Conference Championship Sunday Popcorn-Worthy

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Conference Championship
NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 4: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints tries to avoid the rush of Aaron Donald #99 of the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 4, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Saints defeated the Rams 45-35. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Conference Championship Week

Many consider the Conference Championship round the best week in the playoffs. After an all-chalk divisional round, only four teams remain alive for a chance to play in the Super Bowl. The top defensive teams are out while the top-four scoring offenses remain. Will home-field advantage be the deciding factor this weekend? Or will it be coaching experience?

Rematches have been a theme of this postseason and that continues conference championship week. In the NFC, the Los Angeles Rams head back to the Super Dome to avenge their week nine loss to the New Orleans Saints. For the AFC conference championship, the Kansas City Chiefs will look to do the same against the New England Patriots; this time at Arrowhead Stadium.

N.O.-L.A.

Saints Marchin’

The Saints hosted the Rams in week nine, winning 45-35. It was L.A.’s first loss of the season; essentially giving New Orleans the top-seed. Quarterback Drew Brees had 346 yards, four touchdowns, and no picks; completing 69 percent of his passes. Brees completed 76.3 percent of his passes for 2,251 yards, 21 touchdowns, and only one interception in the regular season at home. Brees is also 3-3 all-time versus Wade Phillips‘ defenses.

Wide receiver Michael Thomas put on a show in that last game as well, catching 12 passes for 211 yards and a score. Fresh off dropping 12-171-1 on the Philadelphia Eagles, Thomas will face a secondary that will have cornerback Aqib Talib available this time around. They held Dallas Cowboys‘ receiver Amari Cooper (6-65-1) relatively in check, though he scored. Still, Michael Gallup’s performance from that game (6-119) bodes well for Saints’ wideouts, Keith Kirkwood and Tre’Quan Smith.

Running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for 115 yards and two scores (both Kamara’s) on 28 carries in the last meeting. They may have a tougher go on the ground after the Rams’ maligned run defense held the NFL’s leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott, to 47 yards on 20 carries, though like Cooper, he also scored. The damage has to come through the air, but L.A. held serve there. He only mustered 4 catches for 34 yards last time but did add a third score.

New Orleans shook off allowing two early scores, to hold the Eagles to 250 total yards. They have eliminated the run all year but gave up 5.2 yards per carry and a touchdown to running back Todd Gurley in week nine. Their pass-rush is a concern though. They ranked 11th on the season in pressure rate, did not sack Nick Foles once, and lost defensive tackle, Sheldon Rankins – second on the team with eight sacks – to a torn Achilles.

L.A.-LA Land

Quarterback Jared Goff has not had many gaudy stat lines since the bye. He threw for 200-plus yards in every game and multiple touchdowns in eight of 11 games before that. One of those games was that week nine tilt against the Saints. He has improved his stats across the board, however, turnovers are a concern; he has 12 interceptions. Nine of them came on the road, one in New Orleans.

Robert Woods claim of “most complete receiver” is not as far-fetched considering he has at least four catches and 60 receiving yards in all but two games; weeks one and 17. He also set career-highs with 19 carries, 159 rushing yards, and seven total touchdowns. Fellow wideout Brandin Cooks had a stat line of 80-1204-5 himself. If cornerback Marshon Lattimore shadows Cooks, Josh Reynolds could flash against Eli Apple.

Goff’s numbers have been down, partly, because of running back C.J. Anderson’s re-emergence. He has 20-plus carries and at least 123 yards in every game as a Ram. His outburst allowed Gurley to rest his balky knee the final two weeks. Gurley quietly had 16 carries for 115 yards and a score against the Cowboys on Saturday; his first game back. The Eagles stopped running (19 carries as a team), something L.A. has less incentive to do.

The Rams’ defense had been thought of as their fatal flaw despite featuring likely-Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald. They were 19th and 20th in yards and points allowed in the regular season, respectively. But they tied for third in team takeaways and had the league’s best pressure rate. They shut down the Cowboys rushing attack, but the Saints’ attack will not be so straight-forward. Talib helps but he and Marcus Peters game and can still be had if the rush cannot get home.

