The final four has been set. On Sunday, the Rams and Saints will battle for supremacy in the NFC while the scrappy underdog Patriots will have a go at taking down the AFC empire better known as the Kansas City Chiefs. You can stream the AFC Championship Game on CBS All Access.
It's an incredible slate of games featuring the four highest-seeded teams, the top four scoring teams, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time in Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Drew Brees, the best quarterback on the planet right now in Patrick Mahomes, and arguably the four best coaches in the NFL right now (though Pete Carroll, whose Seahawks have been eliminated, could have a gripe with that). The point being, while the divisional round resulted in three duds, it did at least result in the four best teams advancing, which should hopefully lead to peak football on Sunday. It's the championship round this fantastic season deserves.
Only four teams remain, which means there are only two games to write about, which means you won't find some prolonged opening section breaking down one of the two games. Instead, you'll find one thing: A reminder that before the season,I only bring that up now because I'm coming off one of my worst weeks of the season picking games (thanks for not going for two, Jason Garrett) -- and also because, despite taking the Patriots before the season, I'm picking against them on Sunday.
Enough stalling. You'll find both picks below.
Last week: 1-3
Overall record: 52-40-1
Saints (-3.5) vs. Rams
Something is wrong with Jared Goff. Something has been wrong with him for quite some time. And while his issues haven't really sunk the Rams yet, he's reached the point in the season where he can no longer afford to be mired in a slump. Because if his slump persists on Sunday, the Rams will likely go home. It is, after all, win-or-go-home season.
"Win Or Go Home" is not that intimidating, I love to go home— patrick (@redford) January 6, 2019
Ever since that win over the Chiefs back in November -- you-- Goff's been a below-average quarterback.
Here's the bad news for Goff and the Rams: Out of all the remaining teams, they have to play the one that actually has a pretty good defense. After a rocky start to the season, the Saints' defense finished the year ranked 14th in both yards and points allowed, tied for fifth in sacks, fifth in total pressures, and 11th in DVOA. The total pressures stat, which comes via Sports Info Solutions, and the sacks are the key.
Goff has been a wreck under pressure. It's a weakness that has showed up all throughout this rough stretch. Even though the Rams beat the Cowboys last weekend, they didn't win because Goff played well. They won despite Goff, who submitted another underwhelming performance (15 of 28 for 186 yards, no touchdowns, no picks, and a 74.4 passer rating). The Cowboys were able to apply pressure. And it bothered Goff.
If the Saints can get after Goff ---- they should be able to hold the Rams' offense in check.
The Rams, of course, can still win without Goff playing well. This is an offense that has Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Todd Gurley, and ... C.J. Anderson. On the other side of the ball, they have Aaron Donald, who will be the best player on the field on Sunday. They're coached by Sean McVay and their defense is coordinated by Wade Phillips. The Rams are good enough to win even if Goff's struggles persist.
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It's just that, the difference between Goff and Brees is too substantial for me to ignore. Like Goff, Brees hasn't been quite himself over the past month or so and he looked a little off against the Eagles, but even when he's off, he's still good enough to throw for 301 yards and two scores. Brees won't be in a hostile environment. Goff will. If you're asking me who I'm taking in a game between Goff and Brees, I'm taking the Brees-led team every single time -- especially when Brees' team has the better defense and the advantage of playing at home.
Give me the Saints to win and cover in what should be a fun and close game. They've got the better quarterback, the better defense, and home-field advantage.
The pick: Saints -3.5
Chiefs (-3) vs. Patriots
I picked the Patriots to make the Super Bowl before the season, but when we resubmitted our picks at the midway point of the season, I chose the over the Patriots. For the past couple months, whenever we talked about the AFC on the Pick Six Podcast (subscribe here), I refused to acknowledge the possibility of the Patriots beating the Chiefs if the game wasn't held in Foxborough. Since the season started, I've never thought the Patriots were as talented as the Chiefs.
So, when the Patriots beat the Chargers in rather impressive fashion on Sunday and , I both laughed at the idea of the Patriots thinking they're underdogs nobody believes in, but also kinda understood what he was talking about. The Patriots cruised to an 11-win season and their 10th straight division crown, but people like me spent all season long gushing over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs and Philip Rivers and the Chargers while casually throwing out the idea that this could be the beginning of the end of the Patriots' reign.
Well, the Patriots aren't dead yet. And they're coming off an absolute bludgeoning of the Chargers.
