NFL 2021 NFC Championship Game Preview: 49ers at Rams

The NFC West was all the rage coming into this 2021 season, and sure enough, it delivered. While the Seahawks regressed and the 7-0 Cardinals imploded after being the NFL’s last unbeaten team, the 49ers and Rams are meeting in the NFC Championship Game after vanquishing Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, perhaps for good, in Green Bay and Tampa Bay.

The NFC West will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl for the sixth time in the last 10 seasons. San Francisco is looking for a three-game sweep after the team’s 17-point comeback in Los Angeles in Week 18 got them in the tournament in the first place. One more win is either going to put Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan in their second Super Bowl in the last four years with the hope of winning it all this time.

Is it going to be a rematch of Super Bowl 54 between the 49ers and Chiefs, a rematch of the 54-51 game in 2018 between the Rams and Chiefs should both home teams win, or could two road upsets produce the third 49ers-Bengals Super Bowl? I’m not sure the league and networks want any part of a Rams-Bengals Super Bowl this year.

The AFC will be decided first on Sunday afternoon with the Chiefs a strong favorite at home. This game looks more likely to produce an upset with the 49ers as a 3.5-point underdog. Both teams should enter it with confidence, but I feel there is more pressure on the Rams to overcome one of their toughest opponents and make this “all in” approach with their roster construction pay off with a Super Bowl.

See my full Bengals-Chiefs preview here (link to come).

How Hard Is It to Beat a Team Three Times?

On the surface, of course it is hard to beat a division foe three times in the same season, which would include a playoff meeting. But what happens when a team is already 2-0 heading into that playoff matchup? It didn’t work out for the Saints against Tampa Bay last year thanks to four turnovers, but the 49ers are also in an unusual position of being the road team this week.

Of the 23 times in the modern era where a team was going for the 3-0 sweep in the playoffs, this is only the fifth time that team is on the road. Those road teams are 2-2 in the playoffs with the 1999 Titans most famously handing Jacksonville all three of its losses that season. These teams in the conference championship round are 4-1, and the overall playoff record for the team going for the sweep is 14-8 (.636), so it happens more often than not.

But What If This Rivalry Is One Sided?

McVay and Shanahan, former colleagues in Washington, took over as the coaches of these teams in 2017. Shanahan is 7-3 against McVay and has won six straight despite generally having lesser teams and quarterbacks than the Rams. The 49ers have already upset the Rams, the closest thing to a super team this year, twice.

In Week 10 in mid-November, the 49ers were an aimless 3-5 team, but everything changed that night in a 31-10 upset. The offense only had two legitimate possessions in the first half, but they strung together 29 plays for 184 yards and two touchdowns on them. Matthew Stafford had a drop by Tyler Higbee that turned into a tipped pick-six to put the Rams in a big hole they never climbed out of. Deebo Samuel showed off his YAC ability on a 40-yard touchdown catch on a fourth down, but that was also the night where he started being used as a runner again. Samuel had six carries for 22 yards in Weeks 1-9 combined but had five runs for 36 yards and a touchdown against the Rams. He has continued to be that dual-threat for the team and iced their game-winning drive in Green Bay last week with a 9-yard run on third-and-7. He is an incredible weapon and hopefully he’ll be healthy after hobbling off the field Saturday night.

When these teams met again in Week 18 in Los Angeles, the crowd was very pro-49ers. The game was pro-Rams for a half though as the Rams led 17-0. But Jimmy Garoppolo led a key drive in the last 38 seconds to get a field goal on the board. There was that annoying stat going around for years that McVay was 45-0 when leading at halftime. It’s annoying because it implies that he’s never lost a game when leading in the second half. He has. Multiple times. This game would be the most stunning loss since the 49ers had to overcome some long odds.

Even after quickly tying the game, things stalled out and Garoppolo was intercepted in the red zone by Jalen Ramsey with half a quarter left. Cooper Kupp took over for the Rams and put them up 24-17. The 49ers went three-and-out with Garoppolo taking a sack that brought up fourth-and-18 at the two-minute warning. That was no man’s land, but Shanahan made the ultimately wise decision to punt the ball back and use his three timeouts. I still think most coaches punt there, but John Harbaugh and Brandon Staley likely go for it. They also likely fail, fall behind by 10 points, and the game is over.

But McVay did the 49ers a favor by sticking with three straight runs, including a cowardly run on third-and-7. Was this not the situation you brought Stafford in for? Wasn’t protecting Jared Goff from throwing a pick the excuse for past years of conservative play calls from McVay? The 49ers got the ball back at their own 12 with 1:27 left, but Garoppolo again got the job done with an 88-yard touchdown drive, one of the best all year in that situation.

In overtime, the 49ers settled for a field goal before Stafford forced a deep ball on first down for a game-ending interception. The 49ers would have been replaced by the Saints for the playoffs had they not come back to win this game.

Stafford was nearly unstoppable in this game until the pass rush got after him. The 49ers sacked him five times and pressured him 14 times for a pressure rate of 37.8%, easily the worst pass protection game of the season for the Rams.

That comeback paved the way for this rematch, but Shanahan has beaten McVay in a variety of ways the last three seasons. He’s come back on him a couple weeks ago, he’s shut down his offense in 20-7 (2019) and 31-10 wins, he won a 34-31 shootout in 2020, and he’s even had Nick Mullens lead a two-minute drill and game-winning drive for a field goal last season.

We see it all the time in sports where one team has another’s number, but if you’re ever going to slay that dragon, this is the stage to do it for the Rams. Peyton Manning’s Colts once had to get over the New England hump by coming back to beat them in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. However, that’s not a good comparison for these Rams, because the Colts already beat the Patriots earlier that season and they kicked their ass in New England the previous season.

You also couldn’t really bring up Steve Young getting “the monkey off his back” against Dallas in the 1994 NFC Championship Game, a revenge win after the Cowboys knocked the 49ers out the previous two seasons. But even that season in Week 11, the 49ers notched a win over Dallas. This is six losses in a row the Rams must overcome, but it’s not like Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr., the big additions this year, were on the team for all six games.

Still, it’s one handsome man on the other side who may be the x-factor in this game.

Jimmy Garoppolo: We Are Going to Start a Dialogue

Honestly, I love the way Jimmy Garoppolo breaks people’s minds.

