NFL Stat Oddity: Championship Sunday

Two rematches. Two painfully familiar postseason outcomes for the teams on the losing side.

For the first time in 56 seasons of the Super Bowl era, we will have a Super Bowl without a team that seeded higher than fourth. The Rams and Bengals were both No. 4 seeds that spent very little time – if any in Cincinnati’s case – in the spotlight as the teams to beat this year.

But now they are all that’s left after erasing double-digit deficits in the second half. For Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid, this is becoming old hat.

Of the five blown leads of 18-plus points in the NFL playoffs since 2013, Reid’s Chiefs have lost three of them and were the winning team in a fourth game against Houston (down 24-0 in 2019). The only other such game was of course Super Bowl LI, where as offensive coordinator of the Falcons, Shanahan infamously called doomed passes with a big lead in the fourth quarter. It has started a string of three postseasons where Shanahan’s teams have been bounced after leading by double digits in the fourth quarter and never scoring again.

This sets up a Super Bowl between two quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall by the Lions and Bengals (11 years apart). It may be the last outcome I wanted to see out of the four possibilities, but if this is what the post-Tom Brady NFL is going to look like, I’m sure I will learn to love it.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bengals at Chiefs: Whoops, They Did It Again

It was the best of halves, it was the worst of halves, it was the age of adjustment, it was the age of sloppiness, it was the season of defensive regression, it was the season of tipped giveaways, it was 13 seconds to restore hope, and it’s now another winter of despair for this failed attempt at a dynasty.

Even Charles Dickens knew he had to write different beginnings and endings to his books no matter how successful they were in the past. The Kansas City Chiefs continue to tease us with many wonderful things, but only one time (2019) did things end on a positive note.

If it wasn’t for Jet Chip Wasp on third-and-15 in Super Bowl LIV, we would be calling the Chiefs the biggest underachievers and disappointment in the NFL in the last decade.

They still might be even with that play.

As the favorite in the final four this year, the Chiefs just had to hold onto a 21-3 lead to become the fourth team to go to three straight Super Bowls. Instead, they became the fourth team in NFL playoff history to blow an 18-point lead at home and the first to do it in a championship game. In the process, the Bengals are the first team in NFL history to beat an opponent twice in the same season after trailing by double digits at halftime. The 18-point blown lead is the largest of the Patrick Mahomes era, and the Bengals own a tie for the second largest at 14 points in Week 17.

Why does this keep happening under Andy Reid? It’s his third playoff loss in nine seasons where the Chiefs led by at least 18 points. Since 2013, Reid has coached the Chiefs to a league-high nine different win streaks of at least five games, including an eight-game streak this season that again had people believing this was the team to beat.

But look at how things have gone for Kansas City under Reid:

  • 2013: 9-0 start built up by playing backup quarterbacks, but swept by Peyton Manning’s Broncos to lose division, and blew a 38-10 lead in the wild card round in Indianapolis.
  • 2014: thought to have ended the Patriots’ dynasty and also beat the Seahawks, the NFC’s Super Bowl team that year, but finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
  • 2015: took another suspicious 11-game winning streak into New England and took what felt like 11 minutes to score one late touchdown in a 27-20 loss in the divisional round.
  • 2016: came back to beat the Chargers, outdueled Drew Brees and Andrew Luck, scored 30 on Denver’s defense, beat MVP Matt Ryan on a pick-two, and still lost the first playoff game at home to six Pittsburgh field goals.
  • 2017: 5-0 start with a great win on opening night in New England but finished 10-6 and blew a 21-3 halftime lead at home to Marcus Mariota and the Titans in the Forward Progress Game in the wild card round.
  • 2018: Mahomes is the MVP, but lost 43-40 in New England, 54-51 to the Rams, and still ended up as the No. 1 seed thanks to a Miami miracle against the Patriots. But lost 37-31 in overtime at home to those Patriots after Dee Ford lined up offsides and negated a game-ending interception. Never touched the ball in overtime.
  • 2019: trailed by double digits in every playoff game before winning each game by double digits. Apparently, the right combo of opponents involves Bill O’Brien, Playoff Ryan Tannehill, and Playoff Jimmy Garoppolo. Still needed a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback to win the Super Bowl.
  • 2020: the hottest team in the league, but also a record winning streak of seven games by fewer than seven points. Kept it up in playoffs but lost offensive tackles for the Super Bowl and failed to score a touchdown in rematch with Tampa Bay. Dominated 31-9 by a play-action offense and two-high safety defense.
  • 2021: ugly 3-4 start before the defense turned things around thanks to the schedule. Offense started clicking again late in year, but defense regressed to early struggles. Very fortunate to win coin toss and march for a touchdown against the Chargers and Bills; the latter being 13 seconds away from knocking the Chiefs out in the divisional round. Fell apart after 21-3 lead on Sunday.

