Championship Sunday was supposed to make up for a very boring divisional round and it delivered in spades, with both games going to overtime, controversy sprawling all over the NFL landscape and the Patriots and Rams emerging that promises loads of storylines.
You’ll be tired of hearing about those in two weeks, much less 24 hours, so let’s dive in on Sunday’s action and look at the nine craziest things that happened on Sunday. Nine almost feels like shortchanging the action, but we’ll give it a shot anyway.
1. The pass interference no-call
Where else to start? The NFL — allowing TommyLee Lewis to be truck-sticked by Nickell Robey-Coleman wasn’t the only missed call by the refs in the two games on Sunday, but it was the most impactful. On a third down with less than two minutes left and the Rams holding just a single timeout, Drew Brees targeted Lewis on the right side of the field.
The whole thing is just a joke. It’s pass interference, plain and simple. If the flag is thrown — and it should have been thrown — the Saints would have taken knees or run plays into the line of scrimmage until there was no time left and kicked a short field goal to win and go to the Super Bowl. Instead, the Saints are headed home.
Sean Payton spent the minutes after the play blasting the officials involved. After the game, he was pretty open about his frustration and said the league office — which has yet to release a statement about the call, somehow — admitted to him they “blew the call.”
“Obviously it’s a disappointing way to lose the game. It’s frustrating,” Payton said. “Just getting off the phone with the league office. They blew the call.”
Asked what explanation the league gave him, Payton said they didn’t bother trying to make up an excuse.
“It was simple,” Payton said. “They blew the call.”
The man behind the call made it clear he wasn’t trying to do anything other than to, well, interfere. He was beat and he was trying to stop a touchdown.
“I didn’t look back at the ball,” Robey-Coleman said. “I didn’t play the ball.”
It’s all so preposterous. I understand there isn’t a way for the NFL to handle this in the moment. The league can’t magically change the rules for what is reviewable in a situation like this, even if the NFL has shown a willingness to make minor rule changes leading up to the playoffs.
Now the league has to make a major change: it needs to figure out a way to make pass interference reviewable, or to institute centralized replay on a fully operational basis. A man got mugged going for a football and it cost the Saints a shot at a second Super Bowl under Brees and Payton.
There is actually a portion of the NFL rulebook, as noted by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, which allows Roger Goodell to change the outcome of a game if he deems what happened “so extraordinarily unfair or outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional football that such action has a major effect on the result of the game.”
Again: this isn’t going to happen. Imagine Goodell either reversing the Rams victory or rescheduling the NFC Championship Game. It’s hilarious to think about. But the fact we’re talking about it says a lot about the issues the officials created for the Saints in this game.
Officiating a game is hard. This isn’t a rip job on the officials. It’s the NFL’s issue: the league asks the officials to do too much and it creates these issues. Fix it. Please.
2. Edelman’s punt return
Replay had a little bit of a better day in the Patriots-Chiefs matchup, which also ended in overtime,.
The camerawork from the CBS crew was phenomenal — zooming in on Edelman’s fingertips to try and see whether or not the ball was touched or whether his body altered the movement of the ball.
I was confident it hit him, or at least confident enough that it was too hard to tell and the refs wouldn’t be able to overturn it. Edelman was ADAMANT he didn’t touch the ball and, obviously, Belichick challenged it. How on Earth could they overturn that, given the ruling on the field?
NFL on CBS officiating expert Gene Steratore, in his first year in the booth, was on the opposite side. He boldly proclaimed the refs would overturn it and, if I’m being honest, I had friends texting me questioning his sanity. But he was spot on. Credit to Steratore for a breakout performance — he was nailing review after review in a huge spot in real time. It was incredibly impressive.
Chiefs fans were understandably STEAMED when the ball was given back to the Patriots.
Fortunately for Chiefs fans, the BALL DON’T LIE. That’s a thing literally every single NFL sportswriter tweeted at the same time when Brady threw a pass on the very next play, had it hit Edelman’s and immediately go back to the Chiefs.
