Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we absorb a riveting, comeback-filled (and controversial) Championship Sunday in the NFL, which gave us a double-barreled dose of overtime action…
* I suppose if we went searching for bookend accomplishments to define and mark the breathtaking span of the Patriots dynasty these past two decades, we could scarcely do better than this. In two weeks, 17 years to the day since they won their first Super Bowl title, also against the Rams, we'll get the long-awaited rematch. It's a Patriots-Rams pairing in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, and only the dome and the Southern city its located in is different this time.
New England pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history in the New Orleans' Superdome in February 2002, knocking off a St. Louis Rams team that was known for its high-octane offense. The Rams are in Los Angeles now, but their offense is potent once again, and this time the Patriots are opening up as a 1-point underdog in the game they've come to dominate since 2002.
That landmark 20-17 win in New Orleans was the beginning of New England's long run, and now questions will be asked whether a win in this year's Super Bowl might represent the last chapter of the Patriots' record-breaking story, and the final act of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick tandem? Only time will tell the answer, but after watching both the Rams and Patriots advance to the Super Bowl by winning Sunday on the road in overtime, this much we know: We might be in for another classic.
Not done yet, indeed. For either of these talented and tenacious teams.
* What's to like about the Super Bowl LIII matchup? Plenty, starting with the coaching contrast. The 66-year-old Bill Belichick facing off against a competitor literally half his age in soon-to-be-33-year-old Sean McVay (his birthday is Thursday). Belichick's pedigree is for defense, McVay's is offense, and both are respected for their ability to game plan and out-scheme their opponents.
Roughly the same story line exists in terms of the quarterbacking matchup, with the 41-year-old Brady making his ninth Super Bowl appearance in his 19th season, as compared to the Rams' 24-year-old Jared Goff, who is making his first trip to the game in just his third NFL season. Brady and Goff are both California kids with Bay area ties, and both played collegiately for universities famous for their blue and yellow color schemes.
The Patriots and Rams are both No. 2 seeds who pulled upsets in the AFC and NFC Championship games, respectively, and for what it's worth, there's never been a Super Bowl matchup of No. 2's since the league expanded its playoff field to 12 teams in 1990. The Rams haven't been back to the Super Bowl since losing 17 years ago to the Patriots, while New England is making its third consecutive trip and fourth in a five-year span. Only Miami and Buffalo have made as many as three straight Super Bowls, with the Bills losing four in a row from 1990-93, and the Dolphins going back-to-back-to-back in 1971-73.
Oh, and get ready to hear the "Beat L.A.'' chant in New England for the third time in a little over three months, with the Red Sox toppling the Dodgers in the World Series and the Patriots eliminating the visiting Chargers last week in the AFC Divisional round. For a mantra that was inspired by the heated Celtics-Lakers rivalry back in the early '80s, it's getting plenty of multi-purpose use these days in Boston.
* In beating top-seeded Kansas City 37-31 in overtime, this has to be the most unexpected of the Patriots' Super Bowl berths, at least since the first one in the 2001 season. Consider that New England's past five Super Bowl trips all came when they were the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and the Patriots hadn't made a Super Bowl in a season in which they won as few as 11 games since 2001.
Winning a playoff game on the road was another major hurdle just cleared by New England, which had a three-game road losing streak snapped, all in AFC title games dating to the 2006 season. Some how the Patriots persevered this season to return to the Super Bowl despite finishing 3-5 on the road, and facing a pair of teams in the playoffs in the Chargers and Chiefs who both had better records.
So much for the edict that home-field advantage really matters in the conference championship round. Home teams had been 10-0 in the past five years, and 16-4 in the past 10 years. But you can make that 10-2 in the past six years, thanks to the Rams and Patriots both pulling the upset. Tom Brady was right, the odds were stacked against New England this year in ways we haven't seen many examples of these past two decades.
While the Saints wilted at home and lost a 13-0 first-quarter lead to the Rams, the Patriots on the road didn't collapse when they saw a 14-0 halftime lead, or a 17-7 third-quarter advantage, evaporate at Arrowhead Stadium. There were four lead changes and a tie in the fourth quarter, but New England answered every challenge the Chiefs posed and calmly put together the game-winning touchdown drive in overtime, wisely keeping the ball out of Patrick Mahomes' hands.
What a wild fourth-quarter ride it was for all concerned. The teams combined for 38 points (Chiefs 24, Patriots 14), making for the highest-scoring quarter in AFC/NFC title game history, according to CBS. With the Patriots leading 14-0 at the half, having held Kansas City to just 32 yards of offense, few could have seen the shootout to come at that point. Brady is now 3-0 in overtime in the playoffs, another NFL record he has made his own.