Like I said, this team teases us with wonderful things, then they shit the bed when it matters most. The one time they didn’t blow it, they were fortunate to be playing Kyle Shanahan, but scroll down for more on his chokejobs.

A team with Alex Smith at quarterback being exposed as fool’s gold is one thing, but expectations have been much higher with Mahomes the last four years. For 10-plus quarters this postseason, it wasn’t hard to see why. He was putting together a case for the best postseason run ever by a quarterback. Then he had arguably the worst half of his career.

It really was a tale of two halves similar to what happened in Week 17 when the Chiefs scored four straight touchdowns, led by 14 points, then were held to a field goal in the second half before losing by a field goal on the final snap. But the Bengals hit up the Chiefs with big YAC plays that day and controlled the clock at the end. Mahomes wasn’t inept in the second half like he was in this one. It was a different game with a similar outcome.

Mahomes was close to perfect in this first half. He hit 13 of his first 14 passes and the Chiefs scored three straight touchdowns to take a 21-3 lead. If you wanted the easy, short throws, he took them. The running game looked good with the backs fighting hard for extra yards. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce were heavily involved unlike they were in Week 17. It looked like an unstoppable offense while the Bengals looked unprepared for a big game.

But then a screen pass broke for the Bengals for a late 41-yard touchdown. The Chiefs were driving for another touchdown after getting a defensive pass interference flag, in a game where the refs really swallowed their whistles for both sides all day, that put the ball at the 1-yard line with 9 seconds left.

This is where the Chiefs basically lost the game. You get two quick throws into the end zone in that spot. The Chiefs should have had another timeout, but they wasted one early in the game before challenging a bad spot that should have been an easy first down for them. That didn’t help. But you have to know the clock situation and where the ball must go. One pass didn’t work, and it was risky to try another with five seconds. With the Chiefs getting the ball to start the third quarter, I would have been fine with a field goal and 24-10 lead.

Reid listened to Mahomes, and I’m not sure why everyone didn’t know the throw had to be quick and into the end zone. It was in the flat to Hill, and he danced around for no gain and the half ended. That pass never should have been thrown.

That failure really seemed to put the Chiefs in a funk. They were stopped on their first five drives in the second half, something you practically never see happen to this offense. They got away from the run. They got away from throwing to Kelce and Hill. Mahomes was not forcing deep throws, but his passes were just off and going to the wrong guys. A couple big sacks on third down in the fourth quarter also happened.

This was a mess of a half where the Bengals just hung in there with their game plan, even when it seemed nonsensical. Cincinnati continuously ran the ball on first down, setting up countless second-and-9 situations, which usually led to a short completion and tough third down situation. It made no sense why they did not attack more after throwing for more than 400 yards last time. Why not some play-action shots on first down? Ja’Marr Chase was held to 54 yards, a big drop of 212 yards from his 266-yard effort in Week 17. But Tee Higgins had 103 yards this time, even if his 44-yard grab, tied for the longest gain in the game, resulted in no points after the Bengals went right back to being conservative.

But after getting a field goal to make it 21-13, the Bengals got the first turnover in nearly six quarters of action between these teams this season. Mahomes tried to set up a short throw and threw it to a defensive lineman, who tipped it to himself for an interception at the Kansas City 27. The Bengals used that short field to drive for a game-tying touchdown (to Chase) and two-point conversion to end the third quarter.

You could see the tide turned when Joe Burrow threw an interception at midfield early in the fourth quarter, but the Chiefs went three-and-out with Mahomes taking his second third-down sack in two minutes.

Why did it look like Mahomes was constantly running around in the second half to no avail? The Bengals changed things up and kept dropping eight defenders into coverage. According to Next Gen Stats, they did it a season-high 35% of the time, increasing it from 24% of passes in the first half to 45% in the second half. It was very effective.

Like with Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl, this will be all the rage as the new blueprint to stop the Chiefs going into 2022. They’ll just have to figure it out because they did not have the answers on Sunday.

