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: MVP Mahomes
Steven Ruiz: The Bengals defense had everything covered. Two defensive backs bracketed Travis Kelce, the cornerbacks had the Chiefs receivers blanketed across the field, and Cincinnati’s pass rush had put a gigantic dent in the pocket. With the game and a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Cincinnati’s defense had done everything right … it just didn’t matter.
On third-and-4, with 17 seconds left in regulation of a tied AFC title game, Patrick Mahomes, playing on one good ankle, made the play his team desperately needed to make. Under immense pressure from the Bengals, the injured quarterback found an escape route to his right, beat Sam Hubbard to the corner, and picked up just enough yards for a first down before stepping out of bounds. Joseph Ossai’s late push drew a 15-yard penalty and set up the conference-winning field goal for Harrison Butker. And with that, Mahomes reached his third Super Bowl in four years.
It was a typical Mahomes scramble, but not one we necessarily expected to see this weekend after the 27-year-old QB had spent all week rehabbing a high ankle sprain suffered last week against Jacksonville. It’s the kind of injury that usually sidelines a player for at least three weeks, but Mahomes was out there eight days later, throwing the ball all over the field.
Patrick Mahomes completed every pass he threw from outside the tackle box, on the run (8+ mph) and when holding for longer than four seconds:— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 30, 2023
Outside Box: 6/6 (+31.4% CPOE)
On the Run: 6/6 (+21.0%)
Extended Dropbacks: 6/6 (+23.0%)#CINvsKC | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/KCzzDJLcAm
And he had to do it without three of his top receivers after JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman, and Kadarius Toney left the game early with various injuries. Kansas City’s WR5, Justin Watson, was ruled out of the game before kickoff. So Mahomes had to go at this Bengals defense that has given him so many problems in the past without most of his receiver corps. But he had Kelce and just enough mobility to make things work when Cincinnati sold out to stop the star tight end. If that meant making second-reaction throws to someone named Marcus Kemp or throwing heat-seeking missiles to Marquez Valdes-Scantling under duress, so be it. Mahomes was going to make the play.
And while it isn’t surprising to see one of the league’s greatest talents perform well on this stage, Mahomes hasn’t always played his best when good opponents have forced him to put on a one-man show. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has been better than most at doing that to Kansas City’s franchise QB, and on Sunday, Anarumo was able to create the same environment that had frustrated Mahomes into the worst half of football we’ve ever seen from him a year ago in the AFC title game. But this year’s version of the soon-to-be two-time MVP is a more mature passer; he didn’t fall into the same traps Anarumo has laid for him in past meetings. Mahomes was more patient while still playing with a sense of urgency. He didn’t desperately hunt for big plays but took chances downfield when called for. And he mostly avoided risky plays—save for an unforced fumble where Mahomes let the ball slip out of his hand on a run-pass option throw.
Mahomes’s stat line from the box score of this game is forgettable, by Mahomesian standards at least—326 passing yards, two touchdowns—but this will be a game that will add to his lore. A lot of quarterbacks would have collapsed under the immense weight put on his shoulders on Sunday. On a day when the Chiefs needed Mahomes to be the best quarterback on the planet to stand a chance, he answered the call.
Loser: Joseph Ossai
Riley McAtee: The Bengals didn’t lose the AFC championship game because of defensive end Joseph Ossai. There are plenty of other places to point the finger: The team’s relatively anemic passing offense, Joe Burrow’s two interceptions, a number of other untimely penalties (some of which were legit, like the intentional grounding on Burrow, while others were quite questionable), and an inability to truly take advantage of a hobbled Patrick Mahomes. But boy, Ossai is going to remember this play for a long time:
Ossai was flagged for a late hit on Mahomes, putting Kansas City well within Harrison Butker’s field goal range in the final minute of regulation. On the next play, Butker knocked through the go-ahead, 45-yard kick, and after a kickoff drained the final three seconds off the game clock, the Chiefs advanced to the Super Bowl.
