Sizing Up the NFL's Championship Matchups
The top four seeds in the NFL playoffs—the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, and New Orleans Saints—head into next weekend for a chance to play in the Super Bowl.
Photos by Larry W. Smith/EPA-EFE, Matt Campbell/EPA-EFE, Mike Nelson/EPA-EFE and Dan Anderson/EPA-EFE
In a not-so-wild weekend of NFL playoff action, all four higher seeds shocked the world by unexpectedly not losing to worse teams. Narratives like Nick Foles's postseason magic, the Dallas Cowboys' Amari Cooper-fueled hot streak, the Los Angeles Chargers figuring out how to close games, and Andy Reid's decades of postseason failure all crashed into the fact that the top-seeded squads were as good as their record said they were.
But if the Divisional Round games weren't nearly as exciting as NFL fans had hoped, the results sure are: two Conference Championship games that will feature the best against the best, the old guard against the new, the No. 2 seeds against the No. 1s.
Here's how the contenders stack up.
Kansas City Chiefs
Having spent all year dominating through the air, the NFL's best scoring AND yardage offense literally ground out the last three quarters of their 31-13 win over the Indianapolis Colts. After a first-quarter blitz, Kansas City was content to sit on the lead and force the other side to play catch-up.
The Chiefs were powered all season by second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes' MVP-worthy performance. Mahomes finished either first or second in all the passing metrics, both old-school (yards, touchdowns, passer rating) and new-school (QBR, DYAR, DVOA). With obvious athleticism, a breathtaking arm and a precocious command of head coach Andy Reid's passing offense, Mahomes was as aggressive, effective and efficient going downfield as any quarterback ever.
But what we saw on Saturday was a lot of what the Chiefs haven't been able to do quite so well: slow down the game, run the ball effectively and get stops on defense.
Unheralded Kansas City tailback Damien Williams racked up 129 yards, more than half his regular-season total.
In fact, despite an elite group of pass-rushers led by Chris Jones, Dee Ford, and Justin Houston, the Chiefs allowed more first downs than any other defense this year, and more yards than all but one. Bend-but-don't-break has been the approach, allowing a 24th-ranked 26.3 points per game.
But the hot Indianapolis Colts offense broke against that defense in the Divisional Round. Not only did they not score an offensive point until the fourth quarter, they didn't convert a single third down in nine tries.
The question the Chiefs now face is whether they can do the same thing to the New England Patriots' Tom Brady—who looked every bit the five-time Super Bowl winner against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
New England Patriots
Sizing up the New England Patriots is almost impossible, because there are two different squads.
There's the one we saw all regular-season long: A diminished Tom Brady, a busted Rob Gronkowski and a handful of defensive playmakers auto-piloting to as "meh" of an 11-5 season as an NFL team can have. Then there's the other squad, the one summoned from the decades-long nightmares of AFC coaches past: the one that hung five touchdowns on the vaunted Chargers defense on Sunday before halftime.
Rookie tailback Sony Michel threw a coming-out party, rolling through L.A. for 129 yards and three touchdowns after compiling 931 yards and just six scores during the entire regular season. Brady, apparently running on a double helping of avocado ice cream, zipped 34 of 44 passes into seven different pass-catchers' hands, gaining 343 yards and a touchdown in the process.
"I know everyone thinks we suck and you know, can't win any games," Brady wryly commented after the 41-28 blowout. But even though they didn't often look dominant in 2018, a look over their season metrics show a team that still finished in the top seven in points scored, points allowed and team DVOA.
When the Patriots hosted the Chiefs back in October, New England won a 43-40 shootout. But will Brady be able to score 40 points on the road in January, in the teeth of the Chiefs' pass rush? To keep up with Mahomes, Brady will likely have to.
Los Angeles Rams
Rams head coach Sean McVay is the hottest name of the 2019 coaching carousel, even though he's not on it. His current and former assistants—not to mention coaches that just kind of look like him—are getting all the plum NFL gigs right now because McVay transformed quarterback Jared Goff and a handful of second-day draft picks into maybe the most feared passing offense in the game.
But it wasn't the Rams' passing attack that got the job done against the Cowboys.
Triple-digit contributions from both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson added up to a masterful 48-carry, 273-yard, three-touchdown Rams rushing performance. One of the better, and most underrated, offensive lines in the game handled the Cowboys defense, while the Rams' star-studded defensive line ate Cowboys tailback Ezekiel Elliott's lunch.
No. 2 in team DVOA, No. 2 in scoring offense and the No. 2 seed in the NFC, the Rams will have to go through the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans before they get to the Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Before one takes the emergence of the Rams' running game as an unalloyed positive, though, it's worth noting that Goff looked more like the pre-McVay draft-bust-in-progress (15-of-28 for 186 yards, no scores) against the Cowboys. In fact, since Week 13 Goff has thrown only six touchdown passes—and as many interceptions.
A Saints defense that finally found its groove in the second half of Sunday's second game might be too much for Goff to handle.
New Orleans Saints
For the first three months of the NFL season, Drew Brees was a mortal lock for the league MVP and the Saints were the NFL's most complete team. But a 13-10 loss to the Cowboys at the end of November kicked off an unimpressive six-game stretch where the league's No. 3 scoring offense averaged just 19.2 points per game.
In fact, it looked like the Eagles—a team New Orleans demolished, 48-7 in November—were about to demolish them. An immediate interception from Brees and two quick touchdowns by Foles put the Saints in a 14-0 hole before Who Dat nation could even settle into their seats.
But both Brees and the Superdome crowd settled down, and the Saints slowly rolled up 20 unanswered points. The key to victory? Two interceptions by All-Pro cornerback Marcus Lattimore, who's been the catalyst for the Saints' streaky defense.
The Saints' D ranked 13th in points allowed during the regular season, significantly better than either the Rams' or Chiefs'. That's a big part of why they finished No. 4 in team DVOA—and interestingly, second-best in Weighted DVOA, where end-of-season performance counts more. The implication? That the Saints' defense steps up in high-leverage situations, and when the offense isn't performing.
Though the headlines will be about which quarterback plays better, the matchup might come down to which defense makes more plays.