While Mahomes was taking fourth-quarter sacks, Burrow was very close to throwing consecutive interceptions. On a simple throw away, he for some reason threw a pass right to a diving defender, who dropped the ball. He would have been in bounds for the pick, stopping Cincinnati’s go-ahead drive after two plays. But Burrow took that gift and made perhaps his best play of the game with a 7-yard scramble for a first down on third-and-6. Three plays later, he was just as good with an 11-yard run to convert a third-and-7. We usually don’t see Burrow avoid sacks like that, but he only went down once in this game and had multiple good scrambles.

Rookie kicker Evan McPherson continued his perfect postseason with a clutch 52-yard field goal to take a 24-21 lead with 6:04 left. CBS’ Tony Romo kept talking about Burrow never getting the ball back, and I thought he was insane. Does he not see how this offense has been playing this half? Does he not realize the Bengals have three clock stoppages left?

And yet, it worked out to where Romo could have been right. But playing cute with the clock actually ended up costing the Chiefs in the end. Mahomes calmed down and found open receivers to move into field goal range quickly, but the Chiefs really made things hard after the two-minute warning. Mahomes was scrambling for his life and going out of bounds to stop the clock multiple times for meager gains. It was getting ridiculous like this:

Remember when Mahomes ran for 497 yards before passing/getting sacked in the Super Bowl? It was the highest game in the last five seasons, only topping Mahomes’ 495 yards in the 40-32 loss to Vegas. I would love to see if he broke 500 yards in this game.

But the Chiefs still had a first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 5 with 1:30 left in a 24-21 game. I can understand wanting to try a run and force the Bengals to call their last timeout. I don’t understand how anyone could advocate for letting the Chiefs score. You only do that if they’re able to kick a game-winning field goal with no time left. This wasn’t that.

But this is something that pisses me off about today’s NFL. Why should the offense be penalized for doing its job and scoring a touchdown? “They left too much time” is such a bullshit cop-out to let a defense off the hook for not doing its job. Don’t give up a touchdown. I don’t care if they have 20 seconds or 120 seconds left, don’t give up a touchdown. Do your job. The offense just did.

This is why I would have preferred to see the ball in Mahomes’ hands instead of a run for 1 yard by Jerick McKinnon. I want to maximize my touchdown probability, especially in a 3-point game against an offense that is struggling to score touchdowns now.

But on second down, Mahomes again ran around too much before taking a 5-yard sack. Not good. The clock was down to 39 seconds, but the ball was now at the 9 on third down. This would take an amazing throw like Mahomes had to open the game with a touchdown to Hill, but you have to be careful about forcing it and getting a tipped pick. We’ve seen it so many times with the Chiefs this season, including in the red zone.

So, Mahomes had to be smart. He wasn’t. He took too long again, Sam Hubbard sacked him again, and this time there was a fumble that the Chiefs were lucky to recover, or the season would be over. What a near disaster, and yes, this would be a season-ending turnover that the QB got away with for those keeping count. It made the field goal 17 yards harder, but Harrison Butker did his job and nailed it from 44 yards to force overtime. Good on the kickers this week.

After the Chiefs won the coin toss, you had to think the football gods aren’t going to let them do this three times since Week 15. Based on what I saw in the second half, I knew this wasn’t going to end well.

But it went worse than expected. For starters, why is he throwing to Demarcus Robinson twice in overtime after Robinson had one target with zero catches all day? Robinson wasn’t looking for the second-down throw and it nearly ended up in a pick-six by Eli Apple. A Hasselbeck, if you will. But for some #BallDontLie, the third-and-10 throw was deep for Hill, the pass was in the right location for his hands, but the defender made a great play too on the ball, and it was tipped to Von Bell for an interception. The Bengals were already at their own 45 and the ending felt inevitable at that point.

It is fitting that this team’s season would end after a big blown lead and tipped interception. It’s what plagued them during the 3-4 start. The Bengals came back from 14 down three times in Week 17 too. It was going to catch up with them eventually. The Chiefs were simply too sloppy this season to deserve to go back to the Super Bowl.

Joe Mixon had some strong runs to put the Bengals in chip-shot range. McPherson wasn’t going to miss a 31-yard field goal. He didn’t, and the Bengals are off to their third Super Bowl with a 27-24 win, the biggest road win in franchise history. Zach Taylor has as many playoff wins this year as Mike Tomlin (two) and John Harbaugh (one) have combined since 2016. You might actually be able to pick him out of a lineup of generic white men now.

Everyone knows Burrow and Chase now after this breakout season, but it really has been clutch kicking and clutch defense with incredibly timely and pivotal takeaways that have keyed this run to the Super Bowl for the Bengals.

