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Lessons from the 2021-2022 NFL Conference Championships

The Conference Championships were a football clinic; what lessons did they teach?

NFL: NFC Championship-San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Hard to believe it, but the 2021-22 NFL Conference Championship round was almost as good as the Divisional Playoffs. I’m stoked enough for a Super Bowl without the usual suspects (Brady, Mahomes, etc.), but we’re also getting outstanding football. Fascinating.

Last week, I wrote a series of quick-hit reactions to the divisional games. I thought maybe I’d do the same this week, trying to figure out what these games can teach us. Here goes:

1 – Good teams know that no one’s completely out of a game.

Cincinnati trailed K.C. by 18 in the AFC Championship game (at Arrowhead, no less) and won. The Rams trailed San Francisco by 10 in the 4th quarter (a team that had beaten them six consecutive meetings), and won.

The Steelers, luckily, already know this lesson. Ben Roethlisberger’s swan song was an all-time season for 4th quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, as he lead the NFL in both and posted arguably the second best season ever in these categories. And the two most impressive comebacks didn’t even count in the records because both came up slightly short (against the Chargers and Vikings). I sincerely hope that the next quarterback has that same moxie. But the team itself — players and coaches — clearly believe too. That’s a good thing.

2 – Coverage counts.

The Bengals covered spectacularly well against Chiefs receivers, especially in the second half. Not only did they prohibit the big plays that have sunk so many K.C. opponents, but they also created several coverage-sacks.

Cincinnati has a long history of prizing defensive backs, starting when Marvin Lewis learned in Pittsburgh (of all places) the importance of grade-A DBs. When he was briefly linebackers coach for Bill Cowher, the Steelers secondary featured Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, Darren Perry, and D.J. Johnson, which allowed Lewis’ LBs to run free. He brought that mentality to Cincinnati, and even with Lewis gone, the Bengals haven’t forgotten.

The Steelers defensive backfield was probably the best in football in 2019, with All Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pro Bowler Joe Haden, strong starters Terrell Edmunds and Steven Nelson, and probably the NFL’s best slot-man, Mike Hilton (now, not-coincidentally, in the Queen City). Three of those guys are currently still in town, but they need a little upgrade again. Cincinnati is a lesson.

3 – Reputation is meaningless.

Don’t let anyone say, “I know we’re leading, but look who’s on the other sideline...” This kind of lazy commentary is annoying — it’s practically the definition of “living in fear” — but it’s also a false narrative, as Patrick Mahomes proved on Sunday.

Mahomes has been NFL MVP, Super Bowl MVP, and two-time AFC champ, all before his 27th birthday. He once won a playoff game by 20 after trailing 24-0. He led a 13 second drive to take the Bills to OT last week. Mahomes is the personification of “look who’s on the others sideline.” And on top of everything else, he was spectacularly good in the AFCC game’s first half, leading the Chiefs to a 21-3 lead at the two-minute warning.

Then he essentially crumbled at three pivotal moments.

First, just before halftime, Mahomes reportedly begged Andy Reid to take one more shot at the end zone from the 1 yard line, and then threw a screen pass that got tackled in-bounds, ending the half. (Andy Reid bears some responsibility too, but Mahomes is a vet; he should know to throw the ball away quick if there’s not an obvious touchdown.) Secondly, he took sacks on the final two offensive snaps of regulation, to turn a 2nd and goal from the 4 yard line into 4th and goal at the 26. And finally, after winning the overtime coin toss, he threw a shoulda-been interception on the second play from scrimmage, and followed it up with an actual interception on play #3.

“Look who’s on the other sideline,” is nonsense. That’s why they play the games…

4 – The OT rules still suck, even if they didn’t cost anyone a game this week.

During the AFC broadcast, this eye-popping stat came out: since playoff overtime rules changed a dozen years ago, coin flip winners were 10-1, including seven first possession wins. Cincinnati bucked the trend, but 10-2 is still absurd.

Tony Romo tried to explain by saying, “the top quarterbacks are on playoff teams,” but every Steelers fan knows that’s nonsense. The first OT game under the current rules featured Tim Tebow bombing a walk-off touchdown pass, and that guy couldn’t even get a job as a tight end within a couple seasons.

