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The Winners and Losers of Divisional-Round Weekend

The Chiefs beat the Bills in an instant classic, but the NFL’s overtime rules need to change. Plus, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are out of the postseason.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?

Winner: Allen-Mahomes

I don’t know how actual fans of the Chiefs and Bills could have possibly handled that. I have my guesses. Kansas City fans are probably trying to scream so loudly in celebration that their brain can’t hear their thoughts about how their team just stared certain death in the face. Bills fans are probably staring into a moonlit snowdrift, wondering why bad things happen to good football teams. I can only know how I reacted when I got done watching the best playoff game in recent memory, a 42-36 overtime thriller that could have decided this year’s Super Bowl champion.

This season has always felt like it would come down to Bills-Chiefs. The two teams met in last year’s AFC championship game, with Kansas City winning 38-24. They met again earlier this regular season, with Buffalo winning by the eerily similar score of 38-20. When they both hung 40 points on their opponents in the wild-card round, it set up the rubber match. They are two peas of the same pod, high-powered offenses led by spectacular quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes is somehow inventing new ways to throw a football; Josh Allen is somehow combining the running style of Cam Newton with the throwing style of a surface-to-air missile. Nobody has ever played the game like either.

The game was a banger from start to finish. The Bills’ first touchdown was immediately followed by the Chiefs’ first touchdown on the next drive. The Chiefs’ second touchdown was immediately followed by the Bills’ second touchdown on the next drive. The largest lead of the game was nine points—but that lasted for only one play, as the Bills answered a Kansas City TD with this 75-yard pass from Allen.

Regulation ended with a remarkable flurry of three go-ahead touchdowns in a span of 110 seconds. First was this touchdown to Gabriel Davis to give the Bills the lead:

Then Tyreek Hill scored a 64-yard touchdown, speeding past the Bills defense and throwing up the peace sign at the 15-yard line:

And then Davis scored another touchdown—his fourth of the game, an NFL playoff record—to give Buffalo the lead with 13 seconds left.

That should have guaranteed the win. Stathead features dozens of examples of teams scoring go-ahead touchdowns with less than 15 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of a game, dating back to 1994. None of these came in a loss. But with Kansas City trailing by three, Mahomes completed passes to Hill and Travis Kelce to gain 44 yards. The Chiefs got themselves into field goal range in less time than it took Dak Prescott to run one unsuccessful QB draw. Kansas City tied the game, won the coin toss to start overtime, and won on a touchdown pass from Mahomes to Kelce:

Sunday was the first game in postseason history with three go-ahead touchdowns in the final two minutes of regulation—and that’s without including the Chiefs’ 13-second miracle. Allen and Mahomes both made spectacular plays. Mahomes threw a sidearm bullet while rolling out to his right that, even for a throw innovator like Mahomes, seems like a new one. Allen threw a 75-yard touchdown over a two-deep safety look from Kansas City specifically meant to prevent Allen throwing the ball 60 yards in the air; the touchdown had the most air yards of any that Allen has ever thrown, and it didn’t look like he put much effort into throwing it. They both threw for at least 300 yards and ran for at least 50 while completing 70 percent of their passes. That had happened only twice in postseason history before Sunday, and then Mahomes and Allen did it in the same game. The Bills and Chiefs have now played three times in 365 days; the combined score of those three games is Kansas City 100, Buffalo 98. With all due respect to the Bengals and Rams and 49ers, I wouldn’t mind if we skipped the Super Bowl and just have these teams play a best-of-seven series.

So how did I react when this game ended? I smiled, because I’m not a Chiefs fan or a Bills fan, just a football fan. This was one of the best football games ever—and it seems like Mahomes and Allen are going to keep playing games like it for a long time.

Loser: NFL OT Rules

In the 2019 AFC championship game, Patrick Mahomes stood on the sideline and watched as his MVP season ended with an overtime loss. The Chiefs and Patriots had scored 31 points in the final eight minutes of regulation—touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, then a game-tying field goal by Harrison Butker. But the Patriots won the overtime coin toss and scored a touchdown on their opening drive in OT. And under the NFL’s controversial overtime rules, that meant the game was over. Mahomes never got the chance to answer.