This is the third game in a row where the Bengals have intercepted a quarterback in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime in a close game. This is something that has only happened 20 times in the playoffs since 2001, and the Bengals have done it three weeks in a row to Derek Carr (fourth-down pick at the goal line), Ryan Tannehill (third-down pick at midfield in a tied game), and now Mahomes in overtime to set up a game-winning drive.

The only other defenses to have two such plays in the same postseason are the 2007 Giants (Tony Romo and Brett Favre in back-to-back weeks) and 2010 Packers (Michael Vick in Philadelphia and Caleb Hanie two games later in Chicago).

Not even Tom Brady, the LOAT, has ever willed his defense to do this three times in his lengthy playoff career. Sure, he’s benefitted twice, including the most crucial interception in NFL history by Malcolm Butler, but you’d be hard pressed to find a team with big picks like this three weeks in a row.

Now the Bengals get their third chance to win their first Super Bowl. Maybe it’s the first of numerous chances for Burrow and company. Maybe it’s the best chance they ever see. Maybe it’s the start of the NFL’s next dynasty, and it happened on Kansas City’s field where the next dynasty was supposed to be.

We won’t know those things for some years, but as I hammered on this offseason, chances like Super Bowl 55 cannot be taken for granted. When you lose a game like that 31-9 instead of repeating, you never know if you’ll ever get back to the Super Bowl.

Ask Dan Marino and Don Shula.

Ask Brett Favre and Mike Holmgren.

Ask Kurt Warner and the Rams.

Ask Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans.

Ask the Steelers/Ben Roethlisberger and Packers/Aaron Rodgers after Super Bowl 45, which was 11 years ago.

Ask Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll in Seattle.

That little grace period in the AFC where Tom Brady had to move on from New England, Big Ben’s clock stopped ticking in Pittsburgh, Andrew Luck retired, Deshaun Watson ruined his career, Josh Allen had to improve dramatically, and Burrow was just a rookie? That time is over. The AFC has caught up to the Chiefs, and this is before we find out how high the ceiling is for Mac Jones and Trevor Lawrence, if Justin Herbert can get a defense in Los Angeles, and if Rodgers or Wilson want to join the conference.

You could be thrilled that the team is always competitive and will have a chance every year with Mahomes, and there is nothing wrong with that. But any dynasty talk? Kill that noise now. Scoffing at the thought of only winning two or three titles like you’re Jim Irsay? Have you seen the last nine seasons for the Chiefs? Did you ever watch a Kansas City playoff game from 1970-2010? Be happy with the one ring and hopeful there’s ever a second. The NFL is a con when it comes to making sure great quarterbacks walk away with Super Bowl titles.

We just watched a coach in his 23rd season get tripped up by two of his career bugaboos: managing the clock and neglecting the run even against a three-man rush. He lost to a coach who ran the ball 17 times on first-and-10 and roped-a-dope his way to a win. Like many of us, Reid has fallen in love with his superstar quarterback and expects him to be Superman at all times. Except the NFL playoffs are kryptonite to teams relying on the quarterback this much.

After halftime, the Chiefs got Clark Kent. Maybe on Earth-Two, Frank Clark gets a strip-sack on the most sacked QB in the NFL. But in our reality, the clips of Mahomes taking those sacks and throwing that pick in overtime are going to be played more than the brilliant ending last week against Buffalo.

Kick the field goal before halftime. Take the boring throwaway instead of the ridiculous sack. Not every situation requires a hero. Burrow just won two road playoff games by being pretty boring. Christ, he really might be the new Brady. Kansas City’s defense was not playing poorly enough to justify so much hero ball. Mahomes will learn this eventually, but he better hope it doesn’t happen after kickstarting a Cincinnati dynasty by playing one of the worst halves of his career.

I’ll end with an unmodified Dickens quote, because this must be what it feels like to love the Chiefs and not have them love you back.

I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.

49ers at Rams: Gut-Check Win for Stafford, McVay

Losing six games in a row to one rival is a big deal, but there is no better way to avenge it than with a playoff win that puts you in the Super Bowl. We had not really seen anything like it since the 2001-04 Colts lost all six games to the Patriots to kick off a rivalry between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The Colts finally won a game in 2005, followed it up with another road win in 2006, but didn’t truly slay the dragon until they came back from a 21-3 deficit in the 2006 AFC Championship Game and went on to win the Super Bowl.

