Frankly I didn’t think the NFL’s conference championship weekend was going to approach the resounding excitement of the four games played the previous week.
But it actually did.
If you looked at the two contests, nearing halftime of one and at the end of the third quarter in the other, you might have thought the AFC and NFC Championship battles to determine this year’s Super Bowl matchup, were both letdowns.
And why not?
The Kansas City Chiefs appeared headed to their third consecutive Super Bowl appearance, scoring touchdowns the first three times they had the ball, leading the surprising Bengals 21-3, with less than two minutes remaining in the half.
Cincinnati finally scored a TD with 1:15 left, and the Chiefs, passing up a field goal, failed to get a quick-answer touchdown of their own on fourth and goal at the one.
So, it was still 21-10 KC.
Who knew the Bengals defense would shut down the vaunted Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs attack the rest of the game, including overtime?
There is so much to be said about Cincy’s second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, and how he exhibited remarkable poise and ability to bring his unheralded group back on the road, not to mention his amazing rookie receivers, rookie Ja’Marr Chase, and 2nd year Tee Higgins, along with another rookie, kicker Evan McPherson.
McPherson does it again
But the Cincinnati Bengals are playing in the Super Bowl largely because of their defense, particularly an interception of Mahomes by Vonn Bell in overtime to set up the game winning field goal by McPherson, his second in two weeks.
The Chiefs won the coin toss in overtime, just as they did against the Bills last week, but this time Patrick Mahomes did not lead the touchdown charge to victory. McPherson, who has been perfect in post-season ended the 24-21 affair.
In a league where the have-nots have to take years to climb out of severe doldrums to develop into contenders, the Cincinnati Bengals story would be one for the ages were it not for a similar rapid-fire rise by another team at the start of the 1980’s.
In 1979, the San Francisco 49ers wound up 2-14, the first season for Bill Walsh as head coach. Two years later he captured the Super Bowl, beating the Bengals, of all teams.
The big move, besides hiring what proved to be a legendary Hall-of-Fame coach in Walsh, was installing third-year quarterback Joe Montana as the starter. Montana played all 16 games as a rookie, throwing only 23 passes, made huge strides in a 6-10, second season, before leading the Niners to the title in Pontiac, Michigan.
These Cincinnati Bengals were also 2-14 just two years ago with a rookie head coach Zac Taylor, then drafted Joe Burrow, the number one pick in the draft.
Zac and Joe
After tearing up his knee in November in his first season as a starter from day one, Burrow endured surgery and a grueling rehab and returned this season to lead his team to a Super Bowl.
This is a story you hardly see in the NFL.
Had the 49ers beaten the Rams in the NFC championship game we would have seen two franchises who had been incredible long-shots, make stunning and quick turnarounds to go from 2-14, to the Super Bowl in only two seasons.
But the 49ers didn’t beat the Rams.
Instead, it’ll be veteran Matthew Stafford, with an opportunity he never dreamed would happen, finally getting his big chance after 12 years with the struggling Detroit Lions.
Stafford finally gets there
His trade to the Rams for Jared Goff gave him a new lease on life, and he has delivered big-time, as have veteran receiver Odell Beckham and linebacker Von Miller.
The Rams now-or-never approach acquiring proven veterans have paid off and now LA will be at home for Super Bowl 56.
To get there was the challenge of beating a strong San Francisco club which excelled in every phase of the game.
These two great rivals in the history of the NFL going back to the early 1950’s were meeting for the third time.
Forget about the past results.
This season, the 49ers had defeated the Rams twice, including the final game of the regular season which vaulted the Niners into the playoffs.
Forget about the fact that the 49ers had beaten the Rams six consecutive times.
Montana and Walsh
As much as the media and fans dwell on what happened when teams have faced each other before and the records of those games, past performance is irrelevant.
Every game played by every team is new.
There are different developments in each contest and they define what transpires.
A first rate performance by a quarterback in a game or two, for instance, might not be a repeat the next time.
Hey, check out Patrick Mahomes, for example, the past two games.
In the NFC title matchup, the Rams had controlled the action, but the 49ers managed to lead 17-7, after three.
But like the AFC duel, the momentum and the contest shifted.
It was the Rams who did all the scoring the final quarter, and more important, clamped down on the San Francisco running attack, and made life difficult for QB Jimmy Garoppolo.
So, defense turned the tide in both games, and will likely decide the finale.
In watching the post-game comments of the coaches in last weekend’s battles, I was reinforced in the belief that the story of who wins and who loses rests on those few plays that go either way.
It’s the dropped pass or interception, the deflection that winds up in the hands of a defender, the desperate swipe that induces a fumble, the missed coverage in the secondary on one big scoring pass, the failure to secure a tackle, I could go on and on.
When experts set up a game, and make predictions, there is no way they can anticipate those unpredictable moments that determine the outcome.
Still, it fuels the anticipation for the collision ahead.
It may be meaningless to state what a team must do, but it passes the time leading up to the actual game.
In this case, it’s the Super Bowl, and after the drama of the regular season and the heart-stopping playoffs of the last three weeks, there’s only one left to play.