No, the OT rules are screwed up because the game has been skewed so dramatically toward the offense over the last decade that it’s really hard to shut down an opponent. And that doesn’t even account for the massive advantage offense has in potential bunk DPI or roughing the passer penalties (or “nothing the passer” as Mike Florio calls it).

Saying, “you have to play defense too,” ignores the rules. Something has to be changed.

5 – Tanking the season for draft position is still a dumb move.

I honestly don’t think teams do this for real. Owners may occasionally want to (cough, Stephen Ross, cough), but there’s no way most coaches and players will sandbag their own careers in the hopes of landing some college kid in the draft. Every year talking heads muse about whether they should. They shouldn’t.

By my count, this is only second Super Bowl featuring one #1 overall draft pick against another #1 overall draft pick. The first was SB50, with Cam Newton taking on the ghost of Peyton Manning. That’s a lot of games without a single “1 v 1”; getting the top draft prospect is no guarantee of anything. “Blow for Joe” (or whatever they were calling it when Joe Burrow was killing it at LSU) is dumb. Just like “Tank for Tua” or “Tank for Trevor” or “Suck for Luck.”

Only six #1 overall picks have won Super Bowls: Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw (4), Jim Plunkett (2), John Elway (2), Peyton Manning (2), and Eli Manning (2). In fact, of the 13 titles they won between them, only six came with the team that drafted them (Bradshaw’s four, Namath’s one, and one of Peyton’s — and Namath gets an asterisk, because he was the #1 overall pick in the AFL but #12 overall in the NFL).

In other words, it’s important to have a franchise quarterback, but just because you find your way to the top of the draft, and get yourself a (seemingly) special leader, you’re not just automatically now a winner. More fail than succeed, even with their chosen man.

6 – No one “owns” anyone else.

Kyle Shanahan beat Sean McVay six straight times (that’s three seasons of sweeping the Rams) before McVay’s team ousted them on the way to the Super Bowl. By any reasonable measure, Shanahan “owned” McVay. And yet...

This has happened before. Bill Cowher “owned” Bill Belichick, with six straight wins over him (including knocking Belichick’s Browns out of the 1994 playoffs) before losing the 2001 AFC Championship game on flukey special teams gaffes. He then finished his career on a 1-4 run against Belichick. Those are both impressive streaks. So, um, who owned whom?

Tom Brady’s Pats (speaking of) bested Peyton Manning’s Colts the first two times they met in the playoffs (and their first six meetings overall). Over the last decade of their rivalry, Manning’s Colts and Broncos went 3-0 in the postseason over Brady (all three wins in conference title games). So who owned who in that one?

The truth is, sometimes one team is just better than the other, and it’s not about one coach or player. Sometimes there’s a bad matchup at work, and it’s not about which team is even “better” (see also: Steelers/Jaguars 2017). And sometimes a game here or there is decided by dumb luck and coincidence. But no one “owns” anyone else. Saying this kind of stuff is right up there with “look who’s on the other sideline.” It’s fear masquerading as wisdom.

I certainly don’t hate the 49ers, but I’m glad the Rams ignored it.

7 – No one is allowed to say Mike Tomlin is a bad clock manager until they can point to a champion coach who is great at it.

Andy Reid, future HOFer and two-time defending AFC champ, made two baffling clock management moves Sunday.

First, on K.C.’s opening series, after the Chiefs were stuffed on 3rd and 1, Reid called a timeout, then threw the challenge flag. He won the challenge and extended the drive, but (because the TO happened first) he lost the timeout anyway. That would have been useful later, because of the aforementioned failure just before halftime.

To set that moment up, a DPI penalty had put the Chiefs on the Cincinnati 1 with :09 seconds left in the half, and an 11 point lead. You’ve just got to get points here. Unfortunately, after an incomplete pass on first down, Reid chose to call (or Mahomes chose to run) a screen pass behind the line. When Eli Apple threw Tyreek Hill to the ground, the half ran out, the Chiefs got blanked, and the game seemed to change.