49ers-Rams is less of a big deal than that, and the Rams have folded time after time to the 49ers in a variety of ways. But no matchup was bigger than this one, and the Rams did not have Matthew Stafford, Odell Beckham, and Von Miller for all six of those losses. Head coaches Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan come from similar backgrounds with time spent in Tampa Bay with Jon Gruden and time together in Washington under Kyle’s famous dad. This game was to decide which one would be making their second Super Bowl appearance in the last four seasons.

The Rams had a clear advantage at quarterback with Matthew Stafford, but that did not pay enough dividends in the first two upsets by the 49ers this year. On Sunday, it looked bleak through three quarters with the 49ers leading 17-7 and the Rams having one of those classic “finesse team getting bullied by the physical team in the playoffs” type of performances. Jimmy Garoppolo even threw for 200 yards before the fourth quarter of a playoff game for the first time in his career. Little was going right for the Rams, which is why the comeback was such a gut-check and hallmark victory for McVay and Stafford.

It was ugly early. Stafford threw a red-zone pick on a tipped ball on a third down where the 49ers actually covered Cooper Kupp tightly like they should have been doing as much as possible. Make the other players beat you, and the Rams lost tight end Tyler Higbee to injury early in this one. Kupp was a monster on third down the rest of the game, catching 11-of-14 targets for 142 yards and two touchdowns (both on third down). If the MVP award included the playoffs, Kupp would run away with it this season.

Deebo Samuel also had a hell of a year and showed again his incredible strength on a 44-yard touchdown on a screen that was all him. Ben Skowronek dropped a 38-yard touchdown on his only target of the game. Following that, Matt Gay missed a 54-yard field goal for the Rams before the 49ers made their kick to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room, a half that certainly favors San Francisco’s style of play.

If you know me well, you know I’m not a big fan of the “genius” label that gets attached to McVay and Shanahan. I think both are good coaches, but they are far from flawless, and their game management leaves a lot to be desired. This second half was a perfect example of their shortcomings, and they should be glad they were coaching against each other. Someone had to win.

First, the Rams tried a pass on a third-and-1 at the San Francisco 43 in the middle of the third quarter. If you know you’re going for it, as you should there, just run the ball. Run it twice if you have to. Instead, Stafford threw a pass away after not liking what he saw, and the Rams tried to sneak him on fourth down. His sneaks, even when they worked, have looked awful this postseason. He also seemed to be banged up during this game. Sure enough, he was short again and it wasn’t even that close on replay. But McVay wasted a challenge and precious timeout on the play.

The 49ers seemed to deliver a huge blow with a 58-yard touchdown drive to take a 17-7 lead. Jauan Jennings fought for extra yards on a key third-and-10 to convert it. I guess everyone in San Francisco is just amazing with YAC.

Skowronek drop aside, Garoppolo was pretty much outplaying Stafford, or at least playing up to his level in the game. Stafford was going to have to have the biggest fourth-quarter comeback of his career against a good opponent. Remember, Stafford was just 4-35 (.103) at game-winning drive opportunities against teams with a winning record.

Stafford was 0-28 in his career when trailing by double-digits to start the fourth quarter against teams with winning records. That included an 0-4 record this season with the Rams. But the Rams were already at the San Francisco 20 to start the fourth quarter after a great play call to the backup tight end popped for 20 yards. McVay had to burn his second timeout with 20 seconds left in the quarter to call it on first down, but the play was a great one.

On a third-and-1, Stafford was in empty and threw an 11-yard touchdown to Kupp with 13:30 left. Again, how do you not double team the best receiver on the field? Odell Beckham had a very good 100-yard game, but I’d sooner take my chances with him beating me than leaving the most dominant receiver in the game in single coverage.

The 49ers could have stopped the bleeding, but once again, they failed to score any points with the lead under Shanahan. I’d be very worried that he is just never going to understand when to go aggressive vs. conservative. If you’re leading by 16 points in the fourth quarter, you can be conservative. If you’re only up three points and you’re the underdog, you need to take some chances. He has failed both situations in his career.

The 49ers may have botched their season when they faced a third-and-2 at the LA 45 and called a run for fullback Kyle Juszczyk with big, injured tackle Trent Williams in motion. It’s a cutesy play that did not work. McVay even thought the 49ers fumbled the ball, so he wasted his third challenge and was out of timeouts with 10 minutes to go. But the real sin here was giving the ball to maybe your sixth-best ball carrier in this offense? No disrespect to Juszczyk. He’s one of the finest in a dying breed of a position, but I’m giving the ball to Deebo or George Kittle or Brandon Aiyuk or Elijah Mitchell or maybe Jennings again.

