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The Winners and Losers From the NFL’s Conference Championship Games

Sunday had the best pair of title games possibly ever, but it still left us feeling a little cold thanks to the refs and the overtime rules. Plus, Fox spares us from a butt and Patrick Mahomes II finds a forever friend.

A collage of NFL players with a ref smiling front and center Getty Images/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: Thrilling Bummers

Is there something wrong with me, or something wrong with this sport we watch?

Sunday was perhaps the greatest championship Sunday in the history of the NFL. Both games went to overtime, the first time that there were multiple OT contests on the same postseason day. Both games featured stunning comebacks, as the Rams overcame a 13-point deficit to beat the Saints and the Chiefs scored 24 fourth-quarter points to force overtime with the Patriots. The two games bucked a disappointing trend: Home teams had won the last 10 conference title games (with more blowouts than tight games), but both road teams won Sunday, as the second-seeded Rams and Patriots will play in the Super Bowl on February 3.

And yet, as exciting as Sunday was, it remains oddly dissatisfying. Los Angeles’s win was marred by a baffling no-call on a clear pass-interference penalty by the Rams. It’s probably the worst officiating error in the history of the sport, and that’s not hyperbole.

New England’s win came in overtime, but it seemed anticlimactic because Kansas City never touched the ball in overtime. Thanks to the NFL rule that a touchdown on the opening possession of overtime ends the game, the Patriots scored a walk-off touchdown five minutes into overtime. After a brilliant fourth quarter, Patrick Mahomes II never got a shot in OT. Any rule that keeps Mahomes from playing more football is a bad rule.

I feel ungrateful. The NFL brought us two thrillers, and I’m bummed, criticizing officials and rules after the league brought me seven stunning hours of entertainment. Is there something wrong with me, or something wrong with this sport?

Loser: Referees

I have a great deal of respect for football referees. They generally do an exceptional job instantaneously parsing the most complex rule book known to man, and even when they do their jobs well, they are ridiculed. I consider it one of my duties as a football writer to fairly explain the many intricacies of officiating that are generally lost on a public that’s taught to blame referees whenever anything goes wrong. So when I say this, I mean it: I cannot remember a worse day for football officials than Sunday, both in the sheer incompetence they displayed and the magnitude of the mistakes they made. Sunday’s errors were so prominent and egregious that they may lead to permanent shifts in the way the sport is officiated.

There were a few bad calls in Patriots-Chiefs. There was a roughing-the-passer call that clearly wasn’t roughing the passer, an offside call that probably could have been called illegal formation on the offense, and an overturning of a muffed punt by Julian Edelman where the video didn’t appear to be conclusive enough to prompt a reversal. But these pale in comparison with the officiating decision that changed Saints-Rams:

On a third down in a tied game in the fourth quarter, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman tackled Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis instead of allowing him to make a catch. It was an unmistakable act of pass interference. Had the official correctly thrown the flag, the Saints would have gotten a first down, which would have allowed them to run down the clock and kick a game-winning field goal. Instead, they had to kick a field goal on the next play, leaving the Rams almost two minutes, which they used to kick a game-tying field goal and force overtime, when they won.

The official supposedly told Robey-Coleman that he hadn’t thrown a flag because he believed the ball had been tipped, which would negate pass interference. But, uh, the ball wasn’t even close to tipped. Check out the end of this clip:

This was a blown call. It wasn’t a 50-50 play, like the famous Fail Mary; it wasn’t a misinterpretation of a confusing rule, like the Tuck Rule game. There’s no extenuating circumstance that can explain why this call was missed. It was just a mistake, an obvious, inexplicable failure. The officials for playoff games are supposedly the best in the sport, and one missed a bafflingly simple call that likely changed who will participate in the Super Bowl. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call this the worst officiating mistake in the sport’s history.

Everybody instantly acknowledged that the call was wrong. Officiating blog Football Zebras said so. Former NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino said so. Saints head coach Sean Payton said that the league office acknowledged to him that the call was missed. The league reportedly will not publicly issue a mea culpa, because “Hey, one of the teams in the Super Bowl probably shouldn’t be in the Super Bowl” seems like a bad look. It would be unprecedented, but I’d argue that the NFL needs to publicly acknowledge this failure to earn back any semblance of trust.

The NFL should also consider changing how it deals with pass-interference penalties. In the Canadian Football League, pass-interference calls (and noncalls) are reversible by video review. The NFL has been hesitant to make “judgment calls” reviewable, for the sake of brevity and to maintain a certain level of power for on-field officials. But I can’t imagine any argument against having a mechanism in place to overturn egregious officiating errors. Sunday’s game should be a catalyst for change. The mistake was so big and so meaningful that it has to be fixed.

