By: Brady Gardner
And then there were four…
The NFL playoffs are down to only four teams left in contention; the Saints, Rams, Chiefs, and Patriots. All four teams were recipients of a first round bye earlier this month, and took care of business at home in the divisional round last week. There are no Cinderella stories anymore: all that remain are NFL superpowers who will go toe to toe to determine who will represent their conference on the biggest stage in American sports.
Continuing with my series of playoff-based articles from the last two weeks, I will be previewing both of this Sunday’s matchups, and giving my predictions for which teams will be heading to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII. I went four for four with my picks in the divisional round, so we’ll see if my perfect predicting can continue into the final four. Anyway, let’s get into the games!
Rams @ Saints – 3:05pm ET on Sunday, 1/20
In the first conference championship of the day, the Rams will be heading to New Orleans to take on the Saints after beating the Cowboys last week 30-22 at the LA Coliseum. Dallas was the most run-centered team playing in the divisional round, but the Rams beat them at their own game. The tandem of Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson rushed for 238 yards and three touchdowns for the Rams, while Ezekiel Elliott was held to only 47 yards and one score for the Cowboys. Jared Goff was an unimpressive 15/28 in the air, but the quarterback didn’t need to be stellar to get the victory.
While the Saints’ 20-14 win over the Eagles saw a similar margin of victory as the Rams’ game, New Orleans faced much more of a scare from Philadelphia than Los Angeles did from Dallas. The Saints went down 14-0 early against the Eagles, but a strong defensive effort kept the visitors off the board for the game’s final three quarters. While Drew Brees did throw for 300 yards, 20 points was an underwhelming total considering how dangerous the Saints’ attack has been this season. New Orleans will need a better offensive effort this Sunday to get by the Rams.
If previous results can give any indication of how this game will go, then the Saints should be able to score plenty against Los Angeles. Back in November, the Saints beat the Rams in a 45-35 in the Superdome, where this weekend’s game will be held. Both quarterbacks dazzled in that game, throwing for a combined 737 yards and four touchdowns. The difference in that game came from better run success for the Saints, but considering the way the Rams stalled a talented Dallas ground game, rushing yards may be harder to come by for New Orleans the second time around.
So, which way am I leaning for this game? While some fans did lose confidence in the Saints after their struggles to overcome the Eagles, I still think New Orleans will get win. Both teams are very similar on paper, but the differentiator for me comes through experience. Sean Payton and Drew Brees have already won a Super Bowl together, while Sean McVay and Jared Goff will be playing in their first championship game. I just don’t think the Rams are ready for such a big spot just yet, especially considering they will be going into the ever-intimidating Superdome. New Orleans will win, but the Rams will make it interesting.
Brady’s Prediction: Saints 34, Rams 27.
Patriots @ Chiefs – 6:40pm ET on Sunday, 1/20
In Sunday’s nightcap, the Patriots will be traveling to Kansas City to face the Chiefs. The Pats dominated a talented Chargers team in the divisional round, running away with the game to the tune of 35 points in the first half. However, while this will be the eighth straight AFC Championship appearance for New England, a road meeting with the Chiefs will be no walk in the park. Bill Belichick’s team has historically struggled both at Arrowhead Stadium and on the road in championship games, so the Patriots will have to execute near-flawlessly to move on to their ninth Super Bowl since 2000.
Just as the Patriots jumped all over the Chargers last week, the Chiefs benefitted from a similar start against the Colts in their 41-13 blowout win. Indianapolis was red-hot coming into this contest, so Kansas City deserves a lot of credit for dominating Indy on both sides of the ball. While the Chiefs may be young, their stars have continued to shine in the spotlight, and this playoff run might just be head coach Andy Reid’s chance to finally prove that he can succeed in the postseason. Arrowhead Stadium will be rocking on Sunday, looking to put their franchise’s troubled playoff past in the rear view mirror once and for all.
In Week 6 this season when the teams met in New England, it was the Patriots who got out to an early lead over the Chiefs, and it seemed like Bill Belichick had found a way to stop quarterback phenom Patrick Mahomes. However, the Chiefs would come storming back in that game, forcing the Pats to claim the victory only through a field goal as time expired for the 43-40 win. While the game may play out differently with the site shifting west, both the Patriots and Chiefs have proven that they can put up lofty scorelines in head-to-head matchups. That said, the projected single-digit temperatures in Kansas City on Sunday could cool down both sides’ attacks on Sunday.
The Patriots are the betting underdogs in this game, ending a streak of being picked as the favorites that lasted 68 consecutive games. However, I think there’s reason to believe that the Patriots can pull out a victory in KC. New England seems to be clicking at just the right time, and while Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid have impressed this season, there is simply no match for the track record Tom Brady and Bill Belichick hold in big games against inexperienced opposition. If the Patriots can hang with the Chiefs early, I think they will be able to outlast their hosts and gain their first road victory in the postseason since 2006.
Brady’s Prediction – Patriots 28, Chiefs 24
These heavyweight bouts will undoubtedly be talked about for a long time, so enjoy the games!