The First Read: Six initial thoughts heading into Championship Sunday

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There are times in the NFL when you watch something that defies comprehension and challenges the limits of the imagination. It's a moment when you realize you're witnessing unparalleled brilliance combined with historical significance and future implications. This is what happened when the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Buffalo Bills by a score of 42-36 in overtime of the AFC Divisional Round. The football-watching world just got a glimpse of which two quarterbacks are going to rule this league for the foreseeable future.

Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes already had his place reserved at this table. Buffalo's Josh Allen decided he'd park a seat right next to him after what unfolded on Sunday night inside Arrowhead Stadium. Mahomes walked off the field having punched a ticket to his fourth straight AFC Championship Game and, potentially, his third consecutive Super Bowl. Allen left knowing that he's not that far away from his peer, not when it comes to talent, will and the potential to drop jaws.

That's the major takeaway from this one, at least so far, as this championship edition of The First Read is concerned. The Chiefs will host the Cincinnati Bengals in next Sunday's AFC title game -- after Mahomes hit tight end Travis Kelce on an 8-yard touchdown pass in overtime -- but the real story here was the combination of Mahomes and Allen. You can't talk about this contest without mentioning both players. That's how incredible they were, how much they captivated the folks who tuned in for this one.

It's rare to watch a game and not want to talk about a variety of topics when it's finished. But what was there to talk about outside of the quarterbacks? Mahomes completed 33 of 44 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Allen was 27 for 37 for 329 yards and four touchdowns with no picks. They both led their respective teams in rushing, with Mahomes gaining 69 yards and Allen totaling 68.

What's crazy is that they had to work for all that. They scrambled away from pass rushers, launched the ball into tight windows and rallied their teams back from all sorts of adversity. There were three lead changes and 25 points scored in the final two minutes of regulation. Mahomes led the Chiefs to the game-tying field goal after Allen gave the Bills a three-point lead on a 27-yard touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis with 13 seconds remaining (Allen also hit Stefon Diggs on the two-point conversion after that score).

There was a lot of pre-game talk about whether Mahomes and Allen would become this generation's version of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. That doesn't feel like hyperbole today. Both players are a long way from accomplishing what those legends have done, but the potential can't be denied. Allen and Mahomes now have met in last year's AFC title game and this year's Divisional Round, and Mahomes openly said they'll likely see each other in the postseason for years to come.

The advantage obviously goes to Mahomes at this stage. Allen has beaten him only once in four overall games, that being a 38-20 win in Kansas City in Week 5. Rivalries require a certain amount of heartbreak on both sides. So far, the Bills are the ones who've felt the lion's share of postseason sorrow.

That doesn't mean that will last forever, certainly not after Sunday night. This was already set up as a game with high stakes attached to it, with Buffalo and Kansas City being the two best teams left in the playoffs after Green Bay lost to San Francisco. The consensus was that one of these two squads would go on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. They were that much better than the rest of the pack.

There will be plenty of time to talk about where the Chiefs go from here. What's more interesting, is what happened to the NFL in what will surely be remembered as an all-time classic. We once again were reminded of how magical a player Mahomes has become in his relatively brief career. The added benefit is that he now has some serious competition in that department, for what should be the better part of the next decade.

That covers the most exciting part of the weekend. Here's what else jumps out as we head into the conference championship games.

1) Rams closing in on their Hollywood ending

The Rams definitely make things interesting. One week after destroying the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card Round, L.A. allowed the Bucs to overcome a 23-point third-quarter deficit before eventually clinching the 30-27 upset over the defending champs. The Rams' first playoff game was over at halftime. This one should've been, too, until Tom Brady pulled a Tom Brady and forced the Rams to engineer a last-minute drive for the game-winning field goal. Both games also illustrated how much the Rams have come together since blowing a 17-point lead in a season-ending loss to the 49ers just two weeks ago. Matthew Stafford went from managing the game in that Arizona win to racking up big game-breaking throws against the Bucs. Odell Beckham is playing like the receiver he was before he stopped being a difference-maker in Cleveland. Andthatdefense? There don't seem to be many answers for a line that features Aaron Donald, Von Miller and Leonard Floyd right now. Of course, you can't overlook the four fumbles that nearly cost L.A. the chance to advance. We also get it -- the San Francisco 49ers, the team the Rams will face in the NFC Championship Game, have owned the Rams lately. Los Angeles hasn't won in this rivalry since 2018, a streak of futility that amounts to six straight defeats. The 49ers have been the tougher team over that stretch. This time around, the Rams look like the better squad.

2) Nothing will rattle Joe Burrow

The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback was correct when he said it's time to stop talking about his team as an underdog. The Bengals are legit and he's the major reason why. Anybody who watched the Bengals during their run to an AFC North title could see that Joe Burrow gave this squad more than just talent. He gave it an attitude, one that was quite apparent in its 19-16 Divisional Round win over Tennessee on Saturday. The Titans beat up on Burrow all afternoon, as the team registered a playoff record nine sacks. His response: 28 completions on 37 attempts for 348 yards with one interception. The man hit on 75.7 percent of his passes despite facing relentless pressure. Most second-year signal-callers melt in such situations. Burrow fought through it, as did his teammates. This is what makes the Bengals so scary. They weren't satisfied with winning their first division crown in six seasons or their first playoff game in three decades or their first road postseason win in franchise history. They want it all, and that's largely because Burrow allows them to dream big. That mentality helped them earn a 34-31 win over the Chiefs in Week 17, and they'll need more of that in this rematch on Championship Sunday. But there's something else to remember here. If all those hits didn't disturb him against Tennessee, then don't expect him to suffer under the spotlight when he's one win away from something else Cincinnati hasn't done in a long time: return to the Super Bowl.

