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The Winners and Losers of the NFL Conference Championship Games

The Rams will host the Bengals in the Super Bowl, while critical mistakes by Jimmy Garoppolo and Andy Reid sent their teams home

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: The Sean McVay Coaching Tree

The NFL’s running joke over the past few years is that anybody who was friends with Sean McVay was getting a coaching job. McVay was the youngest head coach in modern NFL history when the Rams hired him in 2017 at just 30 years old; he immediately turned the Rams around from a 4-12 record in 2016 to 11-5 in 2017; in 2018 the Rams beat the Chiefs 54-51 in one of the highest-scoring games in NFL history and made the Super Bowl. Everybody wanted a piece of what McVay had going on. The Packers hired his former offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, in 2019. This past offseason, the Chargers hired his defensive coordinator, Brandon Staley. McVay’s coordinators were getting head-coaching gigs; his assistants were getting coordinator gigs; his barber and personal trainer and roommate from college were probably getting interviewed for top jobs around the league, as well.

The strangest hire from this era was made by the Cincinnati Bengals, who hired McVay’s quarterbacks coach, Zac Taylor. Taylor had less than a season of experience as a coordinator at the NFL level, as he was the interim OC of the 2015 Dolphins offense, which finished 27th in the league in points scored. The Dolphins didn’t retain him, and he signed on at the University of Cincinnati, who finished 123rd in points scored out of 128 FBS teams, and was fired. He got a job as an assistant wide receivers coach under McVay in 2017, got promoted to QB coach when Greg Olson got hired to become the Raiders’ offensive coordinator, and the next thing you know, he was coaching an NFL team.

It didn’t seem to be working. The Bengals went 6-25-1 in Taylor’s first two seasons, and earlier this year, Taylor was considered the most likely NFL coach to be fired. But with Joe Burrow at QB, the team has powered through the postseason and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. Sunday, the Bengals came back from an 18-point first-half deficit—the largest any team has ever overcome in a conference championship game—and took down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs:

They’ll face McVay’s Rams. McVay’s career has been closely intertwined with that of Niners coach Kyle Shanahan, who was the offensive coordinator for Washington when McVay was hired to be an offensive assistant in 2010. But recently, Shanahan had won all the matchups. The Niners were 6-0 against the Rams over the past three seasons, including a Week 18 win that pushed San Francisco into the playoffs. But on Sunday, McVay got Shanahan off his back with a 20-17 Los Angeles win.

The Rams and Bengals took different paths to the Super Bowl. The Bengals bottomed out with a 2-14 season two years ago and built a successful squad from the ground up, starting with college teammates Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. The Rams, on the other hand, have had a winning record every season since McVay was hired, and spent the season shedding draft picks to acquire mercenaries such as Matthew Stafford and Odell Beckham Jr., each of whom have played magnificently in their playoff run. But both successes have the same guiding principle: find the most talent you possibly can, and put it in the offense.

The trend of hiring McVay’s friends seemed like a good gag, especially when Taylor was struggling. But it doesn’t seem so funny now that these two closely linked coaches are facing off against each other in the Super Bowl.

​​Loser: Jimmy Garoppolo

The Niners decided to try to make the Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo, which is like playing on All-Madden difficulty. Every other team remaining in the postseason was guided by an explosive passing game; the Niners entered the NFC title game with zero passing touchdowns in their wins over the Cowboys and Packers. But Garoppolo’s defenders feel that there’s something intangible about the QB that helps San Francisco win games. After all, Kyle Shanahan is 31-14 with Garoppolo and 8-28 without him. To many, Garoppolo is simply a winner, even if they can’t say what he does that helps the team win.

Sunday, Garoppolo did not help his team win. He had the chance to push the Niners to a second Super Bowl appearance in three years, but after taking a 10-point lead in the third quarter, San Francisco’s offense sputtered. Garoppolo threw a series of grotesque near-interceptions that deflected around the Rams defense like a pinball. But in the end, Garoppolo finally threw a pass that the Rams held on to, a doomed backhand fling thrown while parallel to the ground in an attempt to avoid being sacked on third-and-long.

That tortured toss will probably be the final pass of Garoppolo’s career with the Niners. The team traded away three first-round draft picks to select QB Trey Lance with the third pick in last year’s draft. If Lance pans out, it will feel as if the Niners stubbornly threw away a chance at a Super Bowl to ride with Garoppolo. This team had a mean and talented defense and one of the most thrilling playmakers in the game in Deebo Samuel, but kept rolling with its limited veteran when it had a talented rookie waiting in the wings.

But on the other hand, Garoppolo’s performance highlights the folly of overly praising quarterbacks for winning and excoriating them for any loss. Sunday’s performance against the Rams was easily Garoppolo’s best of the postseason: He threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns after failing to hit 175 or throw a single touchdown in either of San Francisco’s first two playoff games. He averaged 7.7 yards per attempt after averaging 6.9 yards against the Cowboys and Packers. He made several legitimately good throws, including a beautiful 31-yarder to Brandon Aiyuk that could’ve been a 70-plus-yard touchdown if Aiyuk had kept his feet. But it was a loss, and if we’re grading on a strict win-vs.-loss scale, that makes it his worst game of the playoffs.

