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The Winners and Losers of the NFL Conference Championship Games

The Comeback Chiefs are headed to the Super Bowl, as is Jimmy Game-manager. You may have your rooting preference, but Rob Lowe just wants a good game.

Getty 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: Patrick Mahomes and the Comeback Chiefs

There are no bad times when your quarterback is Patrick Mahomes. You can be buried under a pile of rubble created when a 240-pound running back busted through all the walls of your house like the Kool-Aid Man with abs, and it doesn’t matter. He shines in any weather.

Last week, Mahomes’s Chiefs fell into a 24-0 deficit against the Texans. It was weird—his receivers dropped passes; Kansas City’s kick returners muffed kicks; a punt got blocked. Mahomes saw the high bar and treated it as an opportunity to set a new high-jump record, leading the Chiefs on seven straight touchdown drives while throwing five TD passes.

In Sunday’s AFC championship game, Mahomes’s Chiefs dug themselves into another double-digit first-half deficit against the Titans, as Derrick Henry trucked through any and all attempted tackles. For the second straight week, Mahomes erased the deficit by halftime. After punting on their first drive, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on five of their next six drives to turn a 10-0 deficit into a 35-17 lead. Mahomes had 294 passing yards and three touchdowns, and his most impressive play of the game was this run:

Earlier this year, Mahomes suffered two leg injuries, a nagging ankle injury in Week 1 that bothered him for most of the first half of the season and a dislocated kneecap in October. In the same year when he injured his legs multiple times, he helped send his team to the Super Bowl with a play where he outran defenders at the line of scrimmage and tiptoed down the sideline before powering through tacklers into the end zone. (And he’s a better thrower than he is a runner.)

In Mahomes’s first year as a starter, he threw for 50 touchdowns, won league MVP, and got to overtime in the AFC championship game before losing against the greatest dynasty in football history. In his second year as a starter, he made the Super Bowl. In four career playoff games, he has 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. We’re watching an all-time great. I’m still wondering whether there’s a hurdle high enough that he can’t jump over.

Loser: All the Teams That Cut Raheem Mostert

I don’t know how fringe NFL players find the energy to keep going. Their contracts are not particularly large and generally wholly unguaranteed. They are often signed on Tuesday and cut the next Monday and signed to someone else’s practice squad Tuesday and then cut again the next Monday. We think all NFL players are millionaires, but then there’s this underclass of not-quite-elite athletes who have to keep flying around from tryout to tryout, learning new playbooks, staying in weird apartments, hoping someone decides their life’s work is worth a solid roster spot. Every time they are cut, I suspect they wonder whether they should keep maintaining the physique required to play in the NFL or start considering a more stable way to earn a living.

Raheem Mostert kept trying. After going undrafted in 2015, the former Purdue backup was signed by the Eagles, cut by the Eagles, signed to the Eagles’ practice squad, signed by the Dolphins, cut by the Dolphins, signed by the Ravens, cut by the Ravens, and signed by the Browns. The next year, he was re-signed by the Browns, cut by the Browns, signed by the Jets, cut by the Jets, signed by the Bears, cut by the Bears, signed by the Bears again, cut by the Bears again, signed by the Bears again, cut by the Bears again, and eventually signed by the 49ers. Teams viewed him primarily as a return man. In his first three years in the league, he had 26 returns for four teams and just seven carries.

Sunday, Mostert had one of the greatest rushing performances in NFL postseason history. He powered the Niners to a 37-20 win with 220 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Only one player, Eric Dickerson, has ever rushed for more yards in a playoff game; only one player, Ricky Watters, has ever had more touchdowns in a playoff game. The 37-20 scoreline actually understates Mostert’s dominance—three of his touchdowns came before the Packers scored a single point.

The Niners’ offensive line laid the groundwork for Mostert, opening up holes as big as the drive from Levi’s Stadium to San Francisco. By the time any defenders were able to get a hand on Mostert, he was sprinting at full speed like he was returning a kick. His momentum powered through arm tackles and into the end zone:

Even for the Niners, Mostert’s day was unexpected. San Francisco had gone with a running-back-by-committee approach this year, with Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida each getting 120 carries. Mostert had just one 100-yard game this season, and had 222 combined yards in the Niners’ past four games before his 220-yard game Sunday.

After the game, Mostert said that he preps for every game by reciting the dates and names of the teams that cut him. He’s like if Arya Stark ran a 4.34-second 40:

Maybe Mostert wouldn’t have ever had a 220-yard, four-touchdown game in the playoffs if he were with the Bears, Dolphins, Browns, or Jets. (You do have to make the playoffs to have 220 yards in the playoffs.) But Mostert had this capability within him, and all the teams that cut him have to wonder why they failed to realize it.

Winner: Rob Lowe

Fandom sucks. If everything were fair, each team would have a 1-in-32 chance to win a Super Bowl in any given year. That means waiting three decades to have your team’s season end with a win—and that’s just if life were fair. In reality, some teams win buckets of championships and some teams go much longer than three decades winning nothing. (Trust me: I’m a 29-year-old Jets fan. My dad saw them win once!)

