NFL

Chiefs stage epic rally, NFL playoff reaction, Browns thoughts and more

The Kansas City Chiefs were the story of the NFL’s Divisional weekend, staging a comeback for the ages in frigid Arrowhead Stadium.

Patrick Mahomes won the game. Frank Clark dominated the game. Dan Sorensen changed the game.

The Kansas City Chiefs were dead. Dead on arrival. A blown coverage, blocked punt, muffed punt and a sustained drive against authored by the Houston Texans put the home team in a 24-0 hole with 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter. Boos could faintly be heard at Arrowhead Stadium. Tortured fans didn’t enjoy being put through another January horror show.

Then, the swiftest comeback in NFL history occurred.

After a Mecole Hardman return set up a two-play, 42-yard touchdown drive for Kansas City, the Chiefs defense forced a three-and-out. At their own 31-yard line and leading 24-7 with 8:32 remaining in the second quarter, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien gambled. Fake punt.

The direct snap went to up-back Justin Reid. Kansas City’s alignment called for Sorensen, the veteran safety, to watch Reid in case of such an event. Reid ran around right end to daylight. Sorensen, the only red jersey close to him, made a spectacular, low tackle two yards shy of the marker.

Three plays later, 24-14.

“He is one of the best special teams players in the world,” Kansas City defensive end Frank Clark said afterwards, per a team release. “He has been for most of his career. What else do you expect from him? I don’t expect nothing else but greatness from him, especially as far as that. He takes full accountability for all of his actions and he doesn’t get enough credit. As you saw he stepped up big.”

On the ensuing kickoff, returner DeAndre Carter was smacked at the 21-yard line. Fumble. Chiefs’ ball at the Houston 6-yard line. Sorensen popped the ball loose, providing his second game-altering play in 27 seconds.

“Dan (Sorensen) made a great play,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “Actually, Dan had a hell of a game for us. We put so much on him, especially playing multiple positions on defense. He plays on every special team. The more guys you have like Dan, the better off your football team will be.”

By halftime, the Chiefs led 28-24 on their way to a 51-31 thrashing of the Texans, earning their second consecutive hosting of the AFC Championship Game.

All told, Kansas City rattled off 28 unanswered second-quarter points in 16 offensive plays, covering nine minutes and 11 seconds. By game’s end, Mahomes led the Chiefs to seven straight touchdown drives, a postseason record. His final line: 23-of-35 for 321 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. The offensive line did its part, with Mahomes only being hit three times with zero sacks.

Defensively, it was Clark setting the tempo. Harassing Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson all afternoon, Clark tallied three sacks, including one where he was on the ground twice.

Internally, the Chiefs have loved Clark’s effort and leadership all year, even when a pinched nerve in his neck limited him to one sack through the season’s first six games. Now, including Sunday’s win, Clark has 10 sacks in his last nine games, being the game-wrecking force worthy of the five-year, $105 million the Chiefs paid him this offseason after acquiring him from the Seattle Seahawks.

Suddenly, Kansas City is one home win away from the Super Bowl yet again. This time, the Tennessee Titans stand in the way, a sixth-seed fresh off upset victories over the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens.

On Sunday, the Chiefs play to bring the Lamar Hunt Trophy home. Thank Mahomes. Thank Clark.

But don’t forget to thank Dan Sorensen.

Power rankings

Top 10 conference title games since the AFL-NFL merger

1. Cleveland Browns vs. Denver Broncos (1986 and 1987 – The Drive … The Fumble)
2. Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers (1981 – The Catch)
3. New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts (2006 – Manning’s comeback)
4. New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers (1990 – Three-peat dreams end)
5. New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs (2018 – Brady holds off Mahomes)
6. Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings (1998 – Gary Anderson misses)
7. New York Giants at Green Bay Packers (2007 – Favre’s last dance in GB)
8. Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks (2014 – Bostick drops the kick)
9. Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints (2009 – BountyGate)
10. New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers (2011 – Kyle Williams can’t hold on)

Quotable

“This team’s identity right now is to get to the playoffs and choke.”

– Ravens corner Marlon Humphrey after losing 28-12 loss to the Titans

One of the most honest, brutal assessments you’ll ever hear from an athlete. Until the Ravens win a playoff game with Lamar Jackson under center, some corners of the football world will see them the way Humphrey surmised. That said, Baltimore won’t shouldn’t stay down for long.

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Random stat

The 1980 Oakland Raiders became the first team to win the Super Bowl having to earn four playoff victories.

Oakland won away from home for the last three, including beating the Cleveland Browns on a brutally cold day in the Divisional round, before taking down the San Diego Chargers and then the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV.

It was another 17 years until another team accomplished the feat in a non-strike year, with the Denver Broncos doing so in 1997.

Info learned this week

1. Titans win means another week, and a ton of money

The Titans are playing the role of Cinderella. Only question is if they win it all before midnight.

Tennessee has played two giants in the Ravens and Patriots, and now have the Chiefs on deck. Pulling off the trilogy would be an all-time run, especially from a team that appeared dead after starting the season 2-4.

Head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees deserve a bevy of credit. Both have masterminded two large upsets, along with a stout defense and the game’s best running back during the dirty work.

This postseason, Derrick Henry is earning generational wealth. All told, the former Alabama running back has 377 rushing yards on 64 carries. The analytics crowd will scream about Henry not being worth the mammoth contract coming his way, but the contract figures are growing by the yard. An unrestricted free agent after this season, Henry has a real chance of becoming the highest-paid back in NFL history.

