Championship Sunday Takeaways

Sunday saw both Conference Championship Games go to OT for the first time in NFL history. Unfortunately, both games were overshadowed by some controversial calls (and non-calls).

The missed pass interference penalty at the end of the NFC Championship Game was horrendous, and likely changed the outcome of the game. This wasn’t a simple missed call, though. Instead, it was proof that referees are human and they do call games differently based on the situation and the significance of the moment. This particular play seemed like a clear situation of a referee not wanting to throw a game-deciding flag in the final 2 minutes of a championship game. Man that backfired, didn’t it?

Look, referees call championship games differently than regular season games. We all know this is the case. And you know what? We’re not sure what the solution to this problem is. It just stinks that seasons are being determined by the refs and not by the players.

Although, as many have pointed out, the refs also missed a blatant face mask penalty on Jared Goff in the 4th quarter that would have given the Rams 1st-and-Goal at the Saints 2. Instead, after the non call, the Rams had to settle for a field goal. So, it all evens out we guess?

Just as the referees in the NFC Championship Game seemed to miss penalties, the refs in the AFC contest struggled with calling penalties that did not actually occur.

In the 4th quarter, the Patriots benefited from a roughing-the-passer call when Chris Jones’ hand ever so slightly grazed the front of Tom Brady’s face mask. From referee Clete Blakeman’s angle, it looked like Jones’ hand made impactful contact with Brady’s head. Since we know from replays that no significant contact was actually made, we know that Blakeman must have made this call based on an assumption.

Maybe the point of emphasis this offseason should be that referees need to have a higher standard of proof for calling such penalties (or any penalties for that matter). Maybe they shouldn’t throw a flag unless they actually see, for sure, that a penalty occurred. That might be a good start.

In between these awful calls and non-calls, fans were treated to seven hours of exciting football from the NFL’s 4 best teams. We’ll have more in-depth breakdowns in the days ahead, but our initial thoughts are that the better teams won on Sunday.

Rams vs. Saints
Sean McVay came into the game thinking the crowd noise wouldn’t be such a significant factor. The Rams were having trouble communicating early due to the noise, though. And they continued to try and change plays at the line in the 1st quarter. They were unable to get into a rhythm until they started calling plays, getting to the line, and just snapping the ball. Sure, their 2nd-quarter fake punt got them going. But Sunday was a lesson that sometimes offenses can try to be too perfect. Sometimes it’s best to simplify things, snap the ball, and execute.

Speaking of execute, Jared Goff did a great job of handling the noise, the absence of a running game, and the significance of the moment. He made some big time throws and managed the game well. Was he flawless? No. But he showed great poise in some big moments. His 3rd-and-3 scramble and throw to Gerald Everett for 39 yards in the 4th quarter comes to mind. Goff will face a tougher task in Bill Belichick’s defense in the Super Bowl, but he showed he has the ability to make big throws in key moments.

The Todd Gurley absence was certainly confusing. Gurley said after the game that he didn’t get his normal amount of snaps because he played “sorry as hell,” not because of anything having to do with his health. This is hard to believe.

C.J. Anderson wasn’t exactly tearing up the Saints defense. Not to mention, Gurley gives McVay the option of aligning on the perimeter to create mismatches, and he at least presents a credible threat in the passing game. A player of Gurley’s caliber struggling early is not a reason to bench him. There has to be something more with his health that we don’t know about. Hopefully for the Rams, the extra week of rest will get him back to full strength.

On the other side of the ball, the Saints really missed some opportunities, especially on their first two drives. Had they come away with touchdowns instead of field goals, this game would have been much different. Not to mention, Sean Payton’s clock management before the non-PI call was questionable to say the least.

The Rams Defense deserves plenty of credit, though. They held the Saints’ #7 ranked running game to 48 rushing yards one week after holding the Cowboys’ #10 ranked running game to just 50. The Saints only gained 290 yards total, and their passing attack wasn’t able to consistently decipher Wade Phillips’ mix of man and matchup-zone coverages. L.A. held Michael Thomas to just 4 receptions for 36 yards after being torched by him in their Week 9 matchup earlier this season.

The Rams Defense has had an up and down season, which was surprising for a unit with this level of talent and Wade Phillips at defensive coordinator. Perhaps they are finally getting healthy at the right time. Keep in mind, Phillips’ schemes made Tom Brady look pedestrian in their last two head-to-head matchups. Brady’s numbers from those games:

Comp-Att:           43-88
Comp Pct:           48.9%
Yds:                      498
Yds/Att:               5.66
TD-INT:                1-2
QB Rating:          60.7
Points/Game:    17.0

Patriots vs. Chiefs
The Patriots had a great game plan on both sides of the ball. On defense, Bill Belichick’s approach was to smother Chiefs receivers at the line of scrimmage. They were aggressive and physical, and they seemed intent on preventing K.C.’s receivers from being able to utilize the speed advantage they had. The Chiefs were late to make adjustments, and Pat Mahomes simply did not appear patient enough in the early going. He seemed to be looking for the big play on every snap, and this kept the Chiefs from moving the chains while their defense was spending the entire first half on the field.

The difference in this game was Tom Brady’s willingness to take those short passes that Mahomes wouldn’t. This is nothing new for Brady. In fact it has been his M.O. for most of his career. Brady took what the defense game him, and then made some tight throws down the stretch when New England needed to convert.

The Chiefs didn’t do quite as bad of a job as the Chargers did a week ago in giving up those soft underneath throws. They did allow plenty of those easy completions, though. Part of this was due to their approach (There was nothing New England was doing that led to Chris Hogan getting a 10-yard cushion when aligned on the perimeter multiple times). A significant part of this was also the Patriots’ approach, though. They were able to keep Chiefs defensive backs from getting their hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage by using motion-to-stack formations. The Patriots did this plenty with Edelman, and this created traffic that Edelman’s defender had to fight through. The Chiefs also did little to provide inside help in those motion-to-stack situations.

The Patriots also were able to control the game with the run. New England may have finished with less than 4 yards per carry, but the running game kept them on schedule. Of the 19 third downs the Patriots faced, 12 were 3rd-and-6 or less.

Still, the Chiefs win this game if Dee Ford doesn’t align off sides on what would have been a game-sealing interception. What has to be especially frustrating to the Chiefs is that Ford was completely inconsequential to the play. That’s the type of inexplicable mistake teams always seem to make against the Patriots. It’s also the type of mistake that will get you beat by the New England 99 times out of 100.

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