The Divisional Round Review and Conference Championships Predictions (plus my take on the overtime rule)

The updated NFL playoff bracket showcasing the two conference championship matchups.

The updated NFL playoff bracket showcasing the two conference championship matchups.

Maddox Greenberg, Staff Writer

This past NFL week has been nothing short of thrilling.  And what better way to continue than by having two highly anticipated conference championships on the same day!

 

It is here!  The Conference Championships!  We’ve got some solid games coming up: the AFC Championship game between the 4-seed Bengals and the 2-seed Chiefs; and the NFC Championship game between the 6-seed 49ers and the 4-seed Rams.  Most likely no one could’ve predicted these matchups (I picked Cincy and the Rams to qualify but missed out on the Chiefs and the 49ers), and that’s what makes the NFL playoffs the most “wonderful time of the (sports world) year” (yet again, another late Christmas reference, I know—see my last article).  For those who have either been living under a rock or went to Fiji last week, here are some recaps during the, arguably, greatest football week ever between eight teams and four games:

 

To kick off the Divisional Round (yet again) was the 4-seeded Bengals led by Joe “Joey Ice” Burrow against the 1-seeded Titans led by the return of “The King” Derrick Henry.  Tennessee was favored to win (59.5%).  Cincinnati had some struggles during their 1916 last-second field goal (one of three during the weekend) win over the hosting team, the Titans.  The Bengals offensive line struggled against Tennessee’s pass-rushers Jeffrey Simmons (three sacks), Harold Landry (1.5 sacks), and Denico Autry (1.5 sacks), who just man-handled the 25-year-old two-year Cincinnati quarterback, subjecting him to nine sacks.  Historically, though, Joe Burrow became the second quarterback to get sacked eight-plus times in a playoff game and still win; the first being former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb back in 2003.  But the Cincinnati offense did thrive: rookie (1st year) wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase had six targets, catching five and going for 109 total receiving yards, his longest run being 57 yards; and running back Joe Mixon carried the ball 14 times and ran 54 yards, averaging almost four yards per carry and scoring a touchdown.  A few slip-ups came along the way for Cincy (other than the nine sacks allowed by the offensive line).  Samaje Perine, the Bengals other running back, was short of catching a short-left pass by Joe Burrow when Titans safety Amani Hooker intercepted the ball, taking it 15 yards before being tackled by Perine.  It also didn’t look good for Tennessee, as well.  The first play of the game, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw an interception to Bengals safety Jessie Bates III.  

 

Despite his heroic return, running back Derrick Henry had 20 carries for only 62 yards and scoring an opening touchdown for Tennessee.  On the bright side, Titans wideout A.J. Brown caught five of his nine targets for one touchdown and running 142 yards, averaging 28.4 yards.  The game came down to the wire late in the fourth.  The Hooker interception placed Tennessee right at Cincy’s 27-yard line with Tennessee down 16-9.  It took the Titans two play before tying it up 16-16.  After that, the Bengals punted twice and Tennessee failed to convert on a 4th and 1 (thank you Logan Wilson and Mike Hilton), and a Tennessee interception by Logan Wilson that gave Cincy the ball on their own 47.  It took Cincy four plays to send rookie kicker out of the University of Florida, Evan McPherson to hit a 52-yarder to seal the win and send Cincy to the AFC Championship for the first time since 1988, in which they defeated the Bills before advancing to Super Bowl XXIII and losing to the 49ers, 20-16.

 

Speaking of the 49ers, the next game was the 6-seeded 49ers and the 1-seeded Packers.  The Packers scored late in the second quarter to lead 7-0 in a low scoring first half.  After that, 49ers kicker Robbie Gould made the score 7-3 by notching an easy 29-yarder in the 49ers opening drive of the second half.  After that, Green Bay’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was 20/29 and threw 225 yards and was sacked five times, gave the ball to running back Aaron Jones and wide receiver Davante Adams before A-Rod got blindsided by 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead to force kicker Mason Crosby to kick a successful 33-yard field goal to add to the lead by seven, 10-3.  

 

On the Packers next drive, in which the Packers had to punt, the punt was blocked by 49ers’ Talanoa Hufanga, who ran it 12-yards the other way for a Niners touchdown.  49ers tied the game 10-10 in the fourth.  Packers messed up on the next drive and gave the ball to San Fran, who, despite the cold weather, marched the ball down the field from San Francisco’s 29-yard line to Green Bay’s 27-yard line for “automatic” Robbie Gould (who has never missed a kick in the playoffs—20/20 in field goals and 32/32 in points after touchdown) to kick the game winning 45-yard field goal to make the final score be 13-10.  Now, who will San Fran face?  The Rams, their divisional rival?  Or the Bucs, led by the GOAT Tom Brady?  To find out, scroll down to the next paragraph.

 

The 4-seeded Rams ventured to the Bay to face the 2-seeded Bucs.  It was Matthew Stafford versus Tom Brady.  In the next 60 minutes (football game duration is about three hours.  But the playtime for the players is 60 minutes—15 minutes per four quarters), the Niners would find out who they will face.  

