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Matthew Stafford deal pays off; Bengals’ D toys with Patrick Mahomes in second half

We now know the teams who will fight for the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 56.

The Cincinnati Bengals will face the Los Angeles Rams on Feb. 13 at the Rams’ home stadium in Inglewood, Calif. The last two Super Bowls will have been played in the home venue of one of the two teams. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winners of Super Bowl 55 last year, were the other team to do it.

Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor and Rams coach Sean McVay know each other well, as Taylor was an assistant under McVay in L.A. Taylor was the Rams’ quarterbacks coach in 2018, the season Los Angeles last played in a Super Bowl.

Here are the winners and losers from the conference championship round of the NFL playoffs.


All week long, media and fans criticized the Bengals’ offensive line. That was deserved; the unit has struggled this season. But Cincinnati is going to the Super Bowl because of Burrow’s pocket presence and quick-thinking ability to escape, which he has shown over the second half of the season and in the playoffs.

Burrow finished with five rushes for 25 yards. But all three of his scrambles, including two in a key fourth-quarter drive that gave the Bengals a 24-21 lead, resulted in first downs. All three came on third downs. Essentially, Burrow knew — once the Kansas City pressure bore down on him — that the only option to move the chains was to make a play with his legs. The Chiefs generated quite a few pressures on Burrow but sacked him only once.

During his postgame comments Sunday, one of the first things Burrow did was shout out his offensive line.

Different ways to build a team

The Bengals are a frugal franchise that looks to build through the draft and hit on players not only in the early rounds — with quarterback Burrow, receiver Ja’Marr Chase, running back Joe Mixon and safety Jessie Bates the most obvious ones — but also in the late rounds. Tight end C.J. Uzomah and place kicker Evan McPherson come to mind.

Compare that to the aggressive Rams, who have gone all-in to win now. They traded for quarterback Matthew Stafford in an offseason blockbuster, but also added edge rusher Von Miller in a buzzy midseason trade. The Rams signed receiver Odell Beckham Jr. after the Browns released him. Corner Jalen Ramsey was a huge trade acquisition in 2019, and L.A. had been aggressive in free agency with signings like linebacker Leonard Floyd.

The Rams even coaxed safety Eric Weddle out of retirement for a late-season run, and he has been a key piece in the playoffs, leading the team in tackles against the 49ers. All this to say there are different ways to win in the NFL. The commonality here is that talent evaluation, cultural and schematic fits and open-minded coaching that maximizes talent can’t be sacrificed.

Matthew Stafford

Prior to this season, Stafford hadn’t won a single playoff game. He now has two with a chance at the biggest prize. In Los Angeles’ 20-17 victory, Stafford was simply the better passer. He completed 31-of-45 passes for 337 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford celebrates Sunday's win.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford celebrates Sunday’s win.

The mark of a great quarterback is one who elevates the play of those around him. Cooper Kupp was always a talented receiver and it’s clear he worked on improving his game. But the relationship he has with Stafford could blossom into one of the all-time great pairings. Even his rapport with Odell Beckham Jr. that has been building over the second half of the season is special.

WHAT WE LEARNED: Unexpected Super Bowl matchup

‘I’VE GOT TO BE BETTER’: Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes blames himself for late collapse

COSTLY DROP: 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt takes blame for dropped interception

Stafford still needs to clean up the occasional risky throw and untimely turnover, but the NFC title game showed just how effective he can be when pressure forces the timing of the offense out of rhythm. The Rams were always a contender when Jared Goff was under center. With Stafford (and some other additions), they’re one of the best teams in the league.


Second-half Patrick Mahomes

Mahomes’ collapse in the third and fourth quarters is one of the most stunning reversals from one half to the next you will ever see. Look at these numbers: In the first half, he threw only three incompletions on 21 attempts for 220 yards with three passing scores.

In the second half, he completed only 8-of-17 for 55 yards with two interceptions. Some of the problems were out of his control. One week after the Kansas City coaching staff was masterful, a series of questionable play calls and mismanaged timeouts and situations put the Chiefs at a disadvantage.

Mahomes was so effective in the first half because he took advantage of what the Cincy defense was giving him: underneath throws and spaces along the seams. He also flushed out of the pocket and found receivers down the field.

In the second half, Mahomes often tried to do too much. The Bengals nearly doubled the plays in which they dropped eight defenders into coverage, going from 24% in the first two quarters to 45% after intermission. That clogged up zones in the secondary, and Mahomes was often indecisive and let Bengals pass rushers eventually get to him. He was also forcing throws. The Bengals and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo deserve a ton of credit for adjusting after a rough first half.

That Jaquiski Tartt dropped pick

It’s always more than a single play — we can look at San Francisco’s final two offensive possessions, in fact — but no play had a bigger impact than the dropped would-be interception by 49ers safety Tartt. It came with 9:47 left in the game, when San Francisco held a three-point lead.

You can certainly fault the 49ers’ defense on the subsequent plays for an unnecessary personal foul and allowing third-down conversions, but the dropped interception was as easy a play as a defensive back will ever have to make a pick. The 49ers were lucky it ended up costing them only a field goal and not a touchdown, but it was still a three-point swing.

Not taking the points

Because it came with the Chiefs already up 18, perhaps not enough was made of Kansas City’s greedy decision to run one more play with no timeouts before the half. It came with only nine seconds, but after Bengals cornerback Eli Apple stopped receiver Tyreek Hill short of the end zone, the clock bled out. Mahomes also needed to show better awareness than to throw a pass four yards behind the line of scrimmage in that situation.

Jimmy Garoppolo

He has been much-maligned despite a positive record as a starting quarterback, but Garoppolo simply didn’t do enough Sunday to secure a spot as a reliable franchise quarterback. It’s not all bad, but he so often misses open players, most commonly with overthrows, is prone to questionable decisions that lead to turnovers or turnover-worthy plays, and he sometimes fades late in games.

Football is a team game, yes, but it’s the highly compensated quarterbacks who are expected to make plays when games are on the line. So while the San Francisco offensive line allowed the Rams to generate a lot of pressure in the final two series, Garoppolo didn’t do enough to move the ball.

The 49ers ran only six plays in their final two drives, going for -8 yards. They punted once, and Garoppolo threw an interception on what may be his final moment as a 49er. The time to relay a play can also be blamed, but Garoppolo was even responsible for a delay of game. Next season could be the start of the Trey Lance era in San Francisco.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL winners, losers: Stafford deal pays; 49ers have decision to make

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