Conference Championship Sunday

The National Football League is an exact representation of a snow globe. While many of these “professional” analysts would like to believe they know more than us watching at home, they really don’t.

At the end of each football season, Roger Goodell, the ghost of Vince Lombardi, or some great power such as the Football Gods take the entire league and shake it, as if it is a snow globe. Each team and narrative scatters randomly into their places for the following season with only the strongest of organizations remaining a constant time and time again.

This year, of the 12 playoff teams, 7 of the teams weren’t in the dance last season. In 2017 there were 8 new teams from the season before. In 2016 there were 7 new teams. And so on and so on.

This is what makes football the ultimate team sport. One sudden change in personnel, one minor or major coaching change, a contract dispute, or even a key injury or two can completely change the course of an entire franchise.

This year, the story is no different, but of the four remaining teams, the narratives are interesting to look into.

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The game of football is constantly flip-flopping, evolving, and testing different strategies. Last season, we were questioning how much draft capital and money was even needed for a quarterback after watching Nick Foles, Case Keenum, and Blake Bortles reach the Conference Championship Games. The league-wide movement was about finding pass rushers to pair with a nasty secondary — Vikings, Jaguars, and Eagles. The only advantage that was found offensively was the run-pass-option, which proved to be the difference for the Eagles.

But only one year later, defensive edge has disappeared from the NFL Final Four, and offense is all anyone can comprehend it seems like. We’ve truly welcomed this Big-12 style offense to the NFL. Defenses will be forced to adapt, and many silly organizations will be trying their best version of mimicking what these teams are doing. Good luck finding another Patrick Mahomes or Sean McVay, let alone a combination such as Brees/Payton or Brady/Belichick/McDaniels.

For each of these teams, there are different things at stake. While it feels like the clock is about to strike midnight for the Patriots, the Saints aren’t far behind. For the Chiefs and Rams, they may be young and have what looks like the future of the league in their hands, but it was just last year we thought the same about the Jaguars and Vikings. Who thought that they’d both miss the playoffs? A couple of years ago Derek Carr was getting MVP votes and the Raiders were an AFC favorite before imploding. At one point the Seahawks were primed to become a dynasty and didn’t. The Falcons had a scorching offense, went to a Super Bowl, and haven’t been the same since.

The point I’m making is that the NFL is weird, random, and you can’t take anything for granted. Anything. Here is what’s at stake for each team, along with my predictions for the games.

Los Angeles Rams

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Photo Credit: Deadspin

There is a reason so many organizations have been searching for “The Next Sean McVay” — he’s a brilliant offensive mastermind. As awesome as he has proven to be, along with his team, he’s still the most unproven coach remaining of the four. A Super Bowl victory, or at least a trip to Atlanta would serve as validation for not only Los Angeles, but for so many teams attempting to copy their recipe. Again, good luck.

McVay credits a lot of the offenses success to the versatility and willingness to block from their wide receivers. A lot of what they can do and want to do is out of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and 21 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), yet they accomplish with their 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs). By doing this, they don’t need to make the hockey-style substitutions as often and can dictate the offensive tempo and defensive personnel that they’re facing, which plays right into McVay’s specialty — identifying and exploiting mismatches. Wide Receivers who can act as tight ends or running backs, running backs who can act as wide receivers, versatility matters.

Staying in the same personnel and being able to dictate how the game flows, has helped Jared Goff in his decision-making and growth as well. They’re able to avoid shrinking their playbook because so many receivers and tight ends are interchangeable.

Before the Cooper Kupp injury, this offense was flat-out unfair. Now, they’ve figured out how to play together and incorporated the depth they have at the receiver position, as well as adding the thundering CJ Anderson at tailback to spell Todd Gurley and wrinkle the play-calling.

The misdirection based, smashmouth offense is best served with an explosive diet of play action. The past two seasons have proven it to be creative and adored by the rest of the watching teams throughout the league.

Above — One of my favorite play action plays from the entire season. Such a beautiful design to get the mismatch vs man coverage that Los Angeles wanted.

Below — The Rams were second in rushing touchdowns this season and third in rushing yards, despite being eighth in rush attempts. An excellent offensive line and Todd Gurley make this possible, but again, the wide receivers are what helps keep McVay’s offense balanced. The misdirection — whether real or fake — helped Los Angeles stay ahead of defenses this season. Sometimes a play would have two or three shifts/motions before the ball was snapped.

