Conference Championship

2019 NFL Playoffs: Conference Championship Recap

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs

Headley – If I had two words to sum up the Patriots win over the Chiefs in the AFC Conference Championship it would be, out-coached. Once again Bill Belichick and company were better prepared, had a more effective game plan and out-executed a more talented football team. His defensive philosophy of taking away Tyreek Hill with double coverage and placing his CB1 Stephon Gilmore on Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce in the 4th quarter forced Patrick Mahomes to play “left” handed. This resulted in 0 first half points for the number one offense in football. I’m putting this loss on Andy Reid and Bob Sutton, who received his walking papers shortly after. First let’s get into Reid who is one of the best offensive minds in football but somehow out-smarts himself time after time throughout his career. There is absolutely no way you get the most explosive playmaker in football only one touch. Throughout the regular season Reid found creative ways to get Hill the football on short passes in the backfield, handoffs, jet sweeps, etc…but for some reason in the biggest game of the year he let Belichick off the hook by not dialing up a single manufactured touch for the Cheat Code.

On the other side of the football Belichick found creative ways to get his best player the football by bringing Julian Edelman in motion time after time freeing him up for a clean release. If you remember in our Conference Championship preview I said containing Edelman is the most important feat for the Chiefs by playing man coverage (which they did), putting hands on him at the line of scrimmage and having two defenders following him around on the football field. The Patriots went 13 of 19 on 3rd downs. Edelman was in motion on 17 of those 19 3rd down plays with numerous resulting in first down catches at the most critical points of the game. Complete fail by Sutton as he made it far too easy for Brady and company throughout the game, especially in overtime. Yes, it’s hard to bump Edelman at the line when he comes in motion to a stack set but the Chiefs were not prepared defensively for an obvious Patriots game-plan. Defenders needed to communicate with each other, a switch call vs the stack/switch release and the most egregious Sutton-ism was having the safeties playing 20 yards away from the line of scrimmage when you know the Patriots want to hit Edelman in the middle of the field. Let someone else beat you. Sutton failed to adjust and got fired as a result.

Drew – By the second series I was thinking the New England Patriots are doing what they want, when they want, how they want on offense with no resistance from the Kansas City Chiefs defense. Driving down the field as if they were going up against the scout team defense on day two of the practice week. Then Brady does the unthinkable, an interception in the end zone on what look to be a one man route to Rob Gronkowski; effectively killing that drive. After that the Chiefs defense settled in and we now have an AFC Conference Championship Game.

In the first half I thought the Patriots defense played well keeping Patrick Mahomes and that high octane Andy Reid offense contained. You can tell the Patriots knew exactly how to slow or just out right stop what Mahomes and crew wanted to do holding them to zero, nada, nothing, NA-TING, no points in the first half; somewhat reminiscent of the Week 4 match-up during the regular season. They kept Mahomes in the pocket and away from his magic hat with the rabbit inside, outside the pocket. The Pats played stout run defense with Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy coming downhill. All the while doubling Tyreek Hill all game, placing Stephon Gilmore on Travis Kelce and living with J.C. Jackson and crew on Sammy Watkins on the back end (in the 4th quarter). Like I said in our  preview piece leading up to this game, the Patriots now have athletes on defense and can play man-to-man on any opposing offensive’s best players. They simply couldn’t do so last year or even earlier in the season. But just like in that week 4 match-up in the second half,  Patrick Mahomes caught fire. Extending plays far beyond how long the back end of New England’s defense could maintain leverage and throwing the ball down the field to Sammy Watkins, finally finding Travis Kelce, who in my opinion is the linchpin of this offense, although some would argue it’s Kareem Hu… I mean Damien Williams who by the way had a hell of a second half scoring three touchdowns. Others would say it’s Tyreek Hill, I think he is the actual body and color of the car, giving the offense flash and sexy. Eventually the Chiefs took the lead 21 to 17, only to have it taken back by the Patriots on the ensuing possession with a touchdown of their own only to have the Chiefs return the favor on their next possession. BUT… HOWEVER… a mistake is made in the process of the Chiefs scoring after having the ball at the Patriots 2 with first and goal. They score with the 2 minute warning on the horizon at 2:03 on that 1st and goal. Leaving two minutes too many for the men many refer to as the GOATs!!!