Ball don’t lie, man.
3. Oh no, Dee Ford
This wasn’t CRAZY, per se, because it was easy and obvious. But it needs to be pointed out: if Dee Ford doesn’t line up offsides in regulation, the Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl. Yes, it’s that simple: K.C. picked off Brady while up four points in the fourth quarter, but the Chiefs pass rusher was lined up in the neutral zone.
No-brainer call. But it wasn’t necessary. Ford was double-teamed. He never got close to sacking Brady. Brady had no pressure on him. He threw the ball to Rob Gronkowski, the ball hit off Gronk’s hands and went right to a Chiefs defender. It was game over, the Chiefs were taking knees and going to the Super Bowl.
And then, they were not.
The next play was a 25-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski that gave the Pats another first down and set up the touchdown that gave them a 31-28 lead. The game should have been over.
This is why it’s a game of inches. Things turn wildly on small, single plays. Unforced errors flip games and alter history. You can’t pin the loss on Ford or anything, but this is a brutal one.
4. Brees’ overtime interception, Zuerlein’s FG
Fascinating juxtaposition to see the two overtime periods in the NFC and AFC title games. Tom Brady snuffed out the Chiefs defense and Drew Brees got snuffed. Brees got his clock cleaned by Dante Fowler — I thought there should have been a penalty on Fowler for striking Brees in the head/neck area — and threw up a duck.
The Rams got handsy with a loose ball in the air, knowing they were unlikely to be flagged (for anything at this point, really) and snagged the rock to steal the ball back.
Several plays later, Sean McVay had a business decision to make and he didn’t flinch, giving John Breech’s wild prediction a chance to come true.
Greg Zuerlein stepped up and BURIED a 57-yard field goal to push the Rams into the Super Bowl.
That thing was good from 75 yards, much less 57.
5. Chiefs’ last possession
If we’re banging the NFL for nitpicks on a great day of football, we should probably point out that NFL overtime can stink. It literally comes down to a coin flip, and if one team scores a touchdown, the game is over. Mahomes never got an opportunity to touch the ball. So let’s look at the Chiefs last possession instead, one that took up all of 32 seconds and could have resulted in a touchdown but ended up as a field goal.
Mahomes and the Chiefs appeared they were going to stall out, but that’s when Mahomes did Mahomes things.
And then he did more Mahomes things.
As bad as he played in the first half — and he was bad, albeit only on four possessions — he was outstanding in the second half. Every time he touched the ball, you believed the Chiefs were going to score. It took all of two completions to get the Chiefs well within scoring range. And because of multiple penalties against the Patriots, the clock stopped and the Chiefs basically got a free timeout to think about what they wanted to do. The clock didn’t stop, but the clock wasn’t running. Mahomes clearly knew — credit his awareness there — and the Chiefs took a shot down the field.
Mahomes clearly threw the ball away. With 16 seconds they had to take a shot. Should they have taken another one after that? There were 11 seconds left and the Chiefs were out of timeouts. Throw an interception or a completion in bounds and the game is over and Andy Reid is getting KILLED for clock management. He trotted out Harrison Butker, who buried the clutch field goal.
Here’s my question: should Reid have taken another shot? I don’t know the answer. Again, lose the game while taking a shot and you are getting obliterated for it over the next two weeks. But don’t take the shot and you risk giving the ball to Tom Brady in overtime where a touchdown against your gassed defense wins it.
6. Pats in overtime
That’s what happened. Matthew Slater loudly yelled “We want the BALL!” after the Patriots won the coin flip and went out and summarily broke the Chiefs back in half with big third down conversion after third down conversion.
The Patriots converted a third-and-9 …
Another long third down to Edelman over the middle…
All told they converted THIRTY YARDS on third down alone in overtime. When Brady needed his guys the most, he found them, converting passes to Edelman and Gronk on the three huge plays to ensure they could score a touchdown, a punch-in with Rex Burkhead to walk it off, and keep Mahomes from coming out on the field.
