Well, well, well. Here we are with Tom Brady one win from his 10th Super Bowl appearance, and we’re left to ask: How in the world did he get there?
The guy’s 43, for crying out loud, and supposed to be at or near the end of a Hall-of-Fame career. Critics tried to retire him two months ago. His head coach poked him with a stick before that. And his new team seemed rudder-less until running the table the last month of the season.
Yet, now he and the Tampa Bay Bucs go to Green Bay for next Sunday’s NFC championship game, where they’re expected to bow to Aaron Rodgers, the Packers and the Green Bay winter. Of course, they were supposed to bow out Sunday, too, with Drew Brees and the Saints in their way.
But they didn’t. So now we’re left to ask: Why not Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs?
He just beat the odds vs. a quarterback who was 5-2 against him. He overcame an opponent that outscored Tampa Bay 72-26 this season. He hasn’t thrown an interception in eight straight road games. He has 16 TD passes and one interception since an early December bye. And he and the Bucs destroyed Green Bay, 38-10, earlier this season.
OK, so that was three months ago. And, given what happened with Tampa Bay vs. the Saints this season, it doesn’t count for much.
This, however, does: This is Brady’s 14th conference championship game and ninth in his last 10 seasons, which means he knows the terrain. But unlike some of those appearances in New England, he doesn’t have to carry this team. In Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay has found a run game to combat the Packers. Its defense, which leaked vs. Washington a week earlier, plugged those holes and made big plays Sunday – forcing four turnovers, including three Brees interceptions. Plus, Tampa’s been better this season on the road (8-2, including the playoffs) than at home.
Early odds have the Packers favored by 5, and that’s fair. They won their last seven games and nine of their past 10. Moreover, they haven’t surrendered more than 18 points in any of their past four starts and haven’t won by fewer than seven in any of their last seven.
"Nobody can stop us," Packers' wide receiver Davante Adams said after Green Bay's defeat of the Rams.
Maybe. But this is Tom Terrific, which means the pressure’s on Rodgers and Green Bay.
It’s one thing to beat Tampa Bay. Heck, the Bucs haven’t been to a conference championship game since 2002, the last year they were in a Super Bowl. But it’s quite another to overcome Brady, who’s been to four of the past six Super Bowls and five of the past nine, and a team that's the first since the 2007 New York Giants to beat an opponent in the playoffs after losing to it twice in the regular season.
"It's hard to get to this point," said Brady, 9-4 in league championship games, including 3-3 on the road. "But we've got to go out there, and we've got to play our very best to beat one of the best teams in the league."
They just did.
SUNDAY SCHOOL: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
1. Andy Reid has become legendary. First of all, the Chiefs are the first AFC team to host three consecutive conference championship games and the second ever to do it in the NFL. So who’s the other? That would be the 2002-04 Philadelphia Eagles, coached by … yep, Andy Reid. Second, he’s 24-1 in his last 25 games with Patrick Mahomes as his starter, including the playoffs. But then there’s that fourth-and-inches call Sunday. It surprised CBS analyst Tony Romo, and it surprised the Browns. It’s one thing to go for it with Mahomes as your quarterback. But he was out with a concussion. No problem. Reid trusted Chad Henne to make the game-clinching throw … and he did. With that one call Reid told his players what they already knew: That he trusts them, no matter who the quarterback is, to make the play that counts. Bill Belichick is considered the platinum bar for today’s NFL coaches, but Reid has come so far, so fast, he’s in the same stratosphere.
2. Home is where the wins are in divisional round play. Home teams were 3-1 this weekend, and that’s not unusual. Over the past four years home teams are 14-2 in divisional-round play, with Baltimore’s loss to Tennessee in the 2019 playoffs and the Saints’ defeat Sunday the only blemishes. That record contrasts dramatically with the wildcard round, where home teams are 6-12 the past four years, including 2-4 last weekend.
3. The curtain just dropped on the Drew Brees Era. Reports Sunday have Brees retiring after Sunday, and that’s not exactly news. I mean, he just turned 42 and missed nine games the past two years with significant injuries. Sadly, however, it ends with a whimper, with Brees throwing three interceptions and playing as if he's still hurt ... which he almost surely is. He deserved better. A Hall-of-Fame career ends with Brees going to one Super Bowl – and winning – but ending with three consecutive home playoff losses. Brees made the Saints what they are – a perennial Super Bowl threat – and he’ll be missed by the Saints, their fans and the NFL.
