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The Game Manager, Divisional round: Home sweet home

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The “best football weekend of the year” did not live up to the hype. In fact, it was the worst best weekend I can remember.

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints
Not pictured: Anyone sober. Even that kid snuck in a flask.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Upsets? Those are for Wild Card weekend. Once we got to the Divisional round, the cream rose to the top. In fact, the cream has been rising to the top in the NFL playoffs the last five years.

The one conference champ who wasn’t a No. 1 seed? The 2016 Atlanta Falcons, a No. 2 seed. No team which played a road playoff game has made the Super Bowl since 2012, when the Niners did it. So did the AFC champ that year, but I can’t remember who that was because I had all memories of that Super Bowl erased from my brain using Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind technology.

The last 5+ seasons, bye teams have played the way they did to earn that bye for the most part. That was doubly true this year, as the cream didn’t just rise, they creamed their opponents. A week after all four road underdogs covered the spread, with three winning outright, all four home teams won, with three covering. There was only one dramatic game in the bunch.

Other themes included laying the smackdown early -- the Chiefs scored on their first three drives, the Rams and Patriots scored on their first four -- and the best teams beating the hottest ones. The Cowboys had won eight of nine. The Colts won ten of eleven. The Chargers six of seven. The Eagles had won four straight since Nick Foles (and his co-pilot) took over. The dangerous No. 6 seeds, Indianapolis and Philadelphia, had been playing playoff games for a month, having to end the season on winning streaks just to make the postseason. The Chargers and Cowboys each knocked off their conference’s top seeds in primetime games toward the end of the season. None of it mattered.

Yup, that’s pretty much how it went -- at least for the first three games. This was football’s class war, and the NFL’s one percent (which is actually 12.5 percent) emphatically showed why they are the ruling class. At least that was the macro view. Before looking ahead to Championship game weekend, let’s take a tour through this past weekend’s games. All aboard the bullet (point) train.

Chiefs 31, Colts 13

  • This is the Chiefs we saw in the regular season. But for a team known for losing home playoff games, and had lost all four times they had come off playoff bye, a team that has lost 11 of their last 12 playoff games, that was a very welcome sight. And Patrick Mahomes looked every bit the presumptive MVP he is. He’s no Steve Bono or Elvis Grbac -- or even Alex Smith. This is a guy so good you forget his coach is known for bad strategic decisions and a long list of playoff failures. There was concern about them blowing a 24-7 halftime lead even though they blew a 21-3 halftime lead last year to a worse team. One way to keep Andy Reid from screwing up late-game strategy is to be up big, and having Mahomes as your QB is a really good way to do that.
  • After receiving massive praise for weeks on end, and deservedly so, Andrew Luck and the Colts put up an atrocious offensive performance, becoming only the second team in 30 years to not convert a single 3rd down. They were outscored by their special teams, which blocked a punt and recovered it for a TD. It was so bad, Captain Luck even saw his post reassigned to a battlefield promotion.
  • The only blemish on Kansas City’s end was the snowball throwing antics of their fans,

It nearly affected play on this kick...

Which reminded me of this 49ers/Broncos game on MNF, when a snowball thrown from the stands cost the 49ers a field goal. That, of course, sent me to YouTube, which allowed me to find this absolute gem of a clip from that game, announced by Frank Gifford, Joe Namath, and O.J. Simpson:

  • People thought these playoffs might mark the end of an era for a heavily-decorated Patriot postseason hero, and it appeared to be -- but for Adam Vinatieri not Tom Brady. Vinatieri cost Colts four points with a missed chip shot and extra point which kept the game from being 24-17 with five minutes left.

SPOILER ALERT: It wasn’t.

Rams 30, Cowboys 22

  • The Rams looked like high-flying offense they were for most of the year, gashing the vaunted Cowboy defense for big plays through the air and on the ground. Not only was Todd Gurley back healthy and looking like his old self, but his backup C.J. Anderson might’ve been even better. Both rushed for 100 yards, and Anderson looked nothing like the guy waived by both Carolina and Oakland this year -- in production or build. He seemingly had more burst, and more junk in the trunk.
  • Dak Prescott was erratic, making unbelievably great throws and unfathomably bad ones. Whether you’re pro-Dak and anti-Dak, you could’ve found plenty of evidence to back your case.
  • There was a truly bizarre “in the grasp” call at end of first half, wherein Prescott was never controlled by an opponent, and was grabbed by the back of his helmet, which is a penalty. So not only did they blow a play dead that should kept going, giving the Cowboys a chance to get a first down and keep the drive alive, but they ruled it an imaginary sack, knocking Dallas out of FG range. A double-whammy of bad officiating.
  • With Rams QB coach Zac Taylor rumored to get the Bengals head coach job, that would make three Sean McVay disciples to get gigs this offseason already -- Matt LaFleur (Green Bay), and Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona) being the others. So if you’re scoring at home, McVay has one playoff win to his name, and three coaches in his tree — and the off-season’s not done yet.
  • While McVay eventually decided not to fake punt late in the 3rd quarter up eight, instead going with a fake-fake punt, which ended up being a real (bad) punt, he didn’t hesitate with a chance to put Dallas away in the 4th quarter. Choosing to go for it on a 4th and goal, still up eight, when a FG would’ve given them a two-score lead with four minutes to play may not have made sense from mathematical point of view — an 11-point lead would’ve pretty much ended it — but the Rams ended up scoring a TD to go up 14. It also showed why players love to play for him. Still, that kind of aggressiveness in the face of reason could come back to bite him before the postseason is done.

