NFL Conference Championship Weekend

While we all can be disappointed that football is winding down until next Fall, none of us can be disappointed in the 2 matchups that will draw our attentions to TV’s across the nation on Sunday. 1 seed vs. 2 seed: Saints vs. Rams in the NFC, and Chiefs vs. Patriots in the AFC. It appears a week off for all 4 teams to both prep and rest gave them the clear upper hand, as all 4 teams with byes during wild card weekend won, and 3 of the 4 covered the spread, the 4th (Saints) being a missed field goal away from sweeping the board. Before we dive into matchups, let’s take a look at how each team got to this point:

New Orleans Saints: 13-3, 1st round bye, #1 seed in the NFC.

  • Overcame the Philadelphia Eagles 20-14 in the divisional round.
  • Led by Drew Brees (28/38, 301 yards, 2 TD’s last week), this offense can hit you with the ground and pound with two-headed monster of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram (25 rushes for 124 yards combined), or through the air with Michael Thomas (12/171/1) ((scary)).
  • Defense ranked 14th in total defense in the regular season.saints eagles

LA Rams: 13-3, 1st round bye, #2 seed in the NFC

  • Defeated the Dallas Cowboys 30-22 in the divisional round.
  • Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson combined for 238 yards on 39 carries and 3 touchdowns, as Jared Goff added 186 yards through the air.
  • Defense ranked 19th in total defense during the regular season.rams boys

Kansas City Chiefs: 12-4, 1st round bye, #1 seed in the AFC

  • Overpowered the Indianapolis Colts 31-13 in the divisional round.
  • Patrick Mahomes (probable MVP of the NFL) only needed 278 yards in the air, as the Chiefs scored 4 times on the ground, led by Damien Williams’ 25/129/1 performance. Travis Kelce led the receiving attack with 7 catches for 108 yards.
  • Defense ranked 31st in total defense throughout the regular season.chiefs colts

New England Patriots: 11-5, 1st round bye, #2 seed in the AFC

  • Overwhelmed the Los Angeles Chargers 41-28.
  • Tom Brady did not look old, going 34/44 for 343 yards and 1 touchdown. Sony Michel had a monster day, going for 24/129/3. The receiving core was led by the mighty men, as Julian Edelman and James White combined for 24 receptions and 248 yards.
  • Defense ranked 21st in total defense during the regular season.pats chargers

All 4 teams standing have been dominant at times, but all have their Achilles’ heel. Both games also present rematches from earlier in the year. I think both games will be looked to as a blue print, but tweaks will be made all around. Let’s break down each game and see if we can find our winners.

Los Angeles Rams @ New Orleans Saints

Sunday, Jan. 20th 2:05 (CT) on FOX. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth.

Saints -3 -120, O/U 56.5 *Thursday 12:45*

When the Rams have the ball: Todd Gurley makes this team go. While CJ Anderson seems to have found the fountain of youth, it’s Gurley who brings a multi-dimensional aspect to this offense. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield allows Jared Goff to become comfortable in his reads, knowing he has the security blanket in Gurley should a play break down. Now, it is known that Gurley is not 100%, so his presence on the field is not only important for the Rams, but keeping him as healthy as possible ON the field must be a priority, so I would assume we see CJ just as much as we did last week. Not to say CJ can’t catch the ball, but he is nowhere near the pass catcher Gurley is, and this allows the Saints to play a more base-driven defense. Ranking 2nd in YPC against the run (3.6 YPC), the Saints should focus on taking away Gurley and CJ, and force the ball into Jared Goff’s hands. The absence of Cooper Kupp has been glaring, and the Saints have Marshon Lattimore – who some believe is the best corner in the game (I do not, but he is very good) – to match up with Robert Woods. This allows Dennis Allen (Saints D.C.) to double Cook with Eli Apple and a safety.