Garoppolo did a lot of winning with the Niners. But I’ll always wonder whether they could’ve avoided their losses in the 2020 Super Bowl and Sunday’s NFC title game if they’d just had a little bit more talent at QB.

Winner: The “Fancy Like” Curse

The Bengals are in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989. The people of Southwest Ohio are united in joy, chugging chili like it’s water. But maybe they need to skip Skyline and start eating good in the neighborhood. Here’s the story of how Applebee’s got the Bengals to the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs looked totally dominant in the first half of the AFC championship game. When Patrick Mahomes threw his third touchdown, the Bengals had three points. Everything seemed set for the Chiefs to go to their third straight Super Bowl. But at halftime, everything changed. The Bengals scored 21 straight points in the second half and won in overtime; that’s tied for the largest comeback ever in a conference championship.

So what happened at halftime? Was Zac Taylor’s halftime speech ridiculously inspirational? Did the Chiefs bust out the AFC championship champagne too early and take the field half-drunk? Did Mahomes slam a locker-room door on his hand? No—but the Chiefs did present a halftime performance by Walker Hayes.

If you’re not familiar with Hayes, you haven’t used TikTok or watched TV in the past calendar year. I first heard Hayes sing in an Applebee’s commercial, and assumed that the song he was singing was purposely written for the commercial because it is about Applebee’s. This seemed like a reasonable assessment of the situation. The 877-CASH-NOW song was written for an 877-CASH-NOW commercial, and was not a major hit that peaked at no. 3 on the Top 40. But no—Hayes wrote a song about Applebee’s of his own accord in an attempt to make good music, and the song later became a TikTok trend and then was co-opted by the actual restaurant.

Hayes’s halftime performance was apparently news to CBS, which did not account for his massive speakers while doing their on-field halftime show. Instead of hearing analysis of the game, we heard Hayes singing about the Bourbon Street steak and the Oreo shake. Phil Simms screamed as hard as he could in an attempt to make his opinions louder than Hayes’s lyrics, but it was in vain.

I believe the football fates decided that the Chiefs had to pay for their crime of forcing America to once again hear this song about apps that has dominated our apps. Joe Burrow is obviously a Cincinnati legend—but Hayes’s performance seems equally important to their victory. The Bengals are fancy like the Super Bowl.

Loser: Coin Tosses

Much of the past week was spent in a furious debate about the NFL’s overtime rules, thanks to the Chiefs beating the Bills in overtime while Josh Allen sat on the sideline. After all, since the NFL instituted its current overtime format in 2010, teams that win the coin toss are 10-1 in playoff OT sessions. The Bengals seemed doomed to the same fate on Sunday: They fought back to force OT against the Chiefs—but Kansas City has the best coin toss defense in the NFL. For the second straight week, their opponent’s guess was wrong. Maybe opponents can’t concentrate on making the right call as the deafening Arrowhead Stadium crowd screams at 100-plus decibels.

But unlike last week, Mahomes didn’t storm down the field and score a game-ending touchdown. In fact, Kansas City didn’t gain a yard in overtime. Mahomes threw three straight incompletions, including this interception to Vonn Bell.

From there, the Bengals easily drove into field goal range—after all, their kicker is Evan McPherson, whose range seems to extend from end zone to end zone. The Bengals rookie has now hit walk-off game-winners in back-to-back games, and is 12-for-12 in the playoffs. He’s just three kicks away from setting the all-time record for field goals made in a postseason:

Now, teams that win the coin toss in postseason overtimes are 10-2. It sucks that luck plays such a big role in determining which teams advance—but the Bengals said screw luck. They needed to stop the NFL’s reigning throw god to keep their season alive, so they did, then they took the ball and scored. The Chiefs may have the best coin toss defense in the NFL—but the Bengals have Joe Burrow. And on Sunday, great defense and clutch offense outweighed the comically large advantage gifted to the Chiefs by sheer luck.

Winner: Home-Field Advantage

You could argue that the Los Angeles Rams exist in large part because of this upcoming Super Bowl. The Rams moved from St. Louis back to Los Angeles in 2016 for a variety of reasons, almost all related to the amount of money that owner Stan Kroenke can make in L.A. Part of that money-making scheme involved building SoFi Stadium, the most expensive sports arena in world history, and hosting profitable events like the Super Bowl—events that Kroenke had no chance of hosting in St. Louis.

