NFL conference champions to be set this Sunday

Jacob Hebda | Staff Writer

Jan. 17, 2019

The NFL Playoffs are generally thought to be one of the more unpredictable postseasons in professional sports. However, in recent years the top seeds have reigned supreme.

This year is no different. The four top seeds in the entire league — the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams — will be taking the field this Sunday looking for a trip to Super Bowl LIII.

It’s about what most expected, and it should make for a pair of entertaining games. Here’s a preview of your Championship Sunday.

Los Angeles Rams @ New Orleans Saints (3:05 EST) —

After notching their first playoff win under Head Coach Sean McVay’s tutelage, the Rams travel to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome hoping to knock off the Saints.

This NFL season has featured unprecedented offensive firepower, largely thanks to these two teams.

Drew Brees, who turned 40 years old Jan. 15, has posted an MVP-worthy campaign in what could be his last shot at another Super Bowl. With All-Pro wideout Michael Thomas and a powerful running back duo in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, this offense is dangerous.

What makes the Saints truly formidable, however, is their defense. After years of ineptitude on that side of the ball, this unit is no longer a liability. In fact, it’s been a strength. Just ask the Eagles, who were held scoreless last week for the game’s final three quarters.

The Saints are a complete team, but the Rams are one of the few opponents capable of keeping up with them.

Pro Bowl quarterback Jared Goff leads an offense packed with talent in the Big Easy. With Goff, first-team All-Pro running back Todd Gurley and skilled wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, the Saints’ defense will be facing a stiff test.

The Rams’ defense is also filled with big names, including likely Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

They’ve struggled against the run game, but after holding stud Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot to 47 yards last week, the defense will have confidence going into this matchup.

There’s also the McVay factor. He is one of the great young minds in football, and his scheming was a major reason why the Rams defeated Dallas so convincingly.

So, in many respects, this game is a toss-up. Both teams have the talent, coaching, and momentum necessary to win Sunday.

What could separate these evenly-matched groups are a couple of factors that are impossible to ignore.

Firstly, Brees is far more experienced than his counterpart, Goff. He’s nearly twice as old as the Rams quarterback, and that disparity could show during this game. With enough pressure, Goff can be rattled. There is no better example than L.A.’s visit to Chicago this past December. The Bears swarmed Goff, sacking him three times and hitting him another eight. The result? Four interceptions and a loss.

Being that the Saints rank sixth in the league when it comes to sacks per game, Goff could find himself in a tough spot.

Secondly, the Superdome is arguably the toughest place to play in all of sports. The Rams found this out firsthand back in November, when they fell to the Saints, 45-35.

New Orleans lost only two games at home this year, one of which was a meaningless season finale after clinching the NFC’s top seed. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton and Brees are 6-0 together at home in the postseason.

There is no denying that playing at home is a major advantage for the Saints. Considering that factor, as well as the experience of Brees, I’ll take New Orleans.

New Orleans def. Los Angeles, 38-35

New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs (6:40 EST) —

There are many instances across professional sports where we pit a matchup as the battle between old and new, the present and future. It’s a trite theme, but this showdown fits the bill perfectly.

Pat Mahomes, in his first full season as a starting quarterback, has taken the NFL by storm. He ranks first in touchdowns thrown and second in passing yards, only behind future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

He has produced at a high level individually, but also led the Chiefs to the No. 1 seed in the AFC. As a result, he stands as the front-runner for NFL MVP.

Brady, meanwhile, is the reigning MVP winner. This season hasn’t been quite at that caliber, but even at age 41, he continues to win.

The key matchup here will be the Kansas City defense against the New England offense. The Chiefs defense has attracted plenty of criticism this year, but when at Arrowhead Stadium, they’re a completely different unit.

Just look at the Divisional Round, where Kansas City held Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts to only one offensive touchdown en route to a 31-13 win at home.

If the Chiefs can keep Brady and company in check even slightly come Sunday, there’s a strong likelihood they will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Andy Reid’s offensive wizardry, combined with the talents of Mahomes and two more dynamic All-Pros in Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, is an ideal recipe for big-time points.

Kansas City scored at least 26 points in every game this regular season. They posted 40 when they traveled to Foxborough to play New England in mid-October. Offense won’t be the issue for them. Finding a way to slow down the Patriots, however, is a different story.

There’s also the Bill Belichick factor. Belichick, no matter the opponent, is always prepared. The game has changed massively since he took the job in 2000, but he’s always managed to be ahead of the curve.

The Chargers found that out the hard way in the Divisional Round, as Belichick’s team obliterated the Los Angeles defensive game plan in a 41-28 victory.

Much like the NFC Championship, this game should be closely contested.

In most cases pitting a veteran quarterback versus a far less seasoned one, it would be easy to go with experience — especially when it’s Tom Brady we’re talking about. Mahomes, however, is the exception. At 23, he’s already arguably the best signal caller in the league. In fact, he’s better than Brady at this stage of his career.

Belichick and Brady, for all their playoff success, have a postseason road record of 3-4. Much like Kansas City, the Patriots’ defense is worse away from home. With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine the unthinkable: Mahomes may vanquish the “Evil Empire” that is New England.

Nobody ever feels comfortable picking against the Patriots, but I’ll take the Chiefs anyway.

Kansas City def. New England, 35-31