People want to say that divisional weekend is the best spot on the NFL calendar, but, well, let's be real – last week's games were not very compelling. So I am going to proclaim the championship weekend as, in fact, the best weekend in sports and keep my fingers crossed.
In all seriousness, though, this Sunday should be pretty special. We get the four best teams in football with no shortage of intriguing plot lines with the coaches and quarterbacks and organizations. No how matter how these games shake down, we have the makings of a monster Super Bowl matchup. And for the last time until the summer, we have multiple NFL games being played on the same day. So we're all going to relish the final opportunity to binge on pro football for a while.
I do suspect we get much closer games on Sunday and these should be occasions where the smallest mental error, one missed assignment, one astute adjustment makes all the difference in determining the course of a season. There isn't much separating the Rams and the Saints, or the Chiefs and the Patriots, and the fact the teams in both of these games met already in the regular season makes it all the more delicious to consider how these conference title games may be play out.
For all of the top-notch, household-name star power on display – Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald, Rob Gronkowski, Cam Jordan, for starters – ultimately, I expect there to be some lesser talked about names who end up making a significant difference in the outcomes. There are some cult heroes – or scapegoats – waiting to be born on the second-largest stage the NFL has to offer, and I have some thoughts about who might end up becoming a true X-factor for each of the final four teams (hint: special teams matter a ton to all of these coaches and just might dictate the outcomes of these games):
Cordarrelle Patterson, Patriots
Patterson is the quintessential Bill Belichick hybrid football player. He is a demon on special teams, he can be a game-changer as a running back or taking a pitch or shovel pass or end-around, and he came into the league as a receiver and could latch on to a 60-yard bomb to send New England back to the Super Bowl. If the Patriots stick to their jumbo packages and attack, say, Dee Ford in the run game the way they neutered Joey Bosa with it a week ago, I could see Patterson getting some carries on sweeps and counters. Speed kills, and coordinator Josh McDaniels – master of trick plays this time of year – will have a gadget or two ready for Patterson, I am sure. Patterson barely touched the ball at all when the Pats knocked off the Chiefs, 43-40, back in October (two touches for 16 combined yards), which makes me think he could be unleashed more this time around. And he could always take a return to the house if the Chiefs special teams flinches at all.
Harrison Butker, Chiefs
In his two years in the NFL, this kid kicker has done nothing but impress. He has been a great find for Kansas City and he did an expert job last week against the Colts. Of course, that game was never really in doubt from the onset, and this is a very different stage and with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, every point matters and experience can be paramount. A year ago, in the wild-card round, the Chiefs led, 21-10, and seemed in command when Butker clanked a 48-yard attempt off the upright late in the third quarter … which led to a Titans touchdown and, eventually, a 22-21 comeback win for Tennessee at Arrowhead. One special teams change can alter the course of a game – as we saw last week in the Saints/Eagles game – and with temperatures "hovering" around 5 degrees, the balls won't be traveling anything like they normally would. And kickoffs/punts will be critical, as well, with Patterson and Julian Edelman both exemplary return men for New England.
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Taysom Hill, Saints
Sean Payton – a disciple of Bill Parcells, as is Belichick – loves to find multi-dimensional weapons and deploy them in non-traditional ways, as well. And Hill's role has increased steadily as the season has played out. He can run the Wildcat and he also drop back and throw a perfect deep ball, too – as evidenced on a touchdown strike last week that was overturned on a penalty. As the personal protector on the punt team, he can run or throw the ball on fake punts – again, last week displayed how highly Payton thinks of him. Oh yeah, and he can line up in the slot or at halfback, too. It's time to empty out the playbook here and this guy is at the center of deception and trickeration with the Saints, who have relied on it a bit with the offense off to slow starts recently. Also keep an eye on rookie DT Taylor Stallworth, who could be in for big duty against Todd Gurley and the Rams' potent run game, with star Sheldon Rankins lost to an Achilles injury last week.
Listen to Jason La Canfora and Will Brinson break down the title game matchups on the Pick Six Podcast:
John Fassel, Rams
Yeah, this guy isn't even going to be on the field on Sunday. And yeah, this is more special teams stuff from me. But the Rams special teams coach is among the best in the business – actually, all four teams here have the ability to be stellar on special teams and place a massive import on it with accomplished special-teams staffs – and Sean McVay trusts him implicitly. Fassel is a holdover from Jeff Fisher's staff in L.A., he has been an interim head coach in the NFL, and with the Saints notorious for trying to steal a possession with a fake or surprise onside kick (back when that was still possible), I bet Fassel is prepared to raise the ante, as well. Anytime the Rams stall out around midfield, a fake is potentially in order, and the chess match between Fassel and grizzled Saints special teams guru Mike Westhoff – added to the staff in-season in 2017 – could be a fascinating element to this game. I smell a blocked punt or a surprise pooch punt or some fourth-down shenanigans somewhere in this NFC Championship Game on that fast track down there in the dome.
If you still haven't marked your calendar for the Super Bowl, the game will be kicking off from Atlanta on Feb. 3 and will be televised by CBS and you can stream it right here. If you're thinking about buying a new TV for the big game, CNET has you covered. They shared their best picks for every budget.