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NFL Playoffs Takeaways: That Was It. That Was the Best Game You’ll Ever See.

Plus, dopey Stafford takes forever dead, the end for Brady? Legend of Deebo grows, an all-time special teams meltdown, Mike Vrabel can’t catch a break, and much more!

Welcome to the Conference Semifinals edition of the Sunday FreakOut, where we react and overreact to everything that happened in this weekend's games. For the full roundup podcast-style, be sure to subscribe to The MMQB Podcast, in your feed every Monday morning...

Things That Made Me Giddy

The Drives: Do not argue the point: That Chiefs-Bills game was the greatest NFL game every played. Twenty-five points in the final two minutes to force overtime. But before that, it was as tense a postseason game as you’ll find, starring two of the most uniquely talented players the sport has ever seen, as two defenses hung in with good game plans until the unbelievable crescendo.

Patrick Mahomes With 13 Seconds: There aren’t two quarterbacks in the NFL who could’ve done what these quarterbacks did in this game. But of all the unlikely scenarios, Mahomes taking his team into field goal range in 13 seconds—regardless of the Bills’ game-management and schematic mistakes—was exceptional.

Josh Allen’s Great Escape: This was the game’s most incredible play:

It’s Patrick Mahomes and Three Newbies Left: Though it feels Bills-Chiefs was to this NFL season what “Ozymandias” was to the final season of Breaking Bad. It’s all just a little anti-climactic from here on in.

This Was Always Matthew Stafford: We went through a decade of dopey Matthew Stafford takes: He’s a choker, despite the fact that he has the fifth-most fourth-quarter comebacks of all time; he can’t win a big game, despite the Lions’ unmatched, organization-wide incompetence during his time in Detroit quite obviously being the reason he had so few opportunities to even play in big games. Many missed out on Stafford because the Lions were always playing in a 1:00 regional game. Now you’re seeing what he can do, surrounded by competence.

This Is the Play Aaron Rodgers Didn’t Make This Weekend: Game on the line, against the blitz, making the throw that has to be made.

Cooper Kupp Is Invincible: The play before the one above, the 20-yard pickup on second-and-long, was as good a route as you’ll get from a receiver, putting Sean Murphy-Bunting on his backside and getting to the sideline to stop the clock.

Why You Throw Deep on Third-and-20: Or, “Why You Get Matthew Stafford to Be Your Quarterback.” This is in part the result of good protection, and it is a coverage bust. But that coverage bust is in reaction to Stafford moving defensive backs with his eyes, and in general the incredible stress Stafford puts on a defense.

Deebo Samuel’s Winning Run: All season, this guy has been like something out of those old SNL Bill Brasky sketches. This run, in which he had to create the final five yards to convert the first down and set up the game-winning field goal, is absolutely the stuff of legend:

Robbie Gould, Through the Snow: The game-winner in Lambeau made it 20-for-20 on field goals and 32-for-32 on PATs for his postseason career. He's a regular Evan McPherson Jr. But older.

Richard Hightower Presses the Right Buttons: Along with overseeing a unit that was directly responsible for saving three points and scoring seven more, the 49ers' special teams coordinator had Deebo Samuel back to return the second-half kickoff. It set the the struggling offense up with a short field after Samuel returned it to the 50, resulting in San Francisco's first points of the game. (And yes, DeMeco Ryans and Kyle Shanahan are very good as well.)

D.J. Reader, Man: On an afternoon when the Bengals were incredibly shorthanded on the defensive line, Reader was consistently the best player on the field on Saturday. His first season after signing a big free-agent deal in Cincinnati was a wash because of injury, but he was often a difference-maker in 2021, and no more so than in Saturday’s win.

Ja’Marr Chase After the Catch: Along with the catch that set up the game-winning field goal, and a superhuman catch-and-run to set up a first-half field goal, Chase had another catch on a second-and-11 that should have been stopped for a yard but instead he turned into an eight-yard gain to put the Bengals in field-goal range (Burrow was sacked out of field-goal range on the next play). Two plays before that, he had made a catch in the flat with two defenders in pursuit, and somehow wrecked their angles and turned it into a 21-yard gain. The key to the Bengals’ win was, on a night when they were outschemed, their superstar playmaker conjuring a handful of plays.

What Gabriel Davis Did to Mike Hughes:

Mike Vrabel’s Defense Was In Full Control: Yes, the Titans defensive line is much better than the Bengals offensive line, but not eight sacks better. That was a product of Vrabel’s game plan against empty, sending a blitzer and then keeping a defender in a shallow zone to clog any passing lane. Some of it was his guys winning, some of it was Joe Burrow not throwing hot when he should have, but most of it was Vrabel and his staff, who maximized what he got from a defense full of holes all season, just having the better game plan.

Also, the Titans’ Pass Rushers Finished: We’ve seen teams get free runners at Joe Burrow this year, and many times we’ve see Burrow escape and then get the ball downfield. Finishing is a skill we often overlook, and the Titans’ pass rushers finished consistently on Saturday.

