How Did We Get Here? An Illustrated Guide To The N.f.l. Playoffs
This will be a week of hearing about Sean McVay and Tom Brady and Sean McVay and Bill Belichick and, if there’s time, Sean McVay. But before we get to all of that, we should take a look at how we ended up with the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots facing off in Super Bowl LIII. There were twists and turns during the playoffs. There were mistakes, there were penalties, there were upsets, and there was a whole lot of fun.
Colts 21, Texans 7
After three years of injury, disappointment and frustration, it would have been easy to give up on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. At 29 — and finally healthy — he marched his plucky young team into Houston and crushed the A.F.C. South champions. Luck made it look easy, and in sharp contrast to the last few years, he made it look fun.
Cowboys 24, Seahawks 22
The only thing standing in the way of Dak Prescott’s first playoff win was, well, several defenders. The nuance and artistry of the 2019 season were briefly abandoned as the 235-pound Prescott morphed from quarterback to bulldozer, fighting his way through a crowd on a third-and-14 play late in the game to set up the Cowboys’ victory-sealing touchdown.
Chargers 23, Ravens 17
Every superhero has a weakness, and the Baltimore rookie Lamar Jackson, even as he redefined how often a quarterback can run, had shown one: ball security. The Chargers, with fresh memories of a regular-season loss to the Ravens, crafted a defensive scheme around running down Jackson and knocking the ball loose, and, much to the Ravens’ chagrin, it worked to perfection.
Five seconds aren’t a lot of time, but on Cody Parkey’s attempt at a 43-yard game-winning field goal, five seconds were enough for Philadelphia’s Treyvon Hester to get a hand on the ball; for the ball to ricochet off the left upright; for the ball to then bounce off the crossbar; and for Chicago’s hopes of a deep playoff run led by its championship-caliber defense to fade into nothing.
Chiefs 31, Colts 13
Everyone said the Chiefs were all offense and no defense. Try explaining that to Andrew Luck, who had Kansas City defenders in his face for the entire 20 minutes 11 seconds he managed to keep his offense on the field in this divisional-round game. Luck was sacked three times and hit six more, and he also lost a fumble, spending the day mostly as a chilly spectator to the Patrick Mahomes Show.
Rams 30, Cowboys 22
C.J. Anderson had stints with Carolina, Oakland and Los Angeles this season, but the Rams’ backup running back added a fourth bench to his collection when he punctuated one of his many long runs by taking a seat on the sideline with his Dallas counterparts. He and Todd Gurley beat Dallas at its own game, running the Cowboys into submission.
Patriots 41, Chargers 28
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has done most everything a player can do on a football field. He has thrown 374 touchdown passes and won 118 regular-season games. He has survived injuries, he has adapted to changes in the game, and he most likely has earned a bust in Canton. But he has never beaten Tom Brady, and at this point it seems that he never will.
Saints 20, Eagles 14
If Alshon Jeffery had caught the ball, the Eagles could have won the game. If he had knocked it down, they would have had a chance. Unfortunately for the Eagles, and their fans’ belief that quarterback Nick Foles can always find a way, the ball sailed through Jeffery’s hands and into the waiting grasp of the Saints’ Marshon Lattimore.
Rams 26, Saints 23
It is a noncall that will live in infamy. Drew Brees threw a pass toward Tommylee Lewis, and if Lewis caught it, New Orleans could milk the clock and kick a game-winning field goal. Out of desperation, Nickell Robey-Coleman, a defensive back for the Rams, threw himself at Lewis, arriving far too early and knocking the Saints receiver out of the ball’s path. It was fairly obvious in real time that it was a penalty, and painfully so on myriad replays. But the officials somehow missed it, and in a sport routinely consumed by replays, pass interference remains (for now) one of the few decisions that cannot be reviewed. The Saints officially lost in overtime, but they had the win stolen from them in regulation.
Patriots 37, Chiefs 31
Patrick Mahomes found his footing in the second half, turning a 14-0 deficit at halftime into a 31-31 tie at the end of regulation. He made impossible passes, stepped out of sacks and showed every bit of the talent that made him the talk of the N.F.L. all season. But the league’s overtime rules can be cruel, and Kansas City’s fate was essentially decided by the flip of a coin. The Patriots won the right to receive the ball, and Tom Brady quietly marched his team down the field for a winning touchdown. Mahomes, the player who can seemingly do anything he wants on the field, was left on the sideline in a jacket, witnessing his team’s defeat.