The tackle looked routine, a hit that happens hundreds of times each Sunday from August through January. Mack Wilson wrapped his arm around Patrick Mahomes’s shoulders and dragged him to the turf, stopping an option carry at the first-down sticks. Mahomes stayed on one knee and stood slowly. His eyes glassed, and his legs wobbled. He limped off the field with each arm slung over a trainer. Mahomes might be the best to ever play football, but he is not immune from football.
The Kansas City Chiefs said Mahomes was evaluated for a concussion, and he did not return after exiting early in the second half Sunday. The Chiefs outlasted the Cleveland Browns and advanced to the AFC championship game after a roller-coaster fourth quarter by backup Chad Henne, but the entire NFL shook a little when Mahomes trembled. The reigning Super Bowl MVP suffered the most feared injury in the sport, and it remains to be seen whether he can play next week.
Mahomes became the second MVP to suffer a head injury in the divisional round. Lamar Jackson didn’t play in the fourth quarter of the Baltimore Ravens’ loss to the Buffalo Bills after his head slammed against the turf. It was a sign of progress, perhaps, that both quarterbacks did not return and fans seemed to accept their absences as a matter of course.
With or without Mahomes, the Chiefs will host the Bills, who are trying to make their first Super Bowl in a generation against the team that won it last year. If Mahomes plays, championship weekend will be a contrast in quarterbacks.
The AFC would feature Mahomes and Josh Allen, passers aged 25 and 24 who possess extreme arm strength and uncanny athleticism. The NFC will have Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, ages 43 and 37. They are the best quarterbacks of the past dozen years, inarguably the most successful quarterback ever and one of the most talented.
All four quarterbacks emerged after an uneven weekend. The Green Bay Packers are rolling, Drew Brees is done, and this is what to know.
Tom Brady is going back to championship weekend. It is difficult to place Brady’s career in context, because what he has accomplished is so far beyond any career in NFL history. At 43, Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC championship game with a 30-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
It will be the 14th conference title game Brady has played in and his ninth in 10 years. He has won 32 playoff games — double Joe Montana, who ranks second on that list. He came to a franchise that had not won a playoff game since the 2002 season and notched at least two postseason victories. The franchise he left, which he had led to 11 straight division titles, missed the playoffs.
The Packers are rolling, especially on offense, and scoring with them at frigid Lambeau Field will be a tall task. But Brady has taught us never to count him out.
The end is bitter for Drew Brees. For the past four seasons, the Saints have maxed out their salary cap to build contenders, content to pay a financial penalty in future years. The future has arrived without the payoff they wanted. The Saints won 11, 13, 13 and 12 regular season games over the past four seasons. All it got them ultimately was one appearance in the NFC title game and three home playoff losses.
The Saints’ unfulfilled renaissance ended with the loss to Tampa Bay that probably doubled as Brees’s final game. For the second straight season, the Saints fell victim to Brees’s glaring lack of arm strength. In last year’s playoff loss, the Saints did not gain more than 18 yards unless Taysom Hill touched the ball. On Sunday, the only Saints pass that gained more than 16 yards was thrown by backup Jameis Winston on a trick play. Brees simply could not produce explosive plays, and it allowed Tampa Bay’s defense to cling to receivers with impunity, which led to three interceptions and a lost fumble.
Brees will go down as one of the all-time best, a Super Bowl champion who overcame a career-threatening shoulder injury and doubts about his height. But his résumé is far from spotless. After winning the Super Bowl, Brees went 5-7 in the playoffs and missed the postseason four times. And he never reached a second Super Bowl, let alone won another.
“I’m going to give myself an opportunity to think about the season and think about a lot of things, just like I did last year, and make a decision,” Brees said during a video news conference after the loss. But everything about the performance looked like the end.
Andy Reid has some guts. The boldest decision of the playoffs sealed the Chiefs’ harrowing victory, and it came from the league’s most aggressive coach. The Chiefs faced fourth and inches near midfield with about a minute left after Henne’s third-and-14 scramble fell just short. When they lined up to go, especially with Henne in shotgun, it seemed like a ruse to draw the Browns offside.
It was not. Henne rolled right, Tyreek Hill ran a quick out, and Henne delivered a simple pass that allowed the Chiefs to end the game in victory formation.