Juice – Frankly, the Patriots should have ran away and hid after completely neutralizing Patrick Mahomes and his explosive set of weapons; shutting-out the league’s #1 offense in the first half of the Conference Championship and limiting Kansas City to just 7 points thru the first three quarters. New England ran 94 offensive plays compared to just 47 for the Chiefs and the Patriots more than doubled the Chiefs in terms of time of possession. A pair of Tom Brady interceptions (one egregious decision in the red-zone), several drops by Pats receivers, a few timely stops by an exhausted KC defense, penalties and a 24-point outburst in the 4th quarter kept Kansas City in the Conference Championship. Andy Reid’s play-design was masterful in the final quarter, Mahomes found a rhythm, and the aforementioned penalties resulted in a KC lead late in final minutes of the game until Tom Brady (with a Dee Ford assist) put together a drive to force the game into overtime. The Pats won the OT coin toss and just a few third & long conversions later… Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots are headed to the Super Bowl for the ninth time since the turn of the century.

I anticipated a Patriots victory on the strength of a potent rushing attack, clutch throws by Brady when it mattered most (quarterbacking at it’s finest during overtime), Gronk being a factor, and a tremendous defensive game-plan and effort (Patrick Mahomes sacked four times; Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce (4/65/1 on 8 targets combined). However, what was surprising and most impressive was the job the New England Patriots offensive line did in pass protection. Tom Brady has yet to be sacked during these playoffs and facing the Chiefs pass rush (tied for NFL lead in sacks — 52.0) in Arrowhead the big guys up front did a remarkable job; tip of the cap to offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia as well.

The Patriots deserve a ton of credit and the Chiefs, specifically Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, and now former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton deserve the majority of the blame. Reid was out-coached plain and simple. Under no circumstance should Tyreek Hill, the league’s most dangerous player have ONLY one touch throughout an entire game. Yes, New England doubled-teamed him throughout the Conference Championship but where were the throws behind the line of scrimmage? The manufactured touches? Patrick Mahomes is a tremendous talent and this season he demonstrated that his talent isn’t limited to the physical aspects of the game. However, I’ve said it before and I will say it again, “Patrick Mahomes has learned to run before he’s learned to walk.” While it gets lost among a bevy of “wow” throws and video game type statistics, Mahomes struggles mightily when his first read isn’t open and he can’t extend the play; completing only 47% of his passes and throwing 11 of his 12 interceptions when pressured without blitzing. You can’t take sacks that put your team out of field goal range and your defense desperately needed you to string together a 6-8 minute drive so they could catch their breath; instead Mahomes tried to get it all back in one throw time and again. Symptoms of a being a young quarterback? Sure. But nothing has changed from his days in Lubbock on that front. See Headley’s take for everything you need to know about Bob Sutton.

Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints

Headley – The NFC Conference Championship was the complete opposite of the Saints and Rams regular season offensive duel. The defenses came to play in this one, and despite Todd Gurley playing poorly, the Rams defense bailed their offense out early holding the Saints to field goals instead of touchdowns. They took away Michael Thomas with bracket coverage (SMH @ the Chiefs) and forced Drew Brees to dump it down to Alvin Kamara who caught 11 of his 13 targets. Add in Ndamukong Suh’s playoff resurrection, shutting down the run game and some timely pressure by Dante Fowler and Aaron Donald and you have yourself the formula in containing the Saints high-powered offense.

The momentum of the game changed when Sean McVay did a Sean Payton from the week before and executed a fake punt that extended a drive and led to points. The Rams offense finally got on track going forward with a big 7-play 81 yard drive to bring the game within 3 points at the end of the 1st half. They came out in the 2nd half by converting 4 of their 6 drives for scores. All that said, this game still should’ve been won by the Saints if the refs make the correct call on a pass interference committed by Nickell Robey-Coleman. Bad break for the Saints who’ve been eliminated from the playoffs by two egregious decisions in back-to-back seasons. Marcus Williams’ decision to duck his head and completely whiff on Stefon Diggs in the Minneapolis Miracle and a bad decision by the referees to keep their flags in their pockets on Robey’s blatant pass interference.