Unfortunately, building a fan base is not as easy as building a stadium. Kroenke clearly considered “having fans” to be a secondary concern when moving the team from a place where they were beloved. When the Rams hosted the 49ers in Week 18, McVay said he was “caught off-guard” by the raucous cheers of San Francisco fans who filled the stadium, and Stafford said it made it hard to run the team’s offense. That worried the Rams when they drew the Niners again in the NFC title game, and the franchise tried to restrict ticket sales to local fans. Of course, that couldn’t stop fans from purchasing tickets at resale, or prevent Niners fans living in L.A. from buying tickets to the game. And on Sunday, the crowd once again favored San Francisco. Listen to how loud the crowd got after this George Kittle TD in the third quarter:

None of the 108 participants to play in the first 54 Super Bowls played at home in the Super Bowl. (So many Super Bowls were played in New Orleans and Miami, and, well, you’ve heard about the Saints and Dolphins, right?) But now, it’s happened twice in two years. The Buccaneers played and won last year’s Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, and now the Rams get to play in SoFi.

The Rams won’t be able to attempt a similar stunt to prevent Bengals fans from getting in. The Super Bowl is officially a neutral-site game, and the Rams will technically be the road team, meaning the Bengals will get to use the Rams’ locker room. Honestly, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bengals fans outnumber Rams fans. After all, Cincinnati fans have been waiting decades to see their team play in the Super Bowl; Los Angeles fans did not have a team seven years ago.

Playing at SoFi will still be a major advantage for the Rams, who won’t have to leave their homes or alter their usual training patterns. After all, the Buccaneers coasted in last year’s home Super Bowl, even though the game had more cardboard cutouts in the stands than actual fans due to COVID restrictions. This is the game the Los Angeles Rams were reborn to play in—it doesn’t matter how many people are actually in the stands cheering for them.

Loser: Andy Reid’s Clock Management

Andy Reid is one of the smartest and most influential offensive coaches in the history of the game. He’s also earned a reputation for screwing up clock situations throughout his career. Sunday brought another such instance that helped cost Kansas City the game, although it slipped under the radar.

On their very first drive of Sunday’s game, the Chiefs gave a third-down carry to fullback Michael Burton, who pretty much always picks up first downs on fourth-and-short. Burton pretty clearly picked up the first down, but the officials initially ruled him short. Reid made a mistake here. He called a timeout to think about the upcoming fourth-and-1, then decided to throw his challenge flag. NFL coaches do this sometimes, hoping to mull over the decision to challenge, but it’s a bad idea. The worst-case scenario if you lose a challenge is that you lose a timeout; calling a timeout to think about whether to throw a challenge flag automatically costs a timeout, and runs the risk of a team losing two of their three timeouts. (It’s not particularly important to hold on to challenges—in the 17 years that the coach’s challenge system has been in place, only eight coaches have managed to get two challenges correct and attempt to call a third; nobody has ever gone 3-for-3.)

This ended up hurting the Chiefs at the end of the first half. Kansas City used both of its remaining timeouts on a drive that went down to the 1-yard line. But with five seconds left in the half, Mahomes threw a mystifying swing pass, which ended the half:

It’s impossible to say that any one thing cost Kansas City the game. To blow an 18-point lead, a lot of things have to go wrong. But the Chiefs should have scored seven points on this drive at the end of the first half, or at least three. They didn’t, because of bad execution and because of Reid’s earlier bad timeout decision.

Last week, the Chiefs beat the Bills because of a time-saving miracle that will go down in NFL history. But Sunday, Reid once again seemed baffled by the concept of time, as if the game clock and play clock were melting like a Salvador Dalí painting. It’s strange that such a great coach is confounded by something so simple, and it cost his team again.

Winner: Tanking

The Bengals would not have been able to win in overtime of the AFC championship game if they had not lost an overtime game two years ago. In Week 16 of the 2019 season, the 1-13 Bengals played the 3-11 Dolphins—in this column, I called the game the Pooper Bowl. In that game, the Bengals fought back from a three-score second-half deficit. But after scoring 23 points to force OT, they didn’t finish the job, losing 38-35 to earn the no. 1 pick in the draft.

The 2019 Bengals finished 2-14, one loss worse than Washington, who finished the season at 3-13. Cincinnati used the no. 1 pick to draft Joe Burrow, fresh off the greatest passing season in college football history.

The Bengals were not trying to lose in 2019—like I said, they pulled off a 23-point comeback, in a game in which Andy Dalton threw four touchdowns. But they’re an argument for why teams probably should. The Dolphins, who won that game, started the 2019 season 0-7 but wound up 5-11; Sunday, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Dolphins tried to trade up to get Burrow back in 2019, but couldn’t dissuade the Bengals from their deserved prize. Now, they have Tua Tagovailoa, still haven’t been to the playoffs, and just fired their head coach.

Burrow has been everything the Bengals could possibly ask for: a spectacular passer and franchise icon, unafraid of any situation. He has been a one-man injection of swagger and pride into one of the NFL’s most forgettable franchises. Sunday, he showed up in diamonds (real ones, he confirmed after the game). He has helped the Bengals match the fastest turnaround in NFL history from the worst record in the league to the Super Bowl. And he wouldn’t be here if not for those beautiful losses two years ago.