Sunday’s game was remarkably similar. The Chiefs and Bills scored 25 points in the final two minutes of the game—touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, then a game-tying field goal by Harrison Butker. But this time, the Chiefs won the overtime coin toss, and they scored a touchdown. This time, Josh Allen stood on the sideline and watched as the Bills’ spectacular season ended in overtime.

Defenders of the NFL’s overtime system will argue that the 2018-19 Chiefs and 2021-22 Bills should simply have gotten stops if they wanted to get their offenses back onto the field. But it seems pretty likely that if the coin had flipped the other way, the 2018-19 Patriots and 2021-22 Chiefs would not have gotten stops. The Pats had allowed back-to-back TD drives and a field goal drive back in 2019 when OT started, similar to the Chiefs on Sunday night. Nobody was getting stops late in these games. These are the greatest offenses in the greatest offensive era in NFL history, and they were facing exhausted defenses who’d been dragged from end zone to end zone on back-to-back-to-back scoring drives. In a touchdown battle like this one, losing the toss is a death sentence.

The last two minutes of Bills-Chiefs were a euphoric celebration of what makes the NFL great. We love watching these preposterously talented quarterbacks one-upping each other with magnificent score after magnificent score. These are the biggest stars in the game, shining on the biggest stage. I would have watched them go touchdown for touchdown until the heat death of the universe. But the NFL’s overtime rules specifically prevent that back-and-forth dynamic from continuing. Why? Why not let the league’s biggest stars keep shining in these big moments? Why do we let a coin decide these games instead of the best football players ever?

Sunday was the clearest illustration of why the NFL’s overtime rules need to change. Hopefully, the fact that one of the greatest games we’ve ever seen ended in this way can be the impetus for that change. But I’ve been complaining about this for a while, and even Super Bowls and championship games decided on the first possession of OT haven’t led to change on this issue. The fact that the Chiefs won this time may seem like karmic payback from their loss three years ago, but there’s no karma here. Just a flipping coin. If your team benefits from the OT rules today, you should be fighting to change these rules before the coin flips the other way.

Winner: Survivors

Winning the Super Bowl is not about perfection. It’s been 50 years since a team went undefeated and won the Super Bowl. Everybody loses; everybody trails; everybody fails. This was proved in one of the wildest weekends in playoff history, in which three teams that had no business winning emerged with stunning victories that pushed them into the NFL’s final four.

The Bengals have struggled with their offensive line for years. Last year, they allowed the third-most sack yardage in the NFL, and Joe Burrow was lost for the year after suffering multiple knee ligament tears when he was hit by two Washington defenders simultaneously while throwing a pass. Despite Burrow’s injury, the Bengals made minimal additions to the line in the offseason, and Burrow led the NFL in sacks taken and tied for the lead in sack yardage lost this season. Saturday, the Titans’ pass rush treated Burrow like a big orange piñata.

Burrow was sacked nine times, tying an NFL playoff record, and lost 68 yards on those sacks, tied for second most in NFL playoff history. He dropped back to pass 47 times and was pressured on 15 of those dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

The 49ers have Jimmy Garoppolo as their starting quarterback. You understand why this is a problem if you’ve seen Jimmy Garoppolo play QB before. Garoppolo is extremely handsome and, like many good-looking people, spends his days making poor decisions and seeing what he can get away with. Saturday night, he was extremely passionate about lobbing high-arcing eephus pitches to running backs in the flat—classic high-risk, low-reward football. Somehow, this was the only interception he threw on the night:

The Rams developed an unfortunate case of fumbleitis on Sunday. This isn’t a problem for them normally—they lost only five fumbles this season, tied for the second fewest in the NFL. Then they lost four fumbles in one game against the Buccaneers, including one on the goal line and another as they were trying to run out the clock to seal a win:

Each of these situations should have made winning impossible. Teams that were sacked at least seven times in a game were 0-9 this season—but the Bengals still won, 19-16. Teams that failed to score an offensive touchdown were 2-30 this season—but the Niners still won, 13-10. Teams that committed four turnovers in a game this season were 3-28—but the Rams still won, 30-27.

