It took overtime to decide both conference championships for the first time in NFL history on Sunday before the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots dramatically earned the right to play for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3.
No road team had won a conference championship game in six years entering Sunday’s action. The Rams and Patriots both picked up victories in two of the toughest environments in the league to erase that stigma and will now meet for a chance to take home the Lombardi Trophy.
The Rams have not made it this far since the 2001 season when they called St. Louis home. Their shocking 20-17 loss in Super Bowl 36 to the Patriots sparked a football juggernaut that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have sustained for the better part of two decades.
Now it will be up to be up to second-year head coach Sean McVay, who is nine years younger than Brady, and his third-year quarterback Jared Goff to find a way to outplay the Patriots in the dynasty’s ninth trip to the Super Bowl.
But it was a controversial no-call that helped define LA’s victory over Drew Brees and the Saints in New Orleans on Sunday. In a 20-20 tie with less than two minutes to play in regulation, Nickell Robey-Coleman blatantly interfered with Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis on a third down pass attempt. Not only was it pass interference, but there was also clear helmet to helmet contact.
Had the correct call been made, the Saints would have had an automatic first down and could have run out the remainder of the clock before winning the game with a short field goal at the buzzer. Instead, they had to kick it to take the lead with 1:41 left, which allowed Goff time to put his team in a position to send the game into overtime with a 48-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein.
The Rams went on to intercept Brees on the first drive of overtime which ultimately set up an impressive 57-yard field goal by Zuerlein to win the game 26-23.
The Saints stalled offensively after taking an early 13-0 lead and had plenty of opportunities to win the game in regulation. So much can be said about the incredible effort by the Rams defense as well as Goff, who was able to orchestrate the comeback during his first road playoff start without much help from star running back Todd Gurley.
Still, you cannot help but feel for the Saints and their fans. After they were eliminated in the divisional round on a last second Hail Mary pass in Minnesota a season ago, they were essentially robbed of a trip to the Super Bowl this year regardless of the mistakes they made to put themselves in the position.
In Kansas City, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes put on a fourth quarter display that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. The teams combined for 38 total points in the final 15 minutes to result in a 31-31 deadlock and overtime.
Young Mahomes brought the Chiefs back after falling behind 14-0 in the first half. Still, the deficit was nowhere near as bad as it probably should have been at the time. The league’s MVP threw a touchdown to Travis Kelce and two to Damien Williams, who would run in another to give Kansas City a 28-24 lead with two minutes left.
But two minutes was more than enough time for Brady, who would lead a six play, 65-yard drive. The only problem was that after Rex Burkhead entered the end zone to give the lead back to New England, there was still 39 seconds left on the clock.
With the season on the line, Mahomes was able to connect with Spencer Ware and Demarcus Robinson for two completions netting over 20 yards to set up a game tying field goal. The kick was good, but Mahomes would not take another snap.
The Patriots won the coin toss to receive the ball to start the overtime period, which is essentially a death sentence for any defense against Tom Brady in a do-or-die situation. The 41-year-old led a 13 play, 75-yard scoring drive that included three third-and-10 conversions down the stretch. The last of which was a 15-yard connection with tight end Rob Gronkowski, who came up big for New England all night and set them up for the win in the red zone. Burkhead would finish off the drive to send the Patriots to Atlanta with a 37-31 victory.
Mahomes did not get a chance in overtime, but the Texas Tech product still finished his first season as a starter with experience, confidence and promise for the future. He turned his night around in the second half after having no answers for Belichick’s defensive attack in the first. He went blow for blow with the most worthy possible counterpart down the stretch and gave his team a chance.
But this night, like so many others, belonged to Brady and his refusal to lose. New England’s quarterback will now have more Super Bowl appearances than any one franchise in the NFL and has a shot at his sixth title.
While the AFC Championship did not have the same controversial moment we saw in New Orleans, there were a number of calls I saw down the stretch that I disagreed with. Missed calls are part of the game, but it seemed strange to me that a blatant pass interference could go uncalled in the early game while there were minor infractions called in critical moments of the late game. But regardless of how we got here, just two teams remain after the most thrilling championship Sunday of all time. The Rams and Patriots will have two weeks to prepare for their matchup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. We will breakdown what to expect in Super Bowl LIII and make our official pick in next week’s publication.