THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
After a long season (some would say longer than ever given the circumstances that have surrounded it regarding Covid-19 regulations) we finally came to the Conference Championship Games, the final four teams. Its rare that the number one and two seeds both get this far, as the playoffs often throw in an upset or two, but if you can call a team led by the uniqueness that is Tom Brady an upset in getting this far, as a number 5 seed, then you might want to check in to the reality hotel. His Tampa Bay team went to the frozen Lambeau Field - it’s January what do you expect at Lambeau - to take on the top seed in the NFC, Green Bay Packers.
A textbook opening drive by the Buccaneers, where they converted on three third down plays, the last resulting in a pass from Brady to Mike Evans, saw the visiting team go up 7-0 within the first five minutes of the game. The Packers could not respond, the first time in the whole of this campaign that their opening drive has not resulted in a score. You could not put this down to a nervous start as Aaron Rodgers has been in this situation many times before. Despite taking some early hits Rodgers managed to find his rhythm and as the first quarter came to an end he had completed all six of his pass attempts. After some jabs Rodgers landed a knockout punch on a third down of his own. A slightly underthrown pass was hauled in by Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 50-yard touchdown.
Both teams had now found their feet, and Tampa’s reply was swift. Brady threw a 52-yard bomb to Chris Godwin, then Leonard Fournette spun and rumbled in from 20 yards. Next, Green Bay had a more balanced drive as they looked to tie the game up again, using the running of Aaron Jones more, but inside the 10-yard line they stalled and had to settle for a Mason Crosby field goal. The final two minutes of the half looked set for Rodgers to cut the gap further, but a contested pass was intercepted. Then with the Bucs backed up and looking to punt the ball away, Brady managed to convince his team to go for it. They moved to within field goal range, but when you are arguably the best player to have set foot on an NFL field you go for it all and do whatever it takes. So, with the clock ticking down to end a pulsating half, Brady threw a perfect ball to Scotty Miller from 39 yards. The Buccaneers were now up by 11 points, and only 30 minutes of football away from a historic place in a home Super Bowl.
Green Bay needed a solid start to the second half. Instead, they turned the ball over. A pass from Rodgers to Aaron Jones saw the running back cough the ball up after a hard hit by Jordan Whitehead, with Devin White racing the fumbled ball back to the 8-yard line. Next play, and Tampa Bay were in the end zone once more, Cameron Brate catching Brady’s third touchdown toss of the game. Calm heads were needed on the Packers sideline, it was slipping away from them, but you cannot count them out as they can score so quickly. This was proved on the next set of plays as they went 75 yards in 8 plays in just 4 minutes 26 seconds, capped off by Robert Tonyan catching an 8-yard strike. The gap was back down to 11 points. Its hard to play a perfect game when you are matched up against a number one defense, and when Brady had a pass picked off the Lambeau faithful got louder. Give Rodgers an opportunity and he will grab it, this time with 13 plays covering 60 yards and another scoring pass, this time to Davante Adams. A failed two-point conversion meant that the Bucs’ lead was down to just five with one quarter left to play. Another Brady interception, off the fingertips of Mike Evans, looked to complete the Packers’ momentum swing but this time they could not move the ball and had to punt. Pressure was dialled up by the Packers defense, and they forced another errant throw which was again picked off. The tension was clear on both sides of the ball, and now the clock was becoming a factor too.
Tampa Bay managed to steady their ship and extend their lead to 8 points with a 46-yard field goal, with 4.42 left on the clock. Following this Green Bay went all the way down inside the Buccaneers’ 10-yard line but could not punch in the go ahead score. They settled for the field goal and hoping their defense could stop once more, a decision that would come back to haunt them and is sure to be questioned through the off season. After a pass interference call, which was correct but not in keeping with how the game had been allowed to flow, that was it.
Tom Brady now goes to his tenth Super Bowl, only the fourth QB to do so, leading a different team this time. The final score of 31-26 was about right on the overall balance of play, but Rodgers will be left wondering how this one got away, and how his record in these games is now 1-4, a tarnish on his legacy.
The AFC was contested between the one and two seed, and was set to be a shootout, with two quick scoring offenses, and quarterbacks that will surely meet many more times at this level. The Buffalo Bills opened the game at the Kansas City Chiefs with a bold drive that showed they were not afraid to attack the Chiefs, but they had to settle for a field goal. All week the talk had been about Patrick Mahomes’ concussion, suffered during last week’s win against Cleveland, but he did not look out of sorts even if he could not connect early on with his passing. He was ready to take to the field again after the Chiefs defense had forced the Bills to punt after a huge loss on a sack. The punt was away but fumbled by Mecole Hardman and recovered inside their 5-yard line. The very next play the exciting young QB Josh Allen found Dawson Knox, and the upstart Bills were up 9-0 after a failed point after try. The first quarter was quick, testament to how fast these two teams can play, and ended with Kansas City on the march. They managed to score and reduce the score to 9-7 early in the second period, when Mahomes picked out Hardman for the touchdown. Their defense stepped up a gear and had great success unsettling Allen, who was called for intentional grounding to stop a drive. The Arrowhead Stadium was getting loud, and it got even louder after a 50-yard run by Hardman who was clearly out to atone for his earlier muffed punt that helped put the Bills in the end zone. Soon after, Darryl Williams scampered 6 yards to put the reigning champions ahead for the first time in the game.
With their quick strike ability and many weapons the Chiefs started to impose themselves on the game. Mahomes was now dictating the pace and finding targets with ease and he took his offense all the way down to the Bills goal line, where Clyde Edward-Helaire raced in to make it 21 unanswered points. Needing to put a stop to the one-sided quarter, Buffalo set about a long and balanced drive that took them down to the 3-yard line but they failed to get into the end zone and had to settle for a short field goal to end the half 21-12 down. Not ideal as the defending champs had the ball first to open the second half. Adding to this dilemma, the Bills seemingly had no answer to the potent Chiefs offense. They did manage to stymie it enough to hold them to 3 points on the drive to open the second half. Another promising drive again stalled for the Bills and they could only respond by tacking on another 3, the Chiefs doing enough to keep it a two-score game, and still in control. They took that control further when after a 71-yard pass play to Tyreek Hill, Mahomes found Travis Kelce with an improvised underhand toss to expand the lead to 31-15 with just over 3 minutes to play in the third quarter.
After converting a 4th & 1 play to open the last period of play, Buffalo stayed positive, and were heading towards scoring range, but a deflected pass was intercepted. Even with 13 minutes of play left it felt like game over. Kelce is more than just a safety blanket Tight End; he is arguably the glue that holds Andy Reid’s Chiefs offense together. He scored again, another pass from Mahomes, his third strike, which meant the last 7 minutes of play were just playing for pride for the Buffalo Bills. They restored some with a touchdown. Allen, still playing hard, found Isaiah McKenzie but a failed two-point attempt meant that with time running out and a small miracle needed it would be the Chiefs moving on to Tampa Bay on February 7th. After a successful onside kick, the Bills added another 3 points, to close the gap to 14. When your season ends it’s frustrating, and the Bills let their frustrations known in an ugly end to the game, with some scuffles, but the final score of 38-24 was the right one.
In a fortnight’s time we ‘ll see a battle of old and new. The new swagger of the Kansas City Chiefs, who will aim to repeat as Super Bowl champions, led by the new face of the NFL, Patrick Mahomes. They will face off against the 43-year-old but evergreen Tom Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Will the old hand add to his 6 titles, or will the youth prevail and set up a new dynasty?
Next week we will look ahead and try and break down where the game will be won and lost.