NFL conference title games in review

The Los Angeles Rams were all in for a Super Bowl-or-bust run this year.

The Cincinnati Bengals were in what appeared to be the second year of a rebuilding program with quarterback Joe Burrow returning from the injury that he suffered last year.

Despite their different journeys, the two teams pulled off comebacks in the conference games to advance to this year’s Super Bowl.

The Bengals rallied from a 21-3 deficit to upset the Chiefs, 27-24, in overtime while the Rams were favored over the 49ers after losing six consecutive games to them and needed a fourth quarter comeback to post the victory, 20-17.

For both winners, there was a lot of vindication.

The Rams continued their policy of throwing draft picks around like confetti, and it worked.

Among the moves this season were trading for quarterback Matthew Stafford in the offseason and for defensive standout Von Miller during the season. Both were valuable additions to the team.

Stafford didn’t win a playoff in his 12 years with the Lions, but the Rams decided he would be an upgrade over Jared Goff. He had some ups and downs during the regular season as he threw 17 picks, but he threw only one in the playoffs.

For Bengals owner Mike Brown, the son of legendary coach Paul Brown, it was a chance to show he could put together a Super Bowl team.

The Bengals had gone 31 years without a playoff win. Marvin Lewis coached the team to the playoffs seven times in 16 years but didn’t win a playoff game. Brown and Lewis parted ways after the 2018 season.

And the drafting of Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase with their first picks the last two years helped coach Zac Taylor build a playoff team.

And both teams took advantage of blunders by the losing teams. Kansas City had a 21-10 lead with five seconds left in first half. Instead of taking the field goal, they tried a play that didn’t work. And in the second half, the Chiefs didn’t adjust when the Bengals used a 3-8 alignment and didn’t run the ball enough.

The 49ers had a fourth-and-2 in fourth quarter, leading by three. Instead of going for it, they punted and opened the door for the Rams comeback victory.

So now the Rams will host the Super Bowl in their home stadium. It never happened before last year when Tampa Bay played the Super Bowl against the Chiefs in their home stadium.

In 1979, the Rams played the Super Bowl in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena against the Steelers. The Rams led after three quarters but the Steelers rallied to win their fourth Super Bowl in the fourth quarter.

The Rams last made the Super Bowl after the 2018 season and lost to the Patriots. The Rams also made it twice when they were in St. Louis, beating the Titans in 1999 and lost to the Patriots in 2001.

Cincinnati is playing in its third Super Bowl and lost to the 49ers in its first two appearances in 1981 and 1988.

Previewing the NFL’s conference title games

What can the NFL do for an encore?

After all four divisional round games ended on the final play last week, it will be difficult for the conference title games to top them, but they figure to be close.

The Rams host the 49ers and the Chiefs host the Bengals Sunday, and both home teams are slight favorites.

The interesting thing is that both games are rematches of games at the end of the season. The curious thing is that both underdogs won.

The 49ers beat the Rams for the sixth straight time in the final regular season game and the Bengals beat the Chiefs in the second-to-last game.

Three of the four coaches in the game —Andy Reid of the Chiefs, Sean McVay of the Rams and Kyle Shanahan of the 49ers — have lost Super Bowls. Reid has lost two but won one. McVay and Shanahan have yet to win one. Zac Taylor of the Bengals hasn’t been in a Super Bowl.

Shanahan was also the offensive coordinator of the Falcons when they infamously lost to the Patriots despite having a 28-3 lead in the second half.

The Chiefs are aiming for their third trip in a row to the Super Bowl and are playing in their fourth consecutive conference title game.

The Chiefs-Bengals game figures to be a shootout between Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs and Joe Burrow of the Bengals although Joe Mixon also gives the Bengals a running threat.

The 49ers-Rams game features two quarterbacks in different situations. Jimmy Garoppolo could be playing his last game for the 49ers if they lose because the 49ers may be ready to move on to Trey Lance next year.

Matthew Stafford is in his first year with the Rams after failing to win a playoff game in 12 years in Detroit. Now he is trying to make his first Super Bowl.

The scores in their recent meetings were 27-24 49ers and 34-31 Bengals.

The NFL will be happy to have those scores again.

NFL divisional round in review

The divisional round weekend shows the NFL was right in changing all the rules to favor the offense in recent years.

The wide-open game set the stage for the best divisional round in NFL history.

Three of the four games were decided on a field goal on the final play, and the fourth was decided on a touchdown in overtime that climaxed a shootout between Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.

San Francisco beat Green Bay mainly with special teams and defense, but quarterbacks ruled the day as Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Matthew Stafford and Jimmy Garoppolo advanced to the conference title games.

The losing quarterbacks were Tom Brady Aaron Rodgers, Allen and Ryan Tannehill.

Mahomes and Reid are going to the conference title game for the fourth year in a row and aiming for their third Super Bowl appearance in a row.

Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan are aiming for their second Super Bowl appearance after losing the first one.

Burrow and Stafford, traded to the Rams this year, are going for their first Super Bowl appearance while Rams coach Sean McVay will be shooting for his second Super Bowl appearance. He lost his first with Jared Goff as his quarterback.