Under any normal circumstances, would we be questioning if a quarterback who completes 67.7% of his passes with 8.36 yards per attempt and a 98.9 passer rating is helping his team win games?

Among quarterbacks with at least 1,400 career attempts, Garoppolo ranks second in completion percentage, second in yards per attempt, and fifth in passer rating. With those numbers, it should come as no surprise that Garoppolo is 37-15 (.712) as a starter in the NFL. He is one win away from being able to say that he’s taken his team to the Super Bowl in both seasons where he started more than six games, the modern equivalent of Kurt Warner’s strange career arc.

And yet, people still pass him off as the answer to what if Jared Goff was hot? It’s always Shanahan’s scheme that gets the credit. While it does create big plays with two of the best YAC players in the world (Samuel and George Kittle), someone is going to have to explain what happens to Shanahan’s wonderful scheme and those talented players when Garoppolo is not available, which happens often as he’s hurt a lot. He’s even ailing right now with a finger injury that seemed to spur general manager John Lynch to almost end his tenure by “accidentally” liking a negative tweet at Christmas Eve mass.

But Garoppolo returned for this playoff run. Garoppolo just finished his 50th start for Shanahan and has a 35-15 (.700) record. With any other quarterback, Shanahan is 8-28 (.222) as San Francisco’s head coach. That’s a Peyton Manning in Indy type of split. That’s not supposed to happen, especially to a “genius” coach.

But again, Garoppolo doesn’t get any credit for this. If it’s not Shanahan’s scheme, it’s credit to Nick Bosa and the defense, even though Garoppolo won a 48-46 game in New Orleans in 2019, which is why the 49ers had the No. 1 seed that year.

Yet, somehow “Dropback Jimmy” is a thing as if this guy does nothing but live on play-action passes.

Garoppolo play-action vs. no play-action splits via Pro Football Reference:

  • 2019 play-action: 68.8% completions, 11.5 YPA, 6 TD, 3 INT, 113.4 PR
  • 2019 no play-action: 69.2% completions, 7.2 YPA, 21 TD, 10 INT, 98.0 PR
  • 2021 play-action: 71.0% completions, 10.2 YPA, 4 TD, 2 INT, 108.6 PR
  • 2021 no play-action: 67.5% completions, 8.2 YPA, 16 TD, 10 INT, 95.8 PR

You’ll never see anyone point out that Buffalo’s Josh Allen dropped from 9.2 YPA to 5.9 YPA without play-action this season, something he used to a great advantage (as he should).

If Garoppolo was able to throw a better deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders in Super Bowl LIV against the Chiefs, the perception around him would be much different now. Of course, that’s assuming the defense would have held up against Patrick Mahomes, which looks unlikely these days. The 49ers likely lost their ring when they couldn’t stop Mahomes from finding Tyreek Hill on a third-and-15 in that game.

But Super Bowl LIV is one of the few moments in Garoppolo’s brief career where he did not deliver in crunch time. For a guy as ridiculed as he is, he tends to deliver in fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive opportunities.

Garoppolo has the second-best record (11-10) among active quarterbacks behind only Brady. Included in those 10 losses is this year’s 20-17 loss in Tennessee, the AFC’s No. 1 seed, when Garoppolo led a game-tying touchdown drive before the Titans drove for the winning field goal. It was the second time in three years Garoppolo lost a 20-17 game on the road against the AFC’s top seed as it also happened in Baltimore in 2019. Another loss was Garoppolo’s go-ahead touchdown drive against the Packers in Week 3 before Aaron Rodgers found Davante Adams to set up a game-winning field goal.

Garoppolo has been better than he’s given credit for. There are things you don’t like, such as the lack of durability. The decision making can be spotty as some of his interceptions look really bad. He looked like he was dying to throw a pick-six in Green Bay last week with some of those late floaters to the sideline. So, the eye test isn’t there like it is for an Allen or Mahomes or a Hall of Fame talent.

But I’ll be damned if a quarterback playing in a smart coach’s YAC-based system with a great defense is something no one cared about two decades ago when a QB named Tom Brady was celebrated for doing it.

Too bad Jimmy didn’t stick around long enough for Brady to teach him how to defend Mahomes on third down…

But if there’s something to really not like about Garoppolo, it is his playoff games where he turns into a poor man’s Bob Griese. In 2019, the 49ers beat the Vikings with Garoppolo throwing 19 times for 131 yards. They crushed the Packers with Garoppolo completing 6-of-8 passes for 77 yards. That’s like one drive for his Super Bowl counterpart, Mahomes. In the big game, Garoppolo didn’t hit 200 yards passing until the two-minute warning. Again, he missed his shot at lore with that deep throw to Sanders. Since 2018, Garoppolo is 17-1 when he gains a first down on at least 40% of his pass attempts. Super Bowl LIV was the only loss in that time. It somehow remains Garoppolo’s best playoff game while being the only loss. Five of those 18 games were against the Rams, by the way.

This year in Dallas, Garoppolo was nothing special in building the lead the team almost blew thanks in part to a pick he threw. Then in Green Bay, he really capped off a sham of a 4-1 playoff start by leading his offense to six points, including a field goal drive that started at midfield after a long kick return by Samuel. Garoppolo completed two passes on the game-winning drive. Without that blocked punt return for a touchdown, I don’t see the 49ers winning that game.

But it’s another big opportunity this week for Garoppolo against a defense he usually does well against. Garoppolo is 6-0 against the Rams, completing 68.4% of his passes at 8.75 YPA. He led the clutch comeback in Week 18, and he might have to do something similar this time against a talented defense that has terrorized Kyler Murray and Brady this postseason. He may even have to do it shorthanded with Samuel, Kittle, and tackle Trent Williams limping off the field Saturday. All three will probably try to play, but none are likely to be at full strength.

We’ll see if this Shanahan coaching edge presents itself again. But if Playoff Jimmy shows up again? He better hope the Rams have some fumbles left in them, or that Brady taught him how to will them in the playoffs.

Stafford’s Time?

The NFC loves these flash in the pan teams where everything comes together for a Super Bowl run. Think 2015 Panthers, 2016 Falcons, 2017 Eagles, and the 2020 Buccaneers these Rams are modeling themselves after right down to getting to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. But these teams are a bit different in that they were just in the big game in 2018 and 2019, so someone is getting a second appearance in a short period of time.

