NFL Conference Championship Weekend Breakdown

After two weeks of NFL playoff football, four teams remain in the fold with aspirations of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl 53.

The top two seeds in both the NFC – Rams and Saints – and the AFC – Patriots and Chiefs – will face each other for the second time after having already met in the regular season. The Saints defeated the Rams 45-35 during week 9 in the Superdome. The Patriots topped the Chiefs 43-40 on a week 6 Sunday Night Football affair, but that game took place in a different venue than this weekend’s.

The four top offenses in the NFL will be represented during conference championship weekend. It shouldn’t shock anyone that both aforementioned head-to-head games, as well as the Rams’ 54-51 win over the Chiefs in week 11 on Monday Night Football were three of the best games of the regular season.

It won’t be easy for these four teams to replicate the offensive numbers put up from a short while ago. All four squads have film from the previous meetings, in addition to the hours of film compiled up from the divisional round and the last few weeks of the regular season. But after seeing all four teams combine for 163 points in their prior meetings, anything’s possible.

Conference Championship weekend features two games, both on Sunday. Time to see how the Charm City Bird Watch staff thinks these games will play out.


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Image Credit: USA Today

NFC: #2 Los Angeles Rams @ #1 New Orleans Saints – 3:05 pm – FOX

JakeAfter falling victim to the Minneapolis miracle in last year’s divisional round, the Saints are a better team that’s one win away from the Super Bowl. New Orleans has reached the team’s third NFC Championship game of the Drew Brees era. In 2007 the Saints lost to the Chicago Bears, but in 2010 Brees and company took down Brett Favre and the Vikings before winning Super Bowl 44.

Last week’s 30-22 with over the Cowboys did more for the Rams than people realize. In the divisional round last year, the Atlanta Falcons marched into Los Angeles and walked out with a 26-13 win. Sean McVay, Jared Goff and Todd Gurley now have a playoff win under their belts. That alone will give this Rams team confidence entering their third trip (preseason included) to the Superdome this season.

Taking a look at the Rams offense against the Saints defense, Gurley and C.J. Anderson have their work cut out for them against the NFL’s second-ranked run defense. The Saints also racked up the fifth-most sacks in the regular season. If the Rams cannot get the run game going, which they almost fully relied on last week against Dallas, Goff and company are in trouble. As I said in last week’s divisional round preview, Goff gets flustered when the Rams need to abandon the run and trust his arm. Last week the Rams ran the ball 48 times compared to 28 pass plays. In week 9 Goff threw for 391 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, but the Rams failed to eclipse 100 rushing yards. If the same happens on Sunday, I’ll be intrigued to see how Goff responds.

Focusing on the Saints offense against the Rams defense, if the Rams let up 45 points again, they’ll be watching the Super Bowl on the couch. In that November 4 meeting, Brees posted 346 passing yards with four touchdowns, while the Saints combined for 141 yards on the ground. Michael Thomas caught 12 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown, eerily similar to his line against the Eagles on Sunday – 12 receptions, 171 yards, and a touchdown. Thomas vs. Marcus Peters is a matchup that everyone will have their eye on following some interesting comments from Peters in response to Sean Payton. A piece of the Rams defense that they did not have in week 9 is cornerback Aqib Talib, who will bring some physicality that wasn’t there in November.

In the end, I think the Saints find a way to advance to their second Super Bowl of Brees’s career. I have confidence that the Saints defense will take away the run and put the game on the shoulders of Goff. I think Wade Phillips and the Rams defense correct a lot of the mistakes that they made in their prior meeting with New Orleans, leading to a lower-scoring game. I think the Saints score a go-ahead touchdown with two of three minutes remaining in the game and Goff comes just short of bringing the Rams back.

Score: Saints 34 Rams 29

NolanThe Rams pose a big threat to the Saints this weekend but I am going to stand by New Orleans as my pick to win it all. I was very nervous at the end of the Eagles and Saints game last week simply because I didn’t think the game would be close late in the fourth quarter. The good news is the Saints showed they were able to not only come back from a 14-point deficit, but also come away with a turnover with the game on the line. Much like the other three teams playing this weekend, the Saints rolled past a majority of their opponents because of their high scoring offense. I am even more confident in them after watching last week’s game because it showed me that New Orleans can handle themselves when things don’t go their way.

