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.

2014 NFL Conference Championship Predictions: Number 12 Looks Just Like You

This is a Championship Sunday where the number 12 should be very decisive.

Three of the quarterbacks wear No. 12 and Russell Wiiiiiiiil-son is cheered on by Seattle’s 12th man.

  • NE: Since last winning a Super Bowl, the Patriots are 4-8 in the playoffs when the game is a rematch from that regular season. 
  • IND: The Colts are 12-0 in rematches (9-0 vs. AFC South, 3-0 in playoffs) in the Andrew Luck/Chuck Pagano era.
  • GB: Since 2012, the Packers are 2-10 in road games against teams with a final winning record (worst record for any team with multiple playoff appearances in that time).
  • SEA: Russell Wilson is 4-8 when Seattle allows more than 20 points (0-6 when allowing more than 24 points).

Do any of these 12-game samples mean a lot for tomorrow? Maybe not, but it beats any of Heath Evans’ “Tommy” flavored audible pollution.

We know Green Bay lost 36-16 in Seattle in Week 1 and Indy lost 42-20 at home to New England in Week 11. Fortunately, the NFL is a complex game capable of producing a wide range of results. Teams change a lot from week to week as well and I think we will see more competitive games this week, even if the winning teams look familiar. But hey, this is why the regular season is so important. Green Bay would be in a much better spot if the game was at Lambeau, which it almost certainly would have been with a win in Week 1 or a win in Buffalo late in the season. The Broncos and Colts had their chances against the Patriots, but both were outclassed and that stretch put the Patriots in the driver’s seat for this No. 1 seed. Yeah, sometimes it’s not bad to lose a game so you can learn from it for a rematch, but the numbers prove your best odds of winning again are playing at home. So win the big head-to-head matchups in the regular season and your path to the Super Bowl should be smoother.

Colts at Patriots

I said all I really could on this one at FO this week. Please read it if you haven’t, or click again out of appreciation. We also have a NFC preview by Aaron Schatz.

I think the Colts put up a good fight, but NE’s balance is too much to overcome again.

Final prediction: Colts 20, Patriots 27

Packers at Seahawks

Man, opening night feels like a long time ago. The Seahawks were like a kid on Christmas playing with their new toy, Percy Harvin, complete with “Jet Sweep Action.” By New Year’s that toy was collecting dust in the corner. But for a weekend, Darrell Bevell was a genius for throwing Dom Capers’ defense off all night. Marshawn Lynch looked incredible. Wilson had some dropped interceptions. Eddie Lacy was a dud. Aaron Rodgers played one of the worst games of his career and submitted to the Richard Sherman matchup. Bryan Bulaga was injured and things really went to hell on the line.  Seattle tackled really well and limited YAC. That second half was not even competitive from the Packers.

Plenty of things have changed since, though I still think the Seahawks are the better team. Harvin is gone and Paul Richardson is on IR, but you get the sense that it doesn’t even matter for this Seattle offense. Wilson will find a way, on 37 attempts or fewer, to make enough plays, either through design or schoolyard scrambles. Doug Baldwin was very quiet in Week 1 too and should play a bigger part. Jermaine Kearse has made more big plays in two postseasons than some HOF-caliber wideouts have in their whole careers. Someone like Ricardo Lockette could even step in and catch a deep ball. I remember him beating Aqib Talib for a touchdown in Week 3. That’s the value of having a really good quarterback. Every receiver is an option. I like what Luke Willson is doing at tight end and of course Lynch is going against the worst defensive unit playing this weekend: Green Bay’s 24th-ranked run defense. Seattle has won its last two playoff games in convincing fashion without Lynch doing much. I think this is a game where he really needs to go over 100 yards to sustain longer drives that keep Rodgers off the field and shrink his margin for error. Seahawks hit big plays last week, but I think this offense works better with the longer drives that shorten games and makes the opposing offense have to play even more efficiently against the best defense in the league. I’m not in love with Seattle’s offense in this matchup, but I think they will play well again.

We have strength (GB O) vs. strength (SEA D) on the other side, and by now I think we know to side with defense in these matchups. How healthy Rodgers (calf) is obviously dominates the conversation here. If he plays like he did in the first half last week, unwilling to move in the pocket and taking bad sacks, then this might be another 20-point blowout. He has to play like he did in the second half, though Seattle covers, pressures and tackles much better than Dallas. Yeah, that’s the long way of saying this is a much better defense. Am I worried that Seattle’s dominant stretch has come against subpar QBs/offenses, and that Carolina actually moved the ball decently with a banged-up Cam Newton? Just a little. This is still Rodgers and the Packers, so a great game on offense is always a possibility. However, in Rodgers’ last two trips to Seattle he has scored a total of 28 points and been sacked 11 times. Even when healthy this year Rodgers was held under 200 yards on the road against SEA/DET/BUF and under 17 points on the scoreboard. The Vikings also contained him in Minnesota and that defense was just average. This GB offense was spectacular at home, but much easier to defend on the road. I also think Seattle’s track record against the best quarterbacks in the league is valid enough to think they won’t be shredded in this game.

