NFL 2019 - Conference Championships
NFL 2018-19 – Conference Championship Weekend
Football can be a funny old game sometimes. After perhaps the best Wild Card weekend in recent memory, we were ‘treated’ to a quartet of Divisional playoff games of which only one could be described as competitive, and even then only by looking at the final scoreboard. Our Game of the Week proved to be as underwhelming as we had hoped it would be exciting, with the Kansas City Chiefs emerging from their bye week to take apart an Indianapolis Colts team that many had been tipping as Super Bowl dark horses (pun fully intended) based on their late-season form. At one point, KC had as many first downs as Indy had yards on offense, such was the level of dominance. While it was sad to see Andrew Luck et al drop out of the race, however, it is good to know that young Patrick Mahomes and his thrilling team remain.
In the other games, Dallas proved no match for the Los Angeles Rams, whose tailbacks Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson ran riot in the Coliseum, nor the Chargers for New England, ending the hopes of those anticipating an all-LA Super Bowl. Tom Brady defied speculation that he was carrying an injury to maintain his winning record over Chargers counterpart Philip Rivers as the Patriots raced into a 28-point half-time lead. It would have taken a near-record comeback for the Chargers from that point… The closest game, in terms of margin at least, came in New Orleans, where the reigning champion Eagles were spotted a 14-point first quarter lead before Drew Brees and the Saints woke up. Typically adventurous, the home side threw up an interception when Brees and coach Sean Payton went long with the first play of the game, but weren’t made to pay for their mistake as the Saints overcame the early deficit, starved the Eagles of any further points and ran out 20-14 winners.
Games of the Week
With just two games left on the slate, and one step left before reaching the Super Bowl, we think it’s only fair to give each equal prominence in this preview. The top two seeds in each conference have progressed to the Conference Championship games, and each provides us with a rematch of a regular season game. If those results were to be repeated, we’d be looking at a New Orleans-New England Super Bowl...
Los Angeles Rams @ New Orleans Saints
The Rams’ reward for seeing off the Cowboys last Saturday night is a return trip to the Superdome, where they suffered their first defeat of the 2018 campaign in a hugely entertaining shoot-out with the Saints. That Week 9 encounter rightly earned Game of the Week accolades right here – when we confidently suggested that ‘this could easily be a dress rehearsal for the NFC Championship game in January’ - but much has changed with both teams since then. The Saints points machine morphed into more of a defensive unit as the year went on, still capable of winning games, but doing it in a different way to the high-scoring offensive assault that dominated early on.
The Rams, too, have had to make changes, but more to the personnel delivering victory rather than the manner in which they do it, with the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp and the addition of a second running threat in CJ Anderson. As a result, this becomes a difficult game to predict, with the home and away offenses equally matched on the stats front, and the Rams bringing their fearsome defense to counter the threat of Drew Brees and Co. However, if the Saints start out slow, as they did in spotting the Eagles a two-touchdown lead last Sunday, there may be no coming back...
Players to watch?
Although its production has tailed off in recent weeks, the Saints offense still requires respect. Brees continued to rewrite the NFL record book into the second half of the campaign, but a couple of down weeks had fans (and fantasy football players) fearing for their season, even though New Orleans kept on winning. Brees threw an interception on the very first play of last Sunday’s game, but then returned to something close to his old self, including tossing a couple of touchdowns in the comeback win over Philly. One of those passes went, almost predictably, to Michael Thomas, the wideout coming off his own record-breaking season as undoubtedly the Saints main receiving threat. Although Ted Ginn Jr, Tre’Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood (the other TD recipient against the Eagles) continue to play their part, they are routinely overshadowed by the Brees-Thomas combination. That would dominate the Saints offense if it were not for the tailback tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, which continues to provide a threat from the backfield in every game, and the unpredictable use of back-up QB Taysom Hill, who has become a valuable gadget player for Sean Payton’s gameplan. The New Orleans defense started off slowly, as it did last season, but has come on strong in recent weeks, ensuring that the team remained superior even if its offense faltered. Cam Jordan, a largely unsung presence in the NFL, leads from the front, stuffing runs and quarterbacks with similar ease, while rookie Marcus Davenport is beginning to justify the Saints’ decision to trade away next year’s first-round draft pick to snag him. Reigning defensive rookie of the year Marshon Lattimore continues to impress, claiming a vital interception against the Eagles last weekend as part of a burgeoning resume, but the backfield could yet prove to be New Orleans’ weak link against an aerial attack as potent as the Rams’.