If Los Angeles is going to go into the superdome and win on Sunday they will have to continue to run the ball extremely well. Todd Gurley was able to play last week against Dallas but did not have to do it all as C.J Anderson continued to be a reliable option in the Rams backfield. Taking the pressure off of their young quarterback Jared Goff will be essential, especially in a very wild road environment. To his credit, Goff had a great game when the Rams visited New Orleans earlier this year. However, the Saints were up by 21 at one point in the second half and won.

Score: Saints 31 Rams 30

IanThe Rams come into this game fresh off the heels of a dominant 30-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys last week. I have often doubted the Rams’ toughness throughout their renaissance over the last few years. They are a flashy team in a flashy town and in the playoffs. Those types of teams will usually falter against a tougher, hard-nosed team.

The Rams shut that notion down last week as they out Dallas’ed Dallas. The Rams rushed for 273 yards in the contest and held Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys rushing attack to 50 yards. The Rams had two 100-yard rushers in journeymen CJ Anderson and Todd Gurley. I’d look for the Rams to try to lean on this type of ball-control, run-oriented offense this Sunday in New Orleans.

They need to commit to bracketing Michael Thomas defensively and will need their run defense to continue their run of strong play against Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. If they are able to do these things, I think they could emerge victorious.

They are taking on a Saints team that cruised throughout much of the regular season and has arguably the best homefield advantage in the NFL. They played the closest game of last week both in final score and to the eye test as they won a 20-14 decision against the Eagles.

The Saints struggled early, allowing Philly to jump out to a 14-0 lead before getting their way back into the game in the second quarter and going in front for good late in the third quarter on a Thomas touchdown catch. Thomas is a beast and the Saints will need to him to come up with another big game if they want to make it to the Super Bowl. If he duplicates the 120-catch 171-yard performance, it will be a sad day in New Orleans for the Rams.

The Saints defense held the Eagles to 99 yards after the first two drives of the game and that unit has been playing as good as any defense in football heading into this one. I think Sean Belichi…. McVay will have some new wrinkles in his offense this week. Couple that with a great game plan from Rams Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips and the Rams will punch their tickets to Atlanta. 

Score: Rams 31 Saints 27


 

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Image Credit: Musket Fire

AFC: #2 New England Patriots @ #1 Kansas City Chiefs – 6:40 pm – CBS

Jake: What can be stated about the Patriots that you don’t already know? They’ve made the AFC Championship game eight years in a row now, and are fighting to reach the Super Bowl for the fourth time in the last five years. If you’re a fan of any team other than the Patriots, you’re most likely rooting against them for several reasons, one of them simply being that watching the Patriots in the Super Bowl has gotten old. That’s certainly why I hope they don’t win.

On Saturday the Chiefs’ 31-13 win over the Colts gave Kansas City their first home playoff victory in 28 years. This is the fifth year in Andy Reid‘s six-year tenure that the Chiefs have reached the postseason, and the second time Kansas City was awarded a bye. In the 2016 season the Chiefs clinched the #2 seed, but lost to the Steelers in the divisional round. Last year told a similar tale as the 9-7 Tennessee Titans marched into Arrowhead Stadium and pulled off a 22-21 upset.

The difference for the Chiefs this year is that they now have Patrick Mahomes playing quarterback at an MVP-caliber level. In his first full season as Kansas City’s starting quarterback, In the regular season Mahomes threw for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns. Four of those touchdowns came at the expense of the Patriots in October, with Tyreek Hill finishing the game with 142 yards and three touchdowns on seven receptions.

Tom Brady and the Patriots were disrespected last week before they gave the Chargers a 41-28 spanking. For the last few years the Patriots have looked old and slow at times in the regular season, but they always play their best football in the playoffs. What should scare Patriots fans is that while New England went 9-0 at Gillette Stadium this season, the Pats are 3-5 on the road and have lost their last three AFC Championship games played outside of Foxborough. Luckily for them, the quarterback that handed the Patriots all three of those losses – Peyton Manning – is retired.

Before I break down the matchups, I think it’s worth noting that Sunday’s forecast for Kansas City calls for a high of 25 degrees and a low of 20 degrees, but it will feel colder with the wind chill and the sun already setting before kickoff.

This game will likely turn into a similar shootout that we saw in October. It’s no mistake that the Chiefs have heavily relied on their offense this season. Kansas City finished with the NFL’s 31st ranked defense, going 31st against the pass and 27th versus the run. The Patriots will be just fine on offense. Anticipate Brady and Julian Edelman‘s connection to be strong just like last week, where Edelman caught nine passes for 151 yards. Although these two make up one of the NFL’s oldest quarterback-receiver duos, they’ve played on big stages like this for years. Combine that along with New England’s fifth-ranked run offense that ended with 155 yards during last Sunday’s win over the Chargers, and the Patriots will likely be scoring often. Honestly, the hardest challenge for the Patriots offense on Sunday will be the extremely loud crowd at Arrowhead.