* I don't think the NFL has any real option now. After the debacle of the non-pass interference call that basically decided the NFC title game in New Orleans, the league has to start to wrap its hands around a system that allows for the replay review of at least certain penalty calls. Or at the very least somehow allows for the use of existing technology to rectify a mistake of the magnitude we saw on Sunday in the Superdome.
This will be the tipping point, that seems easy to predict. Immediately admitting that a mistake was made was the least the NFL should have done, and it did that, with director of officials Al Riveron and Saints coach Sean Payton speaking on the phone shortly after the game. But that was just the start of what needs to be done.
Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman actually should have been called for pass interference on Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis, as well as an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on a defenseless receiver. That was the third helmet-to-helmet hit that I noticed that didn't get called, with Rams linebacker Cory Littleton twice getting away with contact that led with the helmet. Saints tight end Josh Hill even left the game in the first quarter after absorbing a helmet-to-helmet blow from Littleton. If player safety is really the all-important issue the league says it it, there's no justifiable reason to not use replay to make sure helmet-to-helmet calls aren't missed.
"Just getting off the phone with the league office, they blew the call,'' said an angry Saints coach Sean Payton, a member of the league's rule-making competition committee and now a likely die-hard advocate for allowing replay to review a broader range of calls. "For a call like that not be made, man…. It was simple. They blew the call. The first thing Al said when I got on the phone, we messed it up. (It's time to) further evaluate the replay system. I don't know if there was ever a more obvious call. Our team played well enough to win the game. We should have.''
I can't argue with that. It was as an egregious case of pass interference as you'll ever see, and you wonder how much support there will now be for an idea that Bill Belichick has been pushing for years: Make everything reviewable, including being able to give coaches a way to challenge obvious non-calls. There's too much at stake not to. The Saints' 26-23 loss to the Rams in overtime just became Exhibit "A'' in that debate.
* New Orleans absolutely got jobbed with that non-call, but the Saints are hardly blameless in their own defeat. Payton's play-calling in the Rams red zone inside of two minutes left in regulation was abysmal. New Orleans could have milked the clock if it had run the ball three times and perhaps used almost all the time before it kicked a short field goal to win. Instead the Saints threw an incomplete pass, and had to use their own time out, leaving the Rams 1:41 and one timeout remaining, which Los Angeles used to drive for the game-tying 48-yard Greg Zuerlein with 15 seconds remaining.
While we're at it, the Saints scored 13 points on their first three possession, but settling for just field goals on their first two drives wound up hurting them in the end. The Rams defense deserves credit for keeping the game as close as it was, with Goff and the offense struggling mightily in the first quarter, gaining only 15 yards and not picking up a first down. New Orleans only mustered 10 points after that first quarter 13-0 lead, and its defense let it down at times as well, failing to get stops in the fourth quarter and overtime, when the Rams were on the comeback,.
* You can not underestimate how clutch Zuerlein was in such a hostile and loud environment, making the 48-yarder to tie the game and force overtime, then banging home the game-winner from an eye-popping 57 yards with plenty of room to spare. It was the longest game-winning field goal in NFL history, and given that it clinched a Super Bowl berth, it deserves to be mentioned among the most pressurized money kicks in the annals of the game.
Zuerlein was 4-for-4 on field goals and 2-for-2 on extra points and he probably couldn't even hear himself think lining up for any of those kicks.
* Quote of the day? That's easy. Referee Bill Vinovich gave this statement to the pool reporter after the Rams-Saints game: "It was a judgment call by the covering official. I personally have not seen the play.''
Get back to us after you watch it, Bill. Pretty sure you're going to see it another hundred times in the coming two weeks.
* Wow, I guess now we know it really hurt that Brady blew off those OTAs back in the spring, in favor of doing his own thing. How much oxygen was wasted on that topic in the NFL world in April, May and June? You can argue that maybe Brady would have played better and had an easier season if he had taken part, but you can't make the case that it was the difference between the Patriots making the Super Bowl as usual, or not.
* You know who won big on Sunday? The Falcons, even though they didn't play. Dan Quinn's club was this close to having the indignity of watching as their NFC South arch-rivals, the Saints, invade their city, their team complex and their home stadium as the NFC champions
* Drew Brees started fast and cooled down. Patrick Mahomes started slowly, then found his groove in the second half. But both quarterbacks wound up losing at home on Sunday, and that's a stunner given that Mahomes and Brees are likely to finish 1-2 in the NFL MVP balloting, which will be announced Feb. 2, the night before the Super Bowl.
The league's MVP had reached the Super Bowl in four of the past five years (Tom Brady in 2017, Matt Ryan in 2016, Cam Newton in 2015 and Peyton Manning in 2013), and 23 times in the past 37 years (62.2 percent), dating to 1981. But it's not going to happen in the 2018 season.
