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Studs and duds from NFL’s conference championship Sunday

Aaron Rodgers Packers NFL Draft
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers have punched their ticket to Super Bowl LIV with victories on conference championship Sunday, which featured amazing performances from players on both teams.

On the other side of the same coin, the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers have to live with the disappointment of falling just short, thanks to some less-than-stellar games from their stars.

Checking in on Sunday’s conference championship games, we’re taking a look at the players who excelled on the big stage, along with those who did not.

Stud: Patrick Mahomes had everyone in awe

Once again, for the second week in a row, the Chiefs fell into an early hole against the Titans, and everyone started freaking out. Just like he did last weekend, Patrick Mahomes made sure the narrative was all about his offense as he led another amazing comeback riddled with jaw-dropping highlights (like this).

When he needed to be, Mahomes was razor sharp. He carved up the Titans’ exceptional defense with surgical precision, finishing with 294 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-35 passing. But where he really showed out was on the ground. Leading the Chiefs with 53 yards rushing on eight carries, Mahomes’ 27-yard touchdown run was the stuff of legend.

Dud: Ryan Tannehill fizzled when he needed to sizzle

The Titans got to the conference championship game thanks to an unstoppable run game and a defense that figured out how to hamstring Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson. Ryan Tannehill wasn’t asked to do much in their two playoff wins leading up to Sunday’s game. But against Kansas City, the Titans needed him to show up like he did during the second half of the season when he led the league in passer rating and routinely made big plays look easy.

Instead, Tannehill fizzled. Though he completed a decent percentage of his passes (21-of-31) and tossed two touchdowns, outside of a few big plays downfield everything was dink and dunk. He wasn’t decisive. He looked rattled at times. And in the end, when the Titans desperately needed something big to happen late, those issues cropped up once more as the Chiefs sealed the win with a sack.

Stud: Sammy Watkins helped seal the win

As we predicted, Sammy Watkins had a major impact on Sunday’s game. Tyreek Hill scored two of the three touchdowns thrown by Mahomes. But the big plays in the passing game featured Watkins, who led the Chiefs with seven catches for 114 yards.

Oh, and for good measure, Watkins broke wide open in the middle of the field midway through the fourth quarter and hauled in a 60-yard touchdown to ice the game for the Chiefs. Not a bad day at all for the unheralded star of this offense.

Dud: Derrick Henry did not rise to the challenge

No player entered conference championship Sunday hotter than Derrick Henry. In his previous three games, this dude racked up 588 yards and five touchdowns. He was absolutely the biggest reason the Titans got to the AFC Championship Game.

Leading up to Sunday’s contest, Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark stunned the NFL community with derogatory comments directed at Henry. Essentially, he said Henry’s just a big dude who isn’t hard to tackle. Crazy enough, in the AFC title game, that’s exactly what Henry turned into. Coming up small when his team needed him the most, Henry managed just 61 yards and one touchdown (in the first quarter) on 21 touches from scrimmage.

A player who typically gets stronger as the game grows longer, Henry disappeared in the second half of Sunday’s loss.

Stud: Raheem Mostert was unstoppable

A guy who’s been cut six times since entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie out of Purdue back in 2015, Raheem Mostert is now one of the bona fide stars of the Super Bowl-bound 49ers.

Once the 49ers lost Tevin Coleman to a gruesome-looking elbow injury early in the first quarter, Kyle Shanahan turned to Mostert almost exclusively and kept feeding him throughout the game.

The result was a record-breaking performance in which he racked up 160 yards and three touchdowns before halftime. At the end of the game, Mostert had tallied 226 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage, making NFL history in the process.

Dud: Aaron Rodgers couldn’t conjure the magic

Forget about his rally in the second half. Aaron Rodgers was going to make a fight of Sunday’s NFC title game in Santa Clara. He did not go down whimpering. But when his team needed something positive in the first half, Rodgers was unable to deliver.

The veteran had just 42 net passing yards on 12 attempts before the start of the third quarter. The Packers had just 93 total yards at halftime. Even worse, Rodgers lost two turnovers in the first half, the first on a fumble that set the 49ers up for a field goal. The second was the interception by Emmanuel Moseley late in the second quarter that set the 49ers up for a touchdown and the 27-0 halftime lead.

Rodgers would then go on to toss a second interception to Richard Sherman late in the fourth quarter, icing the game in favor of the 49ers.

Stud: Deebo Samuel came up huge

On the 49ers’ second drive of Sunday’s NFC title game, Deebo Samuel made it clear he would be a problem for the Packers by ripping off two long gains through the air and making one poor defender wish for an ice bath.

After the 49ers abandoned the passing game due to their excessive lead, Samuel continued to be one of the team’s biggest impact players. He made huge blocks in the run game, and when his number was called he made big plays running the ball himself as well.

All told, this second-round rookie out of South Carolina piled up 89 yards from scrimmage on just four touches and laid a few players out in the process.

Dud: Packers run defense was paper thin

The Packers had one of the league’s best pass rushes in 2019, thanks to the dynamic duo of Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. However, the weakness on this defense was against the run, where the Packers were the 10th-worst team in the NFL during the regular season.

Once the 49ers started running the ball Sunday evening in Santa Clara, Kyle Shanahan just kept feeding his backs. The reason is, Green Bay just could not slow the run game down. The 49ers had over 200 rushing yards before the fourth quarter started. They finished the game with 285 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, running the Packers out of Levi’s Stadium for the second time this season.