Mahomes and company will also spend a lot of time scoring touchdowns on Sunday against the Patriots 21st-overall defense. Having Sammy Watkins back in-the-fold last week against the Colts proved big dividends. Watkins only caught six passes for 62 yards, but his presence alone took the Colts’ attention away from guys like Hill, Travis Kelce, and Damien Williams. This season the Chiefs are 9-2 with Watkins in the lineup and 3-2 without him. Kansas City faced some tough opponents without Watkins like the Rams, and his absence led to the Chiefs offense struggling at times late in the regular season. If Watkins takes the attention away from Hill and Kelce, the Chiefs can pick apart the Patriots defense. Don’t forget that Williams dashed for 129 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries against the Chargers. If he can replicate that performance again on the frigid Arrowhead grass, look out.

This is a tough call, but the reason why I’m picking the Chiefs is because their weapons on offense are a lot better than what the Patriots have. The Chiefs are the #1 seed in the AFC for a reason. I picked against the Patriots last week and ate my words, and if the Patriots escape Kansas City with a win I would not be shocked at all. The Patriots have lost their last three AFC Championships on the road to Manning-led teams. I think that trend continues on Sunday. The Eagles dethroned the Patriots in Super Bowl 52 last season, and I think the Philly magic rubs off on Reid, a former Eagles head coach, this weekend.

Score: Chiefs 27 Patriots 24

Nolan: Just when you thought the Patriots couldn’t get any more unbearable, they come out this week and try to push themselves as an underdog team. Just because the Chiefs are a three-point favorite at home on Sunday doesn’t mean you can call yourself an underdog. Especially not the team that is playing in their eighth straight AFC championship game. In reality, it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else has to say because the Patriots are only doing this to appeal to their fan base and build some extra motivation.

As far as the game goes, I am going to pick the so-called underdogs. I still don’t have confidence that the Chiefs defense can stop Tom Brady or that strong Patriots run game with the game on the line. Patrick Mahomes will likely find a way to put up a good amount of points, even if the weather is foul, but I don’t think the Chiefs defense will stop the Patriots from storming back if it turns into a shootout like their meeting earlier this year. Kansas City will enjoy the benefits of playing at home but in the end the experience of Bill Belichick and Brady makes them more favorable than Andy Reid and Mahomes in my eyes.

Score: Patriots 38 Chiefs 35

Ian: Here we are getting ready for the AFC Championship and the Patriots are here again. Lady Brady and Lord Belichick guided their Patriots machine to their eighth  consecutive AFC Championship appearance courtesy of a  41-28 shellacking of the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Patriots dominated against LA, scoring touchdowns on their first four drives of the game and staking themselves to what amounted to a 35-7 lead at halftime. Brady was lights out per usual, finishing 34-for-44 for 343 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots have found a running game to in rookie running back Sony Michel, who picked up 129 yards and three touchdowns. Brady wasn’t sacked and that will be the key to New England’s success at Arrowhead this Sunday.

New England’s defense shut down the Chargers offense last weekend. The Patriots defense held  them to punts on five of their first six drives before allowing a few fourth quarter touchdowns late to make the score line look better. It could be a long day for this group as Patrick Mahomes and company have scored an average of 32 points-per-game at home this season.

Mahomes and the Chiefs throttled the Indianpolis Colts 31-13 this past Saturday to advance to the AFC title game. Mahomes didn’t pass for any touchdowns for the first time this season but he finished 27-for-41 for 278 yards and a rushing touchdown. In the passing game Travis Kelce had 108 yards receiving and Tyreek Hill chipped in eight catches for 72 yards. Sammy Watkins returned to the lineup and added six catches for 62 yards.

Mahomes’s  touchdown run was one of four rushing touchdowns for Kansas City on the day with Hill, Darrel Williams, and Damien Williams also adding scores on the ground. The Chiefs passing attack is normally where their bread is buttered, but their ability to establish a running game last week leads to another dimension for Belichick to gameplan for this Sunday.