Here are two pretty basic examples of using wide receivers in untraditional roles, but again, sticking to that 11 personnel. So many different ways to attack you. Check out the downfield blocking from the receivers in the first clip.

Despite having the youngest head coach in the history of the NFL, a quarterback on his rookie contract, and youth at the skill positions, the Los Angeles Rams have the oldest roster in the NFL by average. The Rams appear as a young team, but have an aging defense, a 37-year-old left tackle, and a quarterback who is going to get p-a-i-d after next season.

That said, the Rams somehow have a hair over $40 million in Cap Space and will likely continue to be aggressive in pursuing NFL veterans in the holes that are left open after this season and the following.

Of the four teams, the Rams look to have the strongest path towards the future, in my opinion. As a result, they have the least amount at stake, but as I alluded to earlier, anything can happen each season. Capitalize when you can.

New Orleans Saints

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Photo Credit: SB Nation

The narrative surrounding the New Orleans Saints is the most unique in my opinion. Since the Minneapolis Miracle, they’ve appeared to be a team of destiny that many people who I’ve talked to believed would run through the NFC playoffs.

They have an all-time quarterback in Drew Brees and one of the greatest offensive coaches we’ve seen in Sean Payton who gets the opportunity to use these ridiculous skill-guys on his chess board.

Unlike Sean McVay, Sean Payton loves to mix up formations and personnel. The Saints have scored touchdowns out of more personnel packages than any team in the league. He uses a lot of eye-candy, motion, and fakes to get to the basis of what he loves — north-south ground and pound, screens, deep crossing routes, and play-action bombs. It’s essentially old-school, bloody nose football masked with the popular trends.

Below — It’s evident how dangerous Alvin Kamara is and how much he can freeze a defense with a simple fake jet. Ingram — who could easily leave after this season and chase the money — has been a difference maker in this offense since Kamara came on board.

Despite twelve seasons together, 440 passing touchdowns together, five 5,000 yard seasons, all they have to show for it is one Super Bowl trophy. While it’s certainly the ultimate team sport, the legacy of the future Hall of Fame quarterback could feel less empty with another piece of jewelry on his hand. For the head coach, a second Lombardi Trophy could bulldoze a path to Canton as a transcendent head coach, rather than one of the generation’s best offensive minds.

With Brees at 40-years of age, the window is closing on the Saints, regardless of how he looked this season. Like Brady, it’s closing. It’s unlikely that New Orleans finds a quarterback to instantly hand the keys over to, let alone run the operation as well has Brees has.  This team seems as if they have nothing to prove, but at the same time, they have the most to prove with arguably the shortest amount of time remaining.

After this season, the Saints are at risk of losing key players such as Mark Ingram, Manti Te’o, Josh Hill, Benjamin Watson, PJ Williams, etc. The biggest name being Ingram, who has shown the difference in the Saints offense with and without him. The Saints have the third smallest amount of salary cap space available. It’s really, really difficult to get back to this position in back-to-back seasons. Two more years from now, who knows what the Saints look like.

Kansas City Chiefs

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Photo Credit: Arrowhead Pride

It has been 25 years since the Chiefs played in the AFC Championship. Their quarterback? Joe Montana. Sunday’s win against the Colts was only the second playoff win since Arrowhead was built in 1972.

The Chiefs were incredible this season, as they rode the talent of Patrick Mahomes and the genius scheming from Andy Reid. The likely MVP was joined by arguably the best tight end in the league, Travis Kelce, and football’s biggest X-factor, Tyreek Hill to form the best offense we encountered this season.

For me, I believe it’s important that they win the Super Bowl this season. Yes, Mahomes is young and ridiculous and has a potentially transcendent career ahead of him, but the NFL is difficult. He’s not going to throw 50 touchdowns every season. The NFL is too smart and too talented. There will be an entire off-season dedicated to film study and breaking down techniques and schemes to slow down the Chiefs.

Is it hard to do? Absolutely. The Chiefs have blown through everybody this season and have the opportunity to continue their onslaught before the final two teams figure them out. Pending a disaster from New England or the Rams/Saints, these will be the two hardest games all season for them.

