Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.
1 and 2. Both the Chiefs and Saints suffered heartbreaking losses on Sunday, but while the Chiefs’ was heartbreaking, the Saints’ could prove to be devastating. The latest episode in Kansas City’s anthology of playoff horrors may not have included an infamous blown call like the one in New Orleans, but damn, is it hard not to ache for every Chiefs fan at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. There’s a case to be made that no NFL fan base has endured more postseason disappointment than the K.C. faithful, and this loss to New England comes with its share of what-if moments. There was Julian Edelman’s nearly muffed punt, which inspired Zapruder film–levels of analysis. There was Chris Jones’s phantom roughing-the-passer penalty that gave the Pats a first down on a fourth-quarter drive that ended in a touchdown. And worst of all: There was the offside call on Dee Ford that negated a game-sealing interception with less than a minute left in the game. Chiefs fans will agonize over those moments—and the coin flip that gave the Patriots the ball to start overtime—but for now, there’s solace in knowing that this season might be the start of a spectacular run.
The easiest way to sustain success in the NFL is by having one of the top quarterbacks in the league on your roster, and Patrick Mahomes II is at that level. The MVP favorite didn’t play his best on Sunday. He overthrew running back Damien Williams on a pair of deep throws (one in the first quarter and another in the third) that could have been touchdowns, and his decision to bail backward out of the pocket on third-and-9 late in the second quarter resulted in a sack that took the Chiefs out of field goal range. But even on a (relatively) off day, Mahomes still made a handful of throws that elicited What in the world? chuckles in the press box. Sunday was the first time I’d seen Mahomes play in person, and watching his 54-yard, third-quarter pass to Sammy Watkins unfold live was beautiful. After escaping to his right, Mahomes unleashed a throw that covered more than half the field through the air, and he did it without ever setting his feet. Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ approach on defense may have stifled the QB at times, but his second-half performance was proof that he can’t be kept down for long.
General manager Brett Veach and Kansas City’s brass will have plenty of work to do this offseason. Star pass rusher Dee Ford is a free agent who’s likely to cash in after recording 13 sacks and a league-leading seven forced fumbles this season. Starting center Mitch Morse is also set to hit free agency. The Chiefs will have a reasonable amount of cap space to play with this spring, but it’s not as though they’ll be filling only a spot or two in the starting lineup. Along with retaining or replacing Ford and Morse, Kansas City had the league’s worst defense in 2018 and should be looking for reinforcements both in the secondary and on the interior of the defensive line.
Mahomes’s rookie deal will be a blessing for at least another season, but ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Chiefs could be looking at a $200 million extension as early as 2020. As QB contracts continue to get more expensive, locking in Mahomes as soon as possible might be in the team’s best interest.
Mahomes is only 23 years old, and a decade of him at the helm should lead to plenty more playoff opportunities for Kansas City. In New Orleans, though, the future is less certain. Drew Brees turned 40 last week. He was excellent in 2018, but there’s no telling when the cliff will come. Losing in such brutal fashion—two seasons in a row—is already hard enough; when that loss comes in what might be the final great season of a Hall of Fame quarterback’s legendary career, it becomes a loss that you never get over.
The Saints had a top-five offense in the league in terms of Football Outsiders’ DVOA this season, and most signs point to that being replicated in 2019. Every key contributor is set to return, and some of them are still on cheap rookie deals. Next season, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Ryan Ramczyk will count for a combined $5.1 million against the cap. That’s less than the Saints will owe every other member of their starting offensive line.
But even taking those factors into account, the Saints’ regular-season success will be tough to match. This was just the second time during Brees’s tenure that New Orleans had earned home-field advantage. The other time they did it, in 2009, the Saints won the Super Bowl. With Brees and his entire supporting supporting cast returning, the team’s immediate outlook is promising. Hell, with some marginal upgrades (a pass-catching weapon to pair with Thomas and more cornerback help), they could be even better than this year. But unlike the Chiefs, New Orleans can’t bet on stellar QB play for the next decade. The Saints’ time has to be now, and that’s another reason the sting from Sunday’s loss will linger for quite a while.