Meanwhile, quarterback Ryan Tannehill hasn’t thrown for 100 yards in either win. Yet the postseason success coupled with 22 touchdown passes and 9.6 yards per attempt during the regular season has him angling for a nice payday as well. Due to a quirk in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Titans can use both the franchise and transition tags, giving general manager Jon Robinson unusual leverage. Keep an eye on that situation.

For now, though, the Titans aren’t worried about their offseason. Unlike 28 other teams, they aren’t in it, now one win away from a stunning Super Bowl appearance.

2. 49ers’ success will shape how others think come draft time

Nick Bosa. Arik Armstead. DeForest Buckner. Solomon Thomas.

The 49ers invested heavily in their defensive line over the past five years, using four first-round picks on the group. For all the justified talk about Kyle Shanahan’s wondrous offense, San Francisco is equally as dangerous because of its pass rush. While Thomas has been underwhelming, the other three have become stars, forcing opponents to double, chip and do anything to stay out of third and long.

In the 49ers’ 27-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday, San Francisco held Dalvin Cook to 18 rushing yards. Kirk Cousins was sacked six times. Even with a full quarter of garbage time, the Vikings totaled 147 yards and seven first downs.

This time of year, three-quarters of the league is watching on the couch. Don’t think for a second rival front offices aren’t noticing the impact being had by San Francisco’s front. This is a copycat league. Years ago, the New England Patriots had tremendous success with two tight-end sets. Teams started drafting the position much higher. Look for teams to continuing loading up their fronts to form deep rotations in games.

With the passing game more important than ever and rules slanted towards offense, cornerbacks need help. The best way to provide it? Get immediate pressure from everywhere without blitzing.

The 49ers are incredible at it. Others teams will attempt to replicate the formula.

3. Matt Rhule contract is a game-changer moving forward

Seven years and worth up to $70 million. Not bad work if you can get it.

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper went all-in and then some to land Rhule, despite many believing he was a sure thing for the Giants. Ultimately, the check was too large for Rhule to turn down or for New York owner John Mara to match.

While the numbers are eye-popping, this contract means so much more than the sticker shock. Men like Lincoln Riley and Matt Campbell — college coaches with NFL interest — are going to demand enormous sums of money to leave programs that provide fat wallets and long-term security. Rhule was able to land $70 million. If Riley leads Oklahoma to a few more terrific seasons  and then decides to hit the pro ranks, Rhule’s deal is his floor.

Hiring college coaches is becoming more the norm with the two levels blending in style. Rhule jumping from the Big 12 to the NFL only one year after Kliff Kingsbury did so is signaling a trend.

Now watch the money flow.

4. Browns’ search finally ends with Stefanski

Kevin Stefanski is the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Hopefully he likes to rent.

Stefanski comes over from the Vikings, who were rudely bounced by the 49ers. Some will mock Cleveland for hiring the coordinator who was crushed by the other candidate in the game, San Francisco defensive guru Robert Saleh. That’s foolish. While Saleh would have also been a terrific hire, Stefanski should be judged on the season’s entire body of work.

If someone wants to crush the Browns, it should be for the revolving door leading up to this point. Stefanski will be an outlier if he lasts three full seasons, something no Cleveland coach has done since Romeo Crennel from 2005-08. That predates the current ownership of Dee and Jimmy Haslam.

The Haslam’s have been disasters since coming into the league. Stefanski is understandably jumping at his chance to be a head coach, but history says he better win immediately, or he’ll be unemployed. It’s the Browns’ way.

5. Ravens loss sparks offseason surrounding Jackson

Lamar Jackson will be the NFL MVP when the award is announced in two weeks. He totaled 43 touchdowns and led the Ravens to a league-best 14 wins. Baltimore was a machine behind his talents.

However, the first memory of Jackson’s season will be the last. It’ll be three turnovers and two failed fourth-down conversions.

Fair? No. Reality? Yes.

The Ravens should return as a contender in 2020. Cornerback Marcus Peters was re-signed and the offense should remain intact. Baltimore also has almost $34 million in projected cap space. General manager Eric DeCosta can add to what is already a phenomenal nucleus.

Still, Jackson will be the talking point. Can he duplicate what was a record-setting season on the ground? Can he account for another 43 touchdowns? Can he help the Ravens fend off regression?

So many questions, and so long to hear them.

History lesson

With the NFL’s version of the Final Four ready to charge towards the Super Bowl, it’s worthwhile to think about those who haven’t been this far in some time.

The longest current drought since a franchise’s last AFC or NFC Championship Game appearance? The Cincinnati Bengals, who haven’t been back since 1988. Ironically, the longest NFC dry spell is shared by the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions, who played each other in the ’91 conference title game. The Redskins won 41-7 en route to their third Super Bowl win in 10 campaigns.

Parting shot

Who will be big players in free agency two months from now? Never know, but follow the money.

While the 2020 cap number isn’t known yet, projections have it around $200 million. The teams with the most to spend? The Miami Dolphins ($98M), Indianapolis Colts ($92M), Buffalo Bills ($88M), Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($87M) and Dallas Cowboys ($84M).

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars, as the only teams already over the projected figure.

So will the cash-rich teams go big? Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard was flush with cash last year and did little. This year, one would think Ballard grows longer arms with Jacoby Brissett needing help. Miami is in a full-blown rebuild, so perhaps it shows patience. Tampa Bay and Dallas need to re-sign their quarterbacks, along with other stars in Shaquil Barrett and Amari Cooper, among others.

A team to watch? Buffalo.

General manager Brandon Beane spent big last year, locking up center Mitch Morse, edge rusher Trent Murphy and receivers Cole Beasley and John Brown. All produced. After winning 10 games while knowing next year’s schedule will be tougher, Beane would be wise to continue adding quality veterans with low and mid-range deals.

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