 

The Rams and Buccaneers, on paper, looked equal.  Both top offenses.  Both top defenses.  The Rams, despite winning 30-27, had four turnovers.  However, Stafford had an outstanding first half.  18 completions out of 24 attempts, 229 pass yards, and two touchdowns: one to Kendall Burton (backup tight end to East Lake’s Tyler Higbee) and one to Pro-Bowler Cooper Kupp.  The Rams defense swarmed Brady, sacking him thrice.  The Bucs running game struggled big time.  Leonard Fournette, upon returning to his first game since December 19th loss to New Orleans, averaged 3.9 yards.  He, however, did score two touchdowns.  But he ran only 51 yards on 13 attempts.  Mike Evans (Bucs wide receiver) was 8/16 for 119 yards and ran for one touchdown.  He and Fournette, led by Brady, made a big (but familiar) comeback from being down 27-3 to tie the game 27-27.  

 

This was usual for Brady, who led the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory over the Falcons in 2016 from being down 28-3 to win in overtime (first time in Super Bowl history—and it being the largest comeback in Super Bowl history), 34-28.  But Stafford and the Rams had other ideas.  The Rams, with 42 seconds left on the clock, scored a 30-yard last-minute field goal to send the Rams to face the 49ers in Sofi Stadium.  

 

After the game, Tom Brady replied on his future in the NFL and if he wants to retire the game he has played since 2001: “It pains [my wife Gisele] to see me get hit out there.  And she deserves what she needs from he as a husband, and my kids deserve what they need from me as a dad.”—per his podcast, ‘Let’s Go’.  I, for one, don’t want to see Brady leave, even after his 43 touchdown, 12 interception, 5,316 pass yard season.  However, he should spend time with his family.  And I hate to see him hurt himself wearing that ugly Bucs jersey.  I say, when you retire, Tom, if you are listening, please sign a one-day contract with the Patriots and retire there.  You know you want to.  Good news, Bucs fans.  When Brady retires, within a year or two, Gronk says he’ll stay (until WWE comes calling).

 

Lastly, one of the greatest non-Super Bowl games of all-time, the 3-seeded Bills and the 2-seeded Chiefs dueled it out in Arrowhead (one of the loudest football stadiums in the world—142.2 decibels.  To compare, our school’s fire alarm is about 65 to 120 decibels—per kauffmanco.net).  Josh Allen of Buffalo and Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City both played lights out: Allen went 27/37 for 329 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions and a quarterback rating (QBR) of 90.3; versus Mahomes, who went 33/44 for 378 yards, threw for three touchdowns with no interceptions and a QBR of 96.0.  This was between two of the best defenses in the league.  The game was a battle of the offense.  For the Bills, wide receiver Gabriel Davis caught eight balls out of 10 and ran 201 yards for four touchdowns.  For the Chiefs, WR Tyreek Hill caught 11 out of 13 balls for 150 yards and one touchdown.  

 

The two teams’ defenses did equally as well: the Bills had a total of two sacks and four quarterback hits; the Chiefs had a total of two sacks and two quarterback hits.  The teams’ special teams even did well:  Bills’ Tyler Bass was 4/4 on extra pointers, kicking no field goals; Chiefs’ Harrison Butker kicked 3/4 extra points and kicked 3/4 field goals, longest being 49.  The game was a nail-biter in the second half.  Bills scoring a total of 22-points compared to the 14 they scored in the first half.  Chiefs scored also 22.  The highlight of the game (lowlight for the Bills) was Mahomes running the ball down the field and ending up passing it to tight end Travis Kelce to set up the last-minute field goal to send this classic to overtime.  All of that was in a total of 13 seconds, quicker than Dak Prescott’s 14-second scramble with 17 seconds left that ended the Cowboys’ season.

 

In overtime, the Chiefs won the coin toss and marched down the field for Mahomes to pass to his tight end Kelce, again, to seal the victory (in overtime rules, if a team scores a touchdown, game over), the final score—42-36.  This sparked debate the following day: Should the overtime rules be changed?

 

Ironically, a few years ago, the Chiefs lost in OT to my Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship Game 37-31 after the Patriots won the coin toss and scored the opening touchdown.  The Chiefs wanted the overtime rules to change so both teams get a chance (which they can, if only the first team to score kicks a field goal or the first team loses a drive).  The Bills were against this rule.  However, Allen said after the game: “If it was the other way around, we’d be celebrating too.  It is what it is at this point.”  Fans were half-and-half on this: the Bills had a number one defense who couldn’t stop Mahomes and the Chiefs with 13 seconds on the clock, nor in overtime; on the other hand, why should the game be decided on a toss of a coin and the other team not given a chance to try? (Same goes for Super Bowl LI, in which the Patriots won the coin toss and immediately scored to win the game, not giving Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense a chance to try to match that score). This was the game of the offense.