Maybe it’s too easy to pick on a losing coach. How about the winners? Sean McVay (two-time NFC champ before 40), blew through all three of his 2nd half timeouts with almost eleven minutes to go.

Timeout #1 was spent challenging a failed 4th and 1 (which is reasonable). Timeout #2 went on an expiring play clock, which I’m not too hot on (a complaint I had last week too). But, timeout #3 was a judgment call I don’t like at all.

S.F. led by three, and faced 2nd and 1 near midfield. The Rams stuffed them for a loss on 2nd down and no gain on 3rd, bringing up 4th and 2 outside field goal range. At the end of the 3rd down scrum, the ball seemed to pop free, but Kyle Juszczyk had been ruled down (and that seemed like a hard call to overturn). McVay challenged anyway, lost, and thereby gave up L.A.’s final timeout only to see the Niners punt. That is, he spent the Rams final timeout on a losing proposition that would have only netted about 30 yards of field position, with 10:42 left in a three point game. What an unholy waste.

I’m forgiving of McVay, because the 49ers could have gone for it on 4th and 2. But his D had overpowered San Francisco on two straight plays, and the game was clearly going to come down to the end; he could have used that TO. And Reid’s Chiefs surely needed theirs.

As I often note: Coach T would be getting crucified for this stuff…

8 – Several other things I noticed in the Divisional round are still true.

It’s still bad to fight on the sidelines. The Chiefs were at it again against the Bengals, with Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman exchanging words on the sidelines in the AFC Championship round (after Melvin Ingram and Chris Jones got heated early against the Bills). If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that’s a bad sign for that locker room

It’s still important to play until the gun. Eli Apple is getting some flak for being a half-step behind Hill all day. He also got flagged for the DPI call just before halftime that put the Chiefs at 1st and goal on the 1. But it was also Apple who blasted Hill short of the goal line on the half’s final play. Good for him. Play to the gun.

Special teams still matter. That rookie kicker in Cincy looks like the real thing. Imagine, the AFC North might be the best kicking division in NFL history. Evan McPherson in Cincinnati, Justin Tucker in Baltimore, and Chris Boswell in Pittsburgh. And none of them plays in a dome or a warm-weather city. Wow.

Those wide receivers are still keystone players. Ja’Marr Chase looked good again on Sunday. Cooper Kupp again managed to get open when he had no business finding room. Odell Beckham Jr. came up big repeatedly for the Rams (what must the Browns be thinking lately...?). And my heart goes out to Deebo Samuel, who played well enough to win.

9 – Everything can’t be “unbelievable.”

This last one is for the players, coaches, and talking heads, who seem to only know one single word to describe every element of every game: “unbelievable.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard one word used so often in such a small amount of time, without really meaning anything (since no one really means “I don’t believe it”; they just mean, “this was really good”).

Matt Stafford and Joe Burrow both repeated this verbal tic over and over like malfunctioning droids, claiming that “this was an unbelievable team performance… these guys are unbelievable… it’s been an unbelievable year…” (Guys, I assure you, we can believe these things.) But I’m inclined to shrug it off for them; those two were still in uniform and breathless when the mic found them. But my god, for everyone else: there are more words.

Here, I’ll help:

“This was a spectacular game.”

“That’s an extraordinary team.”

“He played a monster game, just outstanding. I love watching him.”

See how easy that is? Here’s some other options: excellent, terrific, fantastic, impressive, awesome, amazing, captivating, admirable, badass, frighteningly good, astonishing, killer, incredible, sick, inspiring, exciting, thrilling, fabulous, great, awe inspiring, breathtaking, perfect, near-perfect, super, superb, powerful, stunning, etc.

Situation-specific options also exist. You could say someone had a courageous performance, for example, or scintillating, or virtuoso, or heroic — and those actually tell us something.

But if you really have to go back to the “unbelievable” well, at least try to vary it. You know, like: unfathomable, unspeakable, unimaginable. Or, if all else fails: indescribable.

Whatever. I hope you had an unbelievable experience reading this. Is it time for the draft yet?