January 24, 2022

And Then There Were Four

JON RALPH

EVERY so often you wonder whether it’s all worth it.

When you wake bleary-eyed at 5am on Mondays for a seven-hour blitzkrieg of NFL Redzone action so frenetic you can even forget who won or lost in your sleep-deprived haze.

When you are forced to defend your NFL passion to boorish mates who watch a single game each year to loudly declare it a four-hour waste of time.

Obsessing over the NFL is a peculiar beast for Australian sports fans given its place in the landscape as a code played by a single country halfway across the world.

Then you get weekends like the one we have just witnessed, four divisional round match-ups so epic in scope and momentum shifts and rule controversies that they are worth all the countless hours we invest in this incredible, unique game.

Four games as good as any you will see in any sport across the world, with three walk-off field goal victories to the LA Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals that were only the entree to one of the great playoff battles in recent memory.

Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs were left standing from the 42-36 overtime battle against Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills, a game that might have been perfect if not for the ridiculous overtime rule that surely must be changed.

The pair of generational quarterbacks duelled for four awe-inducing quarters, trading jaw-dropping touchdown throws and brilliant darting runs for third-down conversions until Allen’s fourth touchdown had seemingly settled the score.

With just 13 seconds left in regulation and the Chiefs needing an impossible field goal to tie the game it was put down the glasses, time to smoke the victory cigar.

You can’t give Patrick Mahomes a second, let alone 13 of them, with his two laser passes setting up the tying field goal as regulation time expired.

Coach Andy Reid’s advice to Mahomes with those 13 seconds remaining?

“When it’s grim, be the grim reaper…”

Then Allen, seemingly on the way to breaking a 52-year Buffalo curse, didn’t touch the ball as Mahomes inevitably marched down the field to eventually find Travis Kelce with the only possession of overtime.

Surely the NFL overtime rules must allow each team at least one possession college-style, and yet the cruel nature of the defeat only heightened the tension as Mahomes slid the knife deep for the final blow.

The metrics were off the charts – 25 points in the last two minutes of regulation, Allen’s nine touchdown passes in two playoff games, Buffalo wide receiver Gabriel Davis’ record four touchdowns in a playoff game.

Yet the sheer number of jump-off-the-couch “WTF DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?” moments confirmed this as one of the great games of the 21st century.

And your bandwagon-jumping mates who after all those doubts were all of a sudden entranced by the sheer craziness of it all?

Well, tell them to get on for the ride.

And ask them if they are on board for Super Bowl LVI in three weeks in time at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

If the Kansas City-Buffalo contest was the shot chaser, the rest of the action was from the top shelf to set up two surprise conference title games: Cincinnati at Kansas and San Francisco at the LA Rams.

Cincinnati’s upset of No.1 seed Tennessee came not through quarterback Joe Burrow’s gifted play but a Logan Wilson intercept of Ryan Tannehill to set up rookie Evan McPherson’s 52-yard game-winning field goal.

Burrow was sacked a whopping nine times but despite that constant battering, found the poise to hit Ja’Marr Chase to put the Bengals in field goal range for the winning score.

From then on the weekend just got insane.

MVP favourite Aaron Rogers orchestrated an effortless opening drive against the underdog San Francisco 49ers amid months of publicity about his own future and his non-vaccinated status.

From there he laid an egg – cue the schadenfreude and endless Twitter memes – as his offence stuttered and the 49ers returned a blocked punt with 4.41m on the clock to tie the game.

Rogers muffed his chance to be the fourth-quarter hero, and Robbie Gould’s 45-yard field goal for San Francisco ended the Packers’ playoff hopes as Rogers bleated post-match about what kind of playing list he needs to return for his final contracted year.

Tom Brady entered Tampa Bay’s match-up with a 17-3 playoff record and an appetite to bring down the Rams’ all-in Super Bowl tilt after their mid-season moves to secure defensive beast Von Miller and troublesome wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

Mid-match with Los Angeles boasting a 27-3 lead and Brady bickering with officials about a career-first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for contesting a non-roughing-the-passer call, it seemed he would go quietly into the night.

That has never been the GOAT’S style.

After 24 unanswered Tampa Bay points to tie the game the Rams had done every single thing possible to butcher that lead after four fumbles, including a Cam Akers spill on the one-yard line.

Brady’s bomb to sure-handed wide receiver Mike Evans had the game locked up with 42 seconds left and the defending Super Bowl champions had come from the clouds.

Yet former Detroit Lion Stafford, the centrepiece of a quarterback swap with Jared Goff that kickstarted the Rams’ chips-in approach over summer, had spent the entire season building an innate connection with MVP candidate Cooper Kupp.

Stafford sucked the air out of a stadium waiting for overtime with an out route to Cupp to advance the ball then a 44-yard hurl that set up a chip shot field goal to shock Brady and the Buccaneers as time expired.

It could yet be Brady’s last NFL appearance amid conjecture about his future, orchestrating a magical comeback then like Buffalo’s Allen watching on the sidelines as his heart was ripped out in slow motion.

So if you are heading to the Super Bowl you won’t get Tom Brady or Aaron Rogers, but you will surely get something just as good in Patrick Mahomes.

The Rams are only a single win away from hosting the Super Bowl, but have lost twice to San Francisco this season and have dropped their last six to the 49ers.

If that stat-line makes the NFC championship a toss-up despite Stafford’s post-season dominance and the Rams’ marauding defence, surely Mahomes gets a Super Bowl do-over with an AFC Conference victory.

He spent last year’s Super Bowl against Brady’s Buccaneers battling a painful turf-toe injury attempting to dodge bull-rushing Tampa defenders as his injury-decimated offensive line leaked like a sieve.

This time around Mahomes is in full flight, his receiving corps (Tyreek Hill, the unstoppable Travis Kelce) are in career-best form and for all of Burrows’ future greatness, an offensive line capable of giving up nine sacks should be fresh meat against the Chiefs.

So strap yourself in for a pair of games that could define Mahomes legacy, with a second Super Bowl at 26 putting him on the fast line to a fist-full of titles, even if he never gets to Brady’s seven rings.

Or better yet, get on a plane to Los Angeles, because if the Super Bowl delivers even a slice of the action that this weekend delivered then you can tell those bandwagon jumping mates you were there to watch it in the flesh.

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