There isn’t a single person that these playoffs mean more to than Andy Reid. For all of the wonderful offenses that have come through his ownership, Reid is missing a signature moment for his career. He has been to Super Bowls, he won one as an offensive line/tight end coach, but the man deserves a Super Bowl victory in his own name. He’s the reason that Mahomes’ transition to stardom has been so easy. He’s the reason the KC offense barely had a hiccup without Kareem Hunt. He’s the genius behind so many of the past decades tremendous offenses. It’s time that Reid gets his signature win.

New England Patriots 

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Photo Credit: Sporting News

What do the New England Patriots have to prove? The answer is nothing. Over the past two decades, there hasn’t been a better organization in sports.

The only thing at stake is the extension of their dominance by reaching another Super Bowl before the careers of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the corpse of Rob Gronkowski are finished. If you want to make an argument, I suppose you could say they have the most at stake because this is the last ride. The media narrative seems to be that Tom Brady is washed, despite him having a better statistical season than multiple Peyton Manning MVP seasons and going 11-5. And if he reaches another Super Bowl, what is there to say?

I think it’s unlikely that win or lose at any point the remainder of the season that Brady or Belichick are on the way out. They’ll be back. Regardless, I think Gronkowski will hang them up after this season. His year has been sad to watch, through the air. Unless Victor Frankenstein is able to rejuvenate the player formally known as Rob Gronkowski in his laboratory, I think this will be all she wrote for, perhaps, the best tight end the NFL has seen.

Los Angeles Rams @ New Orleans Saints (Saints -3)

The most interesting matchup statistic from this game —

Saints rushing offense rank, 6th (yards)

Rams rushing defense rank, 23rd (yards)

Saints rushing defense rank, 2nd (yards)

Rams rushing offense rank, 3rd (yards)

While the previous matchup doesn’t mean everything for these two teams, many of their trends remained the same throughout the rest of the season. Both teams want to run the football. The Rams struggle to stop the run and the Saints don’t.

The last time these two played, the Saints held Todd Gurley to 79 yards on 20 touches. The Rams were able to break though that limitation by hitting Cooper Kupp in play action and deep crossing routes. Unfortunately, Kupp won’t be able to play this game with the torn ACL.

However, the Rams were without Aqib Talib, who should be able to help slow down the production of Michael Thomas who had 12 catches, 211 yards, and a touchdown.

I think the game will be close to what it was earlier this season, a true track meet, defenses taking their stupid team pictures together in the end zone after recovering a fumble, and Kamara having a big day.

Bottom line, I think the Saints will have an easier time winning their one-on-one matchups against the Rams defense. I don’t trust what I’ve seen out of the Rams defense this year to be enough to end Drew Brees’ season in the Superdome.

Rams 30, Saints 37

New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs (Chiefs -3)

Patriots haven’t won a road playoff game since 2007. Yes, that’s a real stat.

The Patriots have, in general, struggled against the Chiefs the last handful of seasons. Arrowhead Stadium has kinda, sorta been a house of horrors for the Patriots.

The Chiefs are a very good and dangerously explosive football team. But they’re a finesse team. I think the Patriots are going to turn this into an old-school, bloody nose, bullies in the schoolyard type of game. I’m not saying the Chiefs can’t win, but I’d be SHOCKED if they won because they were physically dominating the Patriots.

Offensively, I think the Patriots will look similar to how they did against the Chargers. The offensive line is going to get good movement and Gronkowski is going to show his worth by clearing paths for the running backs against the 27th ranked rush defense.

The Chiefs were awesome this year at pressuring the quarterback, but I think by running right at their rush, as well as screens, getting rid of the ball quickly, and play-action, that the Patriots will slow down most of that.

Defensively, I think the Patriots will do a little better job than they did the first time. Mahomes will have every look possible thrown at him, alternate jamming between Hill and Kelce to try to throw the Chiefs off of their game. Without Hunt, the Patriots will need to worry much less about a running back getting behind their defense — Hunt had long wheel route touchdowns in both of his career games vs the Patriots.

All of that said, the Chiefs are too good to get blown out of this one, especially at home.

Belichick and the rest of the coaching staff have slowly been adding stuff to their game plan and saving stuff for this specific game. Sure, the Chiefs are saying that they’re more ready for this rematch and they’ve been waiting all year for it, but that’s the difference — the Patriots have been preparing for it.

New England Patriots 37, Kansas City Chiefs 33

Photos were given credit from their sources. Videos are from NFL’s YouTube channel.

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