Two big plays nearly changed the outcome of the Rams-Saints game in regulation. After completing a deep ball to Ted Ginn that set up a “hey let’s get a first down and kill this thing” situation for the Saints (which would later be negated by the ref issue from No. 1 above), the Saints decided to throw on first down.
I have no problem with it. I liked it even. A quick slant from Drew Brees to Michael Thomas? That’s a 90 percent chance of being complete. But Brees short-hopped it and Thomas couldn’t come up with the ball. It was incomplete and the Rams saved a timeout. If you’re throwing and being aggressive that’s great, but you better be sure about the play.
The Rams battled an issue after that too, missing a chance to win the game in regulation by running a scissors-type route out of a bunch formation to Robert Woods. It had already worked for a first down and Sean McVay went back to the well, but Jared Goff completely missed his receiver and the Rams had to kick.
Credit Saints fans for the noise.
Again, game of inches. Homefield matters, although it didn’t help the two home teams enough on Sunday.
8. McVay has guts
With the Rams trailing 13-0 early in the second quarter and looking like they might be in over their head with the noise in the Superdome and the Saints offense starting to really cook, McVay saddled up and called on his second-best quarterback, Johnny Hekker.
This was a wild spot to fake it — if you miss, you’re definitely down at least 16-0 and probably down 20-0 and feeling like you’re out of it. But McVay trusted his process, he trusted a guy who always makes big throws on these fake punts and he apparently got a look he liked. It’s hard to tell exactly what the Saints were thinking here, because, frankly, a fake punt seemed likely.
Did Sean Payton not remember EXACTLY WHAT HE DID LAST WEEK? Trailing the Eagles 14-0, deep in his own territory, Payton went gutsy and faked a punt. He should have seen this coming and prepared for it, especially with the way McVay’s been willing to coach in these spots during the postseason.
Don’t let this fake punt fall by the wayside. It turned the tide in this game when the Saints were about to steamroll the Rams.
9. Chiefs’ third-down woes
This isn’t so much a crazy moment as it is just a frustrating situation if you’re a Chiefs fan. The Patriots plastered the Chiefs in the first half of the AFC title game. The Chiefs defense couldn’t get off the field. But it wasn’t because they were bad — they just couldn’t figure out a way to stop the Pats on third down.
Again and again late in this game and then in overtime, the Patriots got behind the sticks and needed a huge third down conversion. Again and again, Brady’s safety blanked was there. Edelman was NAILS in this game. Third-and-9 in overtime knowing a drop means you’re punting the ball back to Mahomes? No problem.
Maybe put someone on Edelman here? Over the middle? Maybe? Look at his route chart: this wasn’t rocket science — Edelman just kept carving up the Chiefs in the same way he kept carving up the Chargers last week. His route tree wasn’t overly complex. Cover him over the middle.
Some stats! The Patriots were a ridiculous 13-of-19 on third-down conversions against the Chiefs, good for 68 percent, which is going to win you a lot of games. Additionally, the Patriots, with their ball-control offense designed to keep Patrick Mahomes off the field, held the ball for 43 minutes and 59 seconds in this game. The Chiefs had it 20 minutes and 53 seconds.
Belichick and Josh McDaniels have morphed their offense into a power-run game that chews up clock, wears down defenses and shortens games while asking Brady to convert a pile of third downs and keep drives alive. It’s not going to annihilate everything in its path, but it’s particularly effective.
Wade Phillips might be able to do more about this, but Josh McDaniels will have an opportunity to utilize Edelman and James White as speedy, short-range pass-catching weapons who can terrorize the Rams defenders if they get plus matchups. If Sony Michel is running for 100-plus yards and the Patriots are converting 50 percent of their third downs, whoever they’re playing is in trouble.