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The Game Manager, Conference championships: Gaffes, errors, and blunders

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In the Divisional round, we didn’t get the “best football weekend of the year” we were promised. Turns out it was just a week late, and well worth the wait. So what do I want to do? Why, pick it apart, of course.

NFL: AFC Championship Game-New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs
“Playing in a Super Bowl!? Who, me?!”
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

We could’ve had two blowouts on Sunday. Midway through the second quarter of each game, that’s exactly what I thought we were going to get. Instead, both games turned on a dime. Maybe that shouldn’t have been surprising since both featured the team up two touchdowns leaving more points on the field. When that happens, I usually expect the trailing team to stage a comeback. But the way the Saints had the Superdome rocking (and whistling, and shaking), and the Patriots had taken the air out of the Arrowhead crowd, I held little hope.

Rather than boat races, we got all-time classics in what was probably the greatest conference championship Sunday ever. The first pair of same-day overtime games, not just in championship game history, but playoff history. Tightly fought, see-saw games, packed full of controversial calls, replay challenges, even a fake punt. With three minutes to go, there was no way to know who would win either.

In the end, on a day when it seemed like everybody on field — players, coaches, and referees — were taking some kind of questionable action, two plays stood above the rest.

Those two plays will be the ones people talk about and remember, and for good reason — one is arguably the worst missed call in playoff history, and the other is likely the worst offsides.

The Saints have every reason to feel wronged.

And every reason to feel the refs were against them.

No, not real. But that didn’t stop people from believing it. In their defense, how else would you explain that no call?

Meanwhile, Chiefs fans have their own reason to gripe about the refs.

That is, if they’re not griping about Dee Ford.

Next few days? I think you’re underestimating this. Ford’s legacy has been officially altered.

These were the best four teams in the league, filled with with great players, led by elite coaches. But huge games like these often come down not to who makes the best plays, but who makes the worst mistakes, particularly late in the game. It was no different on Sunday when it seemed one big mistake or controversial call was trumped by another within moments.

A perfect example came with nine minutes left in the AFC championship. With New England leading 17-14, a muffed punt off the fingertips of Julian Edelman bounced right to a Chief to give Kansas City the ball on the Patriots 28-yard line. It appeared that misplay might swing the game... Until it was overruled moments later. That controversial decision to overturn the call (was it really 100 percent clear he didn’t touch the ball or just 99?) seemed to swing the game right back... For one minute, until an inaccurate Tom Brady pass off Edelman’s fingertips bounced right to a Chief to give Kansas City the ball on the Patriots 23.

It was like a game of White Elephant (or Yankee Swap if you prefer) where each new revelation shifted the balance of power, and trampled all prior developments. Now that it’s over, but before many of these meaningful-at-the-time moments are lost to history, let’s take one last stroll through the parade of mistakes, missteps, and miscalculations.

Sean McVay kicking a FG on 4th and goal

By settling for field goals on their first two red zone trips, the Saints left the door ajar for the Rams. Down 13-0, McVay helped kick that door open with a fake punt call from the Rams 30 early in the second quarter.

You would think that after having the courage to do that, going on 4th and goal from inside the 1-yard line for the lead would be nothing. Especially since that’s kind of what he’s known for. After all, he went for 4th and inches on his own 42 up just two points with 1:35 left earlier this year. Just last week, he went for it in almost the exact same situation when a FG would’ve put the Rams up two scores.

But on Sunday, McVay chose to kick knowing it would only tie the game and give the ball to Drew Brees at home with time to win it. Which, by all rights, he should’ve. McVay said he believed in his defense. He probably should have more faith in analytics.

Lamarcus Joyner not high-pointing the deep ball to Ted Ginn Jr.

On a 2nd and 12 from their 44 and just over two minutes left, Brees threw the ball up for grabs, and Joyner had every chance to pick off the pass, or at the very least knock it down. Had he just done the latter, the Saints would’ve faced a 3rd and 12, and if they didn’t convert, the Rams would’ve had the ball back with a chance to win. That had to be Joyner’s top priority. Instead, he went for the pick. That wouldn’t be so bad, except that he did so by trying to make a Willie Mays’ style basket catch in his belly, rather than high-pointing the ball. The latter would’ve probably at least kept the ball from Ginn. Because he chose the former, Ginn was able to high-point the ball before it ever made it to Joyner.

That could’ve easily lost the game, as it set up the Saints with a 1st down at the Rams 13 with 1:58 left. But...

Brees incompletion to Michael Thomas

Since the Rams had two timeouts, that meant New Orleans could run the clock down to about 1:00 before kicking a FG to take the lead. People questioned the call, but Brees made it at the line — it was called a run. And Brees had Thomas wide open for an easy throw, he just grounded it. Thomas had a solid gain, and the clock would’ve kept rolling. That alone gifted the Rams 40+ seconds not to mention then yardage. They should’ve been bailed out by the penalty on 3rd down, but it still would’ve been a bail out.

Todd Gurley’s entire day

Literally the whole thing. Halfway through the season, we thought he might break the TD record, and on Sunday he was C.J. Anderson’s backup.

Andy Reid deferring

You have the MVP at quarterback, a historically great offense, and a terrible defense. Do you really want to put your defense on the field first?

You’re facing a veteran team known for winning playoff games, with possibly the most clutch QB in history at the helm. Do you really want to give them a chance to get on top early and take the crowd out of the game?