The Patriots are absolutely terrifying, but I'm still taking the Chiefs to win and cover. I don't feel good about it -- for the record, nobody should ever actually bet against Bill Belichick and Brady -- but that's how much I believe in Mahomes and, dare I say it, Andy Reid.
The problem the Patriots present is that they can line up and just pound the football against the Chiefs' dreadful run defense. In their Week 6 meeting, which the Patriots won 43-40 in New England, the Patriots rumbled for 173 yards and controlled the ball for just over 36 minutes. Over the course of the season, the Chiefs allowed the second-most yards per carry (5.0). They allowed 6.2 yards per carry against the Colts. The concern is that the Patriots will run the ball effectively, let Brady pick apart the Chiefs underneath, and limit Mahomes' time with the ball.
It's a very real concern.
In their earlier meeting, the Patriots destroyed the Chiefs from 21 personnel:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) January 15, 2019
•80% success rate, 15.4 YPA, 0 sacks
•65% success rate, 5.1 YPC
•KC is the NFL's worst defense vs 21 (65% success rate)
•NE has the 2nd highest usage rate of 21 personnel
Luckily, the Chiefs have a way to stop the Patriots' methodical offensive approach. It has nothing to do with their defense, but everything to do with their offense. The Chiefs need to jump out to an early lead to force the Patriots to enter catch-up mode, which should force them to abandon their run-heavy plans. And if that happens, the Chiefs' only redeeming quality on defense -- their pass rush -- will matter. In the regular season, they generated 52 sacks, tied for the most in football, and 210 pressures, the third-most in football, according to Sports Info Solutions. Against the Colts' offensive line, which allowed only 18 sacks all season long, the Chiefs brought down Andrew Luck three times.
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The Chiefs are well-equipped to jump out to an early lead. It starts with Reid, who is an absolute master game-planner. We saw it against the Colts, when the Chiefs scored 24 points on five possessions in the first half. The Chiefs need to get an early lead in this game, which is something they didn't do in their first meeting with the Patriots. They trailed 24-9 at halftime of that game.
The deficit manifested itself because of Mahomes, not because of Reid. The touchdowns were there for the taking, but Mahomes missed them.
Should be a walk-in touchdown. pic.twitter.com/2RDuiCLMwU— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 16, 2019
Harder throw, but one we usually see him make. Chiefs have to settle for 3 after those two misses. pic.twitter.com/in2EI08oR6— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 16, 2019
another difficult throw under pressure, but again, we usually see him make these kind of passes. Kelce is wide open. pic.twitter.com/kibOwlLpsQ— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 16, 2019
Mahomes also threw two interceptions, one of which led to a Patriots touchdown, the second of which cost the Chiefs at least three points. And yet, despite all of his first-half issues, Mahomes led the Chiefs back to the point where the Patriots needed a walk-off field goal to emerge with a win. The point being, despite Mahomes at his worst for a half, despite the Patriots getting called for zero penalties, and despite the game being held in New England, the Patriots only barely won. What happens if Mahomes doesn't miss those passes this time around? What happens if the Patriots get penalized like a normal team? What happens when the game is played in Kansas City?
I'm expecting the Chiefs to come out sizzling, because we already know Reid will show up with a great game-plan and because of Mahomes, who is the best quarterback on the planet. He doesn't usually miss those passes.
Furthermore, the location of the game matters. Brady has been an entirely different quarterback on the road in the postseason. He owns a 28-10 record in the playoffs, but on the road (not including neutral site games), he's 3-4.
Brady has 3 road playoff wins.— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 16, 2019
He didn't lead the offense to any points in one that Bledsoe had to finish (2001 PIT).
He needed his 3rd INT fumbled back to him down 8 in SD (2006).
Meanwhile, the Chiefs' defense has fared significantly better at Arrowhead.
I think it'll be a close game. But I'm putting my trust in Mahomes at home instead of Brady on the road. That might seem strange, to be taking a first-year starter over the greatest quarterback of all time, but that's how good Mahomes has been this entire season. He's better than Brady at his very moment. And if Mahomes is at his best, the Chiefs should win. That might seem overly simplistic, but that doesn't make it untrue.
Before the season, I picked the Patriots to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. I only picked the Patriots because I didn't realize just how good Mahomes would be this early in his career. If Mahomes didn't exist, the Patriots would likely be the favorites on Sunday. They'd likely be waltzing their way to another Super Bowl. But Mahomes does exist. He's this good already. And he's going to be the reason why the Chiefs win on Sunday.
The pick: Chiefs -3