We have seen in the 3 Rams losses, Gurley rushed for an average of 12 times for 48 yards. In those same games, Jared Goff was a combined 83 for 137 (average of 28/46), and threw 6 INT’s to 3 TD’s. Now, in games the rams won, Gurley rushed the ball for an average of 20 times for 102 yards. Goff’s numbers showed, averaging a stat line of 21 for 32 (5% uptick in completion percentage) throwing 29 TD’s to only 6 INT’s, matching his total in 3 losses. It’s clear what the Rams need to do: establish the run to allow Goff to work off play action and quick throws, which in itself will allow them to take shots when the time is right. Playing into their hands, Saints DT Sheldon Rankins has been placed on the IR. Expect the Rams to come out trying to quiet this rowdy crowd and create drives on the ground early.Cowboys, Rams, Football

When the Saints have the ball: Pick your poison. The Rams loaded the box last week to shut down Zeke, and rightfully so. Put the ball in the hands of Dak Prescott, and you give your team the best chance of winning. Put the ball in the hands of Drew Brees, well, turn and run. He has completed a league high 74.4% of his passes, and does it with a WR1, 2 backs, and a bunch of no-name receivers. That WR1 may just be WR1 of the entire league, however, in Michael Thomas. The first team All-Pro has caught 125 of the 147 balls thrown his way this year for 1,405 yards and 9 touchdowns. The matchup here is going to be Aqib Talib, who I suspect will follow him around all game. In the previous meeting, Talib was hurt, and Marcus Peters – who has talked more trash about this week than all the rest of the players combined – allowed Thomas to go for 12/211/1. I, too, would be talking trash after giving up video game numbers to the man I was guarding…*crickets*. Now, they LOVE to run Thomas from the slot, and if you can take away Talib’s elite ability to get hands on at the line and make him use his speed – crossing routes, “rub” routes, etc. – you can cause problems for him. I expect a lot of this action, and the Rams to counter with the double team.

But like I started with: pick your poison. If you focus on Brees, Thomas, and the rest of that aerial attack, you soften yourself up for the two-headed monster, and the Rams, who are DEAD last rush defense (5.1 YPC), cannot afford to do that. Alvin Kamara averages 4.6 YPC, and Mark Ingram is averaging 4.7 YPC. I also think it’s safe to note that Ingram has only played in 13 games this season due to an early year suspension, and he looked as rested as anyone last week with multiple explosive runs. Now, after seeing the Rams game plan last week, and knowing they paid Peters and Talib for this moment right here, I expect the Saints to do the opposite of the Rams: put the ball in your first-ballet hall of fame QB and throw it around the park to soften the box and then pound the rock with Ingram and Kamara. I do see Sean Payton getting Kamara on the edges early as another way to soften the box, and think he could have a large day at the office.ingram kamara

Prediction: I don’t think I expect the 45-35 shootout we saw in the regular season. There were injuries on both sides, and this is playoff football. Both coaches will come up with ways to stop the other. Ultimately, I think the Saints are just a little healthier, and have more weapons to try and contain. I’ll back the Hall of Fame QB, and hope that the Saints can turn Goff over 2 times to seal a victory.

Saints 27 – Rams 20.

I like the under here, and will play the Saints if I can get a clean -3. Kamara over 40.5 receiving yards.

New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs

Sunday, Jan. 20th 6:40 (CT) on CBS. Jim Nantz and Tony Romo in the booth. COLD!!

Chiefs -3 -110, O/U 55.5 *Thursday 12:45*

When the Patriots have the ball: It’s a little weird not starting with Tom Brady, but that won’t be what this game is about when the Pats are on offense. It will be about the offensive line and Sony Michel. The Chiefs are the 2nd worst rush defense in the league, giving up a whopping 5 yards per carry, and I doubt the Patriots come out and throw the ball 5 of their first 6 plays like the Colts did *WOOF*. According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Patriots offensive line ranks 3rd in run blocking (Rams, Saints are 1,2), and they are complimented with quite possibly the best running back in the Brady/Belichick era in Sony Michel. The Chargers’ stubbornness to rid of their staple 7 DB personnel made it easy for him to run all over the field last week. Now the Chiefs don’t play with 7 defensive backs, but in their first meeting, Sony got 24 carries for 106 yards, and I expect more of the same. If Sony is the stallion, James White is your ace up the sleeve. The Chiefs ranked 21st in guarding running backs in the passing game during the regular season, and Tom Brady is very adamant in James being not only included in the game plan, but a vocal point.