But the odds favor the Rams after going all in with Stafford, Miller, and Beckham to go along with their established stars in Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey. While Ramsey did get beat for a long touchdown against Mike Evans on Sunday, the stars shined for the Rams in a real gut-check of a victory after blowing a 27-3 lead with four fumbles and a 47-yard field goal that came up short. A sub-50-yard kick coming up short in Florida. I still can’t believe that one, but that’s what happens when you face the LOAT.

Stafford is the first QB in NFL history to win a playoff game where his team had four turnovers where none of the giveaways were charged to him. They better hold onto the ball better this week, especially Cam Akers after his 2.0 yards per carry against Tampa’s stout defense. I see the 49ers allowing more runs this week, but the game is still going to come down to how well Stafford handles the pass rush from Bosa and company. They chewed up Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers this postseason. They chewed up Stafford and his line in Week 18, thought left tackle Andrew Whitworth could be back after missing Sunday’s game in Tampa Bay. That’s big.

How good has Stafford been this postseason? He joins 2003 Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to have back-to-back games with over 73% completions and 9.5 YPA. Hopefully he won’t implode in the title game like Manning did in New England that season. But Stafford has been doing great and the 49ers have a weakness in the secondary, which should be great news for Kupp, who had 118 and 122 yards receiving in the two meetings this year.

I’ve always compared Stafford to volume passers taken No. 1 in the draft like Drew Bledsoe and Eli Manning. If those guys can get to the Super Bowl, so can Stafford with a very good team around him. He’s unlikely to get a better chance than this one.

49ers: Road Warriors or End of the Road?

Before I make my prediction, I just want to touch on this grueling, historic schedule the 49ers are trying to get through to reach the Super Bowl. This is essentially their fourth-straight elimination game on the road when you consider they had to win in LA in Week 18 to make the playoffs. The five teams in NFL history that won three road playoff games before getting to the Super Bowl, including Tampa Bay last year, did not have to beat a playoff team on the road in the regular-season finale like the 49ers did. In fact, all five of those teams were at home to end the regular season, and only one played a playoff opponent in what was still a historic, helpful game.

  • 1985 Patriots: beat Bengals (7-9) at home before winning on the road against the Jets, Raiders, Dolphins, and losing Super Bowl vs. Bears.
  • 2005 Steelers: beat Lions (5-11) at home before winning on the road against the Bengals, Colts, Broncos, and winning Super Bowl vs. Seahawks.
  • 2007 Giants: lost to Patriots (16-0) at home in a game they didn’t need to win before winning on the road against the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Packers, and coming back to beat those undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl.
  • 2010 Packers: beat Bears (11-5) at home before winning on the road against the Eagles, Falcons, Bears, and winning Super Bowl vs. Steelers.
  • 2020 Buccaneers: beat Falcons (4-12) at home before winning on the road against Washington, Saints, Packers, and winning Super Bowl (in home stadium) vs. Chiefs.

The 2021 49ers already have tied the NFL record for most road wins against a playoff team in a season (including playoff games) with five wins. In addition to the last three weeks, they’ve won in Philadelphia early (weak) and late in the season in Cincinnati (good). The only other teams to have five such wins in a season are the 2010 Packers (won Super Bowl), 1992 Bills (lost Super Bowl), and the 1982 Jets despite a nine-game strike season (lost AFC Championship Game).

By my count, the only other team since the 1970 merger to beat a playoff team in the final game of the regular season and then play three road playoff games was Tennessee in 2019. The Titans got to 9-7 with a Week 17 win over Houston, which rested Deshaun Watson, before pulling off upsets in New England and Baltimore. The Titans were up 10 points in Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game before losing 35-24.

To put it another way, the 2021 49ers can become the only team since at least 1978 to win four straight road games as an underdog of at least three points. Sure, most teams do not play four straight road games, let alone all against playoff teams, because of scheduling reasons, but this is why the 49ers are on the verge of history with this postseason run.

But of the 18 teams since the merger who were 2-0 on the road in the playoffs, they were 5-13 (.278) on the road in the Conference Championship Game.

The Prediction

McVay’s Rams have already burned me twice this season against the 49ers. I hate to pick them a third time, but I still think they’re the better team with the better quarterback and the defense has been really strong in the playoffs. Unless they want to be embarrassed again, I think the crowd will be more in favor of the home team this time, unlike Week 18. As long as Stafford avoids the turnovers like he has this postseason, the offense should be good. The 49ers will score more than six points this week, but it won’t be enough to get the road sweep and stop this loaded team from reaching the Super Bowl.

Final: Rams 27, 49ers 20

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 9

There are some NFL weeks with a lot of upsets. There are some weeks with multiple crazy finishes. There are some weeks with a lot of blowouts.

Then there’s Week 9 of the 2021 season, the type of week best summed up by this classic Vince Lombardi moment:

There were only six games with a comeback opportunity and four with a game-winning drive. But in a season where teams favored by more than seven points were 26-1 SU, those heavy favorites were 1-3 SU on Sunday. The Bills (-14.5) lost to the Jaguars of all teams, the Cowboys (-10) were getting blanked 30-0 by Denver before some garbage-time scores, and the Rams (-7.5) finished the day in appropriate fashion with a bad loss to the Titans.

You could say big favorites were due some losses this season, but three in one day? The last time that happened in a non-Week 17 slate was Week 9 of the 2011 season, and even that included a Monday night game (Dream Team Eagles vs. Bears). You have to go all the way back to Week 10 of the 2006 season to find the last time there were three such upsets in the same day.

Has there ever been a season where seemingly no team wants to embrace the role of being the favorite? Ditto for the MVP race after brutal games for Dak Prescott, Josh Allen, and the should-have-been-frontrunner Matthew Stafford. Even Kyler Murray lost some luster after seeing backup Colt McCoy handle the 49ers without DeAndre Hopkins, and Aaron Rodgers, well, his self-imposed absence will probably screw the Packers out of the No. 1 seed this year.

