2018 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

The 2018 NFL season has boiled down to three games that we really could have predicted we’d get back in Week 9. That was when the Saints won 45-35 at home against the Rams, just a few weeks after the Patriots beat the Chiefs 43-40. They were two of the most entertaining games this season, and the home team got the edge in both. While that first matchup has led the Rams back to playing on the road, the Chiefs caught a break from the Dolphins in keeping the Patriots at the No. 2 seed for a change. With expectations for more scoring fests this weekend, it’s shaping up to be a potentially classic Conference Championship Sunday. We could use it after the last two weeks, and don’t forget the fact that the home team is 10-0 in these games going back to the 2013 season. Both home teams are a FG favorite right now, which basically means a pick ’em on a neutral field.

But neutral these fields are not…

Rams at Saints (-3)

It’s simplistic, but I think this game comes down to which Jared Goff shows up. He was having a really fine third season, but hit a wall after the bye week for three games. Two good games to close the regular season, then he didn’t have to do too much against Dallas last week when the running game and offensive line just dominated. The Saints are a defense that you have to attack deep (32nd in DVOA) and typically outside the numbers to WRs (30th and 31st vs. #1 and #2 WRs). You saw Nick Foles have success in building that 14-0 lead last week. The Rams are almost always in 11 personnel (3 WR/1 RB/1 TE), even after the big slot receiver Cooper Kupp injury, and the Saints don’t handle that too well in the passing game. They’re one of three defenses to allow over 8.0 YPA against 11 personnel. They are however the best in rushing YPC against 11, so Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson should not find as much success as they had last week. It’s going to be on the passing game to deliver.

In Week 9, Goff had a strong game (391 yards and 3 TD) on the road. Gurley only had 13 carries for 68 yards, so the Rams didn’t dominate on the ground. The game almost got away from them in the second quarter. Tied at 14, the Rams did nothing with good field position following a fumble, tried an ill-fated fake field goal, later missed a 51-yard FG, then Goff threw a bad pick before halftime that set up a short field for Drew Brees. The Rams were down 35-14, but Goff did lead them back to a 35-35 tie in the fourth quarter. It’s just that the defense couldn’t stop Michael Thomas on a couple of third downs and scored the final 10 points. Goff’s receivers let him down late, unable to make tough catches on money downs.

I recall coming away from that one thinking the Rams had a good shot in a rematch. Over the last seven games (including a Teddy Bridgewater start in Week 17), the Saints haven’t topped 31 points as the offense has regressed. They’re obviously better at home, but even last week the Saints only scored 20 points against a Philadelphia defense they annihilated for 48 points in Week 11. The Rams can certainly cook up a plan with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips to not make this a 45-35 repeat.

In rematches like this I like to look at the impact of injuries. Who have these teams lost since Week 9 and who is back this time? That area favors the Rams. While the Kupp injury sucks, they get cornerback Aqib Talib back and the Saints just lost Sheldon Rankins on the DL. Andrus Peat is banged up on the OL and will have his hands full with DPOY Aaron Donald. There was no sacks on either side in Week 9, but expect that to change this week.

As far as Talib goes, it has been the Rams’ strategy this year to play their CBs on sides. Michael Thomas moves around a lot, but if I was Wade, I would have Talib do shadowing this week instead of letting Marcus Peters get him again. Thomas went off for 211 yards, including this 72-yard TD to seal the game when Peters was caught not paying attention.

Thomas destroyed the Eagles last week too. The Saints don’t have a ton of weapons this year. Ben Watson is out at TE with appendicitis. Keith Kirkwood is out. Alvin Kamara only had 34 receiving yards in Week 9, so just don’t let him beat you deep (like Eagles in Week 11) or take a screen a long way (like Steelers in Week 16) and you should be good there. Let the gambling Peters guard someone like Ted Ginn. I’m not going to pretend the Rams are actually good enough on defense to dominate this offense on the road, but what I’m saying is they have a really strong cover corner and should utilize him appropriately against the Saints’ best weapon. If the Saints can do that with a bit more pressure this time around from Donald and company, then I really like the Rams’ chances to pull off the win.

Maybe this time there’s a Taysom Hill interception that leaves Twitter in a WTF? blaze of glory. “You have Drew Brees at QB trying to win a ring at 40 and you call that?” On 8 dropbacks this season, Hill has already thrown one pick and taken one sack. He’s best left to running on 3rd-and-2. Both coaches have been super aggressive at times this season, but McVay’s timeout management could be better.

I also keep pointing out how these teams have been the best in the league at winning close games and protecting small leads (7-0). The Saints especially have done well in closing with a league-high seven game-winning drives and zero blown leads in the fourth quarter. We also know that those types of streaks are always a mistake away from going the other way. The Saints won their first Super Bowl against an Indianapolis team that was 7-0 at 4QC opportunities in 2009 under Peyton Manning. One jumped route by Tracy Porter and that was that.

What (or who) will it be this week?

Final: Rams 31, Saints 28

Patriots at Chiefs (-3)

The Chiefs lead 30-27 in overtime. Tom Brady takes the field, under a SUPER BLOOD WOLF MOON, with a chance for another legacy-defining drive and Super Bowl appearance. Justin Houston, who was out in Week 6, strips him of the ball and sends to the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl since the merger. Brady can only see red as the dawn of the new AFC is upon us.

That would be some imagery. I already did my big preview on this game at FO, so check that out. Basically, I want to stress that I think the Chiefs have a great chance to win this game at home. We’d be singing a different tune if it was at Gillette, but it’s not. The Chiefs have played better this season, and their pass rush has the highest pressure rate at home as opposed to 26th in road games. That has a lot to do with why their defense is much higher in DVOA at home and terrible on the road, and why they haven’t given up 30+ at home yet. The Patriots will play better and smarter than the Colts did last week, but I still see Patrick Mahomes putting up his points at home. The Patriots are 2nd in DVOA at home, but 31st on the road on defense. That’s because they’ve had truly dreadful games against the likes of the Jaguars, Dolphins, Titans, Lions. Now what do you think might happen when they get Mahomes on the road, who already put up 40 in NE this year? He just needs to get the ball last. Andy Reid has hung 40+ on the Patriots three times since 2014 now. This team is going to be way better prepared than the Chargers were last week.

Now the issue is that the Chiefs are 32nd in run defense and the Patriots already had one of their best rushing games all season in Week 6 on them. They’ll want to run the ball, dink and dunk, play-action looks to Julian Edelman, control the clock and limit Mahomes’ possessions. Throw in some classic Reid clock mismanagement that allows Brady to win the game late instead of Mahomes putting it away, and in the end do you trust a defense that ranks 32nd in yards per drive, 28th in points per drive, and 26h in DVOA? That’s why it’s not a shock to see the Patriots win this one on the road, but there performances away from home leave much to be desired this season.

Final: Patriots 30, Chiefs 27

Regardless of what happens, we should get a fine Super Bowl matchup this season. Personally, I think a rematch of Super Bowl 52.5 (KC-LAR 54-41) would be very cool since that was such a hyped game that delivered at midseason. If that is the matchup, then we would have a record set for the most points scored by a Super Bowl winner. The first nine teams to score more than the 1999 Rams (526 points) all failed to win a Super Bowl. The Chiefs (565) and Rams (527) will hope to rewrite that history for high-scoring teams, but there’s also a chance neither gets past this weekend.

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