Despite the absence of Kupp, LA QB Jared Goff still has Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods to throw to, plus third string WR Josh Reynolds and tight ends Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee, so he’s hardly short of options. Throw pass-catching running back Todd Gurley into the mix and the ways to beat an opposing D become even more potent. Gurley, of course, is a multi-dimensional back, having racked up near-league-leading numbers on the ground behind a powerful offensive line Despite only just coming back from injury, Gurley formed one half of the dynamic duo that dismantled the Cowboys’ vaunted run D last weekend, teaming up with recent recruit CJ Anderson to post in excess of 200 rushing yards on the night. Anderson himself has bounced around the league this year before finding a home in LA when both Gurley and his back-up were struggling with knocks, and now looks to be a key piece in the Rams’ Lombardi push.
On the other side of the ball, Ndamukong Suh returned to prominence in the Dallas game, producing his best game of the season as the Cowboys feared the worst from wrecking ball Aaron Donald. With Michael Brockers and former Jaguar Dante Fowler also in the D line, there is much for the Saints’ offensive front to ponder. And it won’t get any easier should New Orleans decide to come out throwing, with cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib as good as any in the league, either side of impressive safeties John Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner. Of course, if this one proves to be close, it could come down to the legs of special teams, and both sides come well-equipped, with Wil Lutz/Thomas Morstead for the Saints and the Rams’ Greg Zuerlein/Johnny Hekker among the best in the business.
New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs
They can’t do it again, can they? That’s the question being asked about the New England Patriots, the team being written off most years as either getting long in the tooth or not showing enough form through the season, only to appear in the AFC Championship game. This is the eighth straight year that Bill Belichick’s men have made it this far and, with four victories in the previous seven games, no one is going to question their ability to make another Super Bowl. The Pats would have benefited from some typical New England conditions last weekend, as the Chargers rode into sub-zero temperatures at Foxboro, but could face more of the same this time around, with figures as low as -15 being bandied about for Kansas City on Sunday. And the Chiefs are no hot-house flowers about to wilt under the coming of winter, with Patrick Mahomes leading a potent offense and the defense seeming to wake up in time for the playoffs. This could come down to the ground game, but the oddsmakers have it as closely-matched as the Saints-Rams encounter, especially after only three points separated the teams in a high-scoring regular-season meeting in Massachusetts.
Players to watch?
For all the rumours that Tom Brady was banged up heading into last weekend’s Divisional game with the Chargers, he still managed to orchestrate an almost flawless performance, putting the result beyond doubt by half-time with a touchdown pass to Philip Dorsett that was eventually sandwiched between a hat-trick on the ground for running back Sony Michel and another for Rex Burkhead. Brady remains surrounded by a solid cast, although the key components are ageing veterans just like himself. Rob Gronkowski’s return has helped the offense, even if his numbers have been well below what he usually sees, while Julian Edelman continues to lead a receiving corps weakened by the loss of Josh Gordon, but still containing threats in Dorsett and Chris Hogan. Cordarelle Patterson provides another option for Brady’s arm, but has also featured out of the backfield as well as displaying his outlandish return skills. And then there is James White, hero of Super Bowl LI, and a stud through the mid-season, but now overshadowed by Michel.
The Chiefs would do well not to forget about him… New England’s defense is equally capable of adapting by the game, and had Rivers on the run – literally – last weekend. Sacked twice, hit another seven times and subject to relentless pressure, the veteran ended up rattled. Now the Pats face a rematch with a far less experienced triggerman in Mahomes. The last time the two sides met, the Patriots was torched for 40 points in Week 6, but expect a very different encounter this time, with Adrian Clayborn and the front line looking to pressure the second-year QB and choke off the run game, while an improving secondary, with JC Jackson now partnering Stephon Gilmore at corner, trying to limit the aerial threat. Mahomes, meanwhile, will take all this in stride, knowing that he has been able to improvise his way out of trouble all season. His luck may run out one day but, for now, he will continue to count on reliable receiving outlets such as Sammy Watkins, Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. Without a passing TD against Indianapolis, Mahomes did run one in, whilst slinging the rock for 278 yards. Running back Damien Williams, like White for the Pats, provides a receiving option from the backfield, but has made Chiefs fans forget about Kareem Hunt, such have been his rushing displays since taking over as number one running back. The touchdowns against the Colts were shared around but all came on the ground, with Darrel Williams, Hill and Mahomes adding to Williams’ own score, and the unit could welcome back Spencer Ware as an added threat this weekend.
The Chiefs defense doesn’t feature highly in the stats rankings and conceded 43 points to the Patriots in Week 6, but play better at home where, in the raucous noise of Arrowhead, they allowed just 18 points a game, and limited the Colts to just 13 last Saturday. Complex coverage schemes from an improved secondary and a mean defensive line contribute to those numbers, with KC leading the NFL with 52 sacks, largely spread out between Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Justin Houston. Ford also had seven forced fumbles, contributing to the 27 takeaways created by the Chiefs this past season.
Whoever you want to see in the Super Bowl…. Enjoy!
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