The Conference Championship matchups are set. But how did we get here? I’m taking a look at the key play for each team that vaulted them into the next round and one step closer to the Super Bowl.
It’s easy to look at touchdowns or turnovers as the great separator between two teams. What isn’t easy is finding a play that many have forgotten (maybe it IS a touchdown or a turnover?). These underrated plays are truly what sets teams apart on these Super Bowl runs. Momentum can be all you need, and each of these plays swung momentum in a HUGE way!
Each game was competitive last week (mostly)…except for the New York Giants vs. Philadelphia Eagles. Philadelphia absolutely boat-raced New York, so choosing one play was difficult. Here is where I landed.
In a 14-0 game with 34 seconds remaining in the first quarter, the Giants’ chances went from little…to dang near zero. Following a 19-yard pass to Matt Breida that got the Giants into Eagles’ territory, disaster struck.
Daniel Jones dropped back to pass, Darius Slayton ran a lazy route, the ball came out too late…and the rest is history. Former Giant James Bradberry jumped the route, intercepting the ball along with any hope the Giants had to make this one competitive. By halftime, this one was 28-0 and the Giants’ season was effectively over. We all know how this one ended.
Chances are, this play didn’t ultimately have a huge impact in a 31-point loss. That said, in a game where the Giants already trailed the most efficient team in the NFL by two scores, points were a must. They were simply outmatched, outcoached, and everything in between in this one. It was not the finest moment in what was a great (and surprising) season for Brian Daboll and company.
San Francisco 49ers
With 6:09 left in the third quarter and the game tied 9-9, Fred Warner made an unbelievable play, especially for a linebacker. Dallas was facing a third-and-five from the 49ers 40-yard line. Dak Prescott dropped back to pass and had his eyes on CeeDee Lamb downfield the entire time.
Warner covered Lamb step-for-step all the way down to the 12-yard line and broke up the pass. That type of coverage is generally reserved for the likes of Darius Slay Jr., Jaire Alexander, etc. (you get the point). The elite coverage on that play undoubtedly brought a single tear of pride to the eye of Darrelle Revis.
The Cowboys committed a false start penalty on the next play, then punted. They scored three more points in the final 21 minutes of the game. Warner had a key interception as well, but good luck finding another linebacker in the league who is making THAT play in THAT spot. Truly remarkable. Take a bow, Fred Warner.
Kansas City Chiefs
Late in the third quarter of a 17-10 game, Patrick Mahomes completed a 27-yard pass to Noah Gray to put the Chiefs into field goal range. Two plays later, an offensive pass interference call on JuJu Smith-Schuster (I’m certain this was his ONE impact on the game) forced Kansas City into a third-and-19.
The penalty pushed Kansas City out of field goal range and back to the Jacksonville 43-yard line. Mahomes did what he does, making a fantastic throw under pressure and getting the ball to Travis Kelce. Kelce didn’t get a first down, and didn’t even get close. But what he DID do was pick up 11 yards after the catch to put the Chiefs in range for a Harrison Butker field goal.
Just seven plays later, Jacksonville scored what would have been the game-tying touchdown if not for that play by Mahomes and Kelce. The two may just be the best duo in the NFL, and smart, disciplined plays like this one show you exactly why they have had so much success.
The Bengals fully dismantled the Buffalo Bills in their own backyard last Sunday by a score of 27-10. The game was actually closer for most of the game than the score would indicate. The Bills had opportunities, but the Bengals made plays when they needed them. Check this one out:
Early in the third quarter, the Bills had cut what was once a 14-point deficit down to just 17-10. The momentum was building, and the crowd was behind them. Then the Bengals embarked on a 12-play, 75-yard drive that covered 6:25 on the clock.
The Bengals converted two third down conversions on this drive, but none bigger than this.
Facing a third-and-10 from the Buffalo 40-yard line, Joe Burrow finds Hayden Hurst for the biggest play of the game. Hurst chips Taron Johnson, then releases out to his route, grabs a short pass, then hurdles Jaquan Johnson for an enormous first down. About four minutes later, Joe Mixon found the end zone, and the rest is history.
I hope you enjoyed this, it was a blast to write! What plays did you see that you think were keys in these matchups? I’d love to hear your thoughts!