THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs, without being spectacular, was still mightily compelling. Along the way the games threw up some question marks around future officiating, as well as the potential loss of arguably the best quarterback talent this current generation will see. And given the emergence of some stellar players in that position, that really is saying something.
Looking ahead to next week’s Conference Championship games there is a feel of a changing of the guard. It will certainly be interesting as to how this pans out over the next few seasons as the AFC seems to be loaded with QB talent that could well see it being superior to its counterpart NFC. Time will tell, but for now it is putting together an intriguing end to this extraordinary season.
Before we look ahead, lets rewind to this past Saturday and the number one seed, MVP elect Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers. The Packers have been the most consistent team all year, and Rodgers has once again gone about his play with an air of distinguished authority, comfortable more than ever in his play. This is helped, of course, by a cast that has been assembled around him that looks imperious. The Los Angeles Rams came to Lambeau as underdogs, and even though they hung around for the large part of the game they rarely threatened to take control. Jared Goff had a steady hand all night, but the Packers stifled their efforts to keep a sustained attack on the ground. With an ineffective Aaron Donald, the Rams could not put any pressure on Rodgers, meaning he could pick his passes at will. Green Bay amassed a huge 484 yards total offense against the number one ranked defense, but it was not until Rodgers found Allen Lazard wide open down the middle for a 58-yard score that the game was sewn up. The final score of 32-18 was a little flattering on the Rams, but the Packers will host next weeks Championship game knowing they can step up through the gears.
Late on Saturday the Buffalo Bills continued their journey with a somewhat comfortable 17-3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. The lead up to the game had us believing this could be a shootout, but the swirling winds and bitter weather meant that neither team could find any rhythm to their game. An opening quarter of play that saw more missed field goals than successful attempts set the tone. Josh Allen, the Bills QB, tried all he could to kickstart the home team advantage but the Ravens defense held firm. A similar story on the other side of the ball, as a new-found confidence in Lamar Jackson over the last month did not help move the Ravens down the field. The Bills sacked Jackson three times and hounded him throughout the game making him nonexistent for most of the game. He did manage a long drive that threatened to tie the game at 10 late in the third period, but his final pass of that series was intercepted and ran back 101 yards for a touchdown by Taron Johnson, which all but sealed the win for the Bills. Soon after, Jackson was knocked out of the game during a fierce pass rush, and with their lead man out the Ravens’ season went with him.
The Kansas City Chiefs, current champions and favorites to win it all again this year, played host to the Cleveland Browns, this season’s feel good story. Patrick Mahomes has set a new standard of play at QB in the NFL. He started this game with the precision we expected, and the signs were ominous as the Chiefs moved into a 19-3 halftime lead. This could have been different for a couple of reasons. At 16-3 the Browns were in good scoring position inside the final moments of the half. Baker Mayfield was playing assured football again, he has really matured this season especially down the stretch. His pass to Rashard Higgins looked to swing momentum, but when Higgins stretched to score near the pylon, he was hit hard by Chiefs’ Daniel Sorenson causing a fumble which rolled out of the end zone for a touchback and Kansas City possession. Replays show that the Sorenson hit was helmet to helmet contact. As well as being illegal, that’s also unreviewable, something which may lead to calls for that rule to be changed. The fumble was a huge moment as not only did it prevent a score, but it also allowed time for the Chiefs to tack on three more points which proved vital as the game went on. More drama was to follow as Mahomes, already hobbling on a bad toe, had to leave the field with a concussion. A standard tackle left him dazed, and an attempt to stand and walk left him looking like a toddler making their first steps. The correct concussion procedures were called into place and Kansas City had not only lost their star man but also momentum. Cleveland was now up for the challenge and when Kareem Hunt raced in to narrow the score to 5 points it seemed the upset was on. Chad Henne replaced Mahomes, and while we all expected a more conservative approach the Andy Reid school of coaching says uh-uh. On a bold 4th and 1 call he asked Henne to pass. Yes, pass the ball. No one saw it coming but when Tyreek Hill caught and made the first down the 22-17 score held and the Chiefs moved on.
Lastly this past weekend two veteran QBs were playing against each other for what would likely be the last time. Drew Brees led the New Orleans Saints, against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Non-official word had leaked that Brees had decided to retire after this playoff run, and at the time of writing this is still unofficial. His run however is now over, so we could have just witnessed the last game of a future Hall of Fame quarterback. How this came about was a story of turnovers. Neither star really hit the heights they are accustomed to, neither surpassed 200 yards passing but the scoreboard kept ticking over nicely. Finely poised at 20-20 entering the last quarter it was still anyone’s game. Devin White snagged his second interception of Brees, which inspired a drive that Brady himself capped off by scoring from a yard out. This rounded off a 17-point unanswered scoring run that proved once more that you can never count out a team that Brady inspires to play. The four Saints turnovers were the major difference between the teams, and if this is Brees’ last game he will bow out on a quiet note. For Brady, who knows when his story will end?
As mentioned then, next Sunday will see the Conference Championship games. At this stage there is no real standout favourite. If Mahomes is out - something that will be a hot topic all week so watch the news feeds - it will level the field against the Bills, who were already closer to the Chiefs than some would have you believe. Green Bay will host Tampa Bay, the latter shooting for a place in history as, if they do win, they will be the first franchise to play in their “home” Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers
Sunday 24 January, KO 20.05 GMT
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday 24 January, KO 23.40 GMT