These two teams are unsurprisingly built very similarly. Explosive, balanced offenses with opportunistic defenses. The talent disparity here is negligible. Experience, particularly in the playoffs is an advantage both at Head Coach and quarterback for the Saints. Factor in the venue of this matchup and it sets up for a Saints conference championship and a Fleur de Lis appearance in Atlanta in February.

Colossal Coaching Clash

K.C.’s Sunshine Band

Patrick Mahomes should have been the first-overall pick in the 2017 draft, though he has benefitted immensely from the situation he was put in. Mahomes – possibly the youngest NFL MVP ever – led the league in touchdown passes (50) and made the Pro Bowl. More importantly, he did not crack in his first playoff game. He threw for 352 yards and four scores in the first meeting, but two early picks outweighed a late rally.

Receiver Tyreek Hill hung a 7-147-3 line on the Patriots’ secondary in week six. Tight end Travis Kelce added six catches for 65 yards but was held scoreless as the Pats likely considered him the player to neutralize. None of K.C.’s other receivers made any noise in the previous showdown. That is ominous given all Hill and Kelce did, only to end up with a loss.

One major difference this time around is Damien Williams has taken over as the starting tailback. He averaged 5.97 yards per carry with four total touchdowns in three starts to end the season. Williams’ versatility will be key. Kareem Hunt ran 10 times for 80 yards in week 6 but was second on the team with five catches and 105 yards.

Defensively, Kansas City was nothing special, but they are better across the board at home. Notably, they allow 34.6 points per game on the road, but only 17.4 in Arrowhead. Likewise, their yardage allowed drops from 456.2 to 344.6, not insignificant. The Chiefs have the lowest pressure rate of the remaining teams but harrassed Andrew Luck, sacking him three times.

Pat’s Pride

Tom Brady remembers critics saying he was washed after the loss to the Tennessee Titans. Even if the media correctly points out the Pats were among the favorites for at least a conference championship, he remembers. 4,355 passing yards and 29 touchdowns with 11 interceptions is only “down” when your name is Tom Brady. He did put up 340 yards in week six with two scores; one on the ground.

Slot-man Julian Edelman — nine catches for a team-high 151 yards Sunday — caught four passes for 54 yards and a score with Josh Gordon in the lineup week six. Rob Gronkowski caught his lone target for 25 yards against L.A., but his blocking was vital. He could come up big if safety Eric Berry misses another game. Phillip Dorsett scored last week, but it is just as likely to be Chris Hogan this week.

Running back James White was Brady’s favorite target against the Chargers. He caught 15 of 17 passes for 97 yards but did not record a carry. Sony Michel ran 24 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns. The two had similar production in their previous match with the Chiefs, but their usage cannot be as predictable as it was against L.A.

The Patriots tied for 30th in sacks in the regular season but had the fifth-highest pressure rate. Led by Trey Flowers up front, the group only got to Philip Rivers once, but he was never comfortable in the pocket. The blowout nature kept L.A. to only ten carries so it will be interesting to see if the Chiefs are able to establish the ground game and stick with it. New England was top-five in takeaways and picked Mahomes twice in week six.

Bill Belichick and Andy Reid have a deep history, including Super Bowl XXXIX. Belichick leads 6-2 all-time, but Reid’s Chiefs have done well going 2-2. Will the ‘Arctic blast‘ hinder these red-hot offenses? Brady’s history says no; same for Mahomes. This game being in Kansas City as opposed to Foxboro is notable given Brady’s mixed performances there and New England’s losses all coming in the road. Still after eight-straight conference championship appearances, or is hard to overlook the Patriots.

Four Teams Enter, Only Two Will Move On

We are only a few weeks away from the Super Bowl and less than a week away from finding out the participants. Essentially 50-plus weeks of work went into having a shot at the big dance. Whoever wins, we will be treated to two great games on Conference Championship Sunday.

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