It doesn’t make sense that any of these teams won. It’s a testament to their fortitude and complete team play that they were able to win despite screwing up so dramatically. But these things happen in the playoffs when you’re forced to play the best teams in the sport week after week. Winning the Super Bowl is not about perfection. It’s about surviving.

Loser: Green Bay’s Special Teams

You’d think you could ignore special teams when your quarterback is Aaron Freakin’ Rodgers. Who cares if you give up a few yards here or there on punts or miss a few kicks when you have the MVP? But Saturday, the Packers found out the hard way that a few game-changing plays can undo the work of an entire game.

Green Bay’s special teams issues have been a thing for a while. The 2020 Packers were dead last in kick return yardage allowed and punt return yardage gained. In this column, we noted the Packers kept putting punter J.K. Scott in a position where he had to make tackles, which he was fundamentally incapable of doing. After the season, Matt LaFleur fired his special teams coach, Shawn Mennenga. But instead of hiring someone from outside to fix things, the Packers simply promoted assistant special teams coach Maurice Drayton. Under Drayton, things got worse. Green Bay finished last in the NFL in special teams DVOA. According to Football Outsiders, they were 30th or worse on field goals/extra points, kick returns, and punt returns. There were blocked field goals, random, inexplicable miscommunications on kickoffs, and the Packers allowed one of just two punt return touchdowns in the NFL this season.

Saturday was a special teams disaster from start to finish. One of San Francisco’s two scoring drives was sparked by this 45-yard Deebo Samuel return, which gave the Niners the ball at midfield:

Just before halftime, the Packers had a field goal blocked after a truly terrible protection job—49ers safety Jimmie Ward got to the kicker completely untouched after Tyler Lancaster, a defensive end playing on the field goal unit, committed the cardinal football sin of picking up a man on the outside while letting an inside rusher go.

Green Bay kept San Francisco’s offense out of the end zone for the entire game, but gave up a touchdown on yet another protection breakdown on special teams. Nobody helped long snapper Steven Wirtel with 270-pound defensive lineman Jordan Willis on a fourth-quarter punt near Green Bay’s end zone. That’s a blatant special teams breakdown—long snappers are the least athletic guys on the field, and should never be one-on-one with a powerful defensive lineman. Willis bullied Wirtel all the way back until he was in the punter’s face and swatted the kick. The Packers looked around, befuddled and unable to locate the ball; San Francisco scooped it up and easily returned it for a game-tying touchdown.

In the 18-week, 272-game regular season, there were 15 blocked field goals and 12 blocked punts. (Two of the blocked field goals were against the Packers.) The odds of any team having a kick and a punt blocked at any point in the entire season are pretty low. To have both happen in the same game is a catastrophic failure.

The game came down to a Niners field goal attempt with the clock expiring, but unlike San Francisco, Green Bay couldn’t get a block—perhaps because it sent only 10 players onto the field.

It’s impossible to overstate how much of a disaster the Packers’ special teams performance was. The mistakes they made were basic and present in nearly every aspect of special teams play. It’s enough to make you wonder whether they practice.

Entering this week, the Packers were the favorites to win the Super Bowl. They had home-field advantage, a bye week, and Aaron Freakin’ Rodgers. And on top of that, they held their opponent without an offensive touchdown in a playoff game. They still lost, squandering one of their last seasons with their franchise QB, because they didn’t care to fix the blatant issues with their worst unit. Their season ended, and they couldn’t even figure out how to get the right number of players on the field when the clock ran out.