The play was a snapshot of how much in-game coaching matters. How many coaches would have called a pass play on fourth and inches … from shotgun … with a backup quarterback … when not getting it would have meant the opponent was already in range for a Hail Mary? Surely, most would have punted. Reid saw an opportunity to end the game, and he wasn’t afraid to take it.
The reason the Chiefs could end the game on that possession also owed to coaching. Browns Coach Kevin Stefanski entered the endgame with only one timeout because he lost one on a no-chance challenge and wasted another trying to prevent a delay of game.
Lamar Jackson has to get better — and the Ravens have to get better around him. The Ravens’ season ended for the second straight January in dispiriting fashion, with their high-powered offense rendered inept. Jackson fell to 1-3 in the playoffs, and the blame for scoring only three points lands on both him and his franchise.
Jackson completed 14 of 24 passes for 162 yards and threw a backbreaking, 101-yard pick-six before a concussion knocked him out of the game on the final play of the third quarter. He was good enough the previous week to beat the Tennessee Titans with his running, and he was good enough to keep the Ravens in the game until the interception against the Bills. But Jackson right now seems like a quarterback capable of leading very good regular season teams but not great January teams.
That doesn’t make Jackson unique — Brees went 2-3 in playoff games over the same span, for what it’s worth — and it doesn’t mean he can’t become a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. In his current state, it is hard to envision Jackson beating three good-to-excellent teams in a row.
But the Ravens need to help him in the passing game. Their receivers don’t scare anyone, and as Jeff Zrebiec of the Athletic noted, the Ravens’ route concepts can be stale and predictable. Baltimore is a well-run franchise that has steps it must take to become a Super Bowl-caliber team.
The Packers have a championship-level offensive line. The Packers’ 32-18 victory over the Los Angeles Rams was a clinic in offensive efficiency and execution. Rodgers passed for 296 yards, and the Packers racked up 188 rushing yards while gaining 28 first downs and scoring on six of their nine possessions against the top-ranked defense in the NFL.
At the heart of the performance was Green Bay’s offensive line, even playing without injured left tackle David Bakhtiari, one of the best linemen in the NFL. Billy Turner filled in capably for Bakhtiari. All-pro center Corey Linsley and second-year guard Elgton Jenkins handled Aaron Donald, who in the first half grew so frustrated he drew a 15-yard penalty for grabbing Jenkins’s face mask after the whistle.
The Rams did not sack Rodgers and hit him only once. He described his blockers as “stellar” and called them the “stars of the game.” The Packers will have another challenge next week against Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Todd Bowles’s aggressive scheme.
Eric Bieniemy might not get a head coaching job. Bieniemy, the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, appeared to be the slam-dunk candidate of this hiring cycle. He is a Super Bowl offensive coordinator who apprenticed under Reid, one of the most reliable mentors of head coaches in the NFL. He had interviewed for at least eight vacancies over the past two years. He was accomplished, and he was ready.
And yet, multiple plugged-in reporters have gotten the sense that Bieniemy will be passed over again. Five of the seven openings have been filled, including the Detroit Lions’ hiring of Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell and the Los Angeles Chargers’ choice of Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley.
The fact that Kansas City remains in the playoffs is a legitimate hurdle because it affects interview schedules, and the NFL should do more to address how winning in the playoffs hurts aspiring head coaches. But any idea that Bieniemy is not qualified, or overqualified, is absurd.
Bieniemy’s plight reminds of a story Tony Dungy told last year, when asked if he was surprised Bieniemy had not yet landed a job.
“I’m not surprised, because I’ve seen it before,” Dungy said late in the 2019 regular season. “This played out 20 years ago with Mike Holmgren. Green Bay was winning, and Mike was developing these great offenses, and they’ve got Brett Favre. Everybody that went through that position — Andy Reid, [Steve] Mariucci, Mike’s the head coach, he’s calling the plays, but it’s a great system. Everybody wants that. Mariucci gets a job. Andy gets a job.
“Sherman Lewis is the next in line. They had the same type of success, and Sherman doesn’t get a job. And why is that? He’s doing the same job that Steve did and the same job that Andy did. But then when it comes to Sherman Lewis, ‘Well, Mike Holmgren really calls the plays, and it’s his offense; we’re really looking for somebody who calls the plays.’ Kind of the same thing happened to Eric last year. It should be a natural progression — ‘Okay, we’re looking for young, dynamic guys. Here’s a guy who’s been in this system. Let me at least talk to him.’ It seems slower to happen for the African American guys.”
Super Bowl LV: What you need to read