Leftover thoughts from an AFC-NFC Championship Sunday:

1) As it turns out, the narrative was premature and overly enthusiastic: “Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are the new Brady vs. Manning.” I plead guilty to hyperventilating over the irresistible angle.

Joe Burrow would like to have a word with us all. And I see Justin Herbert over there, raising his hand. We won’t forget about you, Herbie. But you have to start making the playoffs. The thing is, there’s a lot of young AFC quarterbacks who plan to be the top gun, and we shouldn’t limit the discussion to Mahomes and Allen.

Just when we assumed Mahomes or Allen would be playing in the upcoming Super Bowl, Burrow and his Bengals showed up at Kansas City, spotted the Chiefs a 18-point lead, and suddenly tomahawk-chopped KC’s out of the postseason.

A week after Mahomes and the Chiefs knocked out Allen and the Buffalo Bills in overtime, Burrow had his own overtime triumph. He didn’t blink as he did his part to lead a comeback that left Mahomes and his teammates in a daze. The hope of another Super Bowl appearance got lost in all of that Arrowhead smoke.

It’s been a helluva month for the Bengals and Burrow. They beat the Vegas Raiders, followed with an upset victory over the AFC’s top-seeded team at Tennessee, then invaded Kansas City for the biggest win in the AFC playoffs by eliminating the Chiefs 27-24.

In his three conquests Burrow completed 68.8 percent of his passes for four touchdowns, two interceptions and 39 first downs. He averaged 281 yards per game, and his passer rating was fine (96.2) but nothing special. But the stats don’t always define Burrow. He is defined by his attitude, his poise, his confidence, and a boldness that his team inherited. The Bengals are Burrow’s team, 100 percent, and that’s unusual for a second-year NFL starter. Burrows believes he can do anything, and his teammates believe in him.

Once the Chiefs built a 21-3 lead, Burrow didn’t panic. It’s almost as if he set a trap and knew what would happen. After his team fell behind by 18 points, Burrow completed 17 of 24 passes for 222 yards, 9.25 yards per attempt, and two touchdowns without an interception. He also ran twice for 18 total yards on two scrambles that picked up first downs at a critical stage of the game. Burrow’s legs set up a go-ahead field goal with about 6 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

The Chiefs tied it to force overtime, but this would not be a repeat of the Buffalo victory. Mahomes botched the OT chance with a horrible interception, and Burrow had the game in his hands. All he needed was a field goal. It soon would be over.

What does Burrow mean to this franchise? What does he mean to Cincinnati and the non-Cleveland sections of the state?

Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard will tell you. Sam is a native of Cincinnati who played his college football at Ohio State. And in Hubbard’s fourth season with the Bengals, he’s headed to the Super Bowl. This, coming after a 7-20 record over the previous two seasons. This, coming after the Bengals’ tortuous streak of not winning a postseason game since the 1990 season.

When Burrow was drafted first overall in 2020, the Bengals were transformed. It just took a year to kick in. And part of the delay was Burrow’s knee injury and surgery that limited him to 10 games as a rookie. Going back to his LSU days, Burrow is now 9-0 in “Must Win” games. He’ll try to make it 10-0 when the Bengals play the LA Rams in the upcoming Super Bowl.

“I’ve been pretty miserable along with my teammates for the last few years, losing so many games,” Hubbard told the media after the win at KC. “I told Joe, ‘We need you. You’re the guy to turn this around. I know it.’ He embraced that. What are the odds that a kid from Athens, Ohio, is a national champion, Heisman Trophy winner, primed to be the No. 1 overall pick and we happen to have it? You can’t even write stories like this. It’s amazing.”

2) Burrow and LA’s Matthew Stafford are one of the most intriguing quarterback matchups in Super Bowl history.

– Burrow, 25, had to rehab his knee and revive a franchise. He finished the work in only 29 games, regular-season and playoffs.

– Stafford, 34, had to revive his career and rehab a Rams offense that lacked the big-play capability at the quarterback position. That was the missing piece, and Stafford came through to strong-arm the Rams back into the Super Bowl – giving them a better chance to win this time around. Jared Goff couldn’t be counted on to lead the offense to a supply of points that would lead to the Lombardi Trophy. The 2018 Rams managed one field goal in a 13-3 Super Bowl loss to New England. And despite setting up 42 times to pass in that game, Goff managed only 229 yards and had a passer rating of 57.9.