Brees really came up small in the second half, missing some throws he usually makes with his eyes closed. He threw for 249 yards and two touchdowns against the Rams, but he was off at some key moments, and the overtime interception he threw (after his arm was hit by Rams linebacker Dante Fowler Jr) wound up setting up Los Angeles' winning points.
Payton didn't do Brees any favors, either, surprisingly twice inserting Swiss Army Knife Taysom Hill at quarterback for a single play, which served to take the Saints best player off the field. That's over-thinking things, by a good margin.
* The other puzzler in the NFC title game was the performance of Rams lead running back Todd Gurley. Or at least he used to be the Rams' lead running back. That job now belongs to C.J. Anderson, the veteran journeyman who has belonged to four different teams from April 2018 on.
Gurley had a miserable game, dropping a third down pass in the second quarter, having another pass bounce off his hands for an interception in the first quarter, and gaining only 10 yards on four carries, with a 6-yard touchdown run. Anderson carried 16 times for a team-high 44 yards, and Gurley didn't even touch the ball once in the entire third quarter.
"I was sorry as hell today,'' Gurley said, according to ESPN.com. "I was sorry. So, C.J. did his thing and the whole team did its thing.''
Gurley insists he's healthy, but something's wrong with the player who has accounted for more rushing yards and touchdowns than anybody in the league over the past two years. Maybe he's setting up the Patriots for an epic Super Bowl performance, but he was a shell of himself against the Saints, and the Rams still prevailed.
* Dee Ford got sloppy at the absolute worst time for Kansas City and it likely cost the Chiefs a trip to the Super Bowl. Ford neutral zone penalty negated what likely would have been a game-icing interception by Charvarius Ward with less than two minutes to play and the Chiefs leading 28-24.
Given new life by the penalty, the Patriots re-took the lead and later won in overtime. Ford in the post-game bemoaned that he didn't look to see where the ball was when he got into his three-point stance, clearly in the neutral zone. That's the kind of small but telling undisciplined mistake the Chiefs always seem to make in the playoffs, and that's another reason why Andy Reid's legacy as a postseason coach is so poor.
Reid is going to wear this one for a while, even though the Chiefs' future looks bright with Mahomes at quarterback. His team earned the No. 1 seed, but couldn't make it pay off, losing his third home playoff game in four tries in his six-season Kansas City tenure. Reid is just 12-14 in the playoffs in his 20 seasons of NFL head coaching, dropping to a dismal 1-5 in conference title games. And he's also now 0-3 in head-to-head postseason matchups with Belichick, including their Super Bowl meeting of 14 years ago.
It boggles the mind, but while the Patriots return to the Super Bowl for the ninth time under Belichick, and fourth trip in five years, Reid's Chiefs next year will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the franchise's most recent Super Bowl run, in the 1969 season.
* While the Rams return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2001 season, and their first as the Los Angeles Rams since 1979, the Saints must get over the shock of losing a home playoff game in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era. That hadn't happened until Sunday, with New Orleans being 6-0 at home in the playoffs under Payton and Brees. The Saints hadn't lost in the playoffs in the Superdome since 1992, in a first-round game against visiting Philadelphia.
With Brees turning 40 last week, it's fair to wonder if there's another Super Bowl shot waiting for him and Payton, who have been teamed in New Orleans from 2006 on. Though the Saints should again be one of the NFC's favorites in 2019, Sunday's opportunity was a golden one, and that only heightens the pain of how New Orleans lost.
* The Rams rolled up 363 yards in the final three quarters and overtime, after producing just 15 in the first quarter. And while Goff was beyond shaky to start the game, struggling mightily with the crowd noise, he was really great when Los Angeles needed him to be as the game unfolded.
Goff wound up a strong 25 of 40 for 297 yards and a touchdown, with one interception that went through Todd Gurley's arms on the first Rams drive of the game. He showed me something in overcoming his early troubles, and he was the best quarterback on the field for most of the day. Whatever kind of game he has against New England in the Super Bowl, it's clear Goff has rebounded from his two poor starts in mid-December, against the Bears and Eagles.
Ridiculously Cool Football Card of the Week
In honor of a certain 41-year-old Patriots quarterback who is going back to the Super Bowl for a mind-boggling ninth time, we give you another veteran Patriots quarterback who knew how to get the job done: Babe Parilli. Shown here on his exquisite 1965 Topps card, Parilli spent seven seasons of his 15-year pro career with the Boston Patriots (1961-67), and was at his best in 1964. That year Parilli led the Patriots to a 10-3-1 record, and paced all of professional football with 31 touchdown passes, earning first-time All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. Parilli was a mere 34 in 1964, and he played another five years after that, retiring after spending 1968 and 1969 as Joe Namath's backup and earning a Super Bowl ring with the Jets. Parilli started 83 games and played in 94 during his seven Patriots seasons, compiling a 44-32-7 record as the team's No. 1 quarterback.