In the celebration that followed, CBS couldn’t keep its cameras off of Ossai, who was sobbing, head in hands, on the bench for minutes after the game. This must be in the running for the worst moment of Ossai’s life, because not only did his penalty effectively end Cincinnati’s chances of returning to the Super Bowl, but he also appeared to suffer an injury on the play, immediately grabbing his knee as he collapsed on the sideline.
Ossai, whom the Bengals drafted in the third round in 2021, missed his entire rookie season because of a left knee injury. After this play, he was holding his right knee, so he at least didn’t reinjure the same knee, but that is little consolation for Ossai while we await information on how badly he injured himself on this play. In one boneheaded move, Ossai cost his team its remaining (slim) chance at a Lombardi Trophy and hurt himself in the process. It’s a lowlight for the ages.
Winner: Nick Sirianni
Ben Solak: Making it to the Super Bowl in your second season as a head coach is not easy—even if the guy before you did the exact same thing. But that’s what Nick Sirianni did: took over a 4-11-1 Eagles team transitioning off of a presumed franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz and experimenting with a young, developmental QB in Jalen Hurts.
And look at how well Sirianni has steered this ship. The Eagles have added tons of new players via free agency, the draft, and trades—A.J. Brown, James Bradberry, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, DeVonta Smith, Ndamukong Suh, Linval Joseph—and each has been integrated into the team more seamlessly than the last. The culture of growth, passion, and love championed by both Sirianni and Hurts rings through the entire Eagles locker room. Both of Sirianni’s top assistants, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, have interviewed for head-coaching jobs this year. Sirianni has this machine humming.
But perhaps most impressive about Sirianni is what he does during games: He constantly makes the right calls. The Eagles went for a fourth-and-3 on the 49ers’ 35-yard line on their first drive of the game on Sunday, converting on a deep catch-that-wasn’t-really-a-catch by Smith—but Smith called for a hurry-up play to beat the potential challenge, and the Eagles were ready to execute. After the 49ers tied the game up in the first half, the Eagles went for another fourth down—fourth-and-1 from their own 34!—and converted as part of a long touchdown drive.
The 49ers suffered backbreaking penalties that extended Eagles drives and kicked them out of field goal range; the Eagles didn’t. Kyle Shanahan didn’t use a single timeout all game—the Eagles used one to see whether they could sneak a two-point conversion attempt in at the end of the first half. Sirianni is exactly what you want in a modern coach: intelligent on fourth downs and strong situationally, with a great energy for the young stars of this league. There are many reasons the Eagles found themselves the top seed of the NFC and in the Super Bowl—he’s one of the big ones.
Danny Heifetz: I’m not typically a conspiracy guy. I roll my eyes when sports fans think there’s any kind of coordinated effort against their team. I usually attribute errors to incompetence, not malice. With that said, I am pretty positive there was a conspiracy with this SkyCam camera in the NFC championship game on Fox.
In the first half, an Eagles punt went just 34 yards and traveled precipitously out of bounds. Eagles players screamed that the ball had hit the SkyCam wire. On video, it does seem like the punt magically changed course in midair. But because there was no clear video of it hitting the wire, the referees claimed they couldn’t conclusively call for a redo of the play. It makes sense that Fox and the NFL don’t have any cameras pointing at their cameras. But what about, you know, the view from the camera attached to said wire? Wouldn’t the SkyCam angle show it becoming shaky during the punt? Oddly, Fox did not show the SkyCam angle of this play.
Perhaps everyone ran out of time. Perhaps there was nothing to see. Or perhaps Fox didn’t want to highlight that its wire messed up the game!
It wasn’t the first wire-related mystery of the season. Back in October, Patriots’ wire truthers swore that a ball thrown by Mac Jones hit SkyCam during a Monday Night Football game, though ESPN denied it. And during Jets-Bills in Week 9, the SkyCam fell down completely, delaying the game for 12 minutes so officials could ensure no one was endangered by the downed wire.
