The Super Bowl is set, and the process of how we got here was both unsurprising and unexpected — just the way the NFL likes it.
With Philadelphia and Kansas City set to face each other in two weeks, here are five takeaways from Sunday's conference title games (and the playoffs overall).
1. Officiating continues to play an outsized role in determining outcomes of games. While most of us would agree the late hit penalty that pushed the Chiefs into field goal position for the winning kick Sunday was correct (even if QB Patrick Mahomes sold it), the more subtle calls leading up to it gave Kansas City an edge.
Patrick Reusse, in only the way he can, made a very good point on Monday's Daily Delivery podcast: It's not that penalties called are necessarily incorrect. But if the same penalties are occurring on almost every play, and they are subjectively being called particularly at critical moments, it leaves the impression of undue influence.
2. That said, don't confuse questioning of officiating with saying Kansas City didn't deserve to win. And particularly, let's pause for a moment to appreciate the brilliance of Mahomes. Playing on an ankle that was many percentage points less than 100%, he threw for 326 yards, two touchdowns and made it around the corner on that late scramble that led to the penalty and game-winning field goal. It was a sublime performance by the league's best quarterback.
3. The NFC game was a dud, largely because San Francisco was down to zero healthy quarterbacks after in-game injuries to Brock Purdy and Josh Johnson. It would be fun to replay the game without the injury problem, but of course that's not how it works.
4. That said, I think we saw enough to say the Eagles would probably win a healthy rematch the majority of the time. Their defensive line rotation is a lot to handle, as is a dual-threat QB like Jalen Hurts. They were the best team in the NFC all season, and they deserve to be in the Super Bowl.
5. It was hard to watch the conference title games and conclude that the Vikings have a Super Bowl ceiling with Kirk Cousins as their quarterback. The four participants either benefited from quality low-cost quarterbacks (Eagles and 49ers) an elite quarterback who can make plays off script (Chiefs) or both (Bengals, with Joe Burrow counting a relative bargain $10 million on the cap this season as part of his rookie deal).
That's the formula. It allowed the Eagles (along with good roster building) to have two full defensive lines worth of talented players. It allowed the Bengals and 49ers to build strong all-around teams. And it gives the Chiefs a chance to win any time. All four will enjoy the same benefits next year, with the 49ers gaining even more with Jimmy Garoppolo almost certainly coming off their books.
I'm not saying the Vikings will or should necessarily explore a Cousins trade this offseason. He's an expensive above-average quarterback, and there are worse things than that if you want to compete to win 10 games every year. But I am saying they should absolutely not give him another extension if they truly want to win a championship.