2019 NFL Playoffs: Bold predictions for AFC Championship game, including Tom Brady struggling
Will Tom Brady's road struggles continue in the playoffs? Here are eight bold predictions for Sunday
After a divisional round that didn't give us any upsets, don't be surprised if there's some serious postseason drama on Sunday and that's because the playoffs are down to the NFL's four best teams. Actually, they're not just the four best teams but also the four highest-scoring teams in the NFL season, which means it won't be surprising at all if we see some offensive fireworks.
Patrick Mahomes and his 50 touchdown passes will be going up against a Patriots team that's playing in the AFC Championship Game for the eighth straight season in a matchup you can stream on CBS All Access. In the NFC, the Rams will be traveling to New Orleans for the third time this season after heading there in August (for a preseason loss) and November (for a regular season loss).
Although the playoffs can be nearly impossible to predict, we're going to try and do it anyway by making eight bold predictions for the AFC and NFC Championship games.
Here's how it's going to work: Since there are two games on the schedule today, we'll be making four bold predictions for each game. Remember, these are bold predictions only. If you're looking for.
With that in mind, let's get to the bold predictions.
1. Drew Brees throws two interceptions
When Drew Brees takes the field on Sunday, he'll be going up against a Rams secondary that will include Aqib Talib, which is notable because Talib didn't play the first time these two teams met. Although Talib isn't an interception machine, he does give the Rams an instant boost in the secondary, which defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will likely take advantage of. If the Rams' secondary plays better this time around -- they got shredded for 346 yards in the first meeting -- Brees is likely going to have some trouble finding open receivers.
Also, don't forget that Brees is going to be facing pressure from the guy who led the NFL in sacks this year (Aaron Donald). With a better secondary and non-stop pressure coming from Donald, it wouldn't be surprising to see Brees make multiple mistakes against the Rams. This is a bold prediction because Brees didn't throw two interceptions in a single game all year. As a matter of fact, the last time Brees threw multiple interceptions in a game came last season, when he threw two picks in the Saints' 29-24 divisional round playoff loss to the Vikings.
2. Alvin Kamara racks up 175+ yards from scrimmage
When these two teams met back in Week 9, Kamara arguably had one of his most impressive games of the season. Not only did he do some damage on the ground (82 yards, two touchdowns), but he also caught four passes for 34 yards and a touchdown for a total of 116 yards and three touchdowns.
The reason Kamara could explode on Sunday and have an even bigger game is because there's a good chance the Rams will be focusing a lot of their defensive attention on Michael Thomas, especially after watching Thomas catch 12 passes for 171 yards against the Eagles in the divisional round. Thomas actually had an even bigger game against the Rams back in Week 9 when he caught 12 passes for 211 yards, so it's almost guaranteed that the Rams will be keying in on him, which could potentially open up things for other players in the Saints offense, like Kamara.
If Kamara can hit the 175-yard mark, he'd become just the second running back since the 2000 season to have that many scrimmage yards in an NFC Championship. The only player to pull that off this century was Marshawn Lynch, who totaled 183 yards against the Packers in January 2015.
3. Rams held to under 100 yards rushing
On the surface, this prediction almost seems more crazy than bold. Not only did the Rams finish the season as the NFL's third-best rushing team, but they're also are coming off a game against the Cowboys where they racked up the most rushing yards in franchise history (273). Not to mention, the Saints will be going into this game without defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins, who tore his Achilles against the Eagles.
The reason I think the Saints can pull this off is because they had one of the best run defenses in the NFL in 2018, surrendering just 80.2 yards per game, which ranked second overall. Yes, Rankins was a big part of that, but the reason the Saints were so good at stopping the run is because every level of their defense (linebackers, defensive backs) was good at it.
The Saints were also good at stopping the run because their offense tends to shoot out to huge leads. When these two teams played in Week 9, the Rams only rushed for 92 yards and that's because they basically gave up on the run after the Saints shot out to a 35-14 lead.
Stopping the Rams on the ground is the easiest way to beat them and for proof of that, all you have to do is look at their record. In games where they rushed for 100 or more yards in 2018, the Rams went 12-0, including last week's win over the Cowboys. In games where they didn't hit 100 yards, they went just 2-3. Even with Rankins out, don't be surprised if Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen cobbles together a game plan that focuses on the run, which in turn would force Jared Goff to beat New Orleans.
