NFL Conference Championship Weekend is finally upon us. Cream typically rises to the top and the four remaining teams were all popular picks in their respective conferences based on exceptional play throughout much of the season. While both matchups are rematches of regular season meetings, plenty has changed since then. They don’t call the NFL a week-to-week league for nothing. With that in mind, here are the keys for each team to unlock the gates to Super Bowl LIII.
NFC Championship: (2)Los Angeles Rams at (1)New Orleans Saints
Sunday, January 20th, 3 p.m. E.T. on FOX
First Meeting in Week 9: Saints 45, Rams 35
Rams Key: Ground and Pound
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The Rams did what no one thought was possible to the stout Dallas Cowboys defense. In last week’s Divisional Round they ran the football right down their throats. Star running back Todd Gurley carried 16 times for 115 yards and a touchdown in his first game since a Week 15 knee injury. Gurley being forced to miss the final two games of the season may have actually been a blessing in disguise for the Rams. C.J. Anderson was brought in and excelled in his place. That production continued with 123 yards and 2 touchdowns on 23 carries against the Cowboys. Suddenly, Sean McVay has a two-headed running back monster to deploy as he sees fit.
After last week’s big rushing performance, the Saints will naturally be gearing up to stop the Rams tailbacks and force quarterback Jared Goff to make more plays. New Orleans ranked 16th in rushing defense during the regular season, giving up 111.7 yards/game. However, based on Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) system, the Saints were number 3 against the run. The Rams sturdy offensive line that includes notable veterans Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan will have to control the line of scrimmage against the Saints defensive front. A steady dose of the rushing attack will allow the Rams to ease the pressure off Goff and control the time of possession. This will be especially important in the hostile Superdome environment. The less Drew Brees has the ball in his hands, the better the odds for L.A. to earn the road win.
Saints Key: Wideout Wins
Following their Week 9 win over the Rams, head coach Sean Payton cited the failure of L.A. corner Marcus Peters to contain star receiver Michael Thomas as the main reason the offense was able to explode. The numbers said it all as Thomas had 211 yards receiving and a score in the game. Peters took offense and promised that he and Payton would have a nice bowl of gumbo when they met again. The prophesized encore matchup has come to fruition and even if Peters deleted his “It’s gumbo week” tweet from earlier this week, it certainly has not been forgotten.
The Brees-Thomas connection enters Sunday’s championship game red hot after a big game last weekend. They hooked up 12 times for 171 yards and a score in the win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The big difference for this matchup with the Rams compared to Week 9 is that Thomas won’t be seeing a whole lot of Peters. Aqib Talib was on IR when the teams first met but Talib is back healthy. He is set to take on the assignment of trying to guard the Saints elite wideout. While Thomas having success will be imperative to a Saints win Sunday, the onus will also be on other pass catchers to step up. Perhaps it will be Ted Ginn or Keith Kirkwood. Whoever it is, Brees needs a second reliable target as he looks to dissect the talented and motivated Los Angeles defense.
AFC Championship: (2)New England Patriots at (1)Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, January 20th, 6:40 p.m. E.T. on CBS
First Meeting in Week 6: Patriots 43, Chiefs 40
Patriots Key: Confuse Patrick Mahomes
While Tom Brady and the Patriots offense capitalized on the Los Angeles Chargers outsmarting themselves defensively in their Divisional Round win, New England’s own defense played a crucial role as well. The Patriots were able to bring pressure up the middle, forcing Phillip Rivers to move outside the pocket and disrupting the Chargers offensive game plan. New England also took away the running game entirely, holding star tailback Melvin Gordon to just 15 yards.
Chiefs signal-caller Patrick Mahomes has been unflappable in his first season as an NFL starter. He has showcased his incredible talent and athleticism alongside a veteran-like poise as the leader of the offense to put his name in the frontrunning for MVP. Like most teams this year, the Patriots didn’t exactly stop Mahomes and the Kansas City offense in their Week 6 meeting, surrendering 40 points, 352 yards passing and 4 touchdowns. New England did intercept Mahomes twice in that game and creating turnovers will be crucial once again Sunday. While Mahomes has more mobility than Rivers, Bill Belichick will undoubtedly have some exotic blitzes up his sleeve to throw the youngster off his game.
If the Pats can apply pressure, take away the rushing threat of Damien Williams and play opportunistic defense with regards to turnovers, they will have a great chance to advance to a third straight Super Bowl.
Chiefs Key: Defensive Line Domination
The concern all season long for the Chiefs has been the spotty play of the defense. While Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and the rest of the offense have put up points at a truly impressive rate, no lead has ever really felt safe. Coordinator Bob Sutton’s unit stepped up in a big way in last week’s Divisional Round win over the Indianapolis Colts. While many experts felt that Andrew Luck and the red-hot Colts would score at will and force a shootout, the Chiefs had other plans. Luck had to scratch and claw for just 200 yards passing, backs Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines were bottled up for just 70 combined yards rushing, and the Chiefs only gave up 13 points, the third lowest total they’ve allowed all season.
Football Outsiders’ 26th ranked overall defense benefitted most against the Colts from the front seven turning things up a notch. Justin Houston had a pair of sacks while Dee Ford added a third against an Indianapolis offensive line that was arguably one of the best in the league. Once again, the defensive line must set the tone for the unit and for the game. The AFC Championship axis could tilt on their performance. The recipe for beating Tom Brady is no secret: a team must be able to apply consistent pressure with no more than a five-man rush throughout the game. Chris Jones, Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland are other names that should be able to help accomplish just that. The Patriots have the dynamic complementing tandem of Sony Michel and James White in the backfield whose impact on the game must be reduced.
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