 

On the FS1 show Speak for Yourself, the two panelists pointed out how Mahomes never got the ball in the Chiefs’ AFC Championship loss against my Patriots back in 2018.  This game was of offense.  Why shouldn’t Josh Allen, an MVP candidate and favorite, get the ball to try and match the Chiefs?  Fans started suggesting the NFL to adopt the NCAA’s overtime rules, which are:

  • The game could go on forever;
  • Each team gets a timeout every overtime period;
  • A two-possession series between both teams (one on offense and one on defense) through first two overtime periods;
  • Each team gets the ball until it scores or fails to make a first down;
  • Whoever scores the most points in that overtime period wins the entire game;
  • Now implemented in 2021, teams will be required to run a two-point conversion after a touchdown when a game reaches the second overtime period; and
  • Another rule implemented was if the game reaches a third overtime period, teams will run alternating two-point plays.

 

This is similar to another suggestion I heard—adopt the XFL’s overtime rules, which are the two teams alternate two-point plays until one mathematically is short after five rounds; and the defense cannot score.

 

I also noticed what angered and confused fans (and it confused me, too) was how in regular season, the overtime was 10 minutes.  Yes, in the playoffs, they added five more minutes, a.k.a. a full new quarter.

 

I, for one, have two solutions to this: 1) have the overtime period be played more.  Both teams play until the period ends.  This could, however, be controversial for the players could be more susceptible to injuries and the players could be more tired; or 2) no overtime at all.  After triple zeros at the end of the fourth, if both teams are tied, each team gets one additional timeout, and the clock starts at zero and goes up.  No coin tosses.  The away team gets the ball first and each team gets a chance to hit the target score (preferred score and a two-pointer).  If both teams do so, then the special teams come out and try to kick five rounds of field goals—one at the 10-yard line, one at the 20, the 30, the 40, and the 50.  Whoever scores the most, wins.

 

This goes perfectly well to what Emmanuel Acho of Speak for Yourself said: the NFL is a three-group basis—offense, defense, and special teams.  The overtime should—or does, I don’t remember what he exactly said—include all three groups.  My solution does so.  It combines the XFL version and the NFL’s.

 

Either way, the Chiefs host the AFC Championship for the fourth straight year.  Mahomes has been the Chiefs’ quarterback for four years.  And he still has a little over seven-to-eight years on his contract.

 

Now, my predictions for the AFC and NFC Championship Games:

 

Sunday, 3:00 PM ET, CBS, AFC Championship Game in Arrowhead Stadium.  Say what you want about the Chiefs game from last week, but these two remaining teams have earned to be here.  The Bengals won 34-31 in Week 17 in an instant classic versus Kansas City, but that was in Cincinnati.  We are in Arrowhead now.  And the Chiefs have a 7-1 home playoff record.  We’ve seen some teams pull off wins (my 2018 Patriots) and some who tried (Houston Texans lead 24-0 in the AFC Divisional a few years ago before losing 51-31).  The Bengals, in order to win, need the best offensive line they could have to stop Kansas City’s monstrous defensive line of Chris Jones (who has nine sacks this year) and Melvin Ingram (two sacks since joining on November 7th).  The Chiefs are huge favorites to win, favored by seven points and have a 69.6% chance to win.  The Chiefs’ rushing defense allowed 4.8 yards per rush and had 10 rush fumbles (per nfl.com).  The Bengals really shouldn’t let Mixon run that much.  My ‘Rules to Success’ for Cincy are:

  1. Protect Burrow at all costs
  2. Burrow must throw quick to his wide receivers (Chiefs defense allows about 11 receiving yards per play, 52 in 20 yards and 13 beyond 40 yards)
  3. Run to Mixon when necessary
  4. Defense must stop Mahomes (Cincy scored 42 sacks vs. Chiefs 31.  Cincy allows quarterback completion percentage to be 67.1 and allow about seven yards per play.  Chiefs allows quarterback completion percentage to be 65.7 and allow about 7.3 yards per play.)

 

And the Bengals are once again underdogs.  Joe Burrow claims he doesn’t like people referring to the Bengals as ‘underdogs’, but they were against Tennessee, the number one seed.  And the Bengals won.  I say don’t disregard the Bengals too early.  I say Cincy can win this, and will, 33-30.

 

Lastly,

Sunday, 6:30 PM ET, FOX, NFC Championship Game in Sofi Stadium.  The Rams could make history by being the second-ever team to play in the Super Bowl in the stadium they are hosting in and play in (the 2021 Bucs being the first); and the first to ever make it back-to-back of teams playing in their own stadium and hosting the Super Bowl.  They’ve got the 49ers.  Truly underdogs.  Started 3-5 and made it in the playoffs from a Week 18 late overtime victory versus…the Rams!  The Niners have the Rams’ number beating them six times since 2019, all of it being in regular season.  Most recently being in Sofi.  The Niners have a unique team in a game.  Their defense is good: total of 48 sacks during regular season and nine interceptions (two going for touchdowns).  In the postseason, they have been dominant: 10 sacks in two games and one interception.  The Rams’ defense, on the other hand, have 50 sacks and 19 interceptions this season; in postseason, five sacks and three interceptions with one that’s gotten in the end zone.  I think the Rams have the better, more equipped team on offense and defense.  They need to stop fumbling and turning over the ball.  I’ve got the Rams, 31-27.

 

So, those are my predictions: Bengals vs Rams in Sofi.  Who do you think will be in the Super Bowl?  What do you think the NFL should do for its overtime rules? Change or keep it the same?