If this wasn’t the greatest weekend in NFL playoff history, it’ll do until a better one comes along.
Four walkoff wins. Four games decided by a combined 15 points. Three upsets that rank among the best games of the year, and one undeniable classic that ranks among the best NFL games of all time. This is why the NFL, like the house, always wins in the end — because after all the off-field drama, after all the sleazy amoral corporate maneuvering and criminal behavior, this is a game that, at its best, rises to the level of art.
The weekend had everything: Heroes (Patrick Mahomes, three kickers). Villains (Aaron Rodgers). Goats (Buffalo’s defense, Green Bay’s special teams, Ryan Tannehill). Rising stars (Joe Burrow). Falling icons (Tom Brady). Astounding plays (pick ‘em). Miracle comebacks (again, pick ‘em). After last week’s cavalcade of underqualified and underperforming dogs, this was a joy from first kickoff to final fireworks.
The NFL didn’t just serve up four winners this weekend. It served up a whole offseason’s worth of talking points. (Should overtime change? Is Rodgers done in Green Bay? Will Brady retire? What was Buffalo thinking in those last 13 seconds?)
The weekend also produced two of the great quotes in recent NFL history. “Well, looks like we’re going to the AFC championship,” Cincinnati’s rookie kicker Evan McPherson said, moments before nailing a 52-yarder that did exactly that.
Then Andy Reid came over the top with an all-timer: “When it’s grim,” he told Mahomes, “be the grim reaper.” You know what happened next.
It all ended in perhaps the greatest two minutes in all of football. Books will be written about this weekend, documentaries filmed, songs sung. For now, let’s just run down all the key players in this epic masterpiece.
Cincinnati: Like with the opening act at a four-band show, we didn’t expect much in the way of fireworks out of the first game. Perhaps out of a natural bias against the Bengals — coming into Saturday, they’d never won a road playoff game in the history of mankind — and perhaps out of fear of the wrath that a returning Derrick Henry would unleash, we took this game, and these teams, lightly. Big mistake.
The Bengals defense intercepted both the first and last passes that Ryan Tannehill threw, and beefy DJ Reader, the Bengals’ defensive tackle/brick wall, shut down Henry all afternoon. Which was good news, because Cincinnati’s offensive line was about as stout as a corn tortilla. The fact that Joe Burrow shook off nine — nine! — sacks to set up the Bengals for victory is proof alone that he’s on a sharp upward trajectory that could have him in Mahomes/Allen range before long. The Bengals may hit their ceiling next week, but they’re already a vast improvement over the last three decades of Cincinnati football.
Tennessee: Saturday demonstrated that the Titans, meanwhile, have problems. Henry was less than impressive in his first game action in eight weeks, averaging only three yards on each of his 20 carries. When you can’t rely on Derrick Henry to get you a single yard — which he attempted, and failed, in two crucial Saturday situations – you’re in for a long afternoon.
With three interceptions, including the back-breaking final one that set up the game-winning field goal, Tannehill brought back all the lingering doubts about whether he’s the man to take Tennessee to the promised land. Tennessee groused about not getting the respect it believed it deserved as a #1 seed … and then played like the underdog rather than the favorite.
San Francisco: How? Seriously, how did San Francisco win this game with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback? Simple: by winning it despite having Garoppolo — 19 attempts, 131 yards, no touchdowns, one INT — at quarterback. Garoppolo, who continues to blissfully float through his NFL career despite oceans of detractors, managed to do just enough to keep San Francisco in the game so that Deebo Samuel could cook and the 49er defense could wreck shop on the pathetic Packers special teams. (More on that in a moment.)
George Kittle caught four passes for 63 yards, and every one of them seemed like some kind of miracle highlight grab. With him and Samuel on one side of the ball, and Nick Bosa and the defense stomping out hopes on the other, the 49ers suddenly seem an actual threat to return to their second Super Bowl in three years … which is mind-blowing.
Green Bay: It’s tough to overstate the gap in talent and performance between Rodgers, the presumptive MVP for a second straight year, and his special-teams unit, which ranked at the bottom of the league by every single metric. But even Rodgers fell victim to pressure, both of the literal and psychological variety; the Packers only gained 58 total yards in the second half of their loss to the Niners, and Rodgers sounded crushed at the end of the game.
