What We Learned From the N.F.L.’s Conference Championships

The 2021-22 sports year is hellbent on healing wounded fan bases. The state of Georgia saw its Major League Baseball franchise and flagship college football program win titles, Milwaukee won its first N.B.A. championship since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was tossing up sky hooks, and the Cincinnati Bengals are now Super Bowl-bound for the first time in 33 years, after a 24-21 overtime win in Kansas City, Mo.

All season, it felt as though the football world was ready to crown a new quarterback as the “face of the league,” a player ready to step in for the exiting generation that has defined the N.F.L. so far this century. The daytime sports debate shows, podcasts and social media accounts with display names like “@[Quarterback]IsTheGOAT2022” played a five-month game of name-the-successor. One week it was the Chargers’ Justin Herbert, then it was the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, and the Bills’ Josh Allen after that, even as the old guard of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger battled their way into the postseason.

But as has been the case for the past four seasons, Patrick Mahomes again stepped into the breach and led Kansas City to the A.F.C. championship game, again hosted in Arrowhead Stadium. By the halfway point of Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, a third-straight Super Bowl appearance for Kansas City felt like fait accompli: Mahomes already had three touchdowns, the Bengals couldn’t get Ja’Marr Chase open downfield and Kansas City was the better team up front.

Then, Joe Burrow happened.

Activating the same quarterbacking magic-that’s-not-really-magic that he’s used since his 2019 national championship campaign at Louisiana State, Burrow was elite in moving around the pocket and recognizing coverages and blitzes before the snap. On multiple occasions — and what felt like every third down — Chris Jones and the Kansas City pass rush had Burrow dead to rights, only for him to duck under or slide away and move the chains with his arm or legs.

Once Burrow recognized that Kansas City was going to have a safety over the top of Chase for most of the day, he settled into picking out Tee Higgins in the middle of the field, operating against linebackers and safeties that have struggled to stop offenses all season.

Burrow shouldered a major load on Sunday, especially given Cincinnati’s inability to successfully run in regulation. He didn’t do it alone, though: the Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo deserves at least half the credit for the win. Cincinnati started the game playing the same two-deep coverages that slowed Patrick Mahomes and his explosive receiving corps in the regular season, to no avail. Mahomes patiently worked underneath passing windows until Anarumo lost his patience and played man-to-man — and was punished by Tyreek Hill over the top.

Even when all of Kansas City’s receivers were perfectly covered, Mahomes extended plays with scrambles until someone broke open or a running lane was revealed. And, after having his game plan beaten for 30 minutes, Anarumo made a pivotal adjustment that is almost never seen at the professional level: He conceded the pass rush entirely to contain Kansas City’s speed.

Dropping eight into coverage, Cincinnati held up on the back end while Mahomes scanned the field, gambling that the former M.V.P. would get impatient and force throws or be susceptible to coverage sacks. On Mahomes’s first interception, in the third quarter, the edge rusher Trey Hendrickson dropped into a throwing window, forcing a low throw that was deflected and corralled by defensive lineman B.J. Hill.

Down 3 points in the fourth quarter, Kansas City milked the clock in the final six minutes of regulation on what looked to be the game-winning touchdown drive. But the Bengals’ defense again dropped back into coverage, forced back-to-back sacks on second- and third-and-goal, and forced Kansas City to settle for a field goal and overtime.

Then, on the final offensive play of Kansas City’s season, the same kind of coverage led to a forced pass to Tyreek Hill that was picked off by Vonn Bell.

Like Mahomes, Kansas City Coach Andy Reid will face much second-guessing on what he could have done differently. And, as in any N.F.L. loss, there are options. To end the first half, Kansas City took one more shot at the end zone — a swing pass to Hill, who was tackled well short of the goal line — instead of taking a chip-shot field goal that would have stretched its lead to 14 points. Once it was clear that the passing game had lost its rhythm and the Bengals were playing deep in coverage, there were missed opportunities to gain easy rushing yards.

But the truth is, Cincinnati snatched the game away much like it did against Tennessee in the divisional round, thanks to Burrow’s toughness and the adjustments Anarumo made defensively. This isn’t about destiny or magic; the Bengals earned their spot in Super Bowl LVI by outplaying Kansas City.

Let’s state the obvious: It’s difficult to beat an N.F.L. team three times in the same year. In Week 10, Los Angeles was bullied up front and struggled to contain and cover Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. In Week 18, the Rams blew a 17-3 halftime lead to a desperate 49ers team — allowing Aiyuk and Samuel to dominate the second half and overtime.

In those two regular season matchups, Samuel and Aiyuk combined for 31 touches and 416 yards, with Samuel scoring three touchdowns.

There’s no stopping players as talented as the 49ers’ stars, but entering Sunday’s N.F.C. championship game, the Rams’ defense tried to find a way to keep 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan from dialing up big plays for Samuel and Aiyuk to stave off a seventh straight loss to San Francisco. It did just enough to prevent Jimmy Garoppolo from finding the duo late to escape with a 20-17 win in the rubber match of this season and guarantee a spot in a Super Bowl that will be held in the Rams’ home stadium.

Nowhere was the Rams’ dedication to toughness more present than its front seven, which held San Francisco to just 2.5 yards per carry on 20 tries. Samuel and Aiyuk still racked up 167 yards on 15 touches, but Los Angeles rallied to the ball and tackled … hard. Breaking from N.F.L. playoff norms, the Rams held padded practices late in the week to emphasize the need to win individual matchups up front.

Shanahan, famous for his ability to put together a productive run game against anyone, was out of answers by the fourth quarter, and placed the result of the game into quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s hands.

Garoppolo had flirted with throwing away this playoff run in every round: an awful interception in the fourth quarter against Dallas; an inaccurate throw, undercut by Adrian Amos in Green Bay; finally, a Carson Wentz-like flail while in the grasp of Aaron Donald, bouncing off the helmet of JaMycal Hasty and into the arms of Travin Howard to seal Sunday’s result.

San Francisco’s elite pass rush continued to buoy the 49ers through Garoppolo’s struggles on Sunday. Nick Bosa and his clan of defensive linemen had two sacks and performed well as Stafford dropped back nearly 50 times, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Los Angeles’ star receivers, Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., from burning the secondary for over 100 yards each.

With the 49ers clinging to a 17-14 lead with less than 10 minutes to play, San Francisco had pinned Los Angeles deep in its own territory. Looking for an explosive play, Stafford took a shot downfield, but severely underthrew his pass to Van Jefferson. Jaquiski Tartt, deep in the middle of the field, had time to circle underneath the ball but dropped an easy interception — causing a change in energy so palpable the broadcast team noted lingering effects long after it happened. Los Angeles escaped with a field goal on the drive to tie the game.

On the next Rams possession, Stafford punished a third-down blitz with a 12-yard connection to Cooper Kupp that put the Rams in field-goal range and Matt Gay converted his kick to give Los Angeles the lead and set up the disastrous Garoppolo turnover.

Rams Coach Sean McVay finally bested Shanahan because the 49ers could do no more to spread the playmaking pressure around on offense.