Of course, a day where most of the NFC’s top teams lose and the MVP candidates flounder helps no one more than Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. This league can’t go a week without doing everything it can to help him advance without breaking a sweat. That’s one thing about Week 9 that made sense.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Titans at Rams: Mike Vrabel Chopped Off His Penis and Paris Hilton Sucked the Soul Out of the Rams

(Congrats, you’re an NFL junkie if you understood that headline.)

While NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said that the Rams did not beat themselves on Sunday night, I’m not so sure about that one. Also, the incoming takes that the Titans don’t need Derrick Henry at all may also be very premature following a game that was almost solely decided by two Matthew Stafford interceptions – both of a fine Detroit vintage circa 2012 – turning into a quick 14 points. Even the best quarterbacks in MVP seasons can overcome that sort of swing as we saw last year with Aaron Rodgers in Tampa Bay in Week 6.

Stafford just so happened to pick his worst night for the Rams in an island game where he should have been able to take a clear lead in the MVP race. Pressure got to him, and he made a bad play (probable safety) a worse one by forcing a throw for the first pick that was returned to the 2-yard line. Then he followed it up with a worse throw for a pick-six. The Titans’ pass rush looked incredible, and it really covered up for an offense that did very little outside of two drives.

The Titans finished the game with just 194 yards of offense. Had it not been for Stafford’s touchdown drive in pure garbage time to make it a 28-16 final, the Titans would have had a rare three-score blowout win despite failing to break 200 yards. However, they still had the rare 12+ point win despite not breaking 200 yards, though it’s the second time Stafford has done that in his career.

Mike Vrabel improves to 13-2 ATS and an incredible 12-3 SU as head coach of the Titans when his team is an underdog of 4+ points. Being the underdog works for this team, a team that arguably has more big wins in the last four seasons than any franchise that has not gone to the Super Bowl in that time.

Now the Titans are chugging along at 7-2 after a winning streak over the Chiefs, Bills, Colts, and Rams. Had it not been for that garbage-time score, they would have held both the Chiefs and Rams out of the end zone for 60 minutes.

This is impressive stuff, and still, you wouldn’t be shocked if this team went 2-2 over the next four games against the Saints, Texans, Patriots, and Jaguars. The Titans are not going to keep beating good teams while failing to crack 3.0 yards per carry like they have in the last three games. Tennessee did not have a play from scrimmage longer than 16 yards against the Rams.

I see no reason to trust any team in the AFC this year. But can the Titans go on a run and play great defense and be physical with teams to win a few big games? Yeah, I think they have proven that enough now.

Can the Rams beat multiple good teams in succession with Stafford as their quarterback? From what we’ve seen so far this year, I don’t think so, and that was always the concern going into this experiment. The people who decided to take an early victory lap must not have been paying attention to the first eight weeks this season. No one is trustworthy or reliable this season to deliver on a weekly basis.

Vikings at Ravens: Par for the Course

I have nothing truly profound to say about yet another close finish that could have easily gone either way for the Vikings and Ravens this year. All I know is the Ravens are 4-1 in close finishes and the Vikings are now 2-5.

That makes the ending sound a bit predictable, but it was another difficult path to a 14-point comeback win for the Ravens. The type of big comeback win that has eluded this team for years seems to be coming every other week this season. The Vikings led 24-10 after returning the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for a touchdown. Big plays like that one and a 50-yard touchdown to Justin Jefferson are not the kind of plays we’re used to seeing Baltimore allow, but those are the signs that this team is struggling and becoming more reliant on the quarterback.

Lamar Jackson did not have a clean game with two picks, but he still finished with 266 passing yards and 120 rushing yards. Kirk Cousins had one of his standard days with solid efficiency stats and neither winning nor losing the game for his team. He came up big with a game-tying touchdown drive to force overtime, but the Vikings were stopped on their only overtime possession following a Jackson interception in scoring territory.

I was asked on Twitter how many times does a team turn the ball over in overtime and still go on to win the game? Baltimore fans know it’s happened more than once this season as the Raiders did it to the Ravens in Week 1 after Derek Carr’s interception was not capitalized on. Before that, it did not happen in 2020 and only happened once in 2019 when Russell Wilson threw an interception against the 49ers and still got the win. But you’re lucky if this happens once a season in the league.

But the Ravens were the better team and more deserving of the win in this one. They outgained the Vikings 500-318 in yards and 36-13 in first downs. The 36 first downs are a franchise record.

Would it have looked better if the Ravens stopped the Vikings on fourth-and-9 with 1:10 left and won 31-24 in regulation? Sure, but these Ravens are not as talented as past teams and things are harder this year. Living on the edge like this is not good for long-term success, but against teams like Minnesota that have mastered losing these games, it can work out for the Ravens.

Packers at Chiefs: Love Did Not Tear the Chiefs Apart

Jordan Love had only the second-worst performance by a Green Bay quarterback this season, but it was still not enough to take down a struggling Kansas City team as the Packers fell 13-7. The Chiefs, held scoreless in a second half for only the second time in the Patrick Mahomes era, definitely caught a break with Aaron Rodgers being a bad liar, because this probably would have been a Green Bay win with their starting quarterback. The Packers botched two field goals and a fourth down in the first half alone.

I think there is hyperbole about how bad Love was, but his inexperience shined through. The Chiefs were able to relentlessly blitz him with a lot of success, especially on third downs. They wouldn’t play that way against Rodgers or someone with experience. It was just one game, but I do at least sense some escapability from Love and he might have some gunslinger in him. He’s going to give his receivers a chance, but it could end in picks against a better defense.

Still, it’s a good thing the Chiefs went back to their 2020 four-minute offense and put this game away or else this was begging to be the worst 13-0 lead turned 14-13 collapse since Santana Moss met the 2005 Cowboys. Mahomes had another candidate for the worst game of his career as his 166 passing yards are the fewest of any full game in his career. The 4.49 yards per attempt is also his first career game under 5.0 YPA. Outside of a bad Mecole Hardman drop on a third-and-1, Mahomes was a huge reason for the offense not playing well in this game and that’s despite the Chiefs finally not having any giveaways.

But Mahomes was able to throw for three first downs, including a vintage extended play to Tyreek Hill to ice the game on third-and-10, to run out the final 4:49 on the clock after the Packers cut into the 13-0 lead with a touchdown.