3) DeMeco Ryans is making his mark

Special teams may have been what decided the 49ers' 13-10 victory over Green Bay, but defense is what will determine their path to an NFC championship. San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans made that quite clear during Saturday night's win over the Packers. There's no doubt he has plenty of talent at his disposal, including a stud linebacker in Fred Warner and a fierce pass rush led by Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. Ryan also has clever game plans and an adept feel for how to maximize all those weapons. The first drive of that Green Bay game felt like an ominous sign for this unit, as Aaron Rodgers led the Packers right down the field for a touchdown. He never reached the end zone again, and his offense only mustered 194 total yards the rest of the game. That doesn't solely happen because of star players. It happens because a coach is pushing all the right buttons. The 49ers' defense now has 10 sacks over its last two playoff wins. They've allowed only 27 points. This isn't a team that is scorching opponents with an amazing offense. It's beating the crap out of the opposition, and it's had its way with the Rams this year. Los Angeles didn't generate more than 300 yards in either meeting between the two teams and also finished with two turnovers in each game. So the Rams know the challenge that awaits them. It's also apparent that Ryans, who's interviewing with the Minnesota Vikings for their head coach position, is becoming a rising star in this business.

4) The Chiefs' offense is definitely back

Kansas City's vaunted offense has gone through a variety of iterations this season. It began the year mistake-prone, as it racked up countless turnovers with Mahomes pressing to make up for a feeble defense. That same offense morphed into a more conservative unit around midseason, with the mindset built around taking what defenses offered and generating longer drives to the end zone. Now the Chiefs are resembling the team we've been used to seeing since Mahomes became the starting quarterback. They scored 42 points against the underwhelming Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round. They did the same thing in Sunday night's overtime win over the Bills, a team that came into this game with the best scoring defense in the NFL. All those two-high safety coverages that flustered the Chiefs earlier this year don't look so threatening these days. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill had 11 receptions for 150 yards and a 64-yard touchdown. Tight end Travis Kelce produced eight receptions for 96 yards and the game-winning score. Running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon provided a nice lift out of the backfield for a team that generated 552 total yards. The Chiefs have now scored at least 34 points in six of their last seven games. That's called trending in the right direction.

5) Deebo Samuel will be NFC title game's most important offensive player

The 49ers have asked a lot of their All-Pro wide receiver all year. They'll need even more from him in this matchup with the Rams. The 49ers' offense has become so straightforward that it basically boils down to this strategy: 1) Running back Elijah Mitchell will receive a lot of carries; 2) Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is going to be asked to not do something detrimental and; 3) Deebo Samuel is going to touch the football whenever his team needs something special to happen. Samuel was the player who led the team in scrimmage yards in its wild-card win over Dallas. He was the guy who also produced a 9-yard run on a critical third-and-7 late in Saturday night's victory over Green Bay, a conversion that ultimately set up the game-deciding field goal. These are the kinds of things Samuel has done over the course of a huge season. They're more critical now because of the state of this 49ers offense. Garoppolo is playing with a thumb and shoulder injury and has thrown a costly interception in each of the team's playoff wins. Has he been gutting it out? Of course. Do the 49ers want to put him in more positions to potentially hurt this team? Hell no. The 49ers need all the positive plays they can generate on offense in this next meeting with the Rams. Los Angeles has found its groove on offense, and it has more than enough weapons to turn to in a contest like this, including Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham and Sony Michel. The 49ers have Samuel, who's in position to have more impact on this game than any other offensive player on the field.

6) We're about to get the Super Bowl that should've happened three years ago

The Rams and the Chiefs are the two best teams left in the postseason. The hope here is that they end up meeting in the Super Bowl. No disrespect to the 49ers, but they don't have enough offense to win a championship. No disrespect to the Bengals, but they're pretty young to push past a team as accomplished as Kansas City right now. It feels like Los Angeles and Kansas City are destined to meet, which is something we could've seen back in 2018. That was the first season Mahomes played as the Chiefs' starter, and he lost an epic 54-51 game against the Rams midway through that year. The Rams ultimately found their way to Super Bowl LIII that year. The Chiefs lost to the eventual champion New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. A lot has changed in both franchises since then -- the Rams now have Matthew Stafford playing quarterback while the Chiefs seriously improved a problematic defense -- but one thing remains the same: The potential for a great matchup still exists here. You've got big-name coaches, red-hot quarterbacks and plenty of star power in the supporting casts. The Divisional Round of the playoffs just gave us some of the best football we've seen all year. Championship Sunday hopefully will create the best Super Bowl matchup left to be had.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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