Sunday’s NFL conference championship games are chock full of fuzzy young faces and fresh story lines that have burst to life since the death of the New England Patriots’ 2019 season.
In Kansas City, the AFC tilt is free from Belichick Brady for the first time since Jan. 23, 2011. It’s also without Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or Peyton Manning for the first time since Rich Gannon’s Raiders beat Steve McNair’s Titans on Jan. 19, 2003.
Meanwhile, in the NFC, regardless of Sunday’s victor, a 40-year-old head coach with two playoff wins will be heading to Miami for Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2. If it’s Kyle Shanahan’s favored 49ers, former Brady backup Jimmy Garoppolo will make the Super Bowl his third career postseason start.
If it’s the Packers and rookie coach Matt LaFleur, 36-year-old Aaron Rodgers will be looking to become the 13th quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls.
“I think there is an appreciation that there’s only four teams left,” said Rodgers, a 7 ½-point underdog against the 49ers and the only quarterback or head coach still standing who has won a Super Bowl, nine years ago.
“That’s pretty cool to think there are 28 teams on vacation right now. And we’re still going.”
In Minnesota, fans of the NFC’s ousted sixth seed will have to live vicariously through the AFC’s Titans, who slipped into the playoffs at 9-7, felled a dynasty in New England, a red-hot MVP lock in Baltimore and are now in Kansas City trying to join the 2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers as the only No. 6 seeds to get to and win a Super Bowl.
The Titans are seven-point underdogs and haven’t reached a Super Bowl since Y2K was a month old. Of course, the last time the Chiefs reached the Super Bowl, mankind was six months removed from walking on the moon.
Here’s a key story line for each team …
Chiefs DEE-fense, Take 2
When we last saw the Chiefs in this position, they couldn’t stop the visiting Patriots on third down to save their postseason lives. The Patriots converted third-and-10 while trailing with a minute left in regulation and then three more third-and-10s in overtime to beat the Chiefs and get defensive coordinator Bob Sutton fired the next day.
Coach Andy Reid hired Steve Spagnuolo, who has improved Kansas City’s third-down defense from 25th to 12th in the league. The Chiefs gave up an average of only 10.2 points in their last five regular-season games and smothered the Texans in the final three quarters of last week’s divisional victory.
After their special teams threw them in a 24-0 hole, the Chiefs outscored Houston 51-7 while the Texans converted just 3 of 13 third downs.
Patrick Mahomes — remember him? — stepped out of Lamar Jackson’s shadow with 321 yards, five touchdowns and no turnovers. If Kansas City’s defense stands with him again, Reid — at 61 the oldest coach still standing by 17 years — could be heading to his second Super Bowl with his second team and might just have what it takes to win his first Lombardi Trophy.
Henry is face of Titans
Not even the oldest of old-school philosophers could have dreamed of bludgeoning a 21st century opponent with the run game the way the Titans have with Derrick Henry the past three games.
Hearkening back to a time when running backs were the faces of their franchises, Henry is the first player in 100 NFL seasons to rush for 180 or more yards in three consecutive games, and the first to rush for at least 175 yards in consecutive postseason games.
With the Titans needing a ninth victory to reach the playoffs, Henry had 32 carries for 211 yards (6.6 yards per carry) and three touchdowns in Tennessee’s Week 17 rout at Houston. Facing the Belichick-Brady legend and the league’s best defense in New England in the wild-card round, Henry carried 34 times for 182 yards (5.4) and a touchdown in a 20-13 victory. And taking on a No. 1 seed that had Jackson and a 12-game winning streak, the Titans won 28-12 because Henry carried the ball 30 times for 195 yards (6.5) at Baltimore.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill is still a great story. Traded from the scrap heap in Miami to the backup role in Tennessee, he didn’t step into the starting role until the Titans were 2-4.
But for him to return to Miami as a Super Bowl starter, he will need Henry to get there.
Cashing in on Garoppolo
Garoppolo making the Super Bowl with the 49ers a year after Brady won his sixth ring isn’t the succession plan Belichick had in mind before Patriots owner Robert Kraft forced him to unload Garoppolo for a second-round draft pick at the 2017 trade deadline.
The 49ers were so pleasantly stunned that they forgot all about those Kirk Cousins plans, made the trade and handed Jimmy G the biggest contract in NFL history at the time. He got $137.5 million over five years at a time when his career record was 7-0.
He is now 22-5, including 1-0 in the playoffs. Yes, he rode his defense’s coattails in last week’s victory over the Vikings. But a trip to the Super Bowl in his first full and healthy season with San Francisco would be a nice return on GM John Lynch’s investment.
Rodgers without McCarthy
Some of us can think of at least three fellas who must bristle whenever critics slam Rodgers for having “only” one ring: Dan Fouts, Warren Moon and Sonny Jurgensen.
Those three men are in the Hall of Fame. None of them played in a Super Bowl. Jurgensen never even started a playoff game.
Three other Hall of Famers — Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Fran Tarkenton — were a combined 0-8 in Super Bowl starts.
As great as Rodgers is, the Packers are 14-3 because they are a run-oriented team that’s playing its best defense in years. But a Green Bay Super Bowl victory this year would skyrocket Rodgers’ legacy to new heights.
Rodgers would join Brady (six); Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw (four); Troy Aikman (three); and Roethlisberger, Bart Starr, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Jim Plunkett, Bob Griese, Roger Staubach and John Elway (two) as winners of multiple Super Bowls.
And he will have done it in his first attempt without Mike McCarthy, who some have snickered at for winning “only” one Super Bowl in 13 seasons with Brett Favre and Rodgers.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org