The Chiefs (5-4) can celebrate the win, and the defense can feel good about their performance as we have seen plenty of inexperienced quarterbacks light it up better than this in the past. But the offense is in a five-game slump now and I’m not sure what it’s going to take to snap out of it, or if they will snap out of it.

Broncos at Cowboys: WTF?

Dallas was on a short list of teams to start 7-0 ATS while the Broncos tend to only beat up on bad teams and lose to the good ones, a hallmark of Teddy Bridgewater’s career. But this was a domination that makes the 30-16 final such a mirage.

Dak Prescott returned from his calf injury, and as far as I could tell, he looked healthy enough to be playing on Sunday. But was this the worst game of his career as far as moving the ball goes? The Cowboys turned the ball over on downs on three of their first six possessions. They were down 30-0 with 6:32 to play and Prescott barely had 100 passing yards at that point.

Fans tend to do a bad job of defining garbage time. Like what the Jets were doing against the Colts on Thursday night, that was never garbage time. They were still in that game and just needed to finish their scoring drive and get an onside kick to tie the game with another score. But for Dallas, the two late touchdown drives were pure garbage time. At that point I would have sat the stars who have been ailing in recent weeks and finished the game with Cooper Rush, Tony Pollard, and the likes of Cedrick Wilson and Malik Turner at receiver.

Dallas never had it on either side of the ball, and it was apparent from the opening possession when Ezekiel Elliott was stuffed on a fourth-and-1. You knew it wasn’t Dallas’ day when a blocked punt went forward and the Broncos ended up recovering after it touched a Dallas player, making it a live ball and a muff.

We knew the Dallas defense could be a liability when the turnover well ran dry as it did in this game, but who could have imagined the offense would play so poorly with Dak back? A good win for Denver, but an alarming performance for Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys.

Bills at Jaguars: WTF? The Sequel

Josh Allen won the game for Jacksonville. Josh Allen lost the game for Buffalo. The fact that I’m talking about two different players makes this one of the more amusing upsets in NFL history.

It also appears to be a historic one. The Bills lost 9-6 in Jacksonville despite being a 14.5-point favorite. There is no game in Pro Football Reference’s database where a favorite of that many points lost a game in which it allowed fewer than 10 points. The closest was when John Elway’s 1986 Broncos, who still made the Super Bowl, lost 9-3 as a 13.5-point favorite to the Chargers. That was almost 35 years to the date.

The last double-digit favorite to lose a 9-6 kind of game was actually the 2018 Jaguars early in the season to the Titans. This is arguably Jacksonville’s biggest win since that 2017 playoff run.

So much of it was thanks to the splash plays made by Jacksonville’s Josh Allen, the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft that we’ve forgotten about since he plays in Jacksonville. But in this game, Allen recorded the first fumble recovery and first interception of his career. As if he has been waiting for this moment against his namesake. The Jaguars put a lot of effective pressure on Allen as the Bills only ran the ball nine times for 22 yards. Cole Beasley caught eight short passes for 33 yards. The Bills were scoreless on their final seven drives, turning it over three times and ending the game with a failed fourth down.

Buffalo is the first team since the 2019 Redskins (9-0 against San Francisco on a soaked field) to lose a game after allowing fewer than 10 points.

The Bills were gifted such a soft schedule that you have to wonder what kind of pact the AFC East made with the league for this sort of luck year after year. But the difference between those Patriots teams with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and these Buffalo teams with Sean McDermott and Josh Allen is that the Patriots still delivered year after year. They still had to win those games time and time again. If the Bills can lose a 9-6 game in Jacksonville, then nothing is a given on their schedule.

It’s not like there weren’t some worrying flaws with this team before this week. I used this space last week to talk about a good half vs. a good game as the Bills sleepwalked for 30 minutes against awful Miami before a misleading final box score. I said during the week that it made no sense why Allen was the MVP favorite at +200. I know Dawson Knox is out at tight end, but the wide receiver corps is more than deep enough to move the ball well against a Jacksonville team that couldn’t even compete with Geno Smith and the Seahawks last week.

This is a brutal loss for Buffalo. We’ll see if it’s a wake-up call as there will be plenty of games where the Bills will be heavily favored the rest of the season.

Falcons at Saints: The Atlanta Sports Renaissance?

Very similar to the Miami win this year, the Falcons flirted with another fourth-quarter disaster that Matt Ryan and the offense rescued with a game-winning field goal drive. The Falcons were up 24-6 with 10:39 to play, but that did not stop the Saints from scoring three touchdowns to take a 25-24 lead with 1:01 left.

However, you better come prepared with a great two-point conversion play for every game in this league. You never know when it can decide a game as it did here. When a team scores a late touchdown to take a one-point lead, that two-point conversion becomes absolutely crucial. The Saints ran Alvin Kamara and were stopped, keeping the score at 25-24. Ryan is the king of one-minute drills, and he technically just missed out on a sixth in his career with the drive starting at 1:01. But he hit Cordarrelle Patterson, who has turned into a fascinating all-around weapon this year in Atlanta, for a 64-yard gain to start the drive. Younghoe Koo put away the Saints with a 29-yard field goal for the 27-25 win.

Despite not having Calvin Ridley and the running game producing 26 yards on 20 carries, Ryan passed for 343 yards and had three total touchdowns in the win. He has been playing very well after a slow start to the new offense and life without Julio Jones.

Attention will go to New Orleans’ difficult quarterback situation with Trevor Siemian having to take over for Jameis Winston (torn ACL). Do they stick with Siemian or go back to Taysom Hill as the starter? I think the defense needs to take more of the blame for this one. Ryan hit four passes of 34-plus yards on Sunday.

There is no such thing as a normal Saints game in 2021, but it was pretty interesting to see the Falcons dominate this game, nearly choke it away, and still come away with a win in the end. That wouldn’t have happened in past years.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.

Cardinals at 49ers: 2021 49ers Gone Fishin’

It should have been a golden opportunity for San Francisco (3-5) to get back to .500 before playing the Rams next week. For really the first time all season, the 49ers had the passing offense they should have thrived with on paper with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing to Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. Unfortunately, those players had three turnovers and the 49ers finished with just 17 points in a humiliating 31-17 defeat.