The much-maligned Chiefs defense does one thing well: get to the quarterback. They finished tied for first in sacks with 52 on the season. Chris Jones finished third in the NFL with 15.5 sacks and fellow sack artist Dee Ford finished tied for eighth with 13. Ford picked up one of three sacks last week against the Colts with veteran Justin Houston picking up the other two. J. Houston finished with nine sacks in the regular season.

Brady doesn’t move well, the Chiefs consistently get to the quarterback. I am not one to pick against Brady and Belichick often especially in the playoffs, but I think the pass rush will be too much for the Pats.

Score: Chiefs 30 Patriots 22

Featured Image Credit: Vegas Sports Zone

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Podcast Episode 34: Talking Ravens OC change, who’s going to the Super Bowl, and the red hot Terps

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NFL Conference Championship Weekend Breakdown

This weekend, we will find out who is going to compete in Super Bowl 52. After a crazy divisional round with upsets and walk-offs, four teams remain in the quest for a Lombardi Trophy. For this special post on Charm City Bird Watch, we will break down the AFC Championship and the NFC Championship. Our preview for each contest includes a quick blurb and a score prediction from founder Jake McDonnell, along with contributors Nolan McGraw and Tyler Feeser. Both games take place this Sunday, Jan. 21.

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Image Credit: WBUR

AFC Championship – #3 Jacksonville Jaguars @ #1 New England Patriots – 3:05 pm – CBS

Jake: If you picked the Jacksonville Jaguars to compete in the AFC Championship game before the season began, hats off. After shocking the world by defeating the Steelers last week, the Jags look to do the same this Sunday in Foxboro. If they do, they’ll embark on what would be the franchise’s first trip to a Super Bowl.

On the other side, the Patriots look to reach the eighth Super Bowl appearance for quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Just like usual for the Patriots, there is some drama surrounding the team this week. According to reports, Brady jammed his throwing hand during a team practice held on Wednesday. The injury kept Brady out of practice on Thursday. That’s definitely something to monitor over the next few days.

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I pointed this out on the Ebony Bird podcast this week, and I originally heard it while listening to the Simms and Lefkoe Podcast, but over the summer the Jaguars and the Patriots held a few joint practices together before their preseason game on Aug. 10. We all know the schemer Belichick is. Something tells me that Belichick knew the talent on Jacksonville’s roster was good enough to get them into the playoffs. Belichick probably got what he wanted when the Jags scrimmaged the Patriots. It allowed Belichick to see what Jacksonville does well and what they do not to well on both sides of the football. Imagine what these joint practices, along with 18 games of Jags film to watch, will do for Belichick this week.

Pick: Patriots 27, Jaguars 20

Nolan: I had a gut feeling about Jacksonville victory last week and it came true. The Jaguars improved upon their wildcard game against the Buffalo Bills and did exactly what they were supposed to. Leonard Fournette had a great game and Blake Bortles was smart with the ball. This allowed the defense to play without any hesitation and forced the Steelers to play from behind. Even though the Jaguars defense was successful on Sunday, they still allowed Ben Roethlisberger to throw for 469 yards and five touchdowns. Unlike the Steelers, New England will not be overlooking the Jaguars and I don’t expect them to be in a situation where they are down by three scores.

This one is going to come down to a few key drives late in the game. Jacksonville contained a talented Steelers offense and forced some very timely turnovers but will they have an answer for Rob Gronkowski? On top of this, I’m not entirely convinced that Bortles can have another mistake free game. Even if he has another clean game, does he have what it takes to win if this game turns into a shootout? Jacksonville’s run has been a lot of fun to watch but I really can’t bet against the Patriots in this one.

Pick: Patriots 30, Jaguars 23

Tyler: This is the matchup that everyone outside of New England was hoping for. The Jaguars defense vs Tom Brady and Patriots offense. Is this the defense that can slow Brady down? Is this the defense that can take him down completely and knock the Patriots out of the playoffs? The short answer is no.

The Jaguars defense has been dominant this season. There is no denying that. They are vulnerable though. See the Steelers game last week, the 49ers game, and the Rams game. Don’t think for one second that Brady, McDaniels, and Belichick won’t come in knowing exactly how to exploit this Jaguars defense. I expect the Patriots running backs and Rob Gronkowski to all have big games catching the ball.

Lets not lose sight of the fact that Jacksonville can get pressure on the quarterback. They will get to Brady and we could see 🚨ANGRY BRADY🚨 come out on Sunday. The Jaguars defense is somewhat similar to the Ravens and Giants defenses that historically give Brady fits. Lets also not forget that Tom Coughlin, who seems to have the Patriots number, is now with the Jaguars.

