O’Brien’s AFC Championship Picks

By: Liam O’Brien

I can’t believe it, but we only have three NFL games remaining this season (miss me with that Pro Bowl crap).

Luckily, these games include the top two teams in each conference with the Kansas City Chiefs hosting the New England Patriots in the AFC and the New Orleans Saints welcoming the Los Angeles Rams to the Superdome in the NFC.

Both matchups occurred earlier in the season and they were two of the best games we had all year. Inevitable MVP Patrick Mahomes traveled to Gillette Stadium October 14, tossing four of his 50 touchdown passes as the Chiefs dropped 40 points on the Patriots. However, Mahomes also threw a pair of interceptions and Tom Brady recorded 340 yards passing in a thrilling 43-40 win.

New Orleans beat Los Angeles at home three weeks later in a game that was similarly memorable. The Saints opened up a 35-14 lead in the second quarter but Rams quarterback Jared Goff guided a furious comeback to knot the game up at 35 apiece with 10 minutes left. The combination of the NFL’s leader in passer rating – Drew Brees – and receptions – Michael Thomas, which destroyed the Philadelphia Eagles for 171 yards in the divisional round, ended up putting the game away with a 72-yard connection with just over three minutes left to defeat the Rams 45-35.

These games are going to be regardless of if you have money on the line. But if you do, consider these selections:

AFC Championship: Patriots at Chiefs 

Line: Chiefs -3 

Over/Under: 57.5 

This is the matchup most of us around Commonwealth Ave. will be paying attention to. Both teams are coming off double-digit victories over Wild Card teams who were on the road for the third straight week.

The Patriots dominated the Los Angeles Chargers in every facet. New England gained 498 yards while limiting LA to just 335. Brady led his troops to 30 first downs as the Patriots had possession for over 38 minutes and put up 35 points in the first half alone.

What really impressed me was their pass rush. New England consistently sent five rushers at Philip Rivers and he was flustered all afternoon. The Patriots feasted on Rivers lack of comfort outside the pocket.

Unfortunately, this same strategy is not going work against Mahomes, who may be the most electrifying quarterback outside the pocket the NFL has ever had. But, that’s okay. No team in NFL history has been better at completely scrapping a game plan from one game to the next and personalizing it to match the upcoming opponent than New England.

Mahomes was good in Kansas City’s 31-13 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday evening. But the key to stopping the Chiefs is by limiting their running game and halting head coach Andy Reid’s creative play-calling. KC is a lot like the Patriots in that they play positionless football. Their wide receivers can play running back and vice versa.

The Patriots just have to keep a lid on Mahomes defensively. This means they cannot allow wideout Tyreek Hill to get open down the field and score 75-yard touchdowns like he did in October at Gillette. If a wide receiver beats New England deep, Mahomes can sling it 70 yards and place it in their breadbasket.

Offensively, Brady & Co. can have their way with Kansas City. The Patriots have placed a premium on getting the ground game rolling recently and the Chiefs allowed 132.1 yards per game in the regular season. Julian Edelman is hitting his stride with a season-best 151 receiving yards against the Chargers and he will need to be around the 100-yard mark should New England win.

This game is going to come down to wire. Forcing Kansas City to settle for Harrison Butker field goals in the red zone will be critical for New England. Mahomes will lead the Chiefs down the field trailing by eight with under two minutes remaining. He’ll connect with tight end Travis Kelce for a touchdown but KC’s two-point conversion attempt to tie will be stopped.

Pick: Patriots 31, Chiefs 29

NFC Championship: Rams at Saints 

Line: Saints -3.5 

Over/Under: 57 

New Orleans might have been looking ahead to this game with the sixth-seeded Eagles in town this past weekend. The Saints came out without much sauce and the first quarter was their worst 15 minutes of the season.

But, New Orleans scored the final 20 points of the game en route to a six-point victory, halting the magic of Nick Foles. Their defense was stifling, as they brought pressure on Foles and reduced the Philadelphia rushing game to a mere decoy.

The Eagles gained 3.1 yards per carry on 16 attempts and were forced to abandon the run in the second half, hoping Foles had one last drop of juice left in him. This is bad news for the Rams, who relied on the rush in their 30-22 win over the Cowboys in the divisional round.

Star running back Todd Gurley gained 115 yards and scored a touchdown on 16 carries and backfield mate CJ Anderson shouldered the load with 123 yards and two scores on 23 attempts against Dallas.

The Rams would be foolish to expect the same thing to occur on Sunday afternoon in the Big Easy. New Orleans had the second-best rushing defense in the regular season and allowed just 80.2 yards per game on the ground.

They are going to have to trust Goff to go out and win the game for them. His performance lately should not give them much confidence. Goff was mediocre on Saturday night, going 15-of-28 for 186 yards and a 54.1 QBR.

Goff’s play in games against playoff teams has been underwhelming since throwing four touchdowns in LA’s insane 54-51 win over Kansas City on November 19. Against the Chicago Bears, Goff had a QBR of 12 and tossed four interceptions. The following week, he had the chance to bury the Eagles’ playoff hopes and keep the Rams alive in the hunt for the NFC’s top seed.

Neither happened as Goff compiled a 30.8 QBR in a 30-23 loss to Philadelphia. Expect a similar number on Sunday as he returns to New Orleans. The Saints cornerbacks played great against the Eagles and they will continue that momentum this weekend.

Pick: Saints 27, Rams 17

Posted in NFL

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