Maybe the NFL will apologize for Sunday’s mistake. Maybe the NFL will make changes to make this sort of error less likely in the future. But no mea culpa or positive rule change can rewrite the wrong that New Orleans suffered Sunday. The inexcusable mistake that official made will change the lives and legacies of the Saints players who won’t get a chance to play for the Super Bowl. It’s a disappointment that can’t be undone.

Winner: Nickell Robey-Coleman

Normally, when a player gets the better end of an egregious missed call, they shrug and smirk and say the referee made the right call. But not Robey-Coleman. He knows he committed a penalty:

Robey-Coleman actually argues that he was right to tackle the hell out of Lewis, because he would rather pick up a penalty than give up a TD:

But that logic is flawed. As previously noted, a penalty here would have allowed the Saints to run out the clock and win the game in regulation. The Rams would have been better off giving up a touchdown and then attempting to score a game-tying touchdown. It didn’t matter, because the official never threw the flag.

We live in the era of grifter kings. The pathway to success in 2019 is to break the rules first and then later see whether anybody will catch you. You’ll never find out how much you can get away with until you try. Robey-Coleman embodied this spirit. He was bold enough to knowingly break the rules and await consequences that never came. And the Rams are headed to the Super Bowl because of it.

Loser: Overtime

It seems like a bad sign that the NFL implemented its current playoff overtime rules seven years ago, and there is still widespread confusion about how OT works. Even if we know the rules, we have to remind ourselves which sorts of scores can end the game on which possessions.

Complicated things are not always bad, but this one is. Remember: Patrick Mahomes II put up 24 points in the fourth quarter to force overtime and then did not get to play in overtime because his team lost a coin toss. (And sucked at defense, but: coin toss.)

The league should adopt college football’s overtime rules. No, they’re not fair either—the team that wins the toss can choose to play offense second, which gives them a decided advantage because they’ll know whether they need to score a touchdown or just a field goal. But the college overtime system is more exciting and easier to understand—and perhaps most importantly, it would have given both Brady and Mahomes the ball in overtime.

I never come away from college football overtime convinced the system needs to change. But thanks to the NFL’s overtime format, I just watched a classic and walked away feeling empty.

Winner: The Patriots’ Coin-Flip Skills

The system might be broken, but we cannot fault New England for dominating it. The Patriots have now played in three overtime playoff games—the Tuck Rule game in 2002, Super Bowl LI, and Sunday night’s game against the Chiefs. Not only have they won all three, but their opponent has never touched the ball in any of them. In 2002, the Pats needed only to kick a field goal in overtime, but in the Super Bowl and on Sunday night, the Pats managed to score game-ending touchdowns on overtime’s first possession. This is rare! A few years ago, I ran the numbers and found that just 17 percent of overtime games had been ended by a first-possession touchdown.

The two games follow a common thread. The responsibility for picking the coin toss falls on special teams captain Matthew Slater, who always calls heads. His consistency is admirable: In both Super Bowl LI and Sunday night’s game, Slater had the chance to call the coin toss at the start of the game—and failed, calling heads and receiving tails.

Lesser teams would panic and change everything, abandoning their season-long strategies ahead of the biggest coin toss of the year. But not Slater: Both times, he has stuck with his gut and picked heads again in overtime. The result? Two wins. The Patriot Way is real.

Winner: Kickers

When it comes to kickers, we focus on failure. Their job is literally hit-or-miss, and while we can blame bad blocking or butterfingers for missed passes, the fault always falls on the kicker when the ball doesn’t go between the uprights. See: Cody Parkey.

But on conference championship Sunday, kickers were perfect. The Rams’ Greg Zuerlein drilled a 48-yard field goal to send Rams-Saints to overtime:

Then, Zuerlein drilled a 57-yard field goal in overtime to send Los Angeles to the Super Bowl:

The game eventually ended, but I would have been perfectly OK with it shifting to a “have Greg Zuerlein attempt increasingly long field goals” competition. I’m pretty sure he could have nailed a 70-yarder.

Harrison Butker nailed a 39-yarder in the Kansas City cold to send Chiefs-Pats to overtime:

Between the two games, kickers went 9-for-9 on field goals and 12-for-12 on extra points, with multiple high-leverage kicks. Kickers hit or miss, and I want to make sure we focus on the hits as well as the misses.

