NFC: #2 Rams @ #1 Saints, 3:05 PM ET, FOX
For the NFC title, we will have a rematch of a game that the Saints were in pretty good control of throughout most of it, but then the Rams stormed back before the Saints were able to put it away for a 45-35 win.
The thing though is that game was all the way back in week nine and both teams are much different than they were back then.
For New Orleans, they have been leaning on their defense a little bit more and the offense has been more inconsistent than it was at that time of the season. Even with an offense that has been more inconsistent, the Saints have still done a good job of converting on third downs and the reason for that is because Michael Thomas has remained a steady in this Saints offense no matter what else is going on. On top of that, when these two teams matched up earlier this season, Thomas had 12 catches for 211 yards and a 72-yard TD catch that put the game away after the Rams had nearly completed the comeback.
The good thing for the Rams going into this one is that Aqib Talib missed that game and Marcus Peters was forced to try and guard Thomas the whole game, which was an assignment that he clearly couldn’t handle, but Talib will be in the line-up for this one. Having the veteran presence of Talib back in the lineup will be big because it gives them another good player in the secondary, which will allow them to thrown different matchups and looks at the Saints offense to try and slow down the Drew Brees to Michael Thomas connection.
What the Saints haven’t been doing as well is running the ball, but against this Rams defense that is something that they could have a chance of getting going with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. They should be able to get the running game going because despite the players the Rams have on the defensive line, they rank last in the league in yards per rush allowed.
A lot has been made of the Rams’ running game last week against the Cowboys, and deservedly so because that was a really impressive performance, but the Saints have two good running backs as well and have been able to run the ball this season and now they are facing what was one of the worst rush defenses in football this season.
What will hurt that attempt to run the ball is that four of the Saints offensive lineman are dealing with injuries. Center Max Unger is dealing with a knee injury, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk is dealing with a shoulder injury, left tackle Terron Armstead is listed as dealing with a hand injury and guard Andrus Peat is basically playing with one hand right now and he really struggled to block Fletcher Cox last week. Armstead been dealing with a number of different injuries over the past couple weeks and that has coincided with the Saints offense not looking as good as they did earlier in the season.
When the Rams have the ball it will come down to that running game. Everyone knows about Todd Gurley, but last week C.J. Anderson came out of nowhere and topped 100 yards on the ground. The offensive line was able to get a good push and open up holes against one of the better defenses in the league. Now the Saints were second in the league in defending the run this season, but last week breakout defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins went down with a torn Achilles, so he definitely won’t be playing in this game.
New Orleans does have quality players behind Rankins, but the depth is certainly hurt by the injury to Rankins and that should make things easier for that Rams offensive line to open up holes for the running backs.
When these two teams matched up earlier this season Jared Goff had a really strong game, but one key piece is missing from that game for the Rams and that is Cooper Kupp. Kupp had a really nice game in that one and he’s out now. The Saints secondary isn’t the strength of the team, but the Saints do have a pass-rush and Goff will be playing in his first road playoff game and playing in the Superdome is one of the toughest tasks in the NFL. Seeing how Goff handles the stage and being on the road in such a hostile environment will be so interesting and will be a huge determining factor in who wins the game.
Ultimately I see another high-scoring game between these two teams. Not quite as high-scoring as the game between these two teams in week nine, but I think both of these offenses can move the ball on the opposing defense and this game will likely come down to turnovers. I think first down will also be huge in this game because of the way both teams can run the ball. If they can be good on first down and run the ball, play action becomes a big factor because both of these teams are so good at it.
Pick: Saints win 34-30
AFC: #2 Patriots vs #1 Chiefs, 6:40 PM ET, CBS
Speaking of rematches of high-scoring games from earlier in the season, we have one here. In week six the Chiefs went into New England with a 5-0 record, but they were beat 43-40 on a last-second field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
The weather forecast going into this game in Kansas City has been maybe the most talked about thing this week, but as the game has gotten closer and closer, it seems like the cold is going to be less extreme than it was thought to be earlier this week, which should be good if you’re a fan of offense, because the better the conditions the more likely there is to be more points scored.
The Patriots defense has been very good since their bye week, with the outlier being their 34-33 loss at Miami, which coincidentally is the reason this game is in Kansas City and not in Foxboro. That is something this Chiefs offense will have to contend with, but the Chiefs looked as good offensively last week as they did during the whole regular season, so they seemed to have not missed a beat, and despite not having Kareem Hunt on the team anymore, they’ve still been able to do a good job running the ball and Damien Williams deserves a ton of credit for that because he’s really stepped up.
The Chiefs running game will be important, but make no mistake about it, if the Chiefs are going to win this game they will need Patrick Mahomes to come up big and for Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to have big games because they are the teams star players. In the week six matchup between these two teams, Tyreek Hill was huge, but the Patriots secondary has really tightened things up since then.
The Patriots do a great job of taking away a teams top target, which they did when they did a good job on Travis Kelce earlier this season, but it’s tough to do that when you have to contend with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill.
When New England has the ball, it could be a hot Kansas City defense they’d be facing. Kansas City wasn’t good on the defensive side of the ball this season, but they’ve only given up 16 points over the last two games. 3 against the Raiders in week 17 and then 13 against the Colts last week when they were able to dominate up front and keep the Colts from running the ball and to knock Andrew Luck off his spot.
It’s pretty well-known that teams that have given Tom Brady and the Patriots offense problems in these scenarios is when they can lock up the Patriots receivers on the outside and get to Tom Brady quickly, especially up the middle. I think if given the time the Chiefs can get to Brady, but whether or not they can lock up the Patriots receivers on the outside is a big question because New England does such a good job using rub routes, motions and bunching up their receivers to get them open right away, because they rarely throw the ball way down field.
An added part of the Patriots offense has been the running game behind Sony Michel, and the Patriots offensive line looked dominant last week against a very good Chargers defensive front. If they can run the ball like that it makes Tom Brady’s job so easy.
It wouldn’t be surprising one bit for the winner of this game to come down to which team can win up front when the Patriots have the ball. That’s not a big statement to make because that’s a lot of football games, but it should be an even bigger factor in this game because if the Chiefs can slow down or stop the Patriots running game, it will make defending the passing game easier.
I think this game will also have a lot of points. Not quite as many as the first matchup because both teams have improved a lot on defense and the weather will be cold even though it’s not going to be as cold as it was originally thought to be. The Chiefs looked really good on defense last week and now they will have Eric Berry back, although who knows what kind of shape he’ll be in because his time on the field has been so spotty this season, but he’s extremely talented so having him back in the lineup can only help. However, I can’t go against the Patriots, even with them not being at home. A lot of conventional wisdom about football would make me think the Chiefs will win, but I think the Patriots are going to go into Arrowhead and find a way to win the game.
Pick: Patriots win 31-28