The Mahomes-Allen duel was an instant classic. Allen put the Bills ahead with a touchdown pass on fourth and 13 with 1:54 left. Trailing 29-26, Mahomes threw a 64-yard pass to Tyreek Hill to give the Chiefs a 33-29 lead with 1:02 left. Allen then came back with a 19-yard touchdown pass to put the Bills up 36-33 with 13 seconds left.

And then with some help from the Bills, Mahomes tied it up and sent it iinto overtime and the Chiefs won the toss and got the win.

This game will be remembered for a long time, especially if the Chiefs go on to win the Super Bowl.

The losses by Brady and Rodgers raised questions about their futures. Brady is 44 and said he will spend several weeks thinking about what he wants to return at age 45. It is easier to think about retiring at the end of a long season. After he recharges his batteries, he may not be able to walk away.

Rodgers will return, but he has to decide whether he wants to stay in Green Bay. He has the option of leaving, but may decide his best option is to stay. He was upset at the Packers for trading up to select Jordan Love on the first round two years ago but may be ready to smooth things over since Love hasn’t challenged him.

Another quarterback whose future could be in jeopardy is Tannehill. With Derrick Henry not in top form after coming back from an injury, Tannehill was outgunned by Burrow.

But if Henry returns at top form, they may decide Tannehill remains their best option. He was picked off three times by the Bengals.

The coach on the hot seat is Sean McDermott of the Bills. Their fans are upset that they couldn’t hold the lead with 13 seconds left against the Chiefs.

He decided not to have the Bills squib kick on the kickoff and then had them in a soft prevent defense that allowed Mahomes to complete two passes that put the Chiefs in position for a game-tying field goal. They won the coin toss and scored a touchdown to win the games.

Under the current rules, teams that win the coin toss are 10-1 and there is much talk about changing the rules so each team has a possession in overtime, but the owners have voted down that idea in the past.

Now there are three games left – the two conference title games and the Super Bowl.

It won’t be easy for them to match the drama of the divisional weekend.

Previewing the NFL divisional round

Now there are eight teams left with their eyes on the NFL prize – the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Reputations will be made and lost that will last a lifetime in the final seven games starting with divisional round this weekend.

Only two coaches in the final eight –Andy Reid and Bruce Arians – have won Super Bowls and both are going for their second one. If Reid wins his second in three years, it will punch his HOF ticket, although he may make it anyway. Arians is trying to enjoy the select group that won back to back titles.

Surprisingly, Reid is only 18-15 in the playoffs in his two-decade coaching career.

Three of the eight quarterbacks left have won Super Bowls. Tom Brady is going for his eighth and Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes are going for their second one. Brady is trying to join Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterback to repeat twice.

Reid and Mahomes are going for the third consecutive Super Bowl appearance, trying to join Bill Belichick and Brady, who made it three times in a row as did Don Shula and Bob Griese. The record is four times in a row by Buffalo’s Marv Levy and Jim Kelly, although they lost all four.

Two coaches, Sean McVay of the Rams and Kyle Shanahan of the 49ers, are trying to reach the Super Bowl for the second time after losing their first appearance.

McVay changed quarterbacks since that loss and is going with Matthew Stafford, who won his first playoff game last week.

The 49ers are still going with Jimmy Garoppolo, who is back for the 49ers after he threw two picks in the Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs two years ago. Garoppolo could be traded at the end of the season because the 49ers have Trey Lance waiting in the wings. But if Garappolo wins the Super Bowl, do the 49ers move on from him?

Garoppolo is the only one of the eight quarterbacks whose job is in jeopardy. Brady could always retire but then retiring doesn’t seem to be his thing.

Matt LeFleur of the Packers, Mike Vrabel of the Titans, Zac Taylor of the Bengals, Sean McDermott of the Bills are all going for their first Super Bowl appearance.

The four home teams are the Titans, Bills, Bucs and Packers. The road teams are the Bengals at the Titans, Bills at Chiefs, 49ers at Packers and Rams at Bucs.

The best game will probably be the Chiefs-Bills. These two teams could play a lot of playoff games against each other in the coming years. Both seem set for long runs.

Green Bay is considered to have a big home field edge at Lambeau Field, but they are only 7-6 in their last 13 home playoff games.

And if the wild card round was a barometer, the TV ratings are likely to be off the charts.

NFL wild-card weekend in review

As expected, the wild card weekend was very good for the NFL.

They made money with the two extra games by adding two more teams to the playoffs. And they got great TV ratings. The fans can’t get enough NFL football.

For the fans, though, it wasn’t too exciting. Four of the six games were blowouts. It was no surprise the two No. 7 seeds, the Steelers and Eagles were blown out by the Chiefs and Bucs.

And not that much of a surprise that New England couldn’t compete with Buffalo. The Patriots struggled down the stretch and had a rookie quarterback.

The surprising blowout was that Arizona couldn’t compete with the Rams. There are now questions about where the Cardinals go from here.

The two close games were the Bengals beating the Raiders to end a three-decade drought of playoff wins. And the Cowboys’ loss to the 49ers showed the Cowboys still aren’t as good as they think they are. The was a lot of chatter about the final spike but the Cowboys were outplayed.

So now the playoffs are down to eight teams that all think they have a shot at that Lombardi trophy.

Now the real playoffs begin this weekend.