Hey, It’s Matt Haack!: And he’s punting again! And even tackling! His first punt since the regular season pinned the Chiefs at their 1-yard line. In the fourth quarter, he blasted a field-flipping kick that got called back due to a penalty. On the subsequent kick, Tyreek Hill got loose and it was Haack with what turned out to be a four-point tackle (saving the touchdown, with the Chiefs settling for a field goal soon after).

Nice One, Mitch:

Aaron Donald Vs. Josh Wells: Among other matchups. It didn’t matter of Raheem Morris was bringing four or, in order to ensure single-blocking for everyone, five. The Bucs offensive line, minus Tristan Wirfs, had no answers for L.A.’s pass rush, and with the secondary guarding against the quick-game, no answer for the defense as a whole besides "let's hope for another Cam Akers fumble."

Tyreek Hill Obliterating Angles: He and Ja’Marr Chase were game-changers in their respective games.

Mike Hilton: The art of the slot blitz should be taught in public schools, and Hilton should teach every one of those classes.

Evan McPhersonatieri: Adam McVinapherson? I’ll work on it. The rookie is now 8-for-8 in the postseason, including a 54-yarder and a game-winning 52-yarder on the road on Saturday.

Trent Williams In Motion: Hitting Rashan Gary so hard that I, as a Gary, also felt it.


The Bills’ Last Kickoff Had to Be Short of the End Zone: Starting the clock there, very likely turning it from 13 seconds to 8 or 9, is the difference between two snaps and three snaps for the Chiefs. If Tyreek Hill was back there you could say you need to keep the ball out of his hands, but it was Byron Pringle; he wasn't a threat for a big return.

It’s, Again, to You, Competition Committee: The NFL’s overtime rules remain broken; I think we all look forward to the competition committee getting together this offseason over tiny boxes of hotel Froot Loops and deciding not to do anything.

Rams and Every Mistake Imaginable: How much of a mismatch was this? The Rams lost three downfield fumbles, lost another fumble on a snap miscommunication, and had their injured kicker come up short on a 47-yard attempt. And they still won. If you replayed this game 1,000 times across the multiverse, the Rams would win 1,053 times.

Cam Akers’s Ball Security: Fumbling inside the 5 in the final minute of a half is borderline unforgivable. The fumble that extended the game, protecting a seven-point lead against a team with no timeouts with the two-minute warning up next, was literally unforgivable. Can you trust him in a significant role next week unforgivable.

Jalen Ramsey Can’t Get Beat Deep: I know, it’s part of the deal with him, he’s just going to do his thing regardless of game situation. But the only way the Bucs were getting back into the game on Sunday was a long touchdown, and Ramsey was both incredibly foolish and incredibly sloppy in every aspect of the Mike Evans touchdown.

A Special Teams Meltdown the Likes of Which We’ve Never Seen: There are only so many plays a special teams unit participates in every week, and many of them are predictable and mundane. But the Packers’ special teams became must-see TV for all the worse reasons this year. On Saturday night, along with awful kick coverage, they managed to leave three points on the board by having a field goal blocked at the end of the first half. They only had 10 on the field for the game-winning field goal. But most unforgiveable was the blocked punt TD they allowed in the fourth quarter, protecting a seven-point lead at a time when the snow was falling and the field was 700 yards long for the San Francisco offense. We all know the Packers’ special teams have been a problem all season, but this… this was just too on-the-nose.

Jaire Alexander Has to Make That Tackle: He had a chance to get Deebo Samuel on the ground on the third-and-7 that set up the 49ers’ game-winning kick. The attempt wasn’t anywhere near good enough; Alexander looked like a guy who hadn’t made a tackle in three months.

The Finale to Bruce Arians’s Season of Buffoonery: If you watch the play, it doesn’t look like there’s any kind of coverage bust. Antoine Winfield doesn’t move like he’s expecting help over the top. He stopped his feet in anticipation of Cooper Kupp breaking outside, which is what Kupp had just done on the previous play and what he would usually will do, especially with Stafford having to throw hot. Instead, Kupp went up the seam, Winfield had lost a step, and Stafford dropped in a perfect throw that most mere human quarterbacks wouldn’t consider attempting. Todd Bowles’s call is worthy of criticism—not the time for that blitz against that quarterback. But Arians throwing his defensive coordinator under the bus implying his defense couldn’t even communicate the call is crap.

Sean McDermott Can’t Punt on Fourth-and-1: Anywhere outside his own 20-yard line against the Chiefs.

That Just Wasn’t Derrick Henry: A 250-pound human playing a professional football game less than three months after being diagnosed with a Jones fracture in his fot is fairly absurd. Henry, though, just didn’t look like himself on Saturday. It wasn’t the fourth-and-short stop (Henry needs a runway, if a defense takes it away from him you will stop him in the backfield), but there was no breakaway speed all game. On the first play of the Titans’ final possession of the season, he got to the perimeter with a head of steam and only cornerback Chidobe Awuzie there to stop him, a scenario that usually results in the defensive back being stiff-armed into the Earth’s core and Henry taking off for a chunk of yards. Instead, a gassed Henry whiffed on a half-hearted stiff arm and went to the ground for a three-yard gain. Henry’s longest carry of the game was nine yards.