Arizona did not have Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, or A.J. Green on offense, but that did not stop Colt McCoy from completing 22-of-26 passes for 249 yards or James Conner from scoring three touchdowns. The Cardinals led this one wire-to-wire, and this was a 49ers defense that had given them problems in the last two matchups.

At what point can we all admit that Kyle Shanahan is not a good head coach? He punted on a 4th-and-13 at the Arizona 39 while trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter. Is he saving his brilliant play design for Trey Lance in that situation? At this point, Shanahan will be lucky if he gets to hang around for the Lance era as it looks like another failed season in San Francisco. Props to Arizona for coming prepared without several of its best players.

Browns at Bengals: One-Sided Battle of Ohio

Maybe the Browns can bring Odell Beckham Jr. back and cut him again before their next game? I don’t know if anything was really gained from that this week, but the Browns did look focused and ready for this one. It started going off the rails for Cincinnati on the opening drive after Joe Burrow threw a 99-yard pick-six to Denzel Ward. Burrow has had several huge picks this year in losses. This was the first game of the season where he failed to throw a touchdown as the Bengals never seriously threatened in the second half.

Baker Mayfield took advantage of the Cincinnati turnovers and the big plays, including a 70-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb, to lead an easy 41-16 win. I’d be very cautious to make any definitive statements about either team, but I do think we were too quick to prop up the Bengals without taking a deeper look at the loss to Chicago or the struggle with Jacksonville.

Patriots at Panthers: Look Who Is Back in the Playoff Picture

The Patriots (5-4) are above .500 for the first time this season and currently rank seventh in the AFC. Getting to play Sam Darnold (three interceptions, including a pick-six) was like getting a third Jets game, so the Patriots cannot count on that cheat code anymore this season. But it was another workmanlike performance in getting an easy win that should give the team some confidence going into tougher stretches.

Chargers at Eagles: The 7-on-7 Defense

Add another 4QC/GWD to the 2021 Chargers’ total to bring it to four. The Chargers finished off the Eagles in the fourth quarter despite allowing a game-tying touchdown drive and having to convert a pair of fourth downs on the game-winning field goal drive. But the Chargers were paced all day by Justin Herbert completing 32 of his 38 passes. Herbert has been deadly accurate this year, but this was already the fifth game where the 2021 Eagles allowed at least 80% completions. That is two more games than the old NFL record (min. 20 attempts) and we still have half a season to go. Playing this defense is like playing 7-on-7 in practice.

Raiders at Giants: No Penalty, No Comeback

What did I say earlier this season? If Derek Carr isn’t getting game-altering penalties on crucial downs in the fourth quarter, he isn’t good at fourth-quarter comebacks. The Giants were not penalized in the fourth quarter and Carr stunk up the joint with a pick and a game-sealing fumble in the red zone while trailing 23-16. Kicker Daniel Carlson also reminded people of his Minnesota roots by missing a 25-yard field goal while the Raiders trailed 20-16. This was a bad performance after another bad off-the-field week for the Raiders with the release of Henry Ruggs. They signed DeSean Jackson, but I would sooner pick this team to finish last in the AFC West than to finish first.

Guess who gets the Chiefs next. That’s the Sunday night game in Week 10, which might be the only hope for a good island game in this slate.

Next week: Can the Steelers avoid handing the Lions their first win of the season, and is it really a revenge game for Dan Quinn against the Falcons when he has himself to blame for being in Dallas right now?

Close Encounters: Super Bowl LIV

No matter if it was the NFL’s first season or its 100th, the stingy defense with the great pass rush takes down another prolific passer. The QB who walks into the building with 23 points is stuck on 10 in the biggest game of his career.

Because football…football never changes.

Record a Ron Perlman voice-over for that.

That Fallout reference was going to be my tweet tonight more than halfway through the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. That was my gut feeling around the time when the 49ers led the Chiefs 20-10 and Kansas City faced a 3rd-and-15 at its own 35.

For the first time in 36 games, I actually doubted Patrick Mahomes.

SBLIV

Then with just one snap, everything changed and the Chiefs are Super Bowl champions and Mahomes even walked away with the MVP award. It was one of the more dramatic fourth-quarter finishes in Super Bowl history even if the game itself wasn’t an instant classic.

So here is my Super Bowl LIV recap, my first game recap in ~54 weeks in a new section I’m calling what I have long wanted to call these recaps: Close Encounters

Mahomes: From Worst Game to Best Comeback to Champ Forever

The best player in football is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. That feels great to say after what’s felt like many years where it hasn’t been the case, and I’m grateful we never have to bother with the question of “can Mahomes win the big one?”

However, this was not a walk in the park for Mahomes like the first two playoff games. In fact, until those final ~7 minutes, it looked like he was having the worst game of his career in the biggest game of his career. But if there’s anything I absolutely nailed in my 5,000-word preview for this game, it was the very last paragraph:

There are a lot of areas that favor the 49ers, and I think historically the 49ers are the type of team more likely to win this game than a team like the Chiefs. There are just more ways for the 49ers to win while practically every positive outcome for Kansas City involves Mahomes playing really well. Then again, Mahomes is 9-0 in his career when his passer rating is under 90.0 because he’s the best at doing what the coach who succeeded Reid and preceded Shanahan used to say: f***ing score points.

Final: Chiefs 31, 49ers 27 (MVP: Patrick Mahomes)

Yeah, just score some f***ing points by any means necessary, and Mahomes has done that better over 36 games than any quarterback ever has. You sack him four times and he still puts up 31, even if the final touchdown was a killshot from the ground attack. You keep his passer rating under 90.0 (it was 78.1 in this game) by getting a pair of picks and he’s still 10-0 in his career with the scoreboard looking full.

He doesn’t have a weakness, but let’s look at how things progressed tonight because Mahomes had to lead the most significant late-game comeback of his career to pull this one off.

Mahomes started the game with a couple erratic throws for a quick three-and-out before rebounding well enough. Nerves in a first Super Bowl make sense. The 15-play touchdown drive that took up half the first quarter was in line with some of the great drive engineering he’s done this postseason with short passes. Not taking advantage of Jimmy Garoppolo’s interception and settling for a field goal was disappointing, but the Chiefs led 10-3 early.