Today was a beautiful day for some long-suffering fans. The Kansas City Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1970—50 whole years. The AFC championship trophy was named after longtime Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt in 1984. Sunday was the first time the Chiefs ever won it, 14 years after Hunt died. And of course, the Chiefs haven’t won the Super Bowl in 50 years. If they lose to the 49ers, this will just be yet another year that ended in a loss.

Fans will tell you the waits are worth it, that year after year of suffering can be repaid with that one glorious moment. (I wouldn’t know—again, I’m a Jets fan.) It seems to me the easiest way to enjoy sports is to not get tied up in the foibles of any individual team’s failures.

It’s a strategy that has apparently been successfully employed by longtime television actor Rob Lowe, spotted at Sunday’s game (which happened to be aired on Fox directly before the debut of Lowe’s new show, 9-1-1: Lone Star). When the camera panned to Lowe, he was wearing a hat with the NFL logo on it:

Lowe apparently celebrates the entire NFL—all 32 teams, Roger Goodell, even the officials, who wear hats exactly like Lowe’s when on the field making calls. He gets to appreciate the successes of superstars like Mahomes and the dominance of the Niners’ ground game with none of the excruciating stabs of seeing your team’s season go up in smoke. (Either that or he just doesn’t like any of the teams but was told he had to wear a topical hat and didn’t want to offend anybody?) It seems like a blessed life—much better than being a Jets fan.

Winner: Jimmy Garoppolo, Who Got an A on This Group Project

Jimmy Garoppolo is now a Super Bowl Participant Quarterback, just like all the greats before him—you know, legends like Rex Grossman, Jake Delhomme, and Matt Hasselbeck. He got there with a strong performance against the Packers, completing 75 percent of his passes while averaging 9.6 yards per attempt. If extrapolated over the course of an entire season, both would have led the league. Dominant!

But Garoppolo’s stats look spectacular only when I chop them up and take them way out of context. The league’s handsomest quarterback threw only eight passes, completing six of them for 77 yards and no touchdowns. Remember what we said about Mostert? Yeah, they didn’t really need to throw. The Niners had three touchdown drives where Garoppolo didn’t throw at all, including a seven-play, 79-yard one to start the second half. The Niners’ leading receiver, Deebo Samuel, caught two passes on the team’s second drive and then none for the rest of the game. It was the fewest passes thrown in a playoff victory since 1974.

Garoppolo’s career has been one of accomplishments that came easier than they do for most. Technically, he’s already a two-time Super Bowl champion for his work as a backup for the Patriots. The 49ers traded to make him their starting quarterback after he had been in the league for four years but started two games. After he started five more games, the 49ers gave him a $137.5 million contract, which was, at the time, the largest in NFL history. Now, in his first full season as an NFL starter, his defense and punishing run game have him in the Super Bowl.

Is Garoppolo one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL? Probably not. But he’s on the verge of winning a Super Bowl championship—just like all the greats before him, like Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer, and Joe Flacco. You can’t roast a guy who does little while his team wins—all you can do is snicker during the championship parade.

Loser: CBS’s Censor

Have you ever watched an NBA game and noticed that when players make big plays near the basket, the audio cuts out? That’s because a player said a swear word, and the network stepped in to ensure it wasn’t broadcast. I don’t know exactly how this process works, but I assume there’s someone sitting in the bowels of your local station, listening to the live audio feed of the game, waiting to hear curse words. Gotta avoid those FCC fines!

I would assume CBS had someone in this role for the AFC championship game. But apparently this person decided to nod off after the clock hit zeroes, because they missed a spot when Travis Kelce came over to celebrate with Patrick Mahomes.

I can’t imagine how this imaginary person failed in this role. The AFC championship game is one of the biggest games of the year! The postgame celebrations are when cursing is most likely to happen. When TRAVIS KELCE stepped near an active microphone, sirens should have gone off all around CBS’s offices, warning them of the incoming storm.

But alas, no precautions were taken. CBS’s censor was asleep at the wheel, forcing millions around the country to hear a bad word. What a fucking disgrace!

Winner: Shermans

There are two players named Sherman in the NFL. This is actually pretty good: Sherman is the 469th-most common name in the United States, meaning there are 24 Shermans out of every 100,000 people. By those numbers, there should be roughly 0.3 Shermans in the NFL. Instead, there are two.

One of those two is famous: Richard Sherman, the firebrand cornerback who was in many ways the face of the Seahawks’ successes this decade. He seemed to be declining when he went to the Niners last year, but returned to Pro Bowl form in 2019, picking off three passes as the heart of one of the best secondaries in the league. Sunday, he had the game-ending interception that will send him to his third Super Bowl and first with San Francisco:

The other is, uh, less famous: Anthony Sherman, a fullback for the Chiefs. The Chiefs use a fullback on only 9 percent of snaps, and Sherman had just six touches for 31 yards this year. Sunday, he got a target in the end zone, which could have resulted in just his fourth receiving touchdown in nine NFL seasons. He dropped it.

Regardless, both of the NFL’s Shermans are headed to the Super Bowl. The odds of this—of there being two Shermans in the NFL! Of them being on two separate teams, each in different conferences, each of which won their conference and made the Super Bowl!—are astounding! I’m looking forward to our family reunion in Miami!