AFC and NFC Championship Previews: One Win Away from the Super Bowl
The Saints, Rams, Patriots, and Chiefs are only one win away from advancing to the Super Bowl. Both conference title games are rematches of early-season meetings that featured 80-point games. The Patriots beat the Chiefs 43-40 in Week 6 and the Saints beat the Rams 45-35 in Week 9.
The NFL saw an uptick in scoring this year, so it's no surprise that the top four offenses advanced to the conference championship games. All top four seeds advanced to the final four for the first time since 2015. The best of the best will face each other to determine the match-up for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. The Chiefs were a participant in two of the first four Super Bowls, but have not been back since the 1969 season. Only Tom Brady and the Pats stand in their way. Drew Brees recently turned 40 and knows this is probably his last shot at another Super Bowl, but a wunderkind coach from Hollywood with a potent offense will be trying to take down the old gunslinger. According to BetStars, the New Orleans Saints are 7/4 odds to win the Super Bowl and the favorite on the board. The Kansas City Chiefs are 5/2 odds, followed by the New England Patriots at 7/2 and the LA Rams at 15/4.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: REMATCH IN NOLA
Los Angeles Rams (14-3) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)
Line: NO -3.5, 56.5 O/U
Rematch of a Week 9 shootout when the Saints beat the Rams by ten points in the Superdome. Now, it's the NFC title game and the Rams are tasked with winning a road game if they want to head to the Super Bowl. The first game included 80 combined points, but the Rams are a different team after losing their top WR Cooper Kupp.
After last week's divisional game, the Rams have re-emerged as a double-headed running beast with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson ready for action. Both players rushed for 100-plus yards last week against the Cowboys, who had one of the better run defenses in the league and couldn't stop either of them. It will be hard to beat Brees in another shootout in the Superdome, so the Rams will try to slow down the game and let Gurley/Anderson grind out yardage and keep the chains moving. Sometimes Goff looks great, but when he's off, it gets ugly.
Sean McVay will find a game plan where Goff can thrive against the Saints D, but it's up to him to execute. In their first meeting, the Rams did not have Aqib Talib and the Saints took advantage of his absence. Without Talib on the field, Drew Brees picked apart the porous Rams secondary. Brees and Michael Thomas hooked up 12 times for 211 yards. Talib is back in the line up and his battle against Thomas will most likely determine the outcome of this one. The Saints got off to a slow start against the Eagles last week in the Divisional Round, but Marcus Lattimore and the defense stepped up in the second half. Brees took care of the rest and locked up the win. He just turned 40 and knows his playing days are coming to an end. This might be his last shot at winning a title. Brees is not going to get outplayed by Jared Goff on his home turf.
The Saints have their own supreme running back tandem with their version of lightning and thunder: Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Taysom Hill is a heck of a multi-positional athlete. Whenever the backup QB and special teams player is on the field, good things happen. Whether it was a blocked punt or a fake punt on fourth down, Hill seems to be in the mix during key plays.
If you like a good NFL/Zebra conspiracy theory, then jump down the rabbit hole with the doozy: the Rams are 0-8 whenever Bill Vinovich is the head official in their game. Did the NFL dispatch their anti-Rams henchman to ensure Drew Brees a spot in the Super Bowl? At any rate, the Saints won 15 out of their last 16 games in the Superdome.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: STEP INTO THE FREEZER
New England Patriots (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)
Line: KC -3, 55.5 O/U
The AFC title game is a rematch of a Week 6 battle when the Chiefs lost by three points. The Patriots won a shootout on Sunday Night Football at Foxboro, where they went 9-0 this season. The Pats struggled on the road this season with a 3-5 record. In the rematch department, Andy Reid is 6-10 in playoff games when versus teams he played that season. Bill Belichick also struggles with a 12-9 record. In comparison, Belichick is 16-1 in the playoffs against teams that he faced for the first time that season. Even though Tom Brady is 2-3 on the road in the AFC Championship, it's hard to bet against him and Belichick in the playoffs.
The Chiefs are 8-1 at home this season at Arrowhead Stadium, but game-time temperatures were initially projected to be single digits. The Patriots thrive in frigid conditions. Belichick has his teams prepared for everything in the playoffs, including Mother Nature. Tom Brady is 24-4 in freezing games. And when it gets really really cold, Tommy Boy is 5-1.
Patrick Mahomes finished the regular season with 50 touchdowns and an NFL best 8.8 passing yards per attempt. Even though the Chiefs lost to the Pats in Week 6, Mahomes held his own. He shrugged off a slow start (zero touchdowns and two interceptions in the first half) and rallied in the second half with four touchdowns to finish the game with 352 passing yards.
Belichick always has a game plan to stop your best players. What will he have in store for Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce? Hill loves playing against the Patriots and the Cheetah burned them for a pair of 75-plus-yard touchdowns. Travis Kelce will be trying to prove he's the best TE in the game and that Gronk's better days have passed him by. RB Damien Williams has settled in as a valuable replacement for Kareem Hunt and the Chiefs.
The Pats are playing in their 8th straight AFC Conference Championship game. Brady and Belichick are playing in their 13th AFC title game. Is this the beginning of the end of the Evil Empire? Or will Brady and Belichick go to the big dance once more time together? Their fate will be in the hands (and right arm) of Patrick Mahomes.
Pauly McGuire is a writer specializing in sports betting. He's covered the NFL, NBA, college basketball, MLB, and the Olympics for numerous outlets. He's the former co-host of the Everything Is Bettable podcast with Jesse May. You also might remember Pauly as the creator of the Tao of Poker blog. He was a partner in one of the first daily fantasy sports sites, Fantasy Sports Live.