Patriots 41, Chargers 28

  • So much for Tom Brady being washed. And so much for that All-LA Super Bowl. It’s time for the AFC championship game, and Brady and the Patriots have RSVP’d in the affirmative just like clockwork.

And there was no sign of it stopping anytime soon.

  • Going against his usual philosophy by taking the kickoff, and using that drive to hold the ball, march down the field, and put the first seven points on the board, Bill Belichick set the tone for this game the way other coaches simply can’t. Even after giving up a matching TD to the Chargers on their first drive, New England came right back with another long TD drive, using a heavy dose of runs to Sony Michel and short passes to James White and Julian Edelman. The Pats clearly had an offensive plan they felt confident about, and didn’t want to wait around before unleashing it on the Chargers. They also may have had a lack of confidence in their defense’s ability to stop Phillip Rivers and Co. and didn’t want them to have a chance to get on top early. In any case, the plan worked and immediately got the visitors on their heels in a tough environment.
  • Last week, Gus Bradley was the toast of the league, the scheme lord who adjusted to Baltimore’s gashing run game by employing seven DB’s on all but one play. This week, he was the moron who couldn’t adjust from that to find a single way to stop, or even slow down, the Patriots offense.

It reminds me of Jerry Glanville’s wise words about NFL really stands for:

Saints 20, Eagles 14

  • Finally, after a weekend of blowouts, we got a good game. Although early on it appeared we might get yet another blowout — this time by the road team. On the first play of game, Drew Brees was picked off on long bomb by Cre’Von LeBlanc.

Then the first Eagles drive ended with long bomb TD from Nick Foles to Jordan Matthews. When Philadelphia quickly followed that up with another defensive stop, followed by another long completion from Foles, and another TD, the Eagles had a quick 14-0 lead and Foles Magic appeared invincible yet again.

  • The Saints turned around the contest by beating the Eagles at their own game. First, it was Marshon Lattimore picking off a long pass by leaping to high-point it before the receiver could get his hands on it, just as Cre’Von LeBlanc did on Brees’ first pass.

Then, after Doug Pederson chose to decline a holding call that gave the Saints a 4th and 1 on their own 30 instead of a 3rd and 11 on their own 20, Sean Payton took a page out of Pederson’s balls-out playbook by calling for a fake punt. New Orleans’ Swiss Army Knife, Taysom Hill, ran it for a huge first down that led to the Saints first score and kickstarted their comeback. Had it failed, the Eagles would’ve been in position to go up three scores without so much as a first down.

It was as if Payton was reminding us that before the Philly Special helped Pederson beat a Hall of Fame QB in the Super Bowl and made him a legend in Philadelphia, there was a certain surprise onside kick that helped Payton’s team beat a Hall of Fame QB in a Super Bowl and made him a legend in New Orleans.

Then, just to show that wasn’t a fluke, Payton capped off the drive by again taking a major gamble and going for it on 4th and goal. Brees came through with a TD pass to make it a game at 14-7. As Bruce Arians would say, “no risk it, no biscuit.”

Whether you want to point to Pederson’s decision, those two 4th down conversions, or the interception which preceded it, the entire tone and momentum of the game changed after that, with the Saints outscoring the Eagles 20-0 to erase a 14-0 lead.

  • After Kellen Lutz missed a long FG to ice the game, Philadelphia had one last chance. Foles quickly led the Eagles inside the Saints 30. With more than two minutes left, it looked like Foles might have a little more magic up his sleeve. But Alshon Jeffery let that opportunity slip right through his fingers, and the Eagles coffin was finally sealed. Turns out, Foles Magic is strong, but New Orleans Voodoo (not to be confused with New Orleans VooDoo) is even stronger.

Also, a horrible way to rob us all of a potentially fantastic finish, the only one of the weekend.

Up next: The games before the game

This year’s conference championship games each offer us rematches of two of the more entertaining games of the regular season. Seeing as the scores of those games were 43-40 and 45-35, it’s not a stretch to say it should be an offensive showcase.

And while the defenses are nothing special, only one of them was noticeably worse.

They also offer us very interesting age matchups at QB.

If we get Mahomes and Jared Goff, it will be the youngest QB matchup in Super Bowl history. If it’s Brady and Brees it will be the oldest QB matchup in Super Bowl history.

Patriots at Chiefs

The reason this game is in Kansas City rather than Foxborough, where they first met? Well, it all came down to one play:

But the Patriots’ long history of winning huge games in January coupled with the Chiefs’ long history of losing them makes it hard to pick Kansas City even if they’re at home, and have more overall talent — no matter what Tom Brady says.

Rams at Saints

Meanwhile, in the Big Easy, we’re looking at another rematch, this time in the same stadium.

And the undercard isn’t bad either.

No Super Bowl team has played a road playoff game during their run since... well, that Super Bowl it cost me a fortune to forget. Will this be the year or will the home dominance continue?

Poll

What will this year’s Super Bowl matchup be?

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    Chiefs vs. Saints
    (14 votes)
  • 13%
    Patriots vs. Rams
    (5 votes)
  • 11%
    Chiefs vs. Rams
    (4 votes)
  • 36%
    Patriots vs. Saints
    (13 votes)
36 votes total Vote Now