The NFL product is stronger than ever.
Three of the four playoff games this weekend were decided on walk-off field goals as the final seconds ticked away on the game clock. The other was won with a touchdown pass in overtime.
In the end, the underdog Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals, plus last year’s Super Bowl losing Kansas City Chiefs, were the survivors.
It’s possible those could have been the last NFL games for all-time great quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, but even with those marquee quarterbacks gone for the postseason, the league has great matchups in the weeks ahead. And at least a few of the remaining games will take place in the NFL’s newest and most expensive stadiums.
For the NFC title game, the San Francisco 49ers earned a rematch with the Rams at SoFi Stadium with a chance the home team could host Super Bowl LVI in that same $5 billion facility in less than three weeks on Feb. 13.
During the final game of the regular season, the Niners came back from a 17-0 deficit to defeat the Rams at SoFi in overtime to make the playoffs. They have defeated the Rams six times in a row.
“I can’t wait,” said Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp. “[The Niners] are a really good football team. I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
In the interim, on Feb. 6 in Las Vegas, the Pro Bowl is slated for Allegiant Stadium. That’s the home of the Las Vegas Raiders and was built at the cost of $1.9 billion.
The Chiefs, who needed a last second field goal to send the game at home against the Buffalo Bills into overtime, will host the upstart Cincinnati Bengals next Sunday in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium, opened in 1972. If Patrick Mahomes and company win, they’ll have a chance to soothe the sting of Kansas City’s loss to Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year.
“It was a heck of game,” Mahomes said about the win over Buffalo, in which the lead changed hands several times in the final minutes of regulation. “I’m glad we got this one. We’re going to try and keep it rolling.”
With Major League Baseball in a lockout, the NHL out of the Winter Olympics because of COVID, and the NBA plagued by the disease, the NFL is thriving.
Television viewership for playoff games thus far this postseason has been huge and is expected to grow even bigger. Last week’s Niners victory over the Dallas Cowboys that came down to the final play in Dallas, for instance, was watched by 40.2 million.
The billions of dollars of public and private spending on facilities were set in motion by the Rams returning to L.A. from St. Louis, the Chargers moving to L.A. from San Diego, and the Raiders leaving Oakland for the second time.
The spectacular stadiums opened prior to the 2020 season, but because of the pandemic, games were played during that season in both places without fans. This year, the Chargers and Rams have consistently drawn 70,000 for home games at SoFi and the Raiders 65,000 at Allegiant.
The Super Bowl hasn’t been played in Los Angeles since the Rams and Raiders left in 1993. It had been staged seven times there in older facilities—twice at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum south of downtown Los Angeles, including the first title game in 1967, and then five times in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
The Rams actually played a Super Bowl in the Rose Bowl, losing the 1980 game there to Pittsburgh. But their home field at the time was an expanded-for-football Anaheim Stadium.
If they can defeat the 49ers, it would be the second consecutive season when the home team would host the Super Bowl, but they’d be the first to ever host a Conference title game followed by the Super Bowl. The home team hadn’t played in their own stadium the first 54 years the Super Bowl was played, but the Buccaneers did it last year at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. They won that Super Bowl, but they couldn’t defend their home turf against the Rams Sunday, even after Brady brought them back from a 27-3 deficit to tie the game in the final minutes.
A 44-yard pass from Matthew Stafford to Kupp set up Matt Gay’s 30-yard field goal as the clock expired.
The same fate met the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night at Lambeau Field as Niners kicker Robbie Gould connected on a 45-yarder that split the uprights through swirling icy winds and snow flurries.
Afterward Rodgers said a decision about his immediate future is in the offing.
“I’m going to have conversations with folks around here and then take some time away and make a decision,” said Rodgers, the 38-year-old who’s signed through the 2023 season. “I want to get a little more clarity and think about my own future and how much longer I want to keep doing this.”
Brady, at 44, is an seven-time Super Bowl champion—six of them with the New England Patriots. He’s under contract with Tampa for the 2022 season.
“Just like after every season, I’ll have to think about what the situation looks like for me, personally and professionally,” Brady said recently. “Obviously, I love playing. I don’t think my love will go away. I think I’ll be able to do it, it’s just other things are happening in my life.”
Meanwhile, the NFL will continue to thrive even without them.