By Steve Silverman
(CBSLA/CBS Local) — Championship Sunday is often viewed as one of the best days of the year on the sports calendar, and Sunday’s doubleheader certainly rose to the occasion. Both the NFC and AFC Championship Games were decided in overtime, and the winning Rams and Patriots both turned in strong performances. The rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI will be nostalgic and historic, as the Rams seek their second Vince Lombardi Trophy, while the Pats go after number six. Let the countdown to the February 3 Super Bowl LIII on CBS begin.
Rams 26, Saints 23
Los Angeles Rams: A-. Give full credit to the Rams for avoiding the early panic that could have set in when the Saints jumped out to a 13-0 first-quarter lead. The noise in the Superdome was deafening when the Rams had the ball. Quarterback Jared Goff could not hear the incoming play calls, and the team could have collapsed under the pressure of the moment. However, the defense wouldn’t let that happen, as Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh shut down the New Orleans ground game and also kept Drew Brees from having a big game. That allowed the Rams to figure out how to get the offense going, and Goff did just enough to turn the game into a tight battle. The Rams climbed back into the game, even though All-Pro running back Todd Gurley was basically invisible. Placekicker Greg Zuerlein was brilliant, with a 48-yard field goal that tied the game in the final seconds and a 57-yard game-winning overtime blast that would have been good from 65 yards.
New Orleans Saints: C+. The Saints were in a position to not only win the NFC Championship game, but run away with it. They built a significant first-quarter lead, and the Rams were on the verge of falling apart. However, the Saints offense stalled at the Superdome. And if there was one thing that football fans know, it is that Drew Brees can lead the New Orleans offense when playing in their beloved dome. The Rams did an excellent job of keeping the Brees-to-Michael Thomas combination in check, and that’s why the WhoDats were unable to build on their lead. While the Saints let this opportunity slip through their grasp, the non-pass interference call that officials missed late in the fourth quarter was a huge factor and clearly cost Sean Payton’s team. However, the Saints had other opportunities throughout that would have allowed them to make that officiating error moot… say, if they had capitalized on their sharp start.
Patriots 37, Chiefs 31
New England Patriots: A-. This is not one of the Bill Belichick’s most talented teams, yet the head coach came up with one of his best game plans, as the Patriots won the AFC Championship Game on the road against the NFL’s most explosive offensive team. The Patriots set the tone for a brilliant first half when they took the opening kickoff and held the ball for more than eight minutes as they drove for the opening touchdown. The defense kept the powerful Chiefs in check for 30 minutes, and there was no panic when Patrick Mahomes found his rhythm and put 24 points on the board in the final quarter. Tom Brady was up for the challenge, as he directed two TD drives of his own in the fourth quarter, with Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Rob Gronkowski all making key receptions. The unsung heroes in this game were the New England offensive linemen, who kept the Kansas City pass rush from bothering Brady. Also give credit to Rex Burkhead, as the running back pounded the ball into the end zone in overtime to propel the Pats to their third straight Super Bowl.
Kansas City Chiefs: C. The Chiefs started this game way too late. Their defense allowed the Patriots to hold onto the football in the first half and build a two-touchdown lead, and the offense couldn’t do anything against a good-but-not-great New England defense. Full credit to Mahomes and the offense for scoring 31 points in the second half, and playing nearly perfect offensive football in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough. The Chiefs had never hosted an AFC title game before, and they were overwhelmed by the moment for at least 30 minutes. That’s simply not good enough against a powerhouse like the Patriots.