On Sunday, the SkyCam may have affected an actual play—when Brett Kern’s kick careened out of bounds, it set the 49ers up with good field position when the game was still close. That isn’t the end of the world—mistakes happen. And luckily for both the officiating crews and Fox, the game was a blowout, so the play didn’t matter.
But we’ve got three questionable SkyCam incidents this year, and we’re going the wrong direction on transparency. It’s a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. But the most absurd incident in the NFC title game came when the first-down chains broke and needed to be replaced for the second week in a row at Lincoln Financial Field. The chains have broken two weeks in a row at a stadium nicknamed “The Linc.” My inclination here is for conspiracy, but then I remembered the Eagles are a smart enough organization to make it to the Super Bowl, and the NFL makes $17 billion a year in revenue, but couldn’t get first-down chains replaced with a week’s notice for one of its three most important games of the season. So on second thought, maybe we should stick with incompetence over conspiracy.
Loser: The Empire State Building
Nora Princiotti: That’s right, the Empire State Building. It takes quite a bit for a 1930s Art Deco landmark to take one of the bigger Ls of championship weekend, but that’s what happened when the 102-story building lit itself up in midnight green and white after the Eagles’ NFC championship game victory.
The Philadelphia Eagles. The same Philadelphia Eagles that just last weekend knocked their division-rival Giants out of the playoffs. The New York Giants. New York being, you know, where the Empire State Building is. Not since the Trojan War has a construction project been so disloyal. What, did you lose a bet to the Liberty Bell? The Empire State Building probably eats pizza with a fork and knife. Have some self-respect.
To make matters worse, green and white are Jets colors, though admittedly that probably means the ESB has had them on ice for quite some time. The move went over badly with quite a few New Yorkers, including former Jets center Nick Mangold and the back page designers at the New York Daily News:
The Empire State Building tried to claim (and yes, I know the Empire State Building is a building but I’d rather personify a treasonous skyscraper than vilify whatever intern was at the control desk on Sunday evening) that it plans these things in advance, would have lit up in the colors of any victor and always has. It tried to cover its tracks by later glowing red and gold after Kansas City won the AFC championship game.
But that’s too little, too late. The Q Train has a planned schedule too, and it certainly doesn’t feel any overwhelming need to abide by it. What’s next, Lady Liberty holding a cheesesteak with whiz? Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon are spinning in their graves right now. The Chrysler building would never pull this kind of stunt.
This is what happens when you elect a mayor from New Jersey—iconic architecture starts simping after division rivals from Acela corridor cities with lesser bagel water. Pizza Rat was the last great New Yorker.
Winner: Chiefs Closer Chris Jones
Austin Gayle: Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones was simply unblockable on Sunday. It was like he took a baseball bat to every important Bengals play, and Cincinnati, down three starting offensive linemen, could do nothing to stop him. No amount of double-teams on the interior or extra attention from running backs and tight ends on the edge could keep him from getting into the backfield.
Jones, announced last week as a finalist for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, literally threw two Bengals offensive linemen en route to the quarterback on a play before the end of the half that forced Cincinnati to kick a field goal. Both of his sacks came on third downs, including one with less than a minute to play in the game that gave Mahomes the ball back with just enough time to help the Chiefs win the game in regulation. All of the superlatives we use for Mahomes weekly should be poured on Jones, as well. He was the best defensive tackle in the NFL this season and still managed to elevate his game in the AFC championship, as he made sure no one will ever call it Burrowhead Stadium again.
Lindsay Jones: It’s exhausting to complain about officiating. It’s also exhausting to watch NFL games for 20 straight weeks and constantly find new and maddening reasons to have to complain about officiating. So here we are, wrapping up what should be the best single day of professional football of the year with an airing of officiating grievances—all the things Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor was too polite (or too scared of fines) to say.
The Bengals entered the AFC championship game playing the “no one wants us here” card. They used it as motivation last week against the Bills because the NFL had begun selling tickets to a potential neutral-site AFC championship game before their divisional-round game kicked off.
