This article is part of our NFL Observations series.
While Wild Card weekend was terrible, and the divisional round games great, these were somewhere in between. Like last week, both went down to the wire, but the level of play wasn't as high. Dropped interceptions, a missed PI call on Tee Higgins, Patrick Mahomes losing his rhythm completely in the second half were more the story than last-second heroics. Still, these were conference title games, and while Rams-Bengals probably wasn't the combo you were expecting, both teams without question earned their spots.
- The Bengals were down 21-3, and the Chiefs moving the ball at will in the first half. Somehow, the Cincinnati defense solved Patrick Mahomes, who scored three more points all game, including overtime. The Chiefs second half and overtime drives went punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, field goal, interception.
- It was amazing the Bengals had four sacks of Mahomes, and the Chiefs only one of Burrow, who took nine last week. If you're a Titans fan, you have to be thinking what a good chance they had to get to the Super Bowl, had they closed out the Bengals last week.
- Mahomes (275 yards, three TD, two picks) was scrambling so deftly in the first half, it was like he had someone watching the rush on TV controlling him with a joystick. He danced in and out of the pocket and found Travis Kelce in the end zone on one play that should have been a sack. As a Giants fan, it was like watching the anti-Danny-Dimes, who has no awareness of the rush whatsoever.
- In the second half, though, it was Joe Burrow (250-yards, two TD, one pick) scrambling out of near sacks to make huge third-down conversions.
- Tee Higgins (10-6-103-0) should have had a bigger day, but he was interfered with on a pass to the end zone and had to try to make the catch one handed. No idea how the ref missed the call.
- The announcers sure seemed like they were trying to jinx Justin Tucker Jr, Evan McPherson, on his 52-yard go-ahead kick in the fourth quarter. How many times did they have to say he hadn't missed and how he was going to make this one because he didn't have "any scars?" If I were a Bengals fan, I would have thrown a shoe at the TV. They did it again during the game-winning chip-shot FG in overtime too, declaring the win before it had happened.
- Tony Romo made the point that when the Chiefs were inside the five, the Bengals might have let them score the TD to preserve time to mount a final drive. It wasn't crazy, but it turned out the best thing to do was play defense, hold them to a FG, play defense again in OT, pick off Mahomes and win the game. It goes to show game flow matters -- last week, when Mahomes was zoning, it might have been the play, but this week, when he was out of sync, it was not. Remember that when someone with a spread sheet is telling you the base-rate stat of when to go for it, or what the win percentage is in each scenario. Even if they were right, that's only for generic teams via simulation (or historical data), and not for these particular teams in this particular situation.
- I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Having a great kicker is a significant edge in close games.
- Cooper Kupp (14-11-142-2) had a big drop, but he has been such a monster all year, and even more so in this game. If the MVP award included the playoffs, he'd be a massive favorite right now. His counterpart, Deebo Samuel (7-26-0, 7-4-72-1), also had a good game, and both players even return kicks. It was funny, though, how the announcers were talking about Deebo praising Jimmy Garoppolo on Twitter, right before Garoppolo threw him a hospital ball on the next play. Luckily, Samuel shook it off.
- Odell Beckham (11-9-113-0) was a huge midseason addition for the Rams. This tweet, made in jest, might prove prescient:
- The Rams were lucky Jaquiski Tartt dropped an easy pick on their game-tying field-goal drive. It wasn't as big as Eli Apple dropping what might have been a game-winning pick-six in the early game, because the 49ers still got the ball back with the game tied, but it was egregious for being such an easy catch.
- The Rams defense sure showed up in the fourth quarter. The 49ers drives were: punt, punt, interception. On the final drive, Garoppolo never had a chance, and the pick was forgivable as taking a sack there would have virtually ended the game anyway.
- Had the 49ers won the Super Bowl, it would have been interesting to see what they did at quarterback in 2022, as Garoppolo is still under contract for next year. After the loss, I'd be pretty surprised if they didn't head into Week 1 with Trey Lance.
- Congrats to long-suffering Bengals fan Jeff Erickson. He considered abandoning the team at one point, and while it would have been an even better story if he did, he unfortunately stuck with it.