NFL Conference Championships

NFL Playoffs

We have reached the penultimate weekend of NFL action (as long as you ignore the Pro Bowl, which I think most people do), and the final four are the top two seeds from each conference yet again – this seriously happens most of the time – so we should have just expected to be playing these games in Kansas City and New Orleans from the very beginning of this thing a few weeks ago.

I went out on a limb last week and simply picked the higher-seeded clubs, which resulted in a 4-0 record (and 7-1 for the playoffs). We’ll just ignore my picks regarding the various spreads and over/unders.

Or not. Here’s how that went:

Colts v Chiefs – Prediction: Chiefs win/cover (-5) & over (56.5); Actual: Chiefs 31 Colts 13 
Cowboys v Rams – P: Rams win/cover (-7) & under (49.5); A: Rams 30 Cowboys 22
Chargers v Patriots – P: Patriots win/no cover (-4) & under 47.5; A: Pats 41 Chargers 28
Eagles v Saints – P: Saints win/cover (-8) & over 51.5; A: Saints 20 Eagles 14

So, including the spread and the over picks, I went 6-6 on the week. Yikes. However, to be fair, that Eagles/Saints line moved to -4 by kickoff, and the Saints covered that, but the Pats almost hit the over by themselves in the first half against the Chargers, so… yeah. I’m hoping to get better at this betting thing by next year (my English football picks have been pretty atrocious this year), so take my advice at your own peril to your bankroll.

This Sunday’s Games

NFC Championship

#2 Los Angeles Rams (14-3) at #1 New Orleans Saints (14-3)

3:05pm EST, FOX; Line: New Orleans (-3), O/U 57.0

Both games mark what could be a passing of the torch, so to speak, among legacy teams and quarterbacks from the past decade (or beyond) to the new generation. 

The Saints won the first Super Bowl of the decade back in 2010, and are seeking to return to their second to bookend the decade. Just as they were nine years ago, the Saints are led by quarterback Drew Brees, who became the NFL’s all-time leading passer during the season (and could pass Peyton Manning for the career lead in touchdowns with another solid season next year). There are a lot of offensive weapons (Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, among others), and Brees has looked outstanding for most of his age-39 season.

But the team finds themselves in position to return to the Super Bowl because of an improved defense. According to weighted DVOA, they have the best defense of the final four teams, with an overall rank of 6th, which is markedly better than the Rams and their expensive defense.

The Rams have a Super Bowl pedigree of their own, winning Super Bowl XXXIV behind the “Greatest Show on Turf” led by Kurt Warner. But that was also nearly 20 years ago (January 2000), and they have not been back to the promised land since they launched the Brady-Belichick Patriots by losing in Super Bowl XXXVI.

The Rams identity is probably most aligned with that of their coach Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in NFL history (who turns 33!! next week). The young coach has turned the team around, behind a strong defense coached by Wade Phillips that is led by defending Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. The Rams imported a lot of (expensive) talent to the defense this year, which hasn’t always results in strong defensive results on the season, but the defense will need to be strong in this one to slow down the Brees-led attach of the Saints.

Offensively, the Rams rely on running back Todd Gurley to set the pace, and quarterback Jared Goff to avoid mistakes. When both get going, the team tends to succeed; when they both struggle, they find points hard to come by. 

This is the second match up on the season for the teams; the Saints won the first one 45-35 in New Orleans, which handed the Rams their first loss on the season. While I don’t expect another shootout in this one – things tend to tighten up in the playoffs – I can see the same victor emerging.

Prediction: Saints win (and cover), and barely reach the over.


 

AFC Championship

#2 New England Patriots (12-5) at #1 Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

6:40pm EST, CBS, Line: Chiefs (-3), O/U 56.0

This one could feature another torch passing of sorts. Even though Tom Brady has stated he wants to play until he’s 45, it’s hard to know how effective he will remain over the next few years if he manages to do so. That said, he did manage to throw for nearly 4,400 yards this season (his age-41 season), so even 75% of that output going forward is still better than most of the quarterbacks in the NFL. (In fact, 75% of his pasing output (3,266) would have been 20th in the league this season, between Cam Newton and Mitch Trubisky).

The Patriots haven’t looked nearly as strong as year’s past, though they did win the AFC East (10 straight and 15 of 16) without much of a struggle. They lost five games for the first time since 2009, Brady’s return season after injuring his knee. Those five losses ended up being to teams that missed the playoffs – Jaguars, Lions, Titans, Dolphins, and Steelers – and combined for an overall record of 36-43-1. Still, they’ve been to the AFC Championship so often – this is their record eighth straight appearance – that maybe they were simply saving it for the playoffs.

The Chiefs, on the other hand, looked much more dominant for much of the season. Sure, they had their struggles – they did lose a game that they scored 51 points in – but their four losses on the season were at least to playoff qualifiers (Patriots, Rams, Chargers, and Seahawks). Their defense has been much maligned all season – they surendered more points than all but eight teams (421) – but they managed to come through against the much-improved Colts last week.

But nobody talks about the Chiefs this season and mentions the defense… besides me at least. It’s all about Patrick Mahomes and his 5,000/50 season, becoming the second quarterback to reach those lofty marks in the same season (Peyton Manning in his second Denver season was the other). It’s easy to see why the Chiefs were far and away the best offense in the league (8%+ better than the Pats per weighted DVOA) and how they led te league in scoring (38 points better than the Rams with 565 points).

And still…

I started the season predicting another Super Bowl title for Brady and Belichick, and though the opponent will be different, I’m not going to abandon the Pats now. And with a victory in two weeks, I can still see one or both of Brady and Belichick retiring on a high note (more likely to be the coach though).

Prediction: Patriots win (by a field goal, probably), but take the under.


 

The Patriots know how to win in the playoffs, which is why they are my choice, but nearly any of the four possible Super Bowl LIII matchups – Saints/Pats, Saints/Chiefs, Rams/Pats, or Rams/Chiefs – seem liable to bring fireworks. This Sunday should be an amazing day of football regardless of who wins (but go Pats!).

Until next time…

 

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