium, the up-and-coming challengers against the tried-and-true dynasty. It will be the second time in just over three months that Boston has played LA for a championship, and it will be a good one.
In my NFL column next week, I will have a full preview of the Super Bowl to get you ready for Rams vs. Patriots in Atlanta on Sunday, Feb. 3. Stay tuned!