NFL 2021 Power Rankings: Mahomes’ magic runs out, Burrow is Joe Cool, and the Rams are who they are

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 10:24, 4 February 2022

And then there were two. On the heels of a Divisional Round for the ages, the NFL’s ‘final four’ squared off in a fascinating pair of contests on Championship Sunday. In Southern California, things unfolded largely on-script. In K.C., however, Joe Burrow and the Bengals made sure we got our daily dose of drama.

The 2021 (technically, 2022, but you know the drill) AFC and NFC Championship Games are in the book! This is it! It’s all to play for, with TWO teams remaining, a single victory away from hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

If you’d care to look back at our preseason previews for not only these teams, but the entire league

AFC NorthEastSouth and West; and the NFC NorthEastSouth and West).

So, how did NFL’s ‘final four’ stack up on Championship Sunday?

1 Cincinnati Bengals (won AFC Championship Game in Kansas City vs. Chiefs, 27-24). I can’t imagine the odds that you’d have had to offer someone to attract even a penny of wagering action on the Bengals the moment after the Chiefs took a 21-3 lead. At that moment, the Chiefs certainly looked imperious – which is not terribly shocking, but also not something to be glossed over. However, by halftime, the Bengals, after an absolute nightmare of a first quarter, though not quite playing well, weren’t actually playing all that badly.

What’s fascinating is that, while the Bengals were not as bad as their first half deficit might have suggested, they were not as irrepressibly spectacular as their astounding comeback, on the road, against Patrick Mahomes, would initially lead one to believe. And, in fact, that is what makes this team scary, both for the Rams on Super Sunday, and for the AFC going forward.

Faced with a seemingly insurmountable deficit against the most elite of competition, this team assumed the identity of its leader: second-year quarterback, ascending superstar and everyone’s new internet best friend, Joe Burrow. Rather than strain for the spectacular, the Bengals kept their heads. They returned to the field after halftime calm and unpanicked. They kept perspective (‘as bad as that start was, we’re only down 11!’), they executed and, when Mahomes and the Chiefs began to meltdown in the second half, the Bengals remained calm and unpanicked, and didn’t try to do too much. They stayed the course, limited mistakes (though Burrow did throw a second half interception) and continued to execute. They continued making incremental progress as the Chiefs fell away.

In the end, that was enough for a miraculous comeback and the franchise’s third trip to the Super Bowl.

2 Los Angeles Rams (won NFC Championship Game at home vs. 49ers, 17-20). There’s a case to be made that the Rams were actually the best team we saw on Championship Weekend, and maybe they were. Truth be told, at this point in the season, it’s simply a question of being in the top-two, with the opportunity to take the field with the Lombardi Trophy on the line.

Additionally, my personal reason for placing the Rams second is that, against the 49ers’ limited offense and stellar defense, the Rams won in the way that we’d have expected. Offensively, it didn’t feel like they set the world on fire, but they racked up just under 400 yards on 76 plays, with Matthew Stafford completing 69% of his passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns – those touchdowns to Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr.

Meanwhile, the defense – admittedly, facing the least daunting challenge of the weekend (neither a slight nor a value judgement, but a simple statement of fact) – sufficiently stifled the 49ers offense, holding Jimmy Garoppolo to a 53% completion percentage and, more impressively, holding the Niners‘ running attacks to under three yards per carry.

The Rams impressed on Sunday, exactly as expected. They came out, with a strong sense of who they are as a team, and executed accordingly. As a result, they’ve got one more game on their home field for the biggest prize in the sport.

3 San Francisco 49ers (lost NFC Championship Game in Los Angeles vs. Rams, 17-20). It’s tough not to feel a bit bad for the 49ers’ defense. Though their secondary was positively torched by Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., this group limited the Rams’ running to two and a half yards per carry, and collectively managed to stave off much of the danger of the Rams’ attack, and allowed a more-than-surmountable 20 points.

As far as the offense is concerned, I don’t know that there’s much in the way of new material out there right now. One of the worst-kept secrets of the season was that the Niners had gone as far with Jimmy Garoppolo as they could. That they somehow found their way to the NFC title game only delayed the inevitable.

What we saw from Garoppolo in the NFC title game goes a long way (all the way?) toward explaining why Kyle Shanahan and the Niners will be putting their eggs in the Trey Lance basket next season. Though he averaged nearly eight yards per pass attempt and threw two touchdowns and one interception – just like Matt Stafford – there was never a sense that Jimmy G was going to take control of the game and spearhead a victory – despite facing a deficit of just three points.

Garoppolo is an NFL quarterback, and he will undoubtedly have a job, probably as a starter, as soon as his talents are available on the market. However, it won’t be with the Niners. In San Francisco, meanwhile, the challenge now is to develop Lance into the type of versatile and dynamic signal-caller that, in combination with Deebo Samuel, Greg Kittle and the offense, and an excellent defense, can turn this team into a juggernaut.

4 Kansas City Chiefs (lost AFC Championship Game at home vs. Bengals, 24-27). What went down on Sunday in Kansas City will, for some time, rank as one of the most inexplicable results in NFL playoff history.

The Chiefs, on the heels of a sixth straight division title, had become the first team to host four consecutive conference championship game. A little more than a quarter into the game, a third trip to the Super Bowl in four years seemed an absolute guarantee. HOWEVER…

Just prior to halftime, with the Bengals having just put their first touchdown on the board, the Chiefs, leading 21-10 and on the Cincinnati 1-yard line, found themselves short a timeout, as head coach Andy Reid had burned one contemplating whether or not to challenge a play earlier in the half. Had they had that timeout, they’d have had the option to aggressively try to punch in a backbreaking touchdown before halftime, while keeping an all-but-guaranteed three points in their back pockets. I maintain that a score of any kind on that drive probably keeps things chugging along for K.C.

In the absence of that timeout, however, the Chiefs risked only being able to run a single play. Though the decision to try and punch in that touchdown is the one that should always be taken, that risk, combined with the most uncharacteristic men mental flub we’ve ever seen from Patrick Mahomes sent the Chiefs into the locker room empty-handed.

At that point, all was not lost. With a half to play, the NFL’s best team over the past half-decade had a double-digit lead at home. And yet, that shortfall heading into halftime was clearly more than something to be shrugged off.

What took place in the second half almost beggars belief. The team as a whole was discombobulated and error-prone in a way we’ve not seen in recent history and – even more incredibly – Patrick Mahomes was bad. Like, BAD. Of course, everyone is entitled to a bad day at the office, and Mahomes certainly has earned more than enough goodwill for this to quickly become water under the bridge.

And by and large, that’s the takeaway here. There are no broad, sweeping statements to make. We’ve not had some grand revelation. The Chiefs are still the NFL gold standard, and Patrick Mahomes is still the best and most magical player at the most important position in the sport. They just had their collective worst day at the office at a very inopportune time.

There may come a point when not fully translating all of this massive regular season success into Super Bowl wins begins to take its toll on the Chiefs, For the time being, however, this team, as currently constituted, deserves our trust. They will be back, and they will once again be great. On Championship Weekend, though, they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory – that will get you relegated to the bottom of the rankings.


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