4. The Ravens’ Marquise Brown is right. He’s the receiver who, after Baltimore’s loss Saturday, said the Ravens “must find a way to balance our game” … and bingo. Baltimore led the league this season in rushing but was dead last in passing. So where did that get them? A second straight divisional-round exit. The solution: Star quarterback Lamar Jackson must develop more as a passer. For the moment, he’s more dangerous as a runner than he is a passer, which means he’s not equipped to dig the Ravens out of holes with his arm. The proof: He’s 1-7 when trailing by 10 or more points. Saturday’s loss was the first where he failed to produce a touchdown running or passing in 39 straight games, and consider that a red flag. The league has adapted to Jackson, with Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier basically daring him to beat the Bills with his arm. He couldn’t. So now it’s Jackson and the Ravens that must adapt. “There are steps he needs to take,” wide receiver Willie Snead said of his quarterback, “and he knows that … I think this game is going to be a wake-up call for him this offseason. We’ll see what he does next year.”
5. Jared Goff just got put on double-secret probation. All things considered, the Rams’ quarterback played well vs. Green Bay. He wasn’t the reason the Rams lost. A defense that sprung leaks was. But when head coach Sean McVay says the Goff is his quarterback “right now,” that’s a warning. Translation: Goff better improve or else. Look, Goff has always been an X factor with the Rams. You’re not sure which quarterback will show up week to week. But McVay has always been supportive. Until now. Apparently, he hasn’t seen the improvement he envisioned when the Rams backed up the Brink’s for this guy, giving him a $134-million contract that includes $110 million in guarantees. Stay tuned.
THIRD AND LONG
1. Like everyone else, I don’t know if Patrick Mahomes plays in next week’s AFC championship game vs. Buffalo. What I do know is that the Chiefs and Mahomes don’t, either. Nor will anyone else … until an independent medical decision is made, with the emphasis on independent. Expect that to happen sometime later this week, and discount anything you hear until then.
2. Good news for Buffalo and Tampa Bay. All but one of the No. 2 seeds the past two seasons reached the Super Bowl. San Francisco (2019) was the only one that bucked the trend. The 49ers were the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Now the bad news for the Bucs: No Super Bowl city had its team play the game in its stadium. The closest call was Super Bowl XIX when it was in the San Francisco Bay Area and the 49ers were involved. But it was in Stanford Stadium, not Candlestick. This year's Super Bowl is in Raymond James Stadium, home of the Bucs.
3. Yes, Kansas City beat Buffalo earlier this year (26-17), and, yes, the Chiefs ran for 245 yards that afternoon. But Buffalo is 11-1 since, with its one loss the Hail Murray in Arizona.
4. Mahomes should never, ever, EVER be called on to run the ball. He’s one of the game’s most prolific and dangerous passers. So why have him run a read-option? You don’t. The risks are too great, and we just saw why.
5. I see the ads for “9-1-1 Lone Star” and wonder if that’s a special report on Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans.
6. Someone put out an APB on the Saints’ Michael Thomas. I don’t remember hearing his name Sunday.
7. Smartest move by Andy Reid? Playing Chad Henne in Week 17. It didn’t matter who won (the Chargers did). It mattered that he had game experience.
8. Biggest difference between the Saints-Bucs previous game (a 38-3 New Orleans win) and Sunday … other than the final score? The running game. Tampa Bay had one. In that November blowout, it tried three rushes the entire contest (and, no, I don’t include the two kneeldowns). On Sunday, it had 35 rushing attempts, or one more than Brady dropbacks (33 throws, one sack). Brady is most effective in play-action, and that’s hard to sell when you call three runs. At least Tampa Bay learned its lesson.
9. Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski may be Coach of the Year, but he has to answer for not getting Kareem Hunt involved in the first half and challenging the wrong catch in the second. A reliable playmaker, Hunt had zero touches the first two quarters. He’s the guy who last week said this game vs. his ex-KC teammates was “personal,” and I bet it was. I’m certain it was even more “personal” the way he was used … or wasn’t.
10. According to Next Gen Stats, Buffalo’s Leslie Frazier called blitzes on 41.8 percent of the snaps vs. Baltimore, and that’s great. Because it worked. It won’t vs. Kansas City if Mahomes plays. The guy is murder on opponents that blitz. Your best hope is to bring the heat with three or four pass rushers … if you can. … with ESPN reporting that Mahomes this season had the highest rating of any quarterback facing the blitz since it started tracking quarterbacks in 2006.
11. Apparently, the Packers don’t miss left tackle David Bakhtiari. In two starts without him, Aaron Rodgers has been sacked once – and it wasn’t by the Rams. Billy Turner, take a bow.
12. Everyone talks about Andy Reid’s impact on the Chiefs and for good reason: But look what he’s done for the AFC: All three coaches in this weekend’s conference playoff games – other than Reid, that is – had ties to him. Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and Sean McDermott worked on his staff in Philadelphia, and Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski was an intern there.