From the Jaguars offense perspective, I think Blake Bortles will continue to make a few plays here and there. His confidence is carrying him right now and that is what the Jags need. Leonard Fournette will be getting the same treatment Derrick Henry got last week. The Patriots defense will be selling out to stop him because he is the best player on the opposing offense. That will force Bortles to make plays if the Jaguars want to win. Can he outperform the future hall of famer? We will find out.

Pick: Patriots 34, Jaguars 24

usa_today_9627739.jpgImage Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain NFC Championship – #2 Minnesota Vikings @ #1 Philadelphia Eagles – 6:40 pm – FOXJake: Like I said about the Jaguars playing in the AFC Championship, if before the season you predicted a Nick Foles/Case Keenum dual in the NFC Championship, let me know so I can buy you a beer sometime soon. I’ll admit, I was in the wrong picking the Falcons last week. Jim Schwartz had his defense playing lights out, forcing Matt Ryan into several bad decisions. They attacked Atlanta’s weaknesses and limited the reigning NFC Champions to 10 points. On the following afternoon, it was Keenum and Stefan Diggs connecting on a walk-off 61-yard touchdown that is now being deemed “The Minneapolis Miracle.” No matter if it’s Vikings fans crying tears of joy after so many heartbreaking playoff losses, or Eagles fans riding the coattails of Foles, there’s a lot of emotion going into this game.

Both teams quickly became Super Bowl favorites early in the season, and the Vikings even have a chance to become the first team in NFL history to compete in a Super Bowl at their home stadium. I believe that we will see that happen, because I’m picking the Vikings this weekend. Foles and company did just enough to get by last week against an above-average, but not great, Falcons defense. The Vikings finished the regular season with the top-ranked defense in yards allowed. Their numbers have slipped lately, but I think they’ll handle whatever the Eagles throw at them.

Just like the Falcons, the Vikings are used to playing in a dome, which scares me. However, I’m going with Minnesota in a nail-biter.

Pick: Vikings 24, Eagles 21

Nolan: I was wrong about Philadelphia’s defense last week. They controlled the game against Atlanta and even when the Falcons were threatening at the very end, Philly stood their ground and got a huge red-zone stop. However, they will have their hands full again this week as the Vikings come to town. Minnesota has prided itself on their defense this year but also showed that they can trade punches with a high-octane offensive team like the Saints. Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu gave the Eagles some trouble last week and I expect Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs to do the same.

I think it will be harder for Nick Foles and the Eagles offense to stay clean against the Vikings defense. Philadelphia fumbled the ball four times against Atlanta but only lost two of them. They overcame these turnovers last week, but the Vikings defense will not be as forgiving as Atlanta’s. While I acknowledge that the Eagles have a good defense, I am still not sold on Foles and his ability to put points on the board. He was smart with the ball last week but only led the offense to one touchdown drive. I don’t care how good the Eagles defense is, Foles has to start scoring if the Eagles are going to make the Super Bowl.

Pick: Vikings 24, Eagles 14

Tyler: One way or another, I feel like this game is being underappreciated. Everyone is underestimating and, to be honest, flat out disrespecting Philadelphia. Many people believe that last week’s game between Minnesota and New Orleans should have been the NFC Championship game. But realistically, the Saints got dominated in the first half and only led that game for about two minutes. The second half was great but the only reason people will remember the game is because of the ending. I’m not trying to trash that game, but lets give Philadelphia some credit for getting here when nobody expected them to.

I am really looking forward to this game. Many people may expect this game to be boring due to both teams boasting great defenses that could potentially take over the game. I for one am looking forward to watching a game like this. I enjoy watching games like the one in Pittsburgh last week, but something about this matchup has me drawn in.

Last week, Philadelphia showed that they love the underdog role, which they will be in again on Sunday. The stadium will be rocking and the defense will feed off the atmosphere. The top-ranked rush defense will shut down the Vikings running game and force Case Keenum to make plays himself. The Eagles secondary will have to have a great game against one of the better receiving corps that they faced all season. If the Eagles’ pass rush can get pressure on Keenum that would help out the secondary tremendously.

Minnesota’s defense, from top to bottom, is even more impressive than Philadelphia’s. I don’t expect the Eagles running game to have much success. The key for the Eagles offense is going to be Foles not turning the ball over. If he can’t do that I don’t think the Eagles will stand much of a chance. If he doesn’t turn the ball over this one will come down to wire and be very low scoring.

Pick: Eagles 13, Vikings 10