Drew – Watching this NFC Conference Championship Game a few things stood out to me. The Saints defense played well and in my opinion did enough to win the game. Applying pressure early and often to Goff and that McVay lead offense, leading to Goff not stepping up in the pocket, errant throws, and throws that were earlier than he would’ve of liked them to be to his would be receivers. The other was that the Rams defense came to play, especially early; not allowing the “Michael Thomas Show” to continue into Sunday. Last time these two teams played Marcus Peters/Troy Hill covered Thomas and the show was live, but with Talib healthy and active Brees could’t simply just play pitch and catch with the reception king. He had to go elsewhere double clutching and thinking twice about where to go, dumping off to Alvin Kamara and #45… Garret Griffin.

I know everyone wants to talk about the refs and how they blew three different calls on one play that likely caused the Saints a shot at another Super Bowl under Drew Brees and Sean Payton. But let us not act like they didn’t blow a bunch of other calls for both teams. Who in the hell knows what could have been if “the dudes in the stripes” did they damn job! You know who else had some questionable calls outside of the refs… Sean Payton. The Saints were at the Rams 12-yard line after,  I don’t know what the hell Lamarcus Joyner was doing letting Ted Ginn Jr. of all folks catch a duck thrown up by Drew Brees, who by the way has lost the deep ball. Coach always said, “get the ball at its highest point…” I digress. Down at the Rams 12 under the 2 minute warning at 1:58 in the 4th the Saints have an opportunity to force the Rams to use their remaining time outs by doing one simple thing… run the ball. You have two top flight backs and a Taysom Hill but what does Sean Payton do? He does what Sean Payton of three years ago would’ve of done, throw! One run and two in-completions, one in which if Robey-Coleman turns around instead of running directly into the receiver has an interception going the other way. If they run all three downs this gives the Rams one minute to get in field goal position. Payton took the ball out of the hands of his players and put it in the incompetence of the zebras which has plagued the National Football League all year.

Juice – Yet another officiating blunder marred what I thought was a really under-appreciated performance by Jared Goff and the Rams defense. A pair of early drops by Todd Gurley, one resulting in a turnover put the Rams behind the 8-ball early. However, Wade Phillips’ unit managed to mitigate the damage despite facing a 13-point deficit after the first quarter. Ndamukong Suh looked like the best player on the field, completely dominating the line of scrimmage and taking the game over at times. Aaron Donald and Dante Fowler kept the pressure on Brees as well capping what has been a rough couple of months for the future Hall of Fame quarterback. On the road, in a hostile environment, without the benefit of the typically potent Rams’ rushing attack (averaged just 3.0 yards per carry), Jared Goff made difficult throws on and off schedule throughout the contest to keep his team ahead of the chains and in the game. As if the opponent wasn’t enough, the Rams had to overcome their own head coach Sean McVay (kicking a field-goal inside the opponent’s 1-yard line), a Drew Brees prayer answered by Ted Ginn Jr. and Lamarcus Joyner, and their share of missed calls (penalties) in what was an abysmal officiating effort during the NFC Conference Championship game. The Rams were fortunate on that blown pass interference call but they played a hell of a game despite not being able to employ their typical formula for success.

While Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints have every right to be incensed by the non-pass interference call on Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman they have to look themselves in the mirror as well. They too were the benefactors of a poorly officiated Conference Championship game and failed to put their opponent away despite a multitude of opportunities. I’ve been saying it for about a month and a half but it warrants repeating, “Drew Brees hasn’t been good since late November.” The league’s leader in receptions, Michael Thomas, torched the Rams for 200+ receiving yards on 12 receptions during the regular season only to be limited to 4/36 in the Conference Championship. I thought the return of Ted Ginn Jr. would be the shot in the arm the Saints offense needed but even his field-stretching speed wasn’t enough help the running game (Saints as a team: 21 carries, 48 yards), nor generate more downfield attempts and corresponding chunk plays (running back Alvin Kamara led the Saints with 13 targets). The iconic battery of Brees and Payton were effectively out-played and out-coached by Jared Goff and Wade Phillips (and to a lesser extent Sean McVay).