Rost: Lessons learned from the 4 NFL conference championship teams
Jan 31, 2023, 10:32 AM
(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
And then there were two. The Chiefs and Eagles made it through the NFL conference championship weekend and will face off in two weeks at Super Bowl LVII, marking the first time since 2017 that both No. 1 seeds will play each other in the Super Bowl.
But before we preview that game, let’s look back at the lessons we learned from each of the final four teams in the conference championship round.
• Lesson learned from the Bengals: Sometimes it really does come down to one unlucky moment
Remember Packers special teamer Brandon Bostick?
Of course you do. But it’s not because he worked his way up the NFL ranks as an undrafted receiver out of a Division-II school, a story that’s impressive enough on its own. Rather, you remember him for his worst moment: in the 2014 NFC Conference championship game between the Seahawks and Packers, Bostick was the Green Bay player who misplayed Seattle’s onside kick, allowing it to be recovered by Seattle’s Chris Matthews – perhaps the most vital play in the Seahawks’ improbable comeback victory. Robert Mays recalled the post-game locker room during his recent episode of The Athletic Football Show.
“He had crawled inside his locker like he was trying to disappear,” Mays said. “The only thing you could see were the tips of his shoes coming out of the locker. He was trying to just go away. And obviously that shapes his entire career.”
Nine years later, a similar story played out at Arrowhead. The Bengals and Chiefs were tied at 20 and Kansas City was driving from its 47-yard line. On third-and-4 with 17 seconds left, a hobbled Patrick Mahomes scrambled toward the first down marker near the Chiefs sideline and ran out of bounds, where he was closely followed and pushed by Bengals defensive lineman Joseph Ossai. There was no malicious intent on the play; Ossai was running full speed in pursuit of Mahomes before the quarterback stepped out, but both players were out of bounds when the touch occurred. Unnecessary roughness. 15 yards.
A few Bengals players celebrated, and for good reason. The foul put Kansas City in field goal territory and with three seconds left kicker Harrison Butker connected on a 45-yard field goal to send the Chiefs to the Super Bowl and the Bengals back home to Cincinnati.
Ossai hunched over on the sideline, where he was consoled by a teammate. After the game the 22-year-old rookie took questions from reporters through tears. Teammate B.J. Hill stood by his side in support, occasionally deflecting what he considered to be more insensitive questions.
That game between Seattle and Green Bay, and the one between Cincinnati and Kansas City, was hard-fought and could’ve been won by either side. Yes, Bostick erred on his special teams assignment, but on six of Green Bay’s seven previous drives the offense ended with either a punt or an interception. On the drive preceding the onside recovery, the Packers defense allowed three explosive plays and a touchdown. At Arrowhead on Sunday, the Bengals allowed a 29-yard return from Chiefs receiver Skyy Moore to give the offense great field position before the ball was snapped. Without that return, is the same penalty from Ossai nearly as costly? Likewise, the Bengals offense came away without a touchdown on two of three visits inside the red zone.
When great teams are evenly matched, sometimes all it takes is one mistake. This might be the toughest and most unfair of the lessons these teams reminded us of Sunday. For Ossai’s sake, let’s hope that in 10 years when you’re asked that same question – “Remember Joseph Ossai?” – his worst moment is overshadowed by a few great ones.
• Lesson learned from the Chiefs: Sometimes having the better QB is enough
Joe Burrow is a phenomenal player.
In fact, Pro Football Focus graded Burrow as the better quarterback in Sunday’s AFC Conference game (a grade you could fairly argue, but is one nonetheless impressive).
But there’s a grade, and then there’s a performance. Let me rephrase: there’s 31 quarterbacks, and then there’s Patrick Mahomes.
That’s how the NFL feels right now at least. Mahomes, playing on a badly sprained ankle, gutted his way through a two-touchdown, 326-yard night. It didn’t matter that the Bengals tried to take Travis Kelce, his top target, out of the game with double coverage or did their best to pressure him with three sacks.
“He just shows you look, whatever game you want to play is a game that I can play,” Michael Bumpus said Monday. “You want me to sit in the pocket? For sure. You want me to blitz me? He’s one of the best in the league against the blitz. You want me to make a play at the end of the game? Done.
“Did he get some help from the refs? Every game you can say that. Yeah, the Chiefs got a little bit of help, but he still had to throw the football, he still had to lead, he still had to complete a bunch of passes, Kelce still had to do his thing. The best quarterback won… but he was pushed by probably the second-best quarterback in the league.”
• Lesson learned from the Eagles: Football is still a battle won in the trenches
Wild concept, right?
The simplest rule of football remains true whether it’s 1950 or 2023. No matter whether the NFL is seeing more points scored and yards accrued than ever before, the Eagles reminded us that one thing remains true: the game is won and lost up front.
Philadelphia graded out as Pro Football Focus’ best offensive line during the regular season. They also finished the year with 70 sacks, 15 more than the next closest team (which, coincidentally, will be the one they’ll face in two weeks). Four different Eagles defenders had double digit sacks.
This is perhaps the lesson that sticks most in Seattle, a team that’s desperately in need of defensive line help (for example, no Seahawks defender has finished a season with double-digit sacks since Frank Clark and Jarran Reed both did it in 2018).
“Football without big boys is 7 on 7,” Bumpus said. “That’s not real football. Football is when it’s physical. Football is when its third-and-1 and you need a quarterback sneak to continue a drive. Football is when it’s late in the game, two minutes left, they’ve got one timeout you’ve got three, and you’re trying to milk the clock. That’s when it gets real physical. And that’s why it’s so hard to find these big boys. They’re not just walking down the street right now… so when you get one and you can get a performance like you did this weekend from the Eagles’ offensive line or from Haasan Reddick, you gotta love it.”
• Lesson learned from the 49ers: Turns out you can’t win with “just anyone” at QB
A Super Bowl matchup between the Chiefs and 49ers would’ve been a fascinating one.
It wouldn’t have just been because the two were among the NFL’s best teams this season. It would also have been for the team building debate it could inspire: would you rather try to find the league’s best passer and pay him big money, or build a stacked roster and plug in a significantly cheaper quarterback?
That’s what it seemed like the 49ers had become this year, and it was a conversation followed by Seahawks fans for obvious reasons. Brock Purdy, the final pick of the 2022 NFL draft, was San Francisco’s third-string passer when he filled in for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo. Purdy finished the regular season without a loss as a starter. The assumption was that there was so much talent around him that just about anyone could’ve been plugged into the role. But that’s not really giving Purdy enough credit.
“You need your type of quarterback, but it can’t just be any quarterback,” Bumpus said. “You need to tip your cap to Purdy a bit more. And then Kyle Shanahan as well for getting him prepared.”
With Purdy knocked out of the game, the 49ers were a less efficient offense. And with one hand tied behind their back after fourth-stringer Josh Johnson was knocked out as well, they became a nonexistent one.
If there was one other lesson – rather, a suggestion – we could learn from this one, it’s this: the NFL should once again allow teams to carry an emergency quarterback.