Conference championship weekend is upon us. The NFL’s penultimate meaningful game of the 2018 season. Both the NFC and AFC will be decided by the top two teams in each conference. Battling for the AFC crown are the second-seeded New England Patriots and the top seed, Kansas City Chiefs. Over in the NFC it is the second-seeded Los Angeles Rams against the number one seed, New Orleans Saints. In an odd turn of events, both games are rematches from the regular season. Today we take a look at each matchup and make a completely accurate prediction of which two teams come out on top.
AFC Championship – Arrowhead Stadium, Patriots @ Chiefs
How Did We Get Here?
New England rushed for over 100 yards last week against the Chargers. Rookie running back, Sony Michel, led the way with 129 yards rushing on 24 carries. Michel finished with three rushing touchdowns, with Rex Burkhead adding one of his own. Los Angeles were no match for the Patriots. New England moved the ball up and down the field against little resistance. The Patriots defense played from ahead and forced the Chargers into long drives. The defense finished with two takeaways and were again efficient in a home playoff game.
Kansas City controlled the game from kickoff until the final whistle against the Colts. Indianapolis could not get the offense going, finding a much tougher Chiefs defense inside of Arrowhead Stadium than had been advertised. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense moved the ball with ease, entering halftime with an insurmountable 17 point lead. There was no collapse against the Colts and the final result never felt like it was in doubt.
For those who have been living under a rock this week, the AFC Championship game will be a cold one. According to AccuWeather, the temps at Arrowhead Stadium by the start of the game should be in the mid-teens. The National Weather Service has the predicted temperatures closer to 20-30 degrees by the 6:40 pm EST kickoff. With the weather shaping up to be at least a slight issue, which team will be the least affected?
The Patriots enter Sunday with all the experience in championship games. New England is making their eighth straight appearance in the conference title game. As long as Tom Brady is the quarterback and Bill Belichick is the head coach, the Patriots should not be dismissed. In what may be the least talented roster since the recent championship run began, the Patriots rely heavily on Brady being efficient through the air and a much improved ground game. Defensively it is a bend but don’t break mindset. The Patriots defense is averaging just 20.3 points surrendered per game. It ranked the unit as the seventh best scoring defense in 2018.
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However, the Patriots defense gives up nearly a touchdown more on the road than at home this season. Belichick and his staff have their hands full trying to slow down the Kansas City offense. Mahomes and the Chiefs offense have not been held under 26 points in any game this season. Kansas City’s offense has continued rolling after the loss of Kareem Hunt. Head coach Andy Reid has found his new running back in Damien Williams. Since taking over the main role in Week 13, Williams has averaged just over five yards a carry. Against the Colts he carried the football 25 times for 129 yards and a score. He also threw in five receptions. The Chiefs offense is as dangerous as ever and there is little reason to believe the weather or the Patriots defense can slow them down.
The wild card in Sunday’s matchup is the Kansas City defense. On the road, the Chiefs gave up 277 points on the year, or 34.6 points per game. However, at home the Chiefs surrendered just 144 points, or 18 points per game. Part of the discrepancy was the much weaker home schedule for Kansas City. However, the home field advantage for the Chiefs is not to be taken lightly. The strength of the Chiefs defense is their pass rush. While the offense puts up points, opponents are typically forced to play from behind and throw the football. This allows the Chiefs pass rush to let loose and get the quarterback. As a result, Kansas City led the league with 52 sacks and finished tenth with 15 interceptions. The Chiefs play fast and confident at home and it shows.
The first time these two teams played it was a thrilling, high scoring affair, with the Patriots ultimately coming out on top. However, that was just the first major test for the Mahomes led Chiefs, and a home game for New England. This time it is Kansas City with the home crowd and the Patriots needing to answer questions. The key of the game is which defensive trend holds true. In the end this Kansas City offense is just that much better than the New England defense. Barring a catastrophic injury to Mahomes or half the receiving corps, the Chiefs should be near their 32 points per game average at home. Maybe this really is the end of the Patriots dynasty.
Chiefs defeat Patriots, 31-27
NFC Championship – Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Rams @ Saints
How Did We Get Here?
