Well, the NFL’s championship round certainly wasn’t short on drama.
There has never been a season where both Conference Championship games went to overtime in the Super Bowl era.@NFL— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 21, 2019
In the NFC, the Rams got a boost from what might be the worst no-call in NFL history, knocking the Saints off in overtime, 26-23. And in the AFC, the Patriots and Chiefs played out an instant classic with New England prevailing in overtime, 37-31, thanks to more late-game heroics from Tom Brady.
The championship round was packed with action, but a few moments stood out as more critical or illuminating than the rest. Here is a handful of the biggest game-changing plays from the Sunday slate, along with what they can tell us about the Rams and Patriots—and their impending showdown in Super Bowl LIII.
Jared Goff Hits Gerald Everett for 39 yards
For the purpose of this column, let’s just acknowledge at the top that the Saints got screwed—the instantly-infamous pass interference no-call truly was the pivotal play of the game—and focus instead on how the Rams put themselves in a position to capitalize. To beat a great team on the road, L.A. was always going to need to make a few big plays, and they did just that, punching their ticket to the Super Bowl with big-moment heroics in all three phases. Let’s start first with the offense.
Trailing 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter and facing a third-and-3 from their own 16-yard line, the Rams’ backs were getting awfully close to the wall. A failure to convert meant L.A. would likely give the ball back to Drew Brees and the Saints’ talent-packed offense, which would have the chance to bleed the clock and add to its lead. Instead, Goff scrambled away from pressure and delivered perhaps the biggest throw of his young career.
Goff, who’s still lumped into the “system quarterback” category by some as the facilitator of Sean McVay’s brilliant scheme, made a huge play out of structure, running to his right, keeping his eyes downfield, and waiting patiently for someone to break open. When he saw Everett separate from coverage, the third-year quarterback slung a dart across his body and hit his big tight end, extending the drive and picking up 39 yards.
That pass boosted the Rams’ win probability by 17.3 percentage points (from 28.4 to 45.25) and moved L.A. into New Orleans territory. Two plays later, Goff found Josh Reynolds on play-action for another 33 yards—another huge 17.5 percent win probability swing—setting up the game-tying field goal by Greg Zuerlein. The Rams’ offense, which dominated with its run game in the blowout win over the Cowboys last week, leaned on Goff and the air attack on Sunday instead—especially during that nine-play, 85-yard drive. McVay’s decision-making may have been a bit too conservative in this game—especially when the Rams kicked the field goal instead of going for it on fourth down from the 1-yard line at the end of that drive—but Goff came up big down the stretch, delivering downfield strikes into the heart of New Orleans’s playmaking secondary.
John Johnson III Intercepts Drew Brees in OT
After forcing the game to overtime, the Rams quickly found themselves in a familiar position: with their backs dangerously close to that proverbial wall. The Saints won the coin toss, giving Brees and his high-octane offense the opportunity to march downfield, score a touchdown, and win the game without having to give L.A. the chance to touch the ball. This time, though, it was the Rams defense that stepped up with a game-changing play.
On a second-and-16 from the Saints’ 34-yard line, Brees dropped back and tried to let one loose deep downfield, but the Rams’ defensive front got home in the nick of time. Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr. ran a criss-crossing stunt on the left side of the line, with Fowler working his way into the pocket before spinning away from right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. He hit Brees’s arm just before his release and the ball fluttered in the air, allowing Johnson to corral it as he fell onto his back.
That play, which delivered a massive 20.6 percent win probability swing (from 44.5 to 66.1 percent), set the Rams up just short of midfield and precipitated the game-winning Zuerlein kick. L.A.’s star-studded defense, which had failed to live up to its offseason hype for most of the year, came up big when the team needed it most—and it felt apt that one of the team’s recent big-name acquisitions was the one who made the pivotal play. With the Saints concentrating most of their focus on Aaron Donald, Fowler (who grabbed a half-sack, a tackle for a loss, and a pair of quarterback hits) stepped up and sliced through the Saints’ formidable line to help create the turnover.
