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The Future of the NFL Is Here, and It Looks Exactly Like Rams-Chiefs

Monday’s 54-51 thriller will go down as a classic. It was also a declaration of intent for where the league is heading.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

We all had it better than Rams defensive end Michael Brockers. We got to witness a game unlike any in NFL history, cackling in glee and bewilderment at each of the 105 points, 1,001 yards of total offense, and four fourth-quarter lead changes. Brockers couldn’t kick back and enjoy the game, because, well, he was on the field. “I just really wanna go home and watch it,” Brockers said in the locker room afterward. “To be in it was stressful. But to watch a great game like that … that’s a game that football is made for.”

The players all knew it was special. They knew ahead of time it would be, as it became clear that the Chiefs and Rams were two of the teams redefining what NFL offenses are capable of week after week. They knew it during the game, as the score skyrocketed higher and higher. “I probably lost two or three years of my life with all those heart attacks,” Rams offensive guard Rodger Saffold said. “We got up by 13 points, and I don’t think anybody thought we were out of the woods.” And they knew it as the final seconds ticked off the clock in a 54-51 Los Angeles win that will go down as an all-time classic. “If that game didn’t feel different, my name ain’t Ethan Westbrooks,” said a Rams defensive tackle who is, in fact, named Ethan Westbrooks.

Some would argue that Brockers and Westbrooks got their asses kicked on Monday. They are part of a defense, after all, that gave up 51 points and 546 yards, the third- and fifth-highest totals in any game this year. They allowed Patrick Mahomes II to throw six touchdown passes, one shy of the single-game record. They allowed 7.9 yards per play, a figure that, over the course of an entire season, would easily be the worst of any defense in league history. They allowed Tyreek Hill to finish with 215 receiving yards, the most of any player this season and one of the top 100 receiving games ever. To football purists, Los Angeles’s defensive performance was a disgrace.

The Rams also won the damn game, thanks in large part to the work of Brockers, Westbrooks, and the rest of the defensive line. That unit had a hand in creating three interceptions, forcing two fumbles, and scoring two defensive touchdowns. They set a blueprint for what a useful defense might look like in a future defined by offense.

Football is changing. Getting better, really—just saying “change” implies that the differences in the game are neutral, whereas Monday night’s spectacle was clearly a more enjoyable viewing experience than almost anything that has come in the past. The NFL has recently been accused of providing a lukewarm product with stagnating ratings. That’s not a problem anymore. Monday night will go down as the game that encapsulates these changes, the birth of a better football.

Monday night felt like a college bowl game. Part of that was the location, a literal college stadium. While most of the evidence that the Rams play in USC’s home venue was covered up before this matchup, there were still parts of the building drenched in red and yellow, a fortunate coincidence for the Chiefs fans in attendance who happened to match. Part of it was that the teams didn’t know where they’d be playing until six days ago. Both teams were also under consideration by the Mexico City Bowl committee before the Mexico City Bowl was abruptly canceled, as the field at Estadio Azteca wasn’t deemed to be in proper football condition. And part of it was that, as with the biggest bowl games, there were no other contests happening simultaneously: All eyes were on Rams-Chiefs. (Including Brockers’s, even if he was unfortunate enough to be on the field instead of his couch.)

Like the vast majority of bowl games, this clash featured teams with evenly matched records and really meant nothing in the grand scheme of the season. Both the Rams and Chiefs entered Week 11 as near-locks to win their divisions; even after the loss, Kansas City remains on track to secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. (FiveThirtyEight gives L.A. a 92 percent chance of nabbing a bye after the game; K.C. sits at 83 percent.)

But what made Monday night feel most like a bowl game was the outrageous point total. Gaudy scores and yardage numbers have long been commonplace in the college ranks, for myriad reasons. College teams are more willing to run extreme offensive strategies; college timing rules necessitate more stoppages in play, and therefore lead to more offense; and most importantly, college defenders sometimes stink. Since 2000, there have been 81 FBS games in which a team has scored 50 points and lost. Monday night marked the first time that’s ever happened in an NFL game.

The exact score of Monday night’s game is already part of college football lore. 54-51 was the final score of Northwestern’s 2000 victory over Michigan, a game Smart Football’s Chris B. Brown called “The Most Important Game in the History of the Spread Offense.” “The spread was not born on Nov. 4, 2000,” Brown wrote. “But that was the day it no longer belonged to the fringe.” If a talent-weak Northwestern team could truck a powerhouse like Michigan—not just once or twice or four times in a game, but for a whole afternoon, scoring six touchdowns and piling up more than 300 passing yards and 300 rushing yards—it was clear that this was the world in which everybody had to live.

Monday night showed the world in which the NFL now has to live. The Rams and Chiefs offenses are not gimmicks or fads, as much as the old guard of football might like them to be. They are the foundations of the most dominant teams in the sport. The options for opponents are to keep pace or to lose. (The Saints, for one, are keeping pace—they lead the league in points per game at 37.8, with the Chiefs and Rams coming in second and third after hanging 50-plus points apiece.)

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Rams
Aaron Donald
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

But for all of the theatrics, Monday night wasn’t solely about offense. The best player on the field was Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who appeared as unstoppable as any quarterback or wide receiver. The L.A. secondary had little hope of staying with Chiefs playmakers like Hill or tight end Travis Kelce, yet Donald was capable of bursting through Kansas City’s offensive line and getting to Mahomes before he was able to throw the ball to those targets. Donald forced two fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown by defensive end Samson Ebukam. Ebukam also notched a pick-six while rushing the passer and hit Mahomes on a throw in the final two minutes, turning his howitzer arm into a BB gun and leading to an easy pick. The Chiefs pass rushers played well, too: They sacked Jared Goff five times, and defensive end Allen Bailey stripped him for a score.

Once the ball is in the air, Mahomes and Goff have won. They are too good at throwing, their receivers are too good at getting open, and they are too good at choosing which of their open receivers to throw to. Their successes are not only devastating, but repeatable. They were repeatable on Monday night, as just two of the 14 touchdowns were scored on passes of longer than 25 yards. They’ve been repeatable all season, as both teams have trounced everyone else in the NFL.

Yet the Chiefs and Rams defensive lines proved that they could make an impact in the few seconds before a pass is thrown. With offenses operating at unprecedented levels of efficiency, defenses have a better chance of registering a single great play than stopping the opposition from going 10 yards in three plays. Monday night provided a look at the type of offensive clinic that could become the NFL norm; it also offered a glimpse at the future of defense: breakneck pass rushing that prioritizes forcing turnovers over three-and-outs.

Football is changing. Rams 54, Chiefs 51 is evidence of that. So was last season’s Super Bowl, which featured 1,151 yards of total offense. There’s no way either game could’ve been played in any year before 2018. Now, nearly every pivotal NFL matchup features offenses unlike anything we’d previously seen in the league’s history.

Monday night was more than just a celebration of change. It was a mission statement for how the league could look in the days, months, and years to come. Brockers may have had to play in Monday night’s game instead of watching it, but what he and his teammates did will ensure he’ll get to watch plenty of similar games in the future.