After a topsy-turvy two days, the final four is set. The Kansas City Chiefs will host the Titans on Sunday before the 49ers welcome the Green Bay Packers. It’s one grizzled coach (Andy Reid) seeking his first Super Bowl win against three upstarts (Mike Vrabel, Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur). It’s two high-priced quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Garoppolo), one wunderkind on a rookie deal (Patrick Mahomes) and one dirt-cheap journeyman proving he is more than what everyone thought he was (Ryan Tannehill).
The lessons from this weekend are difficult to figure out, which is part of what makes the NFL so fascinating. Here is what to know:
Davante Adams and Richard Sherman could (hopefully) decide which NFC team plays in the Super Bowl. The Packers and 49ers feature a constellation of elite players: Rodgers, Nick Bosa, Za’Darius Smith, Aaron Jones, George Kittle, etc. But if the Packers can keep the game close — something they failed at utterly in their regular season meeting — the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl could be determined by a wide receiver making his case as one of the best in the NFL at his position and a cornerback who did so years ago.
In the Packers’ 28-23 victory over the Seahawks, Adams caught eight passes for 160 yards, including two touchdowns and the 32-yard bomb that effectively sealed the game. Sherman picked off Kirk Cousins while blanketing Adam Thielen and mostly made his side of the field unpassable. It would be wildly satisfying to watch Adams and Sherman duel Sunday in the NFC championship game.
Will it happen? Well, in a pure sense, it’s doubtful. Adams proved the folly of trying to defend him with single coverage against the Seahawks as he turned Seattle cornerback Tre Flowers into a traffic cone. The 49ers play a lot of zone coverage, although Sherman’s interception came in man defense, as he volubly made known afterward.
Regardless of how often they spend Sunday lined up across from each other, Adams and Sherman will help define the NFC championship game. When the 49ers throttled Green Bay, 37-8, in the regular season, Adams caught seven passes for only 43 yards and a touchdown, which was essentially cosmetic. Given the dearth of firepower around Adams in the Packers’ receiving corps, containing him again should be the 49ers’ priority. Sherman has been an all-pro level cornerback. If and when they’re matched up, it’ll be high-level football.
Nobody had more fun in the 2019 regular season than the Ravens, and nobody suffered a more stunning end. Baltimore’s 28-12 loss to the Tennessee Titans does not mean they were not a memorable, wonderful team. But it was a bitter finish and an opportunity squandered. The Ravens will stand next to the 1998 Vikings, 2007 Patriots and 2015 Panthers as great teams that failed to win a championship.
The Ravens’ contention cycle appears to be just dawning, with a 23-year-old quarterback and a loaded roster. But nothing is guaranteed, and little can be predicted in the NFL. The dissolution of a 14-2 season could sting for seasons to come. The Ravens were the healthiest team in the NFL this year, a feat that will be difficult to replicate. Jackson’s contract will not come due for another three seasons, but that day is coming and it will be harder to build around him. The window is now, and it just closed a little. Once the shock of Saturday night fades, that sting will remain for the Ravens.
How did it happen? The Ravens were generally terrible. They fashion themselves as bullies, and the Titans bullied them. They manhandled them on both lines. The Ravens’ two failed fourth-and-one attempts symbolized the Titans’ physical domination.
If the Ravens had one specific regret, it should be panicking after falling behind by two touchdowns in the first quarter. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman abandoned the run completely; the Ravens’ running backs had nine carries all game. Mark Ingram II’s calf injury may have contributed, but Baltimore is not constructed to win like that. You can’t talk about revolutionizing football and then try to win a playoff game by dropping back for three quarters. They should be great again next season, but now they have a long offseason to think about what went wrong.
Russell Wilson can’t do it all. But he almost did Sunday night. Wilson nearly led the Seahawks back from a 21-3 deficit at Lambeau Field to steal a spot in the NFC championship game, and he would have at least gotten one last shot had Seattle’s defense not caved in the final minutes as Green Bay drained the clock. Wilson passed for 277 yards and was also Seattle’s leading rusher with 64 yards, which means he accounted for 341 of the Seahawks’ 375 yards.
Wilson carried the Seahawks to the fourth quarter of the divisional round, and the Seahawks will have to a walk a tightrope to ensure he can take them farther. It’s true they were hamstrung by injuries to running backs Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny and left tackle Duane Brown, and even without them they were one of the last eight teams standing.
But the Seahawks have a challenge this offseason of building around Wilson and continuing to improve even with his massive contract. The Seahawks showed the rest of the league how to maximize a quarterback on a cheap rookie deal, and they are now showing the league how to stay relevant when that quarterback gets expensive. But they also must be realistic about how much they need to do to be a real Super Bowl threat. They finished the regular season outscoring their opponents by only seven points. Wilson’s late-game heroics allowed them to win a gaggle of close games, but that is not a strategy. The Seahawks have a Super Bowl quarterback. Their task is constructing a Super Bowl team around him.
The AFC championship game will be a rematch. In Week 10, the Titans beat the Chiefs, 35-32, with a wild finish, executing a touchdown drive in the final minute after it appeared they wouldn’t get the ball back. The game pushed the Titans to 5-5 and dropped the Chiefs to 6-4. Even though the Chiefs were banged up and the Titans were rising with recently inserted Tannehill, it was hard to envision this as an AFC championship game preview.
Now we know, of course, that it was. It’s hard to take too much out of that game. Mahomes threw for 446 yards after returning from the dislocated knee that kept him sidelined for two games. The Titans have morphed from a decent team to a monster. The Chiefs’ defense, too, changed from that point on. After allowing 35 points, it has yielded 17, nine, 16, three, three, 21 and 31 as the Chiefs have gone 7-0, with those 31 being inflated by special teams gaffes against the Texans.
The most crucial part of the game may be that defense’s ability to contain Henry, who has become one of the league’s most powerful forces. Defensive tackle Chris Jones, perhaps Kansas City’s best defensive player and certainly its best run stopper, missed Sunday’s win after suffering an injury in practice last week. He worked out before the game on the field, but the Chiefs decided he wasn’t able to play. “We’ll go back to the drawing board with that,” Coach Andy Reid said.
“Derrick Henry is something to tackle,” said defensive lineman Khalen Saunders, laughing. “As long as we just keep chipping away at him throughout the game and limit the explosive plays. He’s really the heart of that team. He’s going to make his plays. He’s a 260-pound running back. He’s going to fall forward for four yards. As long as you can limit it and make sure those fall-forwards don’t end up [with] him staying on his feet and going for 60, you got a good chance.”