The first big mistake of the night, at least coaching wise, was with just over two minutes left in the half tied 10-10. The Chiefs should have played this better with the 49ers getting the ball to start the third quarter. They essentially ran a series of plays that negated Mahomes’ existence. They ran the ball for 2 yards to get to the two-minute warning, then tried a trick play with Mecole Hardman that was blown up in the backfield for a 6-yard loss. How many tricks like that do you need with Mahomes? On 3rd-and-14, the Chiefs just ran a screen that was not effective on the night and the team punted. That was a really bad ending to the half and that wasn’t Mahomes’ fault at all, but he also wasn’t wowing us either like usual, so the game went to the half tied at 10.

Then in the third quarter, Mahomes recovered a fumble forced by Nick Bosa to set up 3rd-and-12. Mahomes has fumbled six times in the playoffs (five games), but has been fortunate not to lose any of them. But on the very next snap, he threw a terrible pass that was intended for Tyreek Hill and intercepted for his first ever postseason giveaway. That led to a 20-10 San Francisco lead and suddenly Mahomes looked rattled by the pass rush, the deficit, and the magnitude of the situation. He wasn’t attacking deep, or improvising big plays, and the short passing game was pretty well bottled up.

I’ve mentioned in the preview how the Chiefs had so many third-down drops in this postseason to kill drives. I can’t call what Mahomes did early in the fourth quarter a drop since he was so off target again to Hill, but the pass was tipped for an interception while the Chiefs were driving at the San Francisco 23. After seeing Mahomes step up from a decent pocket and still come up short on a pass to Hill, I was really convinced this was going to be a big scar on his resume. The 49ers were quick to challenge and the replay system correctly took away the 16-yard completion that should have been an easy one for Mahomes.

And then the play of the game on 3rd-and-15 happened. What a time for Mahomes to complete his longest pass (57.1 air yards) of 2019:

Without that play you would have seen a punt and probably a San Francisco win. It’s only the second time since 1994 that a team converted on 3rd-and-14 or longer in the fourth quarter (last time: Tom Brady to Julian Edelman vs. 2014 Seahawks on 3rd-and-14). Mahomes had to take such a deep drop to fire that one deep and Hill was free enough to make the catch. Game on. Three plays later, I thought the defensive pass interference call on third down was a good one since the defender made contact without ever playing the ball. That put the ball at the 1 where Mahomes found Travis Kelce for an easy 1-yard touchdown with 6:13 left to make it 20-17.

I made this thread in November to show that Mahomes has been much better than his 3-7 record (now 4-7) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities:

So with 5:10 left he had his chance and the Chiefs put the ball in his hands on seven straight plays. The deep throw for 38 yards to Sammy Watkins made it look like the Chiefs might score too quickly again, but it came down to a 3rd-and-goal at the 5 this time. Kelce cleared some room and Mahomes just had to throw a short toss to RB Damien Williams, who did enough to cross the plane for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:44 left. I’m not 100% sure he broke the plane with the ball before stepping out, but that was the ruling on the field and there wasn’t anything conclusive enough to say he didn’t score. The Chiefs led 24-20 and put it in the defense’s hands again to much success. Williams delivered the deathblow with a 38-yard touchdown run to give us a 31-20 final.

Mahomes was really the default MVP in this one. He finished as a passer with 26/42 for 286 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT. He rushed nine times for 29 yards and a touchdown, though he actually lost 15 yards on three kneeldowns when the Chiefs ran the clock late. So he was effective as a runner once again. I can understand people wanting Williams as MVP for the late touchdowns, though he didn’t really need to score the last one. He could have gone down after the first down at any point and the Chiefs would have ran the clock out and won 24-20. I swear I’m not just bringing this up because my #1 bet was Chiefs by exactly 4:

kc4

(My real bet was $20 to win $500, but this still hurts)

So it wasn’t the cleanest game for Mahomes, but he was money in crunch time. He led the team to 24 points on their first eight drives, or 3.0 Pts/Dr against the best defense in the NFC. That’s nothing to take lightly. Most quarterbacks would have imploded against that pass rush, but Mahomes stepped up on back-to-back touchdown drives.

But make no mistake about it — 3rd-and-15 changed everything in this one and that throw was vintage Mahomes, the first NFL player to ever win an MVP and Super Bowl MVP before he was 25 years old. Hats off to him for capping an incredible first two seasons.

The Chiefs Did What!?

Some stats are hard to believe, but this one takes the cake:

The Chiefs trailed by 10+ points in all three playoff games, but still won all three games by 11+ points.

If you know my work, you know I don’t like using the final score to judge the closeness of a game. Things are going to be especially misleading for this downright historic Kansas City playoff run. The Chiefs trailed 24-0 to Houston before winning 51-31 and never even trailing in the second half. The Chiefs trailed by 10 twice to Tennessee and won 35-24. The Chiefs trailed 20-10 in the fourth quarter before beating the 49ers 31-20.

It’s the first time a team has three double-digit comeback wins in the same postseason. Think about that for a second.

  • Winning three straight games after trailing by 10+ points would be a crazy NFL feat (the 2013 Patriots did this Weeks 12-14).
  • Winning three straight games by double digits AFTER trailing by double digits would be an insane feat.
  • Doing that as your Super Bowl run is inconceivable and I am using that word correctly.

The Chiefs are just the third team to win a Super Bowl after trailing by more than 14 points in the postseason, joining Peyton Manning’s 2006 Colts (18 points down vs. Patriots in AFC-CG) and Tom Brady’s 2016 Patriots (25 points down vs. Atlanta in SB LI). The Chiefs are now the fifth team to win a Super Bowl after trailing by double-digits in the fourth quarter during the playoffs:

The Chiefs are the second team in NFL playoff history to enter the fourth quarter down by double digits and win the game by double digits. The Eagles did it to New Orleans, 36-20, in 1992.

Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy G: The San Francisco Blame Game

When it comes to Super Bowl collapses and heartbreak, Kyle Shanahan and Dan Quinn probably know it better than anyone now. Shanahan and Quinn shared the 28-3 collapse in Atlanta, but Quinn also saw the 10-point lead disappear to the Patriots with the 2014 Seahawks. Now Shanahan sees a 10-point lead disappear to the Chiefs in this one, and this graphic is particularly hard to swallow:

I really don’t want to rehash 28-3 tonight, but let’s just say Shanahan didn’t finish the game as badly this time. If anything, he didn’t do enough in the first half and that hurt. A few too many screens and horizontal passes slowed down the 49ers, who were much better at using Deebo Samuel in motion and getting quick-hitting plays from the middle of the field instead of testing the Chiefs on the edges. In fact a couple of screens turned a promising opening drive into a field goal instead of a touchdown. Jimmy Garoppolo threw a bad pick under pressure early, but overall he wasn’t playing that poorly for Shanahan. The offense looked deadly in the second quarter after gaining a first down on five straight plays, including a touchdown to tie the game at 10.

But things fell apart a bit after the two-minute warning. I mentioned Reid’s shortcomings in that part of the game, but Shanahan did even worse with clock management. He had three timeouts but failed to use one to stop the clock after KC’s screen pass failed. So instead of saving about 100 seconds and two timeouts for Garoppolo, he saved three timeouts and 59 seconds. Then he remained conservative with two runs to set up a 3rd-and-5 with 20 seconds left. Garoppolo delivered a 20-yard completion, then seemed to follow it up with a great 42-yard bomb to George Kittle. However, that was wiped out for offensive pass interference. I thought it was a pretty soft call for a little hand fighting that is let go quite often in this league. That felt pretty cheap to me and cost the 49ers three points, but the bigger question is why the hell wouldn’t you try to save as much time as possible and shoot for a double score against Mahomes?

So that was bad for Shanahan, but he and Garoppolo came out strong from the half and took that 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter with 11:57 left. Look, you have to keep scoring when you play Mahomes. There weren’t any errors this time like calling a pass on 3rd-and-1 deep in your own end with a 16-point lead, or not just running the ball after a Julio Jones catch when you’re up 8. That didn’t happen here. The 49ers did call three pass plays on second down with a lead, but I can’t fault the calls there with the Chiefs obviously expecting the run. And let’s face it, the running game wasn’t that outstanding on the night as most of the best plays were unconventional tricks with Samuel.

Garoppolo also completed the first of those second-down passes, which proved to be the only first down the 49ers offense would get in the fourth with a lead. Pressure definitely had an impact on Garoppolo with not only the pick, but also a few batted balls. NextGenStats had Garoppolo as 0/7 passing with two picks while under pressure on the night. He was 20/24 otherwise for 219 yards. Ouch.

Garoppolo was off in the fourth quarter while the Chiefs were surging to that 24-20 lead. Still, you don’t mind the situation of having the ball with 2:39 left and 85 yards away from glory. In fact, it’s probably the situation quarterbacks dream about for years. Garoppolo has been pretty good at comebacks in limited opportunities, but he definitely will regret the 3rd-and-10 pass from the KC 49 with 1:40 left. Emmanuel Sanders got behind the defense, but Garoppolo overthrew him deep. On 4th-and-10, there wasn’t much of a chance and Garoppolo was dumped for a sack. Two plays later, Williams exploded for a touchdown and it was basically game over. Garoppolo’s second pick looks worse in the box score than anything else.

This game did not swing on many plays, so I really look at what each QB did on a third-and-long in the fourth quarter as being very decisive to this Super Bowl. Mahomes was able to deliver deep on his 3rd-and-15 to save the day, but Garoppolo was off the mark on his attempt despite an open receiver. So I really don’t want to jump on a “Shanahan can’t finish off a big one” or “Garoppolo will never win them a Super Bowl!” narrative when the margin is that small. Had the defense, the strength of the team for most of the year, did its job first on 3rd-and-15, we’re probably asking if Andy Reid will ever win a ring and wondering what the hell happened to Mahomes on the big stage.

Now an extra field goal on the board for the 49ers probably would have changed that drive, but again, that was a big blunder in the first half. I can’t crush Shanahan for how he called the game late, and I don’t think Garoppolo’s performance is one to crucify, but he just didn’t redeem himself in the way that Mahomes did.

The NFC has been a lot tougher to get back to this point too, so I’m not sure the 49ers are in an advantageous spot in 2020, especially given the strength of their division. Don’t discount the Cardinals getting really good in a year or two. We already know about Seattle and the Rams still have talent. So this is a tough blown opportunity for San Francisco.

Andy Reid: Hall of Famer… and Dynasty Starter?

Finally, we’ll end on a positive note as this win should wrap up a spot in Canton for Andy Reid. I’ve made my clock management jokes like everyone else, but he’s been arguably the best coach not named Bill Belichick this century. It wasn’t a perfect night for him, but good on the two fourth-down calls and now he has the ring to go along with the seventh-most wins and his winning percentage is over 61%. If we’re putting Bill Cowher in, then we’re absolutely putting Reid in, right?

In fact, Reid just shattered a Cowher record by winning his first Super Bowl in his 21st season, by far the longest wait a coach has had to earn his first championship. Cowher needed 14 years with the Steelers, which is still a record for one franchise, but Reid spent 14 years with the Eagles before winning in his seventh season with the Chiefs.

HC1stSBW

We know Mahomes has only been the starter for two seasons, but this highlights a five-year playoff run for the Chiefs that finally resulted in that coveted ring for Reid. It’s similar to other recent five-year runs to the top from the 2011-15 Broncos and 2008-12 Ravens. The 2002-06 Colts also needed a fifth-straight playoff trip to go the distance in the Tony Dungy-Peyton Manning era.

So does the dynasty talk already start tonight? We know this happens when a franchise QB wins one Super Bowl. We saw it in back-to-back years with Drew Brees (2009) and Aaron Rodgers (2010), but neither has even made it back to the Super Bowl. The last young franchise QB to win his first ring was Russell Wilson in 2013, and while the Seahawks made it back the next year, we know how that ended and they haven’t been past the divisional round since. We’re still in the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion (2003-04 Patriots).

The sky seems to be the limit for Mahomes and Reid together. We have seven months to talk about 2020 and repeating so let’s save it, but I am happy to see a new champion that is a joy to watch.

Whether it’s on this blog, another website, or maybe in a PDF you’ll order from me, I hope to bring a lot more analysis (and perhaps random musings) in 2020. Like Mahomes and scoring points, I’m a writer and I just need to write as often as I can while I can.