Don’t you want to try and get your young team on top first and front-run? Isn’t the worst possible start to the game to fall behind? And isn’t the Patriots weakness their own less-than-stellar defense?

I guess not in Reid’s eyes. He won the toss, deferred, and gave Brady the ball. For the second straight game, the Patriots relied on a strong running game to march the ball down the field and go up 7-0, putting their opponent on their heels before they ever touched the ball.

Reid’s timeout usage

While I’m bagging on The Walrus, let’s finish the job. Reid has long been known for his questionable game management moves. The good news: This year he hired an assistant to help him out with in-game strategy. The bad news: It was the guy who lost this epic tic-tac-toe battle:

Exhibit A: The Chiefs struggled mightily on offense in the first half, but somehow found themselves down just 7-0 at the two-minute warning despite that opening drive TD. A lot of coaches would’ve been happy to head into the half within a score. Not Reid, who called a timeout after two Patriot runs left them facing a 3rd and 5 with 1:13 remaining.

Yes, they were on their own 27, and a stop could’ve given the Chiefs decent field position to try and mount a scoring drive before halftime, but remember that stuff I mentioned above about New England having Brady and the Chiefs having a crappy defense? Well, apparently Reid forgot. His timeout forced the Patriots to try to move the ball. They did, scoring a TD to give them a 14-0 lead at the half.

Exhibit B: With Brady driving the Patriots toward a go-ahead score with less than a minute remaining, Reid had to be concerned with leaving Mahomes and his offense enough time to come back to at least tie the game with a FG. Just not concerned enough.

Exhibit C: With his defense completely gassed in overtime, about to give up their third straight TD drive, Reid could’ve given them a breather and a chance to regroup. In playoff OT’s you get a full compliment of three timeouts. Reid took them all to the off-season.

Tom Brady’s interceptions

The Patriots took a 14-0 lead into halftime, but it could’ve easily been 21-0. Had it been, there’s a good chance New England doesn’t have to sweat out the end of the game. And while he’s a hero now, the reason they failed to put Kansas City in that deeper hole was a jaw-dropping interception by Brady in the end zone when the Patriots were just a yard out.

On the one hand, Brady did it again, leading the Patriots to touchdowns on each of their last three drives to win the game in OT. And while this narrative is getting ridiculously repetitive, it’s amazing when you get to the point you know an athlete will find a way to win, and then they do, Michael Jordan-style.

On the other hand, he threw his third interception (and second of the fourth quarter) on a high throw to a wide open receiver on 3rd and 10 with one minute left in the game, trailing by four. If not for an unrelated penalty, that loses the game, and would’ve been the headline.

And that’s not even mentioning yet another pick he might’ve thrown if not for Chris Hogan’s miraculous one-handed grab in the fourth quarter.

Then again, Joe Montana threw three picks in the 1981 NFC Championship game, but that’s all forgotten because he made a certain play at the end. And that was even almost rendered a footnote moments later. The point is, it happened the way it happened. And the way it happened is the way it usually happens when Tom Brady is involved.

Patrick Mahomes overthrow of Damien Williams

History will show Mahomes was a tough luck loser, playing valiantly while coming up just short. But don’t forget his play in first half, when for the first time all year he looked like a second-year player.

It’s one thing to make inaccurate passes to covered receivers, or succumb to pressure, but it’s the unforced errors and mental mistakes which really hurt. On the Chiefs first drive into Patriots territory late in the second quarter, he made one of each. First, he missed an uncovered Williams streaking wide open for a sure game-tying TD.

Two plays later, he not only took a sack on 3rd down, but gave ground to take Kansas City out of FG range. What looked like a sure seven points, and then at least a probable three, quickly became zero. Turns out, those points would’ve come in handy.

Mahomes and the Chiefs offense looked like their old selves in the 2nd half, scoring 31 points, but their no-show in the first half gave the Patriots too much of a head start.

Tyreek Hill’s backward punt return

After the Chiefs forced a three-and-out on New England’s first drive of second half, Hill caught a punt just inside his own 20, but backtracked to the 7-yard line before being tackled. While he danced and juked, the Chiefs also committed an illegal block, moving them back to their 3.

While they did get a first down to get out of the shadow of their own goal line, they followed that up with two more mistakes -- a false start and a Travis Kelce drop — before a sack on 3rd down forced them to punt out of their end zone. When Dustin Colquitt failed to get off a great punt, Edelman returned it to Kansas City’s 37-yard line. That meant that even though New England only gained eight yards, they were still able to kick a 47-yard FG to re-take a two-score lead.

That could’ve been the difference, as could any of these. They will be forgotten by most in time, but if I’ve learned anything from the 49er-related pain I’ve endured over the years, rabid Saints and Chiefs fans won’t forget a single detail. I remember each crushing Niner playoff loss in vivid detail, even if I wish I didn’t.

The missed call in New Orleans will go down in Saints history right next to last year’s Minneapolis Miracle. Except last year they had only themselves to blame. I think it’s easier to admit defeat when you yourself come up short. To know it was an official’s mistake -- on an obvious call which would’ve all but clinched the game -- has to be frustrating beyond measure. Which is why I’m so here for this guy:

Poll

Who looks the worst after their performance in the conference championship games?

This poll is closed

  • 76%
    NFL referees
    (121 votes)
  • 4%
    Dee Ford
    (7 votes)
  • 8%
    Andy Reid
    (13 votes)
  • 6%
    The Chiefs defense
    (10 votes)
  • 5%
    Todd Gurley
    (8 votes)
159 votes total Vote Now