The Chiefs Secondary Without Tyrann Mathieu: A disaster down the stretch for Kansas City. You had the sense that if the Bills had 100 more possessions against that defense they’d score 100 more touchdowns.

An Unnecessary Taunting Call: Or, “Ndamukong Suh Does Not Like Being Kicked.” Now, considering the history of things done by Ndamukong Suh, he probably has to settle down about a quarterback pushing him off with his foot while the two tumble to the ground. But I’m not sure how yelling at and gesturing toward Matthew Stafford for what Suh felt was a dirty play really qualities as unsportsmanlike. Nonetheless, Shawn Hochuli threw the flag, it gave the Rams a free first down instead of second-and-10, and they were in the end zone soon after.

Shawn Hochuli Is Ready for Tom Brady’s Retirement: It was a bit of a “ref show” first half for Hochuli in Tampa, including the first unsportsmanlike conduct flag ever thrown on Tom Brady, for Brady complaining about a lack of a roughing the passer flag after a Von Miller helmet nudge resulted in a split lip. It probably should have been a flag, but after the past decade I’m not sure anyone is (a) pining for more roughing the passer flags for Brady, or (b) bummed out by seeing Brady flagged for the act of demanding a flag for minor contact.

49ers Offense Observes Opposite Day for the Game’s First 20 Minutes: Jimmy Garoppolo firing on-target passes, receivers dropping them, hamburgers eating people, etc.

Buffalo Can’t Get Mahomes on the Ground: It was the same but different as last year, when they blitzed him more frequently but couldn’t tackle him. On Sunday, Mahomes loitered behind the line of scrimmage as the Bills went with the four-man mush rush, and Mahomes repeatedly took off for chunks of yards.

Zac Taylor Was Lucky to Get Out of There Alive: No one can rightfully ding a coach who’s going to the AFC title game with what many of us assumed was a 11-loss team, but it took Taylor too long to find an answer for his quarterback and get out of those empty sets, which the Titans foiled again and again and again.

Why Did Vrabel Go for Two?: I get that you have a chance to put the ball on the 1, but in a 6–6 game, just take the point and the ensuing field position (right?).

Jimmy Garoppolo Out-of-Structure: He doesn’t have to do it often, mostly because Kyle Shanahan’s offense is so well-designed. The red-zone interception at the end of the first half was as bad a throw as you’ll see from an NFL quarterback. (If we’re being honest, no one should get to be this handsome and catch this many breaks.)

The Bengals’ Non-Joe Mixon Backs: I’ve wondered all year why Samaje Perine continues to get so much playing time behind Mixon, but it’s clear Perine is trusted. Unfortunately, he remains incredibly limited in the passing game. And while that usually doesn’t result in a devastating Fournette-esque drop-turned-interception in a postseason game like it did on Saturday, that play was a reminder that you just don’t want to be relying on Perine in the passing game. Rookie Chris Evans is the more dynamic and capable pass-catcher, but on a lot of his snaps he looked like he didn’t know where he was supposed to go in his route. With a maximum of two games left in the season, the Bengals are in a spot where they really can’t afford to take Mixon off the field.

Moments We’ll Tell Our Grandkids About

This Play Should Be Doomed:

Jordan Willis for the Block: And for the fans in Lambeau, the terrifying feeling of watching every player on the field frantically trying to figure out where the ball was going to come down.

Patrick Mahomes as Baltimore Orioles Legend Todd Frohwirth:

The Time Eli Apple Made the Play of a Postseason Game: The third Ryan Tannehill pick was less a force and more a quarterback giving a receiver in single coverage with leverage a chance to make a play. This was a 60/40 ball for the receiver, but Apple got his hand in and caused the interception.

What We’ll Be Talking About This Week

Does Tom Brady Want More of This?: After Saturday’s loss, Aaron Rodgers mentioned how the Packers will look much different next season; that’s true, due to their dire cap situation. Do you know who else will look much different? The Bucs. Among their pending free agents are Chris Godwin (who tore his ACL after being cajoled into playing the 2021 season on the franchise-tag discount), Rob Gronkowski, Ryan Jensen, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston and Carlton Davis. Maybe they can retain one or two of them. Antonio Brown is not coming back. There’s a chance Todd Bowles is hired elsewhere, leaving the cupboard bare on the Bucs’ sideline. If Brady is honestly assessing this, is he coming back to a team whose ceiling is probably a one-and-done playoff team?

Mike Vrabel Can’t Catch a Break: Jeffery Simmons and Kevin Byard are phenomenal. Harold Landry and Kristian Fulton are pretty good. Most of the rest of Tennessee’s defense is roster filler, too many for this unit to have been as good as it became in the second half of the season. They outschemed the Bengals on Saturday night, and they’re going home anyway.

Aaron Rodgers’s Future, Again: [sigh]. Davante Adams, too. There's not a ton to say about Rodgers's performance on Saturday night—he didn't play well, but in the conditions, and with the offensive line unable to block the 49ers' front four, it wasn't totally on him. There's not another team that gives him a better chance to win a Super Bowl next season, so it doesn't make sense for him to play somewhere else. Though maybe he retires. All I know is that we'll be talking about it every minute of every day for the next seven months.

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