The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NFL’s best weekend ever shows us why we can’t look away

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass early in his team's thrilling overtime win over the Bills. (Ed Zurga/AP)
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The NFL so often punishes its followers for their devotion. Its owners have plundered cities for new stadiums and effectively blackballed a Super Bowl quarterback for protesting police violence. The sport brutalizes its players. The league is withholding the details of an investigation into a culture of sexual harassment within the Washington franchise. It owns a shameful history of equitable hiring for Black coaches. It dares you to love it.

And along comes a weekend such as this one. Though it may not offer moral assurance, it provides clarity for why the bargain is struck. The games deliver. They just do, undeniably. If you can brook the behavior of the billionaires in the suites and the suits in the league office, the players and coaches on the field will redeem and obscure it all. They will leave you emitting noises you did not know you could make. They will spur you to send text messages composed only of exclamation points. They will make you forget how long you’ve been grabbing your own hair. They will give you a feeling you remember forever.

The four playoff games of the divisional round created perhaps the greatest weekend in the league’s 102-year history. They stretched imagination, then surpassed it. From Joe Burrow’s cool Saturday afternoon through the ballistic duel between Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes on Sunday night, all four were decided when the final play broke a tie score. Three included a change of possession in the final minute of regulation.

It was an exhilarating, exhausting 36-hour smorgasbord. Snow swirled over Lambeau Field. Tom Brady deleted a three-touchdown deficit with a bloodied lip. The Kansas City Chiefs lost the lead with 13 seconds left, then won. Four times, a football flew toward the goal posts as the clock hit zero, seasons and legacies hanging with it in the frigid air. Four times, it sailed through.

The weekend culminated with a game that had people wondering whether it was the greatest game ever played — and wondering with less doubt whether Allen and Mahomes had produced the greatest quarterbacking display ever. The Chiefs’ 42-36 overtime victory determined Kansas City will advance to the next round and that if aliens land and challenge us to a football game, Mahomes gets to be the quarterback.

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In a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game, Allen and Mahomes traded laser beam throws and ingenious scrambles all evening. Every little boy in America dreams of playing quarterback, and nobody can play it like them. Not even their most gifted peers can match Allen’s physical force or Mahomes’s plucky inventiveness. At ages 25 and 26, they are the present and future of the league.

At the end, their duel turned delirious. Trying to lead the Bills to their first Super Bowl since the 1993 season, Allen rifled a touchdown pass on fourth and 13, the last gasp of a 17-play drive that pushed the Bills ahead 29-26 with 1:54 left. Trying to make his third consecutive Super Bowl, Mahomes answered with a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill, and the Chiefs suddenly led 33-29 with 1:02 left. Allen rushed the Bills downfield and slung a 19-yard touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis — Davis’s fourth of the day — with 13 seconds left. Against any other quarterback, maybe on any other day, Buffalo could exhale and exult.

“When it’s grim,” Coach Andy Reid told Mahomes on the sideline, “be the grim reaper.”

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Mahomes zipped two passes into soft coverage and covered 44 yards in 10 seconds. Kicker Harrison Butker was true from 49 yards. The teams had scored 25 points in the final two minutes of regulation. The Chiefs won the coin toss and marched for an inevitable touchdown, thwarting another Bills dream season, reigniting discussion about the NFL’s overtime rules and launching a grand rivalry.

“We’re going to play this team a lot of times in games like this,” Mahomes said afterward.

In the AFC championship game, the Chiefs will face the Cincinnati Bengals, who began the weekend with their own thrills. The Bengals lived in the NFL wilderness for decades, and then they drafted Burrow. He led them to their first playoff victory since 1991 last week. On Saturday, linebacker Logan Wilson intercepted Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s pass with 20 seconds left. Burrow feathered a sideline pass to rookie Ja’Marr Chase, with whom he won a national championship at LSU, and set up rookie kicker Evan McPherson from 52 yards.

“Looks like we’re going to the AFC championship,” McPherson told backup quarterback Brandon Allen — before the kick. He drilled it down the middle, his fourth field goal of the day and his second from beyond 50 yards.

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The upstart Bengals yielded Saturday night to the blue blood 49ers and Packers. The temperature in Green Bay lurched toward zero. Aaron Rodgers, the most skilled quarterback of his era, likely to claim his fourth MVP award next month, took the field in search of his first Super Bowl appearance since 2011. With his top-seeded Packers, Rodgers had another opportunity to match his playoff record to his ability.

The Packers stormed down for an opening touchdown, then bogged down. Late in the fourth quarter, Jordan Willis thrust his long left arm over Green Bay’s overmatched long snapper and blocked a punt. Talanoa Hufanga looked into the sky like a kid catching snowflakes on his tongue, found the ball and scooted into the end zone to tie the score. Jimmy Garoppolo, the quarterback whose team traded up to draft his replacement, recovered from an array of baffling, dangerous throws and led one final drive for a field goal. 49ers 13, Packers 10.

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Rodgers had long ago made himself a central character of this NFL season. He started the year in open rebellion of Green Bay management, having agitated for a trade in the spring. A positive coronavirus test revealed Rodgers had misled the public when he had claimed over the summer to be “immunized” when he was not vaccinated. He cast himself as an independent thinker, even as he spouted misinformation. In an interview two days before the game with ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg, Rodgers called the Biden administration “fake.” For a swath of viewers, Rodgers’s downfall provided schadenfreude and a million easy jokes on Twitter.

Sunday morning, reports surfaced that Brady was mulling retirement at age 44 after winning seven Super Bowls, including last year’s. The Rams’ pass rush added a check mark to the “retire” column. Brady’s Buccaneers fell behind 27-3 early in the third quarter. A furious comeback tied the score with 42 seconds left. Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, acquired in an offseason trade, heaved a deep pass to Cooper Kupp, sprinted 50 yards downfield and spiked the ball with four seconds left — remarkably, the same amount of time left when McPherson and San Francisco’s Robbie Gould trotted on with the score tied the day before. Matt Gay made it three walk-offs. And that was a prelude to Sunday night.

The quartet of games had provided everything the NFL can. You could gawk in awe. You could bask in victory or agonize over loss. You could debate whether Buffalo should have kept the ball in play when the Bills kicked off with 13 seconds left. You could complain about the officiating. You will think about so many moments for so long.

The NFL will continue apace, two more games next weekend, then the spectacle of the Super Bowl. So much around the game can make fans wince, but the game itself remains mesmerizing. The players are so spectacular, so advanced at their craft, so capable of producing drama. We will come back next week. The games will not let us look away.

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