“A little numb, for sure,” he said. “Didn’t think it was going to end like this.” If by “this” he meant his team flailing its way out of the playoffs with only 10 men on the field during the game-winning field goal, no, pretty much nobody thought it would end like that … but in retrospect, the outcome wasn’t all that surprising after all.
Rodgers lost his last four NFC championship games, and now he won’t even get another chance to halt that streak this year. His record against the 49ers in the postseason now stretches to 0-4, dating to 2011. For all the talk of this being a Last Dance for Rodgers and the Packers, the music ended and the lights went out way too early. If this is the end of the line for Rodgers in Green Bay, the Packers will stand as one of the great missed opportunities in sports, right up there with the four-Super Bowl Buffalo Bills and ‘90s Atlanta Braves.
Los Angeles: The biggest all-in bet in the NFL right now, the Rams have mortgaged the future — like, all of the future — for a Super Bowl right now. Matthew Stafford managed the very un-Stafford-like feat of guiding the Rams to victory without a backbreaking interception. He threw 17 on the season, tied with rookie Trevor Lawrence for the league lead, but in the crunchiest of crunch time Sunday, he looked as calm and composed as the guy across the field playing his position.
You want an indication that this might be a season of destiny for the Rams? Los Angeles had fumbled only five times all season — then fumbled four times in the game against Tampa Bay, including a crusher with just over two minutes left that let Tampa Bay tie the game. You hold on against Tom Brady and his devil magic after surrendering the ball that many times, you might have something special going on.
Tampa Bay: We all laughed when Los Angeles went up 27-3, and then Tampa Bay started tearing chunks out of the Rams’ hide and we stopped laughing. By the end of the game, Sean McVay looked like a man who’d been told the date and manner of his death. Here was Tom Brady, collector of souls, coming again to break another team’s spirit.
Only this time, it didn’t work out that way. Catching someone isn’t the same thing as passing them, and the Bucs didn’t have the throttle to get around the Rams. Tampa Bay’s injuries across the board allowed the Rams to leap out to a huge lead, and Brady — uncharacteristically flappable under pressure — couldn’t hold it all together.
Will Brady return? Perhaps. Perhaps not. You can make an argument no matter what the outcome: if he wins a Super Bowl, he’ll either say he’s going out on top, or say he’s still got it and come back. If he loses early, he’ll either say he has nothing left to prove, or he’ll vow to crush his enemies one more time. Along with Rodgers’ future destination, Brady’s fate will be one of the most fascinating topics of the offseason.
Buffalo: The Packers and Titans combined to score only two touchdowns over 120 minutes of game play this past weekend. The Bills scored that many in 99 seconds. It’s a shame someone had to lose one of the best games of all time, but the Bills once again ended up on the outside looking in. (Debate overtime all you want — and you should — but Buffalo had a very good chance to win this one before extra time.) You want to believe this squad will be back, and perhaps they will, but teams are tenuous things, with coaches and contracts and chemistry all combining for a kind of victory alchemy that doesn’t come along very often. About every quarter-century, in Buffalo’s case.
The Chiefs have Buffalo’s number in the postseason, winning both of their last two January matchups. Buffalo took the regular-season rematch, but at this point, who cares about that? The Bills will once again visit Arrowhead in the 2022 regular season, which just seems cruel at this point.
Kansas City: How do you even top this performance? According to @NFLResearch on Twitter, Bills-Chiefs was the first playoff game in NFL history with three go-ahead touchdowns scored in the final two minutes of regulation — and that doesn’t even include the already-legendary 13-second drive for the game-tying field goal. (A drive that, as everyone outside Dallas joked, took less time than Dak Prescott’s doomed scramble last weekend.)
Bills-Chiefs was a stone-cold classic even before overtime. The largest lead of the game was nine points, and it lasted for all of one play before Allen threw a 75-yard touchdown pass. Kansas City, which had turned over the ball 25 times during the regular season, held onto the rock against Buffalo’s formidable defense, right up until the moment Mahomes let it fly to Travis Kelce in the end zone to close out overtime and the Bills’ season.
“We were all just part of one of the better games in the National Football League,” Reid said as smoke from the celebratory fireworks still hung in the Kansas City air. He was speaking of his game, but he could have been speaking of any of these four. We’ll be talking about the after-effects of this quartet of games for a long time.
What a weekend. What a sport.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.