The Los Angeles Rams signaled their intention to throw everything into winning a championship during this past offseason. The team made splash additions to both sides of the football to take advantage of the always unstable championship window. Los Angeles earned the second seed in the NFC and a first round bye. This year it worked in their benefit as they defeated the Dallas Cowboys in the second round, 30-22. The Rams ran all over the Cowboys defense to a tune of 273 yards. Running backs Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson went over 100 yards rushing. Gurley finished with 16 carries for 115 yards and a score. Anderson carried the ball 23 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Defensively the Rams shut down the Cowboys run game, holding Dallas to a measly 50 yards on 22 carries.
New Orleans hosted the defending world champions, the Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints were in a battle against the Eagles, trailing by 14 at the end of the first quarter. New Orleans then held the Eagles scoreless for the next 45 minutes with a swarming defense. The Saints defense surrendered just 250 total yards to the Eagles, intercepting Nick Foles twice. Drew Brees and the offense struggled to find momentum for most of the game but finished with 301 yards on 28 of 38 passing for two scores and an interception. It was a balanced attack for New Orleans as the ground game racked up 137 yards on 31 carries. Despite 11 penalties, the Saints held on late and knocked the Eagles off the NFL mountain.
New Orleans and Los Angeles met earlier in the season. It was a 45-35 Saints victory in the Superdome. The game was the deciding factor in playoff seeding and sent the Rams on a small slide, going 3-3 over six games including the visit to New Orleans. The Rams had entered the game with an undefeated 8-0 record and looked like the best team in the league. New Orleans put the league on notice with the win and established themselves as the team to beat in the NFC. Sunday is the much-anticipated rematch of two talented head coaches.
The Rams offense is at its best when Todd Gurley is going. Gurley is a threat in both the running and passing games and should be the focus of the Saints defense. On the outside the Rams have two receivers who broke the 1,000 yard mark. Robert Woods had 86 receptions for 1,219 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season. Brandin Cooks added 80 receptions for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns. Cooks is the deep threat with his great speed and averaged 15 yards per catch. Woods is deadly underneath and is one of the better route runners in the league. He has morphed into the receiver he was projected as coming out of college since arriving in Los Angeles.
The Saints defense will need to contest with Sean McVay’s ability to use misdirection and motion to trick the eyes of defenders. Similar to a defense disguising their coverage by walking up a safety or feigning a blitz, McVay often uses motion and unbalanced lines to dictate the positioning of the defense. Whether it is a throwback screen to a tight end or using Cooks in a jet sweep play action, McVay will challenge the Saints defense. New Orleans will need to find ways to pressure Jared Goff. Like every other young quarterback not named Mahomes, Goff has struggled against pressure and shown a propensity to turn the ball over. Against an offense predicated on timing, the Saints need to disrupt the rhythm and take advantage of mistakes.
New Orleans’ offense has displayed the ability to win in both shootouts and low scoring contests. Brees and the passing game relies heavily on wide receiver Michael Thomas. The All-Pro finished the regular season with 125 receptions for 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns. He has become the go-to target on important third downs and has been nearly impossible to contain. It will be up to either Aqib Talib or Marcus Peters to slow down the talented pass catcher. The New Orleans ground game features the duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Kamara is more of the receiving threat and has the speed to break any run. Ingram is more of the bruiser who has the quick feet to burst through the hole. Kamara had 883 yards rushing with 14 scores on the ground in addition to 709 yards receiving and another four touchdowns. Ingram contributed 645 yards rushing in just 12 games in 2018.
The game will come down to the team that wins the battle in the trenches. Both offenses feature balanced attacks that prefer to have the ground game going strong. The Rams have the bigger names on defense but New Orleans have the more efficient defense. Both defenses have major question marks but the key factor is the New Orleans crowd. Saints fans will be out in full force and can make a significant difference on Sunday. The defense that can force field goals will have the upper hand. The first time these two teams faced off there was nearly 1,000 yards of total offense and 80 points scored. It is rare for playoff games to resemble those types of numbers but this one may. Bourbon Street will be wild either way.
Saints over Rams 33-27