Upsets, heroics, late drama mark NFL divisional round

Jake Blancher, Associate Sports Editor

NFL divisional round
The NFL’s conference championship weekend slate is set with the Bengals preparing to face Kansas City and the 49ers traveling down the West Coast to face the Rams. (Jada Roth)

If the NFL league office hired a team of writers to script this past weekend’s divisional round contests, they likely could not have crafted more hectic, nail-biting Hollywood excitement, with each and every game ending on a walk-off score.

The first divisional-round matchup took place on Saturday afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee where the top-seeded Tennessee Titans were upset by rising superstar, and local Louisiana legend, Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals.

The game was a low scoring and tight affair throughout, and it looked to be tilting in the Titans’ favor, as the Bengals could not seem to slow down neither the Titans rushing attack — headlined by the monstrous Derrick Henry, averaging over 5 yards a carry — nor their relentless pass rush which recorded nine sacks on the day, a playoff record, including three from breakout defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons.

Deep into the fourth quarter, the Titans were slowly advancing into field goal range with the possibility of victory increasing with each captured yard. However, with under two minutes remaining, a timely interception by sophomore linebacker Logan Wilson near midfield gave the Bengals just enough time to attempt and convert a game-winning field goal, courtesy of rookie kicker Evan McPherson. This secured the Bengals their first spot in a championship game since 1988.

That same night, the other number-one seed, the Green Bay Packers, were similarly upset. They faced the red-hot San Francisco 49ers, who were 8-2 in their past 10 games, dating back to week 10 of the regular season.

In the snowy, sub-zero tundra that is Lambeau Field in January, both teams struggled to put points on the board, with only one offensive touchdown recorded the entire game. Yet, neither the 49ers’ offense nor defense won them the game. Rather, it was their remarkable teams that made the difference. In the final seconds before halftime, safety Jimmie Ward blocked a 39-yard attempt by kicker Mason Crosby to hold the Packers lead to just 7. 

After trading field goals and Green Bay holding a 10-3 lead, unlikely heroes Jordan Willis and Talanoa Hufanga, both defensive backups, emerged late in the fourth quarter. Willis blocked the Packers punt attempt, while Hufanga recovered the football and returned it for their lone touchdown of the game, allowing the 49ers’ largely anemic offense to remain on the sidelines, decisively shifting the momentum to the visiting 49ers. 

The Packers promptly got the ball back, but they were held to negative yardage and punted the ball back, this time effectively, to the 49ers with just over three minutes on the clock. The 49ers ran the ball eight straight times, accruing 44 yards to set up kicker Robbie Gould, who split the uprights with a 45-yard game-winning field goal

This will be the 49ers’ second NFC championship game appearance in the past three years under phenom head coach Kyle Shanahan.

The first game on Sunday pitted the reigning Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by legend Tom Brady, against the star-studded Los Angeles Rams. The Rams came out firing on all cylinders, dominating from the opening kickoff and extending their lead to 27-3 halfway through the third quarter

In typical Tom Brady fashion, the Buccaneers came storming back, putting up 24 points in the next 20 minutes, including a game tying 9-yard touchdown run by Leonard Fournette on fourth down. 

Yet the 42 seconds in regulation time proved ample for Cooper Kupp and the prolific Rams offense. Kupp has arisen as one of the NFL’s premiere receivers, having earned the receiving triple crown this year, the first to do so since 2005, leading the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. 

And so naturally, it was Kupp who first caught a 20-yard pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford and then outran the entire Bucs secondary to haul down a 44-yard catch up the seam on the very next play. Stafford quickly spiked the ball to stop the clock and allow Matt Gay to convert a short 30-yard field goal for the win.

Despite Brady’s heroic efforts, the Buccaneers came up just short. The Rams will face the 49ers in an NFC West bout this Sunday at 5:30 p.m. CST.

If these first two thrilling games did not have America reaching for its heart medication, Sunday night surely did, with perhaps the most exhilarating game of all time between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills in a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game. Two of football’s very best young quarterbacks, superstars Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen dueled in a shootout for the ages that set a myriad of records.

While the first 58 minutes of gameplay featured a 75-yard pass to Gabriel Davis, who finished the game with eight receptions for 201 yards and four touchdowns, a playoff record, but belied the offensive firepower unleashed during the final two minutes of the game where 25 points were scored, the second most ever in a Super Bowl-era NFL game.

First, the Bills executed a slow and methodical 17 play, 75-yard drive where they converted two fourth downs, including a 27-yard strike from Allen to Davis on fourth-and-13. Buffalo topped off the drive with a two-point conversion to star receiver Stefon Diggs, to give the Bills a 29-26 lead with a minute and 56 seconds remaining.

Just five plays later, Mahomes hit Tyreek Hill on a 15-yard pass en route to another touchdown. Hill then used his otherworldly speed to outrun the entirety of the Bills defense, flashing a peace sign en route to a 64-yard touchdown, giving the Chiefs a 33-29 lead with 62 ticks left in the game.

Allen immediately responded with speed and focus, driving 75 yards and scoring a touchdown in 49 seconds in yet another touchdown to Davis to take a 36-33 lead, for the third lead change since the two minute warning. This left just 13 seconds left on the clock for Mahomes and the Chiefs.

In less time than it takes for two rodeos, Mahomes was able to advance the ball 44 yards. He connected with his two favorite targets. First, a 19-yard pass to Hill. Then, the Texas Tech product hit his all-pro tight end Travis Kelce on an improvised backyard football route. Capping off the successful drive was Harrison Butker, who struggled earlier in the game, but converted a 49-yard field goal to tie the contest at 36, sending it into overtime.

Having won the coin toss, the Chiefs made quick work of the Bills defense, moving the ball 75 yards in just eight plays. The drive finished with a toe-tap touchdown by Travis Kelce, sending the Chiefs to their fourth straight AFC championship game where they will have a chance to reach their third-straight Superbowl.

These games left NFL fans with their hearts racing and jaws dropped but also questioning the NFL’s overtime rules which provided the Bills no chance to touch the ball in overtime and match the Chiefs’ score.

Tune in Sunday at 2:05 p.m. CST to watch the Chiefs host the Bengals in another matchup of elite young signal callers.