13. Not sure who has more sequels: Urban Meyer or Rocky.
14. The Cleveland Browns are Andy Reid’s lapdog. He’s 8-0 against them.
15. Biggest upset Sunday: The Chargers hiring of Rams’ defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as head coach. Fourteen of the previous 16 were offensive assistants, and I would’ve bet this week's paycheck they were leaning toward Buffalo’s Brian Daboll. Good thing I didn’t.
16. I have no problem with the fumble-end zone call that may have cost Cleveland a win. It’s a rule, and if you don’t like it, don’t fumble. Or, as New England’s Belichick instructed his players ... and, as Stefanaksi said he's warned his team ... don’t reach for the pylon. I do, however, have a problem with not calling the helmet-to-helmet hit. I know it’s not reviewable, but these are supposed to be the best officials in the game. I said … supposed to be.
17. Gee, haven’t heard Jags’ owner Shad Khan say anything about having “final say” over the roster since Urban Meyer was hired. Wonder why.
18. The way I see it: If you can’t defend Chad Henne on a third-and-14 scramble with the game on the line you don’t deserve to win. His 13-yard run was his longest since 2013.
19. The Ravens’ Justin Tucker gets a pass for missing two field goals inside the 50 in a single game for the first time in his career. The wind in Buffalo was unforgiving. But here’s what should worry Baltimore fans: He missed five kicks in the last seven games, and nobody gets a pass for that.
20. Best visual of the entire weekend: Those two guys in Buffalo wearing Styrofoam chicken-wing hats. Made me want to call Duff’s for carry-out.
21. New Jets’ coach Robert Saleh says he sees “untapped potential” in quarterback Sam Darnold … but that’s the problem. It’s untapped.
22. Hard to believe but … the dean of head coaches in the NFC East is Washington’s Ron Rivera. He was hired just over a year ago.
23. Sorry, but Cleveland linebacker Mack Wilson has nothing to apologize for. OK, so it was his hit that sidelined Mahomes. But he didn’t “lead with his helmet,” as Mahomes’ mother alleged in a tweet. The hit was clean, not dirty.
24. One look at Alabama’s Davonta Smith, and you understand why Deshaun Watson wants a one-way ticket to Miami. The Dolphins have the third pick in the 2021 draft (thanks to a trade with the Texans), and Smith won’t get past them.
25. I’m not sure what this says about Baker Mayfield but … the Browns have lost 19 straight games when trailing by 10 or more points at any time of the game. Maybe Mayfield should spend less time at home with Progressive and more time in his playbook.
STAT THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
Baker Mayfield is the eighth quarterback drafted No. 1 since the common draft (1967) to win his first playoff game and the sixth to lose his next start. The only exceptions were Troy Aikman and Jim Plunkett who won Super Bowls in their first playoff runs as starters.
ONE THAT MAY INTEREST YOU
The last time Chad Henne had a fourth-down passing conversion was Week 17, 2013.
AND ONE FOR BOTH OF US
Tom Brady next weekend becomes the only quarterback other than Hall-of-Famer John Unitas (1950, 1960 and 1970) to start conference championship games in three different decades (2000, 2010 and 2020).
THE WEEKEND’S GOLD JACKET QUOTES
“It sucks to be honest with you guys. It sucks because we believed, and that’s why we’re here.” --Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield on losing.
“I think the defense was the key to the game. Our defense really ‘balled’ out.” – Tampa Bay QB Tom Brady.
"Our locker room is not going to flinch. They're tough that way." -- Kansas City coach Andy Reid on his team responding to Patrick Mahomes' exit.
“This will be fuel for the fire. We’ll remember it.” – Baltimore TE Mark Andrews.
“I think that’s for another press conference.” – New Orleans coach Sean Payton on reports that Drew Brees will retire.
“It’s a special time to be a Buffalo Bill.” – Buffalo OT Dion Dawkins.
THE WEEKEND’S GOLD JACKET RECIPIENT
Tampa Bay QB Tom Brady. In case you didn’t notice, he’s in another conference championship game – his 14th overall and ninth in his last 10 seasons. He’s also 43. Quarterbacks that age are supposed to spend Sundays playing the back nine – and I don’t mean of their careers. I mean the back nine. Period. Each week. But Brady defies the odds. He’s 14-2 in divisional-round playoff games, and maybe that doesn’t impress you. But this might: Only one quarterback has more playoff wins in all rounds (Joe Montana with 16), and only four have as many as 14. Critics each season can’t wait to bury Brady, and one of the years they’ll be right. But not here. Not now. Because now he has the Tampa Bay Bucs in their first conference championship game since 2002, when they went to Super Bowl XXXVII. Brady has never won three straight road games in the playoffs, and he’s not supposed to win at Green Bay. But Brady haters and Saints’ fans will warn you: Never, ever underestimate the guy.