Legatron Kicks the 58-Yard Game-Winner
Of course, the Rams wouldn’t have won this game without their top-flight special teams units. That group helped slow the Saints’ early-game onslaught, converting a fake punt with a Johnny Hekker pass to Sam Shields for a 12-yard gain.
That play, the first first down for the Rams in the game, extended the the team’s early second-quarter scoring drive and help get L.A. out of the 13-0 deficit. It was reminiscent—at least in its impact—of Jon Ryan’s fake field goal touchdown pass that got the Seahawks out of a 16-0 hole four years ago in the Seahawks’ NFC championship matchup with the Packers. But it was far from the biggest special teams play of the day. That honor goes to Zuerlein, who lined up and cooly kicked a 57-yard game-winner:
Zuerlein from FIFTY-SEVEN and the Rams are NFC champions! pic.twitter.com/NmJTz6Dn7H— Sports ON Tap (@SONTHighlights) January 20, 2019
With a Super Bowl berth on the line, Legatron absolutely annihilated the ball, booting a kick that probably would’ve been good from about 80 yards. That pushed the Rams’ win probability to a nice, round 100 percent.
Dee Ford Lines Up Offsides
The Chiefs-Patriots tilt will long be remembered for its wild finish, which featured four fourth-quarter lead changes and a decisive overtime drive by New England. But the Patriots’ bid for its 11th Super Bowl appearance probably shouldn’t have come down to the overtime frame.
Trailing 24-28 with 1:01 to go and facing a third-and-10 from the Chiefs’ 34-yard line, Brady dropped back to pass and looked to dump the ball off to Rob Gronkowski to his right. But the future Hall of Famer and undisputed GOAT put the ball a little too high; it bounced off Gronk’s hands and into the waiting mitts of cornerback Charvarius Ward, who reeled in the game-sealing pick to send the Chiefs to big game.
Except the play didn’t count. Dee Ford, a crucial cog in the Chiefs’ fearsome pass-rushing front line this year, had lined up offsides prior to the snap, an inexcusable mistake on what should’ve been the game-deciding play.
I believe there’s an ancient proverb that warns against giving Brady and Belichick a second chance. And as you’d expect, the Pats took advantage: Brady hit Gronkowski on an iso route up the sideline on the next play, extending the drive, and then running back Rex Burkhead punched it in for the go-ahead score a play later.
Tom Brady Converts a Big Third Down (Just Pick One)
The Chiefs offense answered with a clutch drive of their own, driving back down the field to set up a 39-yard Harrison Butker field goal that sent the game to overtime.
The game was over the moment the Patriots won the toss. No one’s going to say they made it easy on themselves, though.
After New England opened the drive with a 10-yard pass to Chris Hogan, its momentum quickly stalled. A Burkhead rush was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, and Brady missed Julian Edelman on second down, setting up a crucial 3rd-and-10 from the Patriots’ 35-yard line. Brady dropped back and calmly rocketed a pass over the middle, hitting Edelman for a 20-yard gain to extend the drive.
Two incomplete passes later, New England once again found itself in 3rd-and-10. Brady dropped back and cooly hit Edelman over the middle, this time picking up 15 yards to move to the Chiefs’ 30-yard line.
Like clockwork, another pair of incomplete passes on first and second down set up yet another 3rd-and-10. And for the third time on the drive, Brady moved the chains, hitting Gronkowski on a slant that picked up another 15 yards.
The Patriots ran it three straight times from there, culminating in a Burkhead touchdown that sent New England to its third straight Super Bowl.
Third downs were the difference in the game, and not just in overtime: New England finished an astonishing 13 of 19 on that crucial down, an overwhelming conversion rate that helped the Patriots extend drives and run 94 plays while eating up more than 43 minutes of clock—over twice the time of possession as that of Kansas City. The best way to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ high-flying offense, as it turns out, is to keep the ball out of their hands. The Patriots accomplished that for much of the first four quarters, and with three big third-down conversions on the game-winning drive, they did it in overtime, too.