LOS ANGELES — The most entertaining NFL season in recent memory is about to get better. As we reach the heavyweight phase of the playoffs, the remaining four Super Bowl contenders won’t ruin the fun just to be functional. They’re not stodgy winners obsessed with tradition and refusing to change. They’re all part of the same movement that has made this season — only one year removed from a period of controversy, protest and declining interest — so captivating.
They represent the best of a game undergoing a stunning modernization process: offensive fireworks, coaching ingenuity, emerging stars and reinvigorated legends. There are no underdogs among the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. We’re not talking about betting lines here. We’re talking about the fact that it wouldn’t be surprising if any of the four wins the Lombardi Trophy. The most questioned of this bunch has been the five-time champion Patriots, which seems foolish now. Forecasting their demise is like wondering whether water will cease being wet. The mind should have greater tasks.
For many, there will be great anticipation of the AFC and NFC championship games for two reasons: These are the NFL’s four highest-scoring teams, and both games are rematches of epic regular season showdowns. The Rams were undefeated in November when they went to New Orleans and lost, 45-35, and now they have to go back to the Superdome to try to avenge that setback. In October, the Chiefs suffered their first loss, 43-40, to the Patriots on the road. This time, they get to host Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
The matchups are so appealing that there’s no need to look ahead to the Super Bowl. But if you can’t help yourself, here is what this combination of teams is capable of doing on a big stage: Rams 54, Chiefs 51. Remember that Monday night game? Those teams played perhaps the greatest and wildest regular season game in league history just two months ago. And the thing is, any combination of the four could create a Super Bowl that would be just as compelling.
But don’t focus only on the explosive offenses. There is a lot more to these games and to these teams. There is a lot more for observers to take from their examples, too. Jealous and simple-minded NFL teams are fixated on the points and excitement, and several of them are hiring young offensive minds in hopes of finding the next Sean McVay, who is 24-8 in two seasons coaching the Los Angeles Rams. In time, maybe McVay will prove to be a modern-day Bill Walsh. Or maybe go a notch below and set Mike Shanahan, one of his mentors, as the standard. But no matter how good McVay is at age 32, no matter what he becomes, he is not some blueprint that can be easily followed. He is not easily cloned.
The lesson in McVay’s success, the lesson in the success of all these high-powered offensive teams, is that authoritative, detail-oriented and adaptable leadership makes these systems thrive. There are many styles that can work in the NFL. It’s actually presumptuous and unimaginative to make the breathless declaration that this is an era of offense and focus all the attention on offensive coaches for head coaching openings. We’re just exiting a period in which Seattle, Denver, Carolina and San Francisco all won or played in the Super Bowl because of their great defenses. In this sport, the pendulum keeps swinging. There is no definitive way in which a team should be built, other than it needs to be great on one side of the ball and at least average (or capable of rising to average in big moments) on the other side.
As far as coaching is concerned, it takes a leader with the right schemes to command a 53-player locker room. Leadership, schemes — they go hand in hand. One can’t be more important than the other.
It’s not just the game plan that Belichick devises. It’s how he teaches, the respect he demands and the way his players execute for him. The ability to motivate is paramount, which is why there’s so much fuss about Sean Payton reportedly entering a Saints team meeting last week with three armed guards, $200,000 in cash, the Lombardi Trophy and a Super Bowl ring. He wanted to show his players all that they’re competing for, including $201,000 in playoff bonus money for making a Super Bowl.
The NFL lucked into this season. It has been full of personality and high-caliber performance. The championship games will magnify it all. The coaching matchups are delightful, with young Sean (McVay) battling old Sean (Payton) for the NFC title in a matchup of youthful innovation vs. veteran evolution. In the AFC title game, you have Belichick’s wily strategic brilliance vs. Andy Reid, another ever-evolving offensive mind and the most accomplished active head coach without a Super Bowl ring.
You like quarterbacks? Brady is a GOAT candidate brandishing an underdog mentality right now, barking during a CBS postgame interview Sunday that “everybody thinks we suck and can’t win games.” When he’s not on the field, he will watch Patrick Mahomes, 23, who has had a breathtaking first season as a starter in Kansas City and could be a future face-of-the-NFL type. The record-setting Drew Brees turns 40 on Tuesday, and on the opposite end Sunday will be the 24-year-old Goff, representing the rising talent at the position in the NFC.
You like explosive, versatile running backs? It gets no better than Todd Gurley vs. Alvin Kamara. You like two-headed monsters in the running game? Okay, Gurley and the rejuvenated C.J. Anderson against Kamara and Mark Ingram. Underrated backs? Rookie Sony Michel has given New England a new dimension.
You want extraordinary receiving talent, top-end speed, punishing line play? These games will showcase that, too. Defensive standouts? Yes, contrary to the fascination with offense, there are playmakers on that side of the ball, none better than Los Angeles defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is a candidate for “Player You’d Pick First To Build A Team Around” even with all the great offenses and quarterbacks.
The end of the season doesn’t always represent the best of the NFL. Many years, it reveals which team is the least mediocre. Many years, teams arrive on the big stage and go conservative. Not this time, though. These are potentially great teams that attack. These teams can come back when they fall behind. These offenses don’t simply take what the defense gives them. At their best, they take whatever they want.
They don’t dream about rings, trophies and bonus money. They expect it. Now that everything is on the table, it will be a joy to watch them fight for it.
One year after some dark and polarizing times, the NFL has enjoyed a four-month advertisement of its virtues. I’m not sure the league deserved such great timing. I’m certain an entertaining season does little to erase many of the league’s problems.
But if nothing else, it has been a pleasant distraction. And this ending may be the best part.