But the Bengals (and their unhappy fans) will surely lean on that mantra after a handful of head-scratching calls that certainly seemed to go in favor of the top-seeded Chiefs.
There was the bizarre third-and-long play that was blown dead in the fourth quarter, following a clock malfunction after a second-down incompletion—but no one seemed to hear a whistle to stop play, so the referees waved a play off and gave the Chiefs a redo. (That redo resulted in a sack … but that play was wiped off by a holding call on Cincinnati corner Eli Apple.)
"Gene, sort this out." pic.twitter.com/WpIRNoM9ao— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) January 30, 2023
And then there was a ticky-tack pass interference call against Bengals corner Mike Hilton which enabled a Chiefs drive to stay alive, and then, an intentional grounding call against Joe Burrow on the Bengals’ final offensive possession. Burrow was swarmed and threw the ball away while under pressure, and the officials determined there wasn’t an eligible receiver nearby.
The final call against the Bengals was the most clear-cut: Patrick Mahomes was out of bounds when Cincinnati’s Joseph Ossai shoved him. But by then, Cincinnati was understandably aggrieved. It’s one thing for a team like the Bengals to create for themselves reasons to believe they’re an underdog; it’s a motivational tactic, one that happens all the time in sports. It’s another when the general NFL-watching public and NFL media starts wondering whether there’s something more nefarious going on. But when Pro Football Talk tweets this to its 1.8 million followers, the NFL had better pay attention:
RIGGED— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) January 30, 2023
These issues in the AFC title game came after a few blunders in the earlier NFC championship matchup between the Eagles and 49ers, notably when officials missed that Philadelphia WR DeVonta Smith didn’t actually catch the ball to convert a fourth down that set up a first-and-goal and led to the Eagles’ first touchdown.
I won’t be naive to expect a cleanly officiated game in the Super Bowl in two weeks. Officials are human and make mistakes; this game is too fast and too complex for perfection. I just hope we can get better than what we saw out of the officials on Sunday.
Loser: Kyle Shanahan’s QB Magic
Gayle: Kyle Shanahan finally ran out of rabbits to pull out of his hat. Already without first- and second-string quarterbacks Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo because of injuries suffered during the regular season, Shanahan watched his two other quarterbacks on the active roster fall to the same fate. Brock Purdy exited Sunday’s NFC title game with an injury to his throwing elbow after a Haason Reddick strip-sack that ended the 49ers’ opening possession. Purdy was replaced by Josh Johnson, who completed just 7 of 13 passes for 74 yards and lost a fumble before leaving the game with a concussion on the team’s first possession of the second half. Trailing 21-7 and without a third quarterback available, Purdy was forced back into the game but was clearly unable to throw the ball downfield. He threw just two passes for a combined -3 air yards upon returning, and the 49ers offense went into a one-dimensional shell. Even running back Christian McCaffrey tried to attempt a pass to jump-start the offense, to no avail.
The 49ers’ run to the NFC championship game might have been improbable, given their quarterback adversity this season, but it was still only possible because of Shanahan’s ability to orchestrate an efficient offense with even Mr. Irrelevant at quarterback. However, without Purdy, who easily outperformed his low draft status, or even a fourth-stringer like Johnson fully healthy, Shanahan ran out of options. The result was the lowest single-game EPA per pass average for the 49ers’ offense all season and another unfortunate exit for Shanahan’s 49ers deep in the postseason.
It’s unclear what more Shanahan and general manager John Lynch could have done, beyond conjuring a time machine to add another quarterback to the roster and have him active for the game, or rushing Garoppolo’s foot rehab so he could have dressed for this game as a third QB option. It will be interesting to see if the 49ers’ quarterback issues in this massive game make the NFL and NFL Players Association interested in revisiting the emergency-quarterback rule and allow teams to designate a third QB on game days who wouldn’t count toward the 48-player active roster. It wouldn’t have helped the Niners on Sunday: They had just Purdy and Johnson on their 53-man, and that’s it, and ultimately those injuries were too much to overcome, even for a schemer like Shanahan.