Much like my two winners from last week, the Rams and the Saints, I started slowly each day as well but came on strong, losing both afternoon games before winning both evening games. But the losses weren’t close, and I made one rookie mistake – not checking the weather in KC – and another that I specifically warned against in my analysis of the game – trying to time the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of the Patriots almost two decade run of dominance, especially for a home game after a bye week. The Rookie mistake would be forgivable if I was a Rookie at this, but I’m not. It won’t happen again. As for picking against the Pats at home after a bye week, it’s a moot point this time as they are on the road this week. For this week, a few things seem clear: we are left with the four best teams right now, they are statistically the four top offenses in the NFL this year, and they all seem pretty evenly matched (both home teams are favored by three points, the traditional home field advantage, meaning “on paper” these games would be considered too close to call) . So it should be a great day of Football, especially if I was only off on my Patriot’s prediction by a week. Here is my breakdown of the games this Sunday.
NFC Championship: Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints (3:05 EST, Fox)
L.A.: After cruising all season against mostly inferior opponents, the injury and complacency bug seemed to hit L.A. towards the season’s end. But they picked up RB C.J. Anderson when All Star Back Todd Gurley went down, and he’s been great. Gurley is back and looks fully healed, so the Rams now have a two deep backfield to augment the moderate drop off in their passing game, and they used it to full effect last week in (eventually) dominating Dallas; both backs rushed for over 100 yards and a TD. A lot of that came on play action, so Jared Goff needs to be just successful enough when passing to sell it, and he was last week. The Rams Defense is solid, and (soon to be named) NFC Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is a beast who will affect the game even if double teamed. He and hot headed bruiser Ndamukong Suh, who is playing as much under control right now as he ever has in his turbulent career, completely shut down Dallas’ All Star Running Back Ezekiel Elliot from the start last week. But the Rams secondary certainly will be more tested here than they were against Dak Prescott and the Cowboy passing game, so pressuring Drew Brees will be just as important as stopping the run.
N.O.: After surprisingly spotting Philadelphia 14 points last week, the Saints shut down the bland Eagles Offense the rest of the way, but still needed a late interception to avoid being the next victim of “FolesMagic”, ending the potential for another Philly/Patriots Super Bowl (disappointing only those team’s fans while sparing basically everybody else). Like the Rams, the Saints have a steady, balanced attack that features two very productive Running Backs supporting their productive passing game. QB Drew Brees had another fruitful year, and his main target, Wide Receiver Michael Thomas, continued his outstanding season with 12 catches for 171 yards and a Touch Down last week. Like the Rams, New Orleans’ passing attack gets a lot from their Runners as well, especially Alvin Kamara. The Saints Defense is better on the road than the Dome, and is hurting, but they had a good season overall.
This game features the teams with the two best records in the NFL this year (both were 13-3) and the top two Offenses in the NFC, and they played each other in week nine, with the Rams coming back from a 35-14 deficit to tie the game at 35 before eventually losing by ten. As is usually true for teams that play indoors, The Saints Offense has obviously been much more potent in the Dome than on the road this, and most every, year that Drew Brees has been their QB. But what few know is that Los Angeles had the sixth best road Defense in all of football last year. Meanwhile, the Rams Offense has slowed a bit from its mid-season peak, but will get a boost from the only significant injury in this game, a torn Achilles tendon suffered by star Saints Defensive Lineman Sheldon Rankins in last week’s victory. Expect a close game throughout, but one with a bit more running and less fireworks (i.e. “scoring”) than the week nine match up, partly because it’s the playoffs, partly because L.A. didn’t have their best cornerback for that game (an injured Aqib Talib), but will here. Flavor of the Year Ram’s coach Sean McVay is a bright, energetic innovator and motivator, but so is his counterpart Sean Payton, and Payton has much more experience both in general and in the Playoffs. But it’s tough to beat a team twice in a year, so I’m giving the very slight edge to the Rams.
Final Score: L.A. 23 N.O. 20
AFC Championship: New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs (6:40 EST, CBS)
N.E.: Much has been made of the sub .500 record of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady combination in road playoff games, and there are fewer tougher places to play as a visitor than Arrowhead Stadium. But the Pats looked so good in thoroughly demolishing from the start a very solid L.A. Charger team that no matter how good KC’s otherwise properly maligned Defense looked last week in the snow against a streaking Colts side, one has to expect the Patriots to continue to roll on offense. Not only did the absurdly ageless Brady throw for over 300 yards with his top WR target Julian Edelman looking fully healthy and having a huge game, they were joined in the passing game by under the radar (well, at least to the Chargers, that is) Running Back James White (87 receptions and 1,176 total yards from scrimmage this year, 15 catches for 97 yards against Indy). Add Rookie Running Back Sony Michelle (931 yards rushing for the regular season, 129 and 3 TDs last week) and despite little production from the suddenly coverable Rob Gronkowski last week (1 catch), even die hard haters have to concede: right now New England’s Offense looks about as balanced and productive as it has all year, and almost as good as any other year during their unprecedented and highly evil extended run of success. On the other side of the ball, the Chargers ultimately put up big numbers against the Pat’s Defense, but most of that came in “Garbage Time” against the typically generous Prevent Defense. New England was solid when they needed to be, and they will need to be on every snap to even slow the Chiefs juggernaut this week.
K.C.: Obviously, the Chiefs Offense starts, and usually ends in victory with, QB Patrick Mahomes. He may not have thrown for a TD in last Saturday’s 31-13 thrashing of Indy, but he ran for one, and he looked great. And maybe more importantly, he looked unfazed by the situation. He throws to a Ghidorah-like (Google it) collection of Receivers Wide Outs in Tyreek Hill and ex-Bill Sammy Watkins (who, maddeningly, is as productive as ever) and star Tight End Travis Kelce. Much like New England, Kansas City has a solid, if overshadowed, running game, which is also another two headed attack. The late season help they got from Damien Williams – replacing the injured Karim Hunt – carried over to the post season. He’s another two-way back, supplementing the passing game to the point of Overkill while still easily capable of a hundred yard game and a touchdown or two. As for the D, well, the less said, the better. No matter how good they surprisingly looked last week, especially against the run, even coming close to that kind of a performance this week without some form of “Elemental Intervention” would be a minor miracle. With their offense, it would also almost guarantee them a victory, but that’s seldom how they win.
Ok, I got both these teams wrong last week, so let’s talk the weather in Kansas City thing first, since it’s the only thing anyone can reasonably expect to slow down these two team’s otherwise highly potent, and in one case, record setting, Offenses. Sub-freezing temps are predicted, as is at least some moisture in the air, be it just heavy mist or actual rain. However, wind – often worse for a passing game than extreme cold – does not seem to be an issue. Hard luck (or, “underachieving”, depending on one’s take) Chief’s Coach Andy Reid has his best opportunity yet at the kind of success he’s just missed his whole career. He’s one of the few coaches who can match Darth Vader Bill Belichick in strategy and play calling, but he’s never proven anywhere near the motivator. The two teams played each other this year, but not much can be discerned that we didn’t already know from that week 11 game, a 43-40 victory by the Patriots; these teams are well matched and can put up a huge amount of points. And since that game was in New England, a three point win says little else. But this time, the Pats are “officially” underdogs (Vegas has KC by 3)…and in terms of picking against The Empire Patriots, I’m falling for it again.
Final Score: K.C. 33 N.E. 30