Loser: Noise

Fans at all sporting events can intimidate opponents, but football fans can actually alter the course of the game. When it’s too noisy, offenses can’t operate, as it becomes impossible for quarterbacks to communicate pre-snap audibles to teammates. And on Sunday, two of the most raucous fan bases in the sport brought the decibels.

In New Orleans, Saints fans went berserk over the potential for a Super Bowl run—and let me tell you, Saints fans are good at getting berserk. Every media member in the Superdome Sunday described the game as one of the noisiest they’ve ever been to. The sound waves shook the building. The building began to break.

The Rams could barely hear on offense.

Jared Goff had to take the unusual step of running over to his receivers to communicate with them:

And yet, the Rams emerged with an overtime victory. All that noise couldn’t stop Zuerlein from concentrating on game-tying and game-winning kicks.

The second game of the day was in Arrowhead Stadium—recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the loudest in sports. And it was loud Sunday, but not loud enough to distract Tom Brady. (He tends to be hard to distract.)

Home teams are wildly successful in the postseason. Before Sunday, the last 10 conference championship games had been won by home teams. Crowd noise is a legitimate factor in that success. Sunday, the Rams and Patriots played against not only great teams, but also massive walls of sound, more than 70,000 fans creating an impromptu heavy metal concert with nothing more than their voices. They battled the sound and they won.

Winner: Atlanta

Hosting the Super Bowl is rarely good for a host city’s fans; we’ve had 52 of them now, and somehow, no team has ever played the Super Bowl in its home stadium. But Atlanta was due to be dealt a double indignity: Not only did the Falcons fail to make the postseason, but with New Orleans streaking toward a potential championship, it looked like Atlanta might have to throw a party for its biggest rivals.

Of all the rivalries in the NFL, I think Saints-Falcons is the best. It’s not the loudest or meanest or most famous, but Southerners can reach levels of petty that Yankees can’t fathom. I don’t believe Saints fans would’ve contained themselves if given the opportunity to stunt on enemy turf for a week, and I have no idea how Atlanta would’ve handled a week of happy Saints fans.

I live in Los Angeles, and there are some Rams fans here. But I can guarantee you that no city was more widely uplifted by the results of the championship games Sunday than Atlanta was for seeing the team they love to hate fall short.

Loser: Butts

Over the course of a football season, television networks show us all sorts of obscenities that should not be broadcast to a national audience. We see legs bend in ways legs should not bend; we see people try to play through brain injuries that clearly affect their capacity to walk; we see players carted off on stretchers. The sport is brutish and violent and probably shouldn’t be shown to a public audience. But Sunday, something happened that was so gruesome that Fox’s censors immediately jumped in to prevent the viewing public from witnessing the horror.

It was a butt:

Not a full butt, even. Just a split-second glimpse of maybe a third of Michael Thomas’s butt from a faraway camera that never could have provided enough pixels for a detailed butt shot. Fox immediately showed us a blimp shot until the butt was off-screen.

Asses have been bared during football games before. Here’s Devin Hester’s. Life carries on, because we all know that butts exist. I’m pretty sure it’s legal to show butts on TV, right? But we all know that Joe Buck has a strong anti-butt stance, and presumably he’s convinced the rest of Fox to keep butts off the air at all costs. Tragic, really.

Winner: New Dog Owner Patrick Mahomes II

Mahomes is not to blame for his team’s loss Sunday. He threw for more yards per attempt than Tom Brady (Mahomes averaged 9.5, Brady averaged 7.6), more touchdowns (Mahomes had three, Brady had one), and fewer interceptions (Mahomes threw none, Brady threw two). With the season on the line, he led the Chiefs to 24 fourth-quarter points to force overtime. He was let down by a defense that couldn’t stop New England on third down and didn’t let Mahomes even touch the ball in overtime. It has to be a frustrating end to one of the greatest first seasons of any starter in league history.

But there is good news for Mahomes: He got a puppy Saturday.

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Today is the day I get to meet my family ❤️

A post shared by Steel & Silver (@steel_silver_mahomes) on

Logic says that trading a chance to win a Super Bowl for a puppy is a bad deal. Fewer than 35 men have been Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks in the history of the world, while millions of people own puppies right now. Mahomes’s Super Bowl window is probably between 10 and 15 years, whereas he will be able to own puppies for the rest of his life. It would be Mahomes’s first Super Bowl win, whereas he has already owned at least one dog.

That said ... look at this damn puppy:

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Today is the day I get to meet my family ❤️

A post shared by Steel & Silver (@steel_silver_mahomes) on

If Mahomes had won Sunday, he would have had to leave this puppy in the prime of its puppyhood. It might not be the result he wanted, but what a damn puppy.