The vaunted rushing attack for Shanahan’s offense? It produced 19 carries for 46 yards without a run longer than 9 yards. It looks like the Rams learned from the regular season and made an adjustment.

Still, the 49ers could have overcome the bad play with a fourth-and-2 conversion. But from early in the play clock, it was evident that they were just trying to draw the Rams offsides and never intended to snap the ball before taking a delay of game and punting. What a shame. The 49ers had as many delay of game penalties in the fourth quarter (two) as they had in the entire 2021 regular season, which is something they also did in the Dallas wild card win.

By the way, if there are two areas where the NFL should make use of modern technology and improve the game, it would be a light/sound system for delay of game and better spotting of the ball. It’s absurd how many times teams are getting away with snapping the ball after the clock hits zero, and the spots are sometimes so bad you wonder if the game is being fixed. If this led to more delay of game penalties, then so be it. It shouldn’t take 40 seconds to get a play ready.

Anyways, that punt was cowardly. Stafford must have let some of the LOAT rub off on him last week after nearly starting the next drive with a terrible interception, but Jaquiski Tartt dropped the deep ball pick with 9:47 left. Not a game ender, but it mattered. Stafford found Beckham for 29 yards on the next play, the Rams’ longest play of the night, and the drive ended with a game-tying field goal with 6:49 left.

Stafford was under siege by the 49ers in Week 18. Things didn’t feel that bad in this game, but apparently, they were. Next Gen Stats had it as his highest-pressure rate in a game for Stafford this season.

But this was a great chance for the 49ers to take advantage of McVay’s terrible clock management and drive into game-winning field goal range with no time left. But it was a brutal three-and-out with Garoppolo throwing three incompletions and the 49ers struggling to even beat the play clock multiple times. Stafford found Kupp for another big 25-yard gain on a third down, and only a sack at the two-minute warning stalled the drive to a field goal attempt. Gay was good from 30 yards out with 1:46 left.

Garoppolo certainly overcame longer odds in Week 18, needing a touchdown in similar time. Just a field goal would be fine here, but my did we get the worst of him in this offense with the season on the line. After a wild throw and a checkdown lost 3 yards, it was quickly third-and-13. With Aaron Donald in chase, Garoppolo tried to avoid a sack and just threw a pass up that was eventually tipped to the Rams for a game-ending interception with 1:09 left. Just nine more seconds and it’d be on the list I posted above.

Incredibly, or maybe sadly, this is still in the running for Garoppolo’s best playoff start out of his six. You could say his two best games were the two he lost. But after the way this one ended, it will begin the Trey Lance era in San Francisco. The 49ers invested way too much in him to not go that route next season. Garoppolo will have to catch on somewhere else as this should end the five-season run for him and Shanahan together in San Francisco. There will be more pressure on Shanahan to get things right with Lance, since he’s been given a pass for Garoppolo’s durability and limitations. If the 49ers are still blowing winnable big games with Lance, then we know the problem all along starts at the coach.

Now McVay is the one who looks to cap off this five-year journey with the Rams with a Super Bowl win as a favorite against the Bengals. He would join an impressive list of coaches who also took that five-year journey to their first ring: Mike Holmgren (1992-96 Packers), Tony Dungy (2002-06 Colts), Mike McCarthy (2006-10 Packers), and John Harbaugh (2008-12 Ravens). Holmgren is the only one on that list who won it with his best team, and while the Rams had better stats and record in 2018, this team is in better position to win in two weeks than that team was.

Sometimes that’s what matters most. Just keep making the playoffs and hope things fall into place for three or four weeks. The Rams took an aggressive approach to build this team and they are where they wanted to be. The quarterback who was 8-68 against teams with winning records can notch a seventh such win this season in two weeks. Maybe even make himself a case for a gold jacket one day as he can join John Elway as the only quarterbacks to win their first championship more than a dozen seasons into their careers.

This is what the Lions drafted Stafford to do. This is what we’ve been told McVay can do for a team. Now together, McVay and Stafford can finish this thing off in their home stadium in Year 1.

Next two weeks: Well, go figure. We get what I said days ago was the least attractive option of the four.

Watching the 49ers play on Sunday, maybe it’s the second or third-best outcome after all. All I know is the Rams better score more than three points this time. The Bengals better figure out how to get in the end zone more often. A third dud Super Bowl in four years would be a letdown.

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