3) The Rams dispatched Goff and a bundle of draft picks to the Lions to acquire the quarterback that coach Sean McVay desperately wanted. For sure, the Rams were taking a chance. Stafford was used to playing for a loser, was 0-3 in the playoffs, and no one really had 100 percent confidence in his presence on the NFL’s biggest stages. But most of the answers are in now, and Stafford has fulfilled McVay’s vision. And now, after 188 career games for Detroit (including postseason), Stafford will be playing in his first Super Bowl. After going 0-3 as the postseason starter in Detroit, Stafford is 3-0 in the postseason for the Rams. In the victories over Arizona, Tampa Bay and San Francisco, Stafford completed 72% of his throws with six touchdowns and one pickoff. He averaged 302 yards per game with a passer rating of 115.6.

4) A poor showing in the Super Bowl would wipe out much of the positive feelings engendered by Stafford during his first season as leader of the Rams. Stafford is prone to making mistakes, and he nearly threw away LA’s shot at winning the NFC title by lofting a pass into the hands of 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt. The poor dude dropped it. Stafford was saved.

5) Jimmy Garoppolo had another fourth-quarter crackup in the NFC game. The Niners were unable to protect their 17-7 lead, blowing the 10-point advantage in the 4th quarter. There was blame to go around, of course. Head coach Kyle Shanahan made a terrible decision to punt on a fourth-and-two play, bypassing a chance to extend a 17-14 lead. After the punt, the Rams drove for a field goal that tied it at 17-17.

Why didn’t the Niners make more use of tight end George Kittle? Makes no sense.

In the fourth quarter Sunday Jimmy G completed 3 of 9 passes for 30 yards and an interception. And though the 49ers were 5-2 with Garoppolo in place for several years as their postseason starter, he was pretty bad most of the time – with four touchdown passes and six interceptions and missed targets galore. Trey Lance is in line to take over as San Francisco’s quarterback in 2022.

Jimmy G’s career passer rating in the fourth quarter of postseason games is 40.1.

6) Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. in three postseason games for the Rams this month – combined statistics: 44 catches, 622 yards, 27 first downs, five touchdown catches, 14.1 yards per reception, 14.6 catches per game, 103.7 receiving yards per game, and a catch rate of 80%. Beckham was just what the Rams needed to complement Kupp – who apparently can’t be covered.

7) I’m shocked by how quickly Mahomes collapsed in the brutal loss to the Bengals. And I’m just as shocked by how he couldn’t handle an adjustment in Cincinnati’s defensive strategy.

The visitors changed their plans after Mahomes got off to a torrid start. According to NFL.com, the Bengals dropped eight-plus defenders into coverage on a season-high 35% of pass plays, holding Mahomes to just 7 of 13 for 59 yards, an interception and two sacks on such alignments.

Another way to look at this: Cincinnati rushed five guys only 13 percent of the time. As unlikely as it sounds, the Bengals wanted Mahomes to fire away downfield, and stationed their coverage personnel accordingly.

Cincinnati not only took away Tyreek Hill as a deep-pass threat, but Mahomes didn’t counter the Bengals’ tactic by checking down. He had seen these three-deep coverages used against him in the first half of the season, and gradually figured out where to go with the ball. That led to the turnaround of Mahomes’ season. But Mahomes never changed his calibrations against the Bengals, and they held him to 3 points in the second half (and OT) for the second consecutive meeting with the Chiefs.

8) In the second half Sunday, Mahomes completed 8 out of 18 for only 55 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He also took two terrible sacks – instead of throwing the ball away – on a drive that led to the Chiefs having to settle for the tying field goal instead of winning it at the end of the fourth quarter. The Bengals were even more aggressive with their dropping-eight into cove approach, going with it on 45 percent of the snaps in the second half and OT. In the first half the Bengals went with the drop-eight look on 24% of the snaps.

It’s gonna be a hard winter and spring and summer for Mahomes and the Chiefs. Four consecutive AFC Championship games, all at home. And only one Super Bowl title to show for it.

9) KC coach Andy Reid’s decision to go for the TD instead of kicking the field goal at the end of the first half was a disaster that changed the momentum, the confidence and the rhythm of this game. And Reid’s offense made a bunch of mistakes in the second half. Just an awful turn of events … a loss that reminded Chiefs of sorry days of the past, when their team blew a sequence of leads to flub the postseason.

10) There have been 12 postseason games in this cycle. Five were decided by three points, and three were settled by 6 or 7 points. That’s eight one-score games, or 75 percent.

Thanks for reading …


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