The Schein Nine

NFL Championship Sunday winners and losers: What was Matt LaFleur thinking?

Well, Super Bowl LV is set, and what a special game it is going to be: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Kansas City Chiefs, Tom Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes. We have two weeks to dig into every single aspect of that juicy matchup, but before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take a look back at the Championship Sunday that was.

Here are the winners and losers from each conference title game, Schein Nine style:

WINNERS

1) Patrick Mahomes

It's the single greatest start to a quarterback's pro career in NFL history. In his first three years as Kansas City's QB1, Mahomes has notched a league MVP, Super Bowl MVP and now he's back in the ring game, vying for back-to-back titles. And let's be honest: Mahomes is a Dee Ford neutral-zone infraction away from this being his third straight Super Bowl appearance.

Mahomes was simply brilliant in Sunday's 38-24 dismissal of the previously-piping-hot Buffalo Bills. Remember the week in concussion protocol? Remember the turf-toe concerns? No matter. Mahomes looked majestic and vintage in carving up the Bills, completing 28 of 38 passes (76.3 percent) for 325 yards and three touchdowns. It was breathtaking stuff. So basically just another Sunday for Kansas City's 25-year-old megastar. This is who he is. This is what he does.

2) Tom Brady

Are you kidding me? The greatest quarterback of all time is going to his 10th Super Bowl. And this particular voyage is like nothing we've ever seen before.

Brady left New England after two decades of unparalleled domination, joined Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers during a highly limited offseason, turned 43 years old, made the playoffs as a wild card, won three straight road games (including the latest, at iconic Lambeau Field) and now will return to Raymond James Stadium as the quarterback of the first legitimate home team in a Super Bowl.

If Brady finishes this postseason job to nab his seventh ring -- a staggering accomplishment in itself -- he will have knocked off Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes in the process. Wow. It's good to be the G.O.A.T.

3) Todd Bowles

The Buccaneers' defensive coordinator deserves another crack at being an NFL head coach. He's earned it. Heck, winning 10 games with the Jets is quite a feat!

Bowles is a terrific defensive architect and his game plan on Sunday was brilliant. Tampa's defense flew around the field, made plays and took full advantage of a Green Bay offensive line missing its first-team All-Pro left tackle. With David Bakhtiari on injured reserve, Bucs edge rushers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul manhandled a reshuffled O-line, combining to sack Rodgers five times. Meanwhile, Tampa's first two picks from the 2019 draft -- LB Devin White and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting -- played well beyond their years, with each snagging a takeaway in a key spot.

Bowles is a savvy, steady mind and a reliable leader of men. Guys love playing for the 57-year-old. Give him a second chance in the big chair!

4) Chiefs' defense

Steve Spagnuolo's unit magically made Stefon Diggs disappear in the first three quarters of Kansas City's 14-point win. Prior to the final period, when the Bills were in full catch-up mode, the NFL's regular-season leader in receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535) had four grabs for 28 yards. Chiefs D-linemen Chris Jones and Frank Clark wrecked shop up front. And Tyrann Mathieu did Tyrann Mathieu things, roving all over the field to make plays.

Josh Allen has enjoyed a spectacular third NFL season and he made some exhilarating plays on Sunday, but the Bills signal-caller was under pressure all day and threw a pair of interceptions: his first-ever red-zone pick (which kind of put the game on ice), as well as a late INT on a two-point conversion attempt.

K.C.'s defense was a source of concern during the regular season, but the unit has done its job through two playoff games.

5) Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill

These cats are superstars. Mahomes, Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy maximize them beautifully.

Travis Kelce is just different, already a legend at the tight end position. And Hill? Yeah, his speed is a freakin' cheat code. These are special weapons. And they've been on full display this postseason. In the Divisional Round win over Cleveland, Kelce logged eight catches for 109 yards and a touchdown, while Hill snagged eight balls for 110 yards. On Sunday, Kelce piled up 13 grabs for 118 yards and two touchdowns, while Hill had nine catches for a whopping 172 yards.

These are two very different pass catchers, but they share one thing in common: being impossible to cover.

LOSERS

6) Matt LaFleur

Fourth-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Just over two minutes remaining and you trail 31-23. You have Aaron Rodgers, the most talented quarterback in NFL history, in the midst of his third MVP season. And you ... kick a field goal?

What?!

You trust your defense to force a three-and-out from Tom Brady more than you trust Rodgers to get 8 yards? Just an unfathomable decision from the second-year head coach. It violated sports, math, logic, time, score, sanity and talent.

Green Bay had a golden opportunity to beat the Bucs, go to the Super Bowl and earn the proud franchise's fifth Lombardi Trophy. The biggest goat was LaFleur. Packer backers still grieve Mike McCarthy's questionable decision-making in the 2014 NFC title game loss at Seattle. This LaFleur head-scratcher will engender similar anguish for years to come.

7) Brian Gutekunst

Is it worth bringing up the draft-night trade-up for Jordan Love? Well, you betcha. On many levels. Do you think the Packers could've used a talented rookie wideout like Tee Higgins or Chase Claypool or Michael Pittman? Do you think one of them could have caught the two-point conversion Equanimeous St. Brown dropped? Think the defense could've used a second-level athlete like Patrick Queen? Instead, Gutekunst moved up for a project quarterback who couldn't beat out Tim Boyle for the backup job in Year 1. Not ideal. And highly counterproductive. Not only did the Packers miss out on an instant-impact piece, but they simultaneously expedited talk about Rodgers' future and fueled the quarterback's anger.

In the wake of Sunday's crushing loss, Rodgers opened the door wide for a potential departure. Could he force a trade directly after an MVP season? Absolutely. We're in the midst of a vicious cycle that began last offseason when Gutekunst refused to upgrade Green Bay's receiving corps and drafted Rodgers' replacement. It's sad. It's wrong. It all could've been avoided.

8) Sean McDermott

Field goals, field goals and more field goals. That is NOT how you beat the Mahomes-led defending Super Bowl champs. Also, the Bills made way too many self-induced mistakes against a juggernaut. That can't happen. McDermott's defense just wasn't buttoned-up. The offense was scattered. T.J. Yeldon in the I-formation in the red zone? Eh. Devin Singletary was a dud, too. Shoot, the Bills' only effective runner was their quarterback.

Just a disappointing all-around effort from Buffalo. That goes back to McDermott, unfortunately leaving a bad taste in your mouth at the end of an extremely well-coached season.

9) Mike Pettine

Everybody crushed Gregg Williams' zero-blitz call that allowed the Raiders to squeak out a win over the Jets in early December. In fact, Williams was fired the very next day. Well, the Packers' defensive coordinator made a similarly ludicrous coverage decision at the end of the first half on Sunday.

With eight seconds left in the second quarter, the Bucs had the ball near midfield without any timeouts, setting up a likely Hail Mary heave toward the end zone. Inexplicably, Pettine dialed up man coverage with a single-high safety. This left Packers CB Kevin King, who was abused all day in coverage, on an island. Scott Miller proceeded to sprint right past King and haul in a 39-yard touchdown pass with one second left in the half. An absolutely devastating blow that gave Tampa a 21-10 lead at the break.

Could this end up costing Pettine his job? Well, LaFleur certainly wasn't happy about the defensive strategy in the postgame.

"It was man coverage -- definitely not the right call for the situation," LaFleur said, via ESPN. "And you can't do stuff like that against a good football team and expect to win."

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