4. Greg Zuerlein kicks longest FG in NFC Championship history
If Sean McVay has proven one thing during his coaching career -- besides the fact that he's an offensive genius -- it's that he has no problem sending his kicker out for long field goal attempts. During the 2018 season, Zuerlein attempted six field goals of over 50 yards, which was the second-most in the NFL. He probably would have led the league, but he missed five games due to a groin injury. McVay also sent Zuerlein out for a 63-yard attempt on the final play before halftime during the Rams' divisional playoff win over the Cowboys.
Basically, Zuerlein will likely attempt at least one long field goal on Sunday, and here's the crazy thing, it doesn't have to be that long for him to break the record. The longest field goal ever in an NFC Championship Game is only 52 yards, which means Zuerlein would only need to hit from 53 to get himself in the NFL record book. (The AFC Championship record is 54 yards, while the all-time postseason record is 58 yards.)
5. Tom Brady has more interceptions than touchdown passes
Tom Brady might have the most impressive postseason resume of any quarterback in NFL history, but if there's one time when he's not impressive in the playoffs, it's when he plays on the road. Although Brady has a career record of 28-10 in the postseason, he's just 3-4 on the road, and when the Patriots lose, it's usually because of him.
In his seven career road games, Brady has thrown eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. If you look at more recent history, Brady is 0-3 in his last three playoff road games. Bill Belichick is likely already aware of Brady's road struggles, which means it wouldn't be surprising at all to see the Patriots go with a run-heavy game plan in Kansas City, which takes us to our next prediction.
6. Sony Michel rushes for at least 150 yards
Although 150 yards might not seem like a lot, it's been 20 years since a running back has hit that number in an AFC Championship Game. The last player to accomplish that feat was Terrell Davis, who rushed for 167 yards in a 23-10 win over the Jets back in January 1999.
So why will Michel be able to do it? This is a multi-layered prediction. For one, the Chiefs gave up 5.0 yards per carry in 2018, which was the second worst number in the NFL, and we can probably all agree that Belichick is well aware of that. If Belichick thinks the Patriots can run on the Chiefs, he'll call 50 run plays in a row. Also, the easiest way to keep the Chiefs high-powered offense off the field is to put together multiple drives that eat up the clock, and there's no better way to eat up the clock than giving the ball to your workhorse.
The weather could also play a factor in this prediction. In cold-weather games, the team that does more damage on the ground tends to win. Since 1990, teams are 18-3 in the playoffs when rushing for yardage than their opponent in games where the kickoff temperature is under 20 degrees. That's an .857 winning percentage and a big reason Belichick might try to set the tone on the ground early. It won't be surprising at all if Michel ends this game with 30 carries and 150 yards just one week after steamrolling the Chargers for 129 yards and three touchdowns in the divisional round.
7. Sammy Watkins finishes as the Chiefs leading receiver
If we've learned one thing about Bill Belichick during his coaching career, it's that he's not going to let the other team's most dangerous weapons beat him. In this game, that likely means the Patriots are going to do everything in their power to neutralize Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. Of course, Patrick Mahomes is a smart quarterback and if he sees that the Patriots are trying to take Hill and Kelce out of the game, he'll respond by throwing the ball to someone else and that someone else will be Watkins.
Although Watkins only led the Chiefs in receiving once this year, it came in a huge spot for Kansas City. Back in Week 8, Watkins caught eight passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-23 win over the Broncos. Watkins also had a big game in the divisional round, with six catches for 62 yards against the Colts. If the Patriots hone in on Kelce and Hill, don't be surprised if Watkins' explodes for 125 yards or more.
8. Neither team will score more than 30 points
The last time we saw these two teams on the field back in Week 6, they combined for 83 points, which ended up making it the fourth-highest scoring game of the 2018 NFL season. Although we saw plenty of offensive fireworks in that 43-40 win by the Patriots, I'm not expecting the same thing in Kansas City.
Belichick has faced some of the best offenses in NFL history and when that happens, he usually tries to shorten the game, which means a lower score. In Super Bowl XXXVI, Belichick and the Patriots were going up against the Greatest Show on Turf Rams in a game where the over/under was 52.5 points and the two teams didn't get anywhere near that in a game that Patriots won 20-17.
Not to mention, in their last five road playoff games, the under has gone 4-1, and there's no reason to think that trend will change this week. The Patriots offense struggled big time in road games this year, averaging just 21.6 points, which was well below their home average of 32.9. It's hard to see the Patriots lighting up the scoreboard but it's also hard to picture them getting blown out, which means a close game where neither team scores above 30 seems to make the most sense.
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