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NFL Playoffs: Takeaways from the conference championship games

Awful officiating, more

NFL: AFC Championship Game-New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After a chalky, mostly uneventful stretch of playoff games, the conference championship games delivered. We saw overtime from both the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. In the end, the Patriots and Rams will meet in the Super Bowl on February 3. Let’s look at a few things we can take away from Sunday’s games.

Costly calls

Let’s just get this out of the way up top. Yes, there were some terrible, game-changing calls in these two games. The most obvious being the non-call on Nickell Robey-Coleman’s hit on Tommylee Lewis. But there was also a missed face mask on Jared Goff earlier in that game near the goal line. A phantom roughing the passer call on Tom Brady gave the Patriots a new set of downs when the Chiefs could have taken control. Pass interference was a coin flip call in either game. Though as poor as the officiating was, there were still opportunities for each team to win the game. For example, if New Orleans was able to convert on either of their first two drives for a touchdown rather than a field goal, the Saints might be looking at a blowout win and they don’t have to try to score late in the fourth quarter. The calls were bad — they need to be fixed — but there were many other plays in these games that also mattered.

It wasn’t about the run

The Patriots ran for 176 yards against the Chiefs and the other three teams ran for a combined 166 yards. Still, the games featured plenty of points and no team was out of it because of the lack of a run game. Even New England wasn’t exactly efficient on the ground — those 176 yards came on 48 carries. The Patriots came out early in the game in an attempt to keep the number of possessions low with a run-heavy plan. It worked on the first drive with 15 plays that went 80 yards, ended in a touchdown, and took 8:05 off the clock.

This was a good call against a Chiefs defense that was the worst in the league against the run during the regular season and was one of the few teams that running against made sense. That strategy was only good enough for a 7-0 lead until late in the second quarter when the Patriots needed a drive featuring a 30-yard pass to James White and a 29-yard touchdown pass to Phillip Dorsett to take a two-score lead. Once the Chiefs got into their groove on offense, the Patriots had to switch back to a pass-heavy offense and that’s where their points came

New England won the game by converting 13-of-19 third downs and 11 of those attempts came through the air. The 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to win the game in overtime? The Patriots called eight passes to move the ball down the field before Rex Burkhead punched it in.

In the earlier game, neither team was able to get anything going on the ground. But the Rams were still able to do damage with play-action despite any credible threat of a run game.

A quick release and good o-line eliminates a pass rush

Kansas City ended the regular season seven in Adjusted Sack Rate per Football Outsiders, but they were barely able to get near Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game. Part of that was because of how quickly Brady got rid of the ball when he dropped back to pass. Before New England’s final touchdown drive in regulation, Brady averaged just 2.33 seconds to throw per Next Gen Stats. During the regular season, only 10 sacks — a total of 10 sacks of 1,281 that happened this season — were faster than 2.33 seconds, which made a pass rush nearly impossible. Brady ended the day with 2.51 seconds to throw as he took more time in the pocket on the final drive of regulation and the overtime drive to let plays develop downfield. By that time, the New England offensive line took over and put up the best single-game performance ESPN has tracked with their Pass Rush Win Rate metric — a 91 percent team rate and each individual lineman well above average.

That’s going to have to be the plan again against the Rams in the Super Bowl, who finished second as a team in Pass Rush Win Rate. Aaron Donald had a league-leading Pass Rush Win Rate of 46 percent, but the Saints double-teamed him on 78 percent of plays and held him to just an 18 percent Pass Rush Win Rate.

The Rams are going to have to be more aggressive

Sean McVay is a great offensive mind and play-caller, but the one place he can improve as a head coach is with his aggressiveness and fourth down decision making. During the start of the game when the Los Angeles offense wasn’t quite clicking, the Rams tried too hard to manufacture plays rather than let them happen the way they have all season. There were numerous conservative third down play calls in the first half and Goff ended the game with his average throw going 1.4 yards behind the first down marker despite being one of eight quarterbacks to have an average pass past the sticks during the regular season, per Next Gen Stats.

Then there was the decision to kick a field goal to tie the game on a 4th and goal from the New Orleans 1-yard line with just over six minutes remaining in the game. Los Angeles cost itself at least 10 percent win probability by deciding to kick — the exact number differs depending on where you look. But either way, as an underdog on the road, the move is to try to score. At the worst case, New Orleans has to drive 99 yards to ice the game.

The move did end up working — the Rams are going to the Super Bowl — but they got bailed out by the Saints having to kick their own field goal on the next drive (a no-call on Nickell Robey-Coleman aided decision) and just enough time for the Rams to drive for another field goal of their own to end regulation. But against the Patriots, those types of conservative calls can be a killer and they’re the types of calls Bill Belichick and Co. have taken advantage of for years.

We’re lucky Tony Romo is calling the Super Bowl

Tony Romo is probably a polarizing figure around these parts, but he’s easily turned himself into one of the best announcers in broadcasting. It’s not just his penchant to call out plays before they happen, which is great, but he can quickly, concisely, and intelligently break down and explain everything happening on the field. Meanwhile, the other broadcast team was calling for a 63-yard field goal attempt as a smart strategy. Romo also very clearly has a joy for the game that just doesn’t always come through from others in the booth. This Super Bowl will be better because Romo will be calling it and there’s not a lot of current announcers in any sport you could say that about.