3. After a missed pass-interference call on Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman swung the NFC championship game, the league has no choice but to make pass interference reviewable. Sure, the Saints had several other chances to win the game, and if New Orleans had run the ball rather than throwing it with the clock running down in the fourth quarter, the Rams probably wouldn’t have had enough time to march down the field for the game-tying score. But that doesn’t change the fact that if Robey-Coleman’s obvious PI had been called, the Saints would be headed to the Super Bowl. Legacies were altered in that moment. If Drew Brees wins another Super Bowl, his standing in the all-time QB hierarchy changes forever. Instead, the Saints will be watching from the couch as Jared Goff and Sean McVay try to knock off the Patriots.
Arguing for pass-interference reviews opens up a can of worms. If PI is reviewable, then some will undoubtedly make the case that other penalties that result in an automatic first down—like roughing the passer or defensive holding—should be given the same treatment. The difference between PI and those penalties, though, is that every other call in football has a limit on how much it can affect a game. No matter how crucial a roughing-the-passer call might be, it still only grants the offense a maximum of 15 yards. The Robey-Coleman play may not have resulted in a 50-yard swing, but that type of moment could be just around the corner. Pass interference stands alone among penalties in the NFL, and it deserves its own treatment. The CFL made interference calls reviewable years ago because it understood the impact a missed call could have. On Sunday, the NFL found out the hard way. And there’s no way the league can ever let it happen again.
4. The NFL was also criticized for its overtime rules on Sunday, but those don’t necessarily need to change. I can understand how watching Mahomes sit helplessly on the sideline as the Patriots scored a game-winning touchdown would make people think there’s something wrong with the league’s OT structure. I really can. But it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for an NFL defense to get a single stop to win a game.
Under the league’s old sudden-death OT policy, which was changed in 2012, the coin toss was more or less a game-ending event—all a team needed was a pair of intermediate completions, and a field goal was already in play. Switching from the old system to the current one was necessary. It meant that instead of needing 40 yards for a potential game-winner, offenses had to go 75. That’s drastic, and it made ending the game on the first drive more difficult—which is what the league was trying to do.
Arguments have been thrown around that the NFL should switch to a system that resembles college OT, which I agree would make games more exciting. Watching Mahomes and Tom Brady go back and forth on possessions from, say, the 50-yard line would be thrilling TV. But as The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman pointed out two years ago, that system doesn’t improve competitive balance. In fact the college OT system is actually more lopsided based on the coin-toss results than the NFL’s. There’s no easy solution here, so even if it’s not perfect, NFL overtime is fine the way it is.
5. This weekend’s bizarre, controversial story lines weren’t limited to the referees and rules. After finishing the season with 1,831 yards from scrimmage and 21 total touchdowns, Rams running back Todd Gurley touched the ball only five times against the Saints. Gurley’s usage has waned since the Rams signed C.J. Anderson in December, but watching the most expensive running back in NFL history stand on the sideline with his team’s season on the line was just plain odd. There’s been some speculation that Gurley, who missed two games near the end of the season with a knee injury, isn’t fully healthy. But after the game, both Gurley and Sean McVay maintained that the All-Pro back’s health had no impact on his usage.
Gurley’s reasoning for the benching was simple: His play was “sorry” on Sunday. His two drops in the first half torpedoed a pair of Rams drives, and one drop turned into a Demario Davis interception. McVay’s explanation wasn’t quite as blunt. He claimed that game flow dictated Gurley’s usage, and as The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen pointed out on Sunday, downhill runs—which are Anderson’s specialty—were a big part of the Rams’ game plan. But even taking Anderson’s effectiveness over the past month into account, it’s tough to believe that a running back who was given $45 million guaranteed this spring deserves five touches in a conference championship game, no matter what the game plan looks like. Both Sunday’s performance and the Rams’ overall approach were likely outliers, and Gurley will probably come roaring back sooner rather than later. But it was still a strange outcome for one of the league’s highest-profile stars on one of the NFL’s biggest stages.
6. The Rams’ dropback passing game struggled early on against the Saints, but Jared Goff made a handful of throws that paved the way for the team’s NFC championship win. With 53 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Goff had completed 10 of his 18 passes for just 61 yards. The Rams’ air attack had been grounded, and it looked like McVay’s team was going to be completely forced out of their typical rushing and play-action game. Then Goff launched a pair of rockets to Brandin Cooks, including a perfectly thrown deep ball down the left sideline that set up a 6-yard Todd Gurley touchdown run. Because of those throws, the Rams went into halftime down just 13-10.