Winner: Brady Magic

Nobody was sure whether we were joking when Tom Brady’s Buccaneers fell into a 27-3 hole against the Rams on Sunday. Sure, we all made the jokes about how the scoreline resembled the 28-3 deficit Brady’s Patriots faced against the Falcons before storming back to win Super Bowl LI. But there was an air of fear in the jokes. We all knew that only one person on earth could conceivably lead a team on four unanswered scoring drives in 20 minutes of a playoff game, and that he was wearing no. 12 for Tampa Bay.

From the beginning, it felt like a day when nothing was going right for Brady. Tampa Bay was without star right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who played every single snap for the Bucs during the regular season. His replacement, Josh Wells, also got injured, forcing the team to play Nick Leverett, an undrafted guard, at right tackle. An offensive line featuring an undrafted free agent out of position is a bad strategy against Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd, who lived in the backfield all day. At one point, a hit from Miller caused Brady to bleed from his mouth—and Brady got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for complaining about it.

This was how you knew things were getting weird. Brady had never drawn an unsportsmanlike conduct flag in his entire 20-plus-year career, and the league’s longstanding policy on roughing the passer seems to be “if it happens to Tom Brady, it is a penalty.” And here Brady was, bleeding his nightshade-free blood, and the refs were flagging him!

Despite all that, Brady pieced together one of the strangest comebacks imaginable. The Buccaneers were down 24 points with just 22 minutes to go. From that point on, Tampa Bay still had four drives that didn’t result in touchdowns—a field goal, a lost fumble, and two turnovers on downs. They should have had no business coming back. But the Rams somehow managed to have five drives that ended in under a minute, including two that ended with fumbles. More than any play Brady made, those quick, fruitless drives made Tampa Bay’s comeback possible—but Brady also had to deliver, which he did on this 55-yard bomb to Mike Evans. He’s pushing 50 and still throwing the ball 50 yards in the air.

But the Buccaneers lost. After a Leonard Fournette touchdown tied the game at 27, the Rams responded with a game-winning field goal. Tampa Bay scored 24 straight points after trailing by 24, but Los Angeles scored the final three to seal the win.

Brady didn’t play particularly well on Sunday. Of his 47 playoff games, Sunday ranked 36th in yards per attempt and 37th in passer rating. ESPN gave Brady a QBR of 14.0 on a scale of 1 to 100. And his team is headed home, meaning the Buccaneers won’t repeat as Super Bowl champions. But somehow, I left Sunday’s game more freaked out than ever by Brady’s aura.

There’s talk that Brady might retire after this season, because he is 44 years old and should be making weird grunting sounds when he gets up from a chair instead of leading furious comebacks in NFL playoff games. There will probably never be a satisfying ending for Brady—if he wins a Super Bowl like he did last year, he can justify continuing to play because he clearly still has something left in the tank; if he falls short, he’ll feel like he needs to come back to go out on top. Maybe Sunday’s game was the perfect finale: It reminded us that there’s something special—and infuriating—about Brady. Everything about Brady is miraculous, even his losses.

Loser: The Derrick Henry Return

I feared for the Cincinnati Bengals’ defenders on Saturday. They were facing Derrick Henry, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound running back with a history of plowing through entire defenses every January. Henry is scary enough under normal circumstances—but there was reason to believe Cincinnati would be facing an even more terrifying version of El Tractorcito. Henry suffered a foot injury in October, at which point he was leading the NFL in virtually every rushing category. He began rehabbing with the express purpose of returning for the playoffs. Plus, Henry was playing with a metal plate in his foot. Normally, if you told me someone had a metal plate in their foot, I’d hear that as a downside. With Henry, I thought, “Oh crap, they just made the NFL’s most powerful running back bionic.” If I were a Bengals linebacker, I would have written my will and told my family I loved them before facing a well-rested MechaHenry who had spent the past three months becoming even stronger and plotting on my downfall.

But Henry wasn’t his usual self. He had 20 carries for 62 yards, with none of his runs going for more than 9 yards. Henry was actually outgained by his backup, D’Onta Foreman, who had just four carries for 66 yards, including one that went for 45 yards. The Titans gave the ball to Henry twice in do-or-die situations to gain a single yard—a two-point conversion from the 1-yard line, and a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter. Both times, the Bengals got to Henry in the backfield and stopped him short.