Let’s talk about Tom Brady. In the first meeting, Tom went 24-35 for 340 yards and 1 touchdown, with a clutch rainbow throw to Gronk down the sideline to set up the game winning field goal. He lives for Championship games, and he LOVES cold weather. Now, with Eric Berry supposedly back this week, you’re able to take the new and..err..NOT improved Gronk out of the game with one guy, and outside of Julian Edelman, the receiving core is fairly weak. And how do you beat Tom Brady? You blitz him, ALL NIGHT. Eric Berry’s return is key to do this, as you can double Edelman if you so please, single everyone else, and bring major pressure. The counter? We go back to the White well. I really see the Patriots trying, and succeeding in the ground and pound game. Keeping the Chiefs’ offense at bay, no matter the weather, is a must, and the Patriots will attack the weakness of that defense. Tom Brady is patient enough to do so. Now, while this Chiefs’ defense has struggled as a whole, they do play better at home. Much better. They currently hold the longest active streak of not allowing 30 points at home at 34 games. The next best? 16 (!!!). But this is Bill Belichick. This is Tom Brady. This is the AFC Championship. The game plan is simple: Run, run, and run some more. Screens and dink-and-dunk to White and Edelman will be huge, and if the Chiefs do play Gronk 1-1, I could envision a goal line fade ball that ends in a Gronk SPIKE.NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots

When the Chiefs have the ball: Hate to déjà vu everyone, but: pick your poison. Even without Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs really haven’t lost too much of a step. Damian Williams has done a tremendous job – he was rewarded with a 2-year extension – and I think that’s going to continue Sunday. Now, he is not Kareem Hunt, but Hunt was able to run for 80 yards on just 10 carries back in Week 6, but also caught 5 balls for 105 yards and a score. The Chiefs had to abandon the run game after falling behind, and I think against the Patriots team you saw last week, you can’t afford to do that. Getting Williams going early and often will be key, because as much as the Patriots want to keep the MVP off the field, the Chiefs probably want to keep the GOAT off it as well. This also plays into the Patriots’ weakness, as they were the 3rd worst defense against the run in the regular season, coming in at 4.9 YPC for opponents.

I wrote THAT much without mentioning Patrick Mahomes’ name once. I am even impressed. In the first meeting between these two teams, he played poorly; and by poorly, I mean he went 23/36 352 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also had 2 costly interceptions early, however, and thus went away the ground game as the Chiefs were in catch-up mode the rest of the way. But they DID catch up. How? Tyreek Hill. He is straight up faster than anyone on this Patriot defense, and they know it. Bill’s staple is taking away your number 1 option, and while the Chiefs #1 option is Patrick Mahomes, his #1 option is Tyreek Hill. I expect him to see doubles all day long (McCourty sandwich is in play). This leaves your All Pro to take away the second WR option, which I expect Stephon Gilmore (who I do in fact think is the best corner in the league) to be all over Sammy Watkins. That leaves Travis Kelce, and I think it’s the Patriots biggest hurdle. Kelce was dominant last week in the first half against the Colts, and it just carried from the entire season. Usually Patrick Chung would take on this challenge, but I expect Bill to use Duron Harmon more, as his 6’1 frame better matches up with Kelce. He could also use Devin McCourty, and use Chung to double Hill. Ultimately there are options with the chess game we will see between Reid and Belichick. I think the Chiefs will use the run as well, but will rely on it to open up play action, and get Kelce into 1 on 1 situations as often as possible. Reid vs Belichick will be the chess match to watch in this one.hill

Prediction: I think whoever wins the toss here takes the ball. The lead in this game and being able to run the football, especially in the weather, is going to be so big. Who avoids the big turnover? Who wins the field position battle? Who is better situationally? I think the Chiefs are the better team, and the better team is at home. But you want me to pick against Tom Brady? No thanks.

Patriots 26 – Chiefs 24

I also like the under here. I already played the Patriots +3. White over 47.5 receiving yards. Sony Michel over 75.5 rushing yards. Damien Williams over 64.5 rushing yards.

MAN, these two games are going to be AWESOME. Sit back, grab the chips, 6 pack of beer (pay your respects to Martin Luther King Jr. who gives you Monday off), and enjoy. See these two in 2 weeks.super

– Frank Laterza

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