Rodgers has to play very well, but Lacy must be a big part of the offense. I think the key to beating Seattle is sticking with the run even when it’s not overly effective. You can’t expect your quarterback to throw 45+ passes and win this game against that defense. Look at how San Diego played Seattle in Week 2. Philip Rivers handed off 26 times for 84 yards and threw 37 passes with 9 catches by running backs. Those 37 passes were the 2nd-most thrown against Seattle in a win since 2012. Only Matthew Stafford had more with 49 in 2012, though that version of Seattle wasn’t as good on defense. Lacy has to hit some chunk plays and break tackles to wear down this speedy defense.

The receivers are very interesting here. We have Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams against Sherman, Byron Maxwell and Tharold Simon. Rodgers shouldn’t aggressively attack Sherman, but he can’t repeat Week 1 and just not throw there. The Packers had Jarrett Boykin in Week 1 with the rookie Adams not adjusted yet. Well, he’s had two huge games in GB’s biggest wins of the year against New England and Dallas. Unfortunately, he did nothing in between those games (four catches for 29 yards) so he’s a real wild card. If Adams plays at a high level than the Packers may have something here with Simon as the weak link. I expect Nelson to play much better this week. He had 14 targets in Week 1, but didn’t make big plays. Cobb’s had a weird season: 10 touchdowns thru Week 10 and only two since. You expect Sherman to win his matchup, but the Packers have enough receivers to move around and make plays. Tight ends can also be of value against this defense, but I don’t really think of Andrew Quarless or Richard Rodgers as weapons. Sure, they can run routes and catch the ball, but they’re mostly productive if Rodgers throws them strikes. This Seattle defense has only allowed four touchdown passes that gained 10+ yards, best in the NFL since the 2009 Jets (3). Rodgers has to be pinpoint in this one, and while he might have his best offensive line yet, he doesn’t have full health and I think that’s going to show up on Sunday.

I still don’t trust Mike McCarthy’s game management, or his team in crunch time. Home field is big here, with a 25-2 record since 2012 (Wilson era). Seahawks have led in 54 consecutive games (NFL record). They’re always at least within a score in the 4th quarter. This is the team to beat right now. The potential for a dynasty has been there and to do that, you have to win a game like this.

Final prediction: Packers 19, Seahawks 27

Yep, I almost went with the same score in both games. I know what I want to see happen this weekend, and it is 100% self-serving.

Hey, why not? Winning the Super Bowl is a young man’s game and the internet is just dying for that Luck/Wilson debate to take things to another level.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 10-5
  • Week 9: 11-2
  • Week 10: 10-3
  • Week 11: 8-6
  • Week 12: 12-3
  • Week 13: 9-7
  • Week 14: 11-5
  • Week 15: 14-2
  • Week 16: 10-6
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Wild Card: 3-1
  • Divisional: 2-2
  • Total: 177-86-1

Daunte Culpepper and Having the Worst Game of Your Career in the Biggest Game

Daunte Culpepper played in 109 games in his NFL career (including the playoffs), which spanned 11 seasons (1999-09).

It’s easy to figure out the biggest game of Culpepper’s career given he only made the playoffs twice (2000, 2004). It was the 2000 NFC Championship against the Giants in New York. Minnesota was a 1-point favorite.

It was a disaster. The Vikings lost 41-0 and were outgained 518-114 in yards. It’s one of the most lopsided playoff games in NFL history.

Culpepper completed 13-of-28 passes for 78 yards. He threw three interceptions and lost one fumble. He was sacked four times.

It’s easy to say this was the worst game of Culpepper’s career. The 13.7 passer rating was the lowest out of the 108 games in which he attempted a pass. It was just one of only two starts in his career where Culpepper was shut out. It was the only time he was the only QB to throw all of his team’s passes. It was 34-0 at halftime alone and Culpepper was just 6/14 for 24 yards and an interception.

Culpepper was not given a fair shake as the Giants took a 14-0 lead before he even took the field. The Giants scored an opening-drive touchdown, then the Vikings fumbled the kickoff and Kerry Collins threw another touchdown pass. Not many teams ever come back from a 14-point deficit on the road in the playoffs. Still, Culpepper gained a first down on just two of his first 20 drop backs.

So you can easily conclude that Daunte Culpepper had the worst game of his NFL career in the biggest game of his NFL career.

That doesn’t sound like something that happens too often, yet it actually happened to Kerry Collins just two weeks later. It was as if Culpepper passed a bug to him. In Super Bowl 35 against the vaunted Ravens, Collins completed 15/39 passes for 112 yards and 4 INT. He had a 7.1 passer rating, which was probably modest. The only score for the Giants was a kick return. Collins had a pick six to Duane Starks. Collins was the QB for the Titans in the 59-0 rout in New England in 2009, but even that day he arguably didn’t play as bad as he did just two weeks after being so brilliant against Minnesota.

Craig Morton also probably fits the bill. Pick either one of his Super Bowls.  If you’re expecting more research on it, I’m empty right now, but we can talk about it on Twitter or I can look into it down the road. Or Chase Stuart can just tackle it when his vacation’s over.