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.
NFC: #2 Los Angeles Rams @ #1 New Orleans Saints – 3:05 pm – FOX
Jake: After 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
Nolan: The 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
Ian: The 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
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
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