Goff is far from a finished product, but as Brees pointed out to reporters last week, he’s one of the most talented pure throwers in the NFL. When he connects on a pass like that one to Cooks, few quarterbacks make it look better. But what stood out most about Goff’s performance against New Orleans weren’t the picturesque plays. It was the completions he made under duress. Facing a third-and-3 from the Rams’ 16-yard line with 9:41 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Rams down 20-17, Goff was flushed from the pocket. He kept his eyes downfield, though, and eventually found tight end Gerald Everett in a void between two Saints defenders. Goff improvised even more in overtime, avoiding pressure and finding tight end Tyler Higbee in the left flat for a 12-yard gain that jump-started the Rams’ game-winning drive. With McVay at the controls, L.A.’s offense is always going to feature expertly designed plays that provide Goff with plenty of matchup advantages. But on Sunday, he made several throws outside of that structure that wound up being critical for the Rams.
7. While we’re on those expertly designed play-action throws, let’s take a look at Goff’s 33-yard completion to Josh Reynolds midway through the fourth quarter. Every aspect of this play was quintessential Sean McVay. The Rams used more jet motion than any other team in the NFL during the regular season, and it makes this play possible. By sending Robert Woods from right to left, the Rams toy with the defense’s assignments and force slot corner P.J. Williams to follow Woods. Combined with the play-action fake to C.J. Anderson, linebacker Demario Davis has A LOT to look at on this play. Davis’s hesitation allows Reynolds to get a clean release and tons of separation from the slot, which leads to an easy deep completion.
8. Even in a loss, Andy Reid showed why he’s one of the NFL’s best offensive minds. Coming into Sunday’s games, running back Damien Williams had run just two downfield routes all season, according to Next Gen Stats. That all changed against the Patriots, as Williams was used on several vertical plays. Sadly, those passes weren’t completed—Mahomes missed Williams running open in the end zone once in each half. But even though the plays didn’t go for chunk gains, the ingenuity behind the calls was vintage Reid.
There were several Reid designs that did work, though, including this long completion to Sammy Watkins late in the fourth quarter. Anticipating man coverage, Reid dialed up a pick play between Chris Conley and Watkins on the left side with the aim of getting Watkins open on a fade from the slot. Conley avoided a penalty by allowing the slot cornerback to initiate contact, and Watkins sprang open for a 38-yard gain down the left sideline. It may be hard to see now, but the Reid-Watkins pairing will make the Chiefs relevant for years to come.
9. Ndamukong Suh has been a dominant force for the Rams this postseason, and his success is a reminder of how one-year contracts can affect a team’s playoff push. After helping control the Cowboys’ rushing attack in the divisional round, Suh showed up in a big way again this weekend. He recorded 1.5 sacks and made several stops in the run game. Suh hasn’t piled up big numbers this season in L.A. (4.5 sacks, four tackles for loss), but he’s been huge for the Rams in their two playoff games. The combination of Suh at his best and Aaron Donald (at any level) gives the Rams a pair of excellent interior rushers, and that’s precisely what teams need to bother Tom Brady.
10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: New England’s defensive game plan centered on creating interior pressure, and they got it with a flurry of blitzes and line stunts. Like I pointed out in my earlier piece on the Patriots, New England and Kyle Van Noy created plenty of pressure on Sunday by singling out the weakest part of the Chiefs offense. Van Noy’s sack late in the first quarter was designed to attack reserve right guard Andrew Wylie. After originally lining up in the opposite A gap, Van Noy ran an X blitz with fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower. When Wylie failed to turn his attention to Van Noy, it became an easy sack. Wylie performed admirably filling in for starter Laurent Duvernay-Tardif for 10 games this season, but the Patriots’ game plan was designed to take advantage of K.C.’s inexperience up front.
Big time sack from Kyle Van Noy to end the first drive for KC pic.twitter.com/ICch6Fy8DP— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) January 21, 2019
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: When Gronk gets in the time machine, watch out.