Henry probably wasn’t 100 percent Saturday. In the postseason, players try to give it their all because these are the moments that mean the most, but they often don’t have enough at the end of the year. Last year, we saw Aaron Donald crying after he couldn’t get the most out of his body after trying to play through a rib injury against the Packers. Often, the postseason is when we find out that the game’s most impossible players aren’t bionic at all, but actually deeply human.

Winner: Kickers

This was one of the best playoff weekends in NFL history. The four games were decided by a combined 15 points; all four were won on the final play of the game. The biggest stars in the sport were playing in spectacular games that came down to the wire—and then those games ended when their tiny friends kicked the ball through the big yellow tuning fork. The divisional round was an incredible week for kickers.

The Bengals won on a 52-yard game-winner by rookie Evan McPherson. McPherson was the only kicker picked in the 2021 NFL draft, and for good reason—of the 15 kickers taken in the NFL draft between 2013 and 2020, 13 lasted two or fewer seasons with the team that drafted them. But McPherson instantly proved the Bengals right by demonstrating tremendous accuracy (13-for-13 on kicks from under 40 yards) and one of the league’s strongest legs. McPherson led the NFL with nine 50-yard kicks this year, which somehow already makes him the Bengals’ all-time franchise leader in 50-yard field goals. On Saturday, McPherson went 4-for-4 with two 50-yarders, including the game-winner:

On top of that, the rookie called his shot. Joe Burrow spent all night under pressure; McPherson doesn’t even seem to know what pressure is.

Niners-Packers came down to a 45-yarder by Robbie Gould, who had been 19-for-19 on playoff field goals in his career. Now he’s 20-for-20. Bears fans have spent the past five years lamenting the fact that the team cut Gould and slid into a kicker wasteland highlighted by the infamous Double Doink. But somehow that all feels worth it after watching Gould eliminate the hated Packers:

Sunday was a REVENGE GAME for Rams kicker Matt Gay, who was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2019 but cut ahead of the 2020 season. He reportedly suffered some sort of injury pregame and then during the game missed a 47-yard field goal short, which typically happens only in high school games or games played before the 1970s. But he looked fine drilling a 30-yarder for the win:

Chiefs-Bills wasn’t decided by a game-winning field goal—Patrick Mahomes threw a walk-off touchdown pass in overtime to Travis Kelce, BOOOORINNNNNNG!—but Harrison Butker did hit a 49-yarder to send the game into OT:

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t the Chiefs end up in OT only because Butker had missed an earlier field goal and extra point? Yeah, but we don’t get mad about QBs throwing interceptions in the second quarter and then nailing beautiful TD passes to win the game. We call it clutch. This was one of the best weekends in NFL history, thanks to four kickers with a flair for the dramatic.

Loser: The 1-Seeds

Under the NFL’s new 14-team playoff format, only one team in each conference gets a bye. As a result, getting the 1-seed became even more of an obsession for NFL teams, as it’s a massive advantage over the 12 teams that don’t have to play in the first round.

But the recipients of the bye were bounced as soon as possible in this year’s playoffs, and in hideous fashion. The Packers and Titans combined to score two touchdowns in their divisional-round matchups, losing to the Niners and Bengals, respectively. The Titans loss was predicted by many—a lot of people felt that Tennessee wasn’t actually the best team in the AFC. But the Packers had Aaron Rodgers, and were hosting a team that had squeaked into the playoffs through a miracle Week 18 comeback. Why did the 1-seeds look so out of sync?

I refuse to believe that getting a bye is actually a bad thing. It buys players rest! It means it’s literally impossible to lose in the first round! Look at the Buccaneers, who lost Tristan Wirfs in their first-round game! That may have ruined their Super Bowl bid! But the hunch that taking a week off can make teams rusty and leave them ill-equipped for their postseason run got vital ammunition this year. Clearly, everybody should tank Week 18 next year.