NFC and AFC Championship preview

Jonathan Butler, Columnist

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Since week 8, we knew these were the four best teams in The NFL, and they will battle it out this sunday to play for the greatest prize in sports. The #2 seed Los Angeles Rams vs.The #1 seed New Orleans Saints will start the festivities off at 3:05 p.m. et. This is a rematch from week 9, where the Saints beat the Rams 45-35 in a Big 12 type shootout.

NFC Championship

The Rams were assertive in a 30-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round. On defense the Rams were outstanding as they held 2018 NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott to 47 yards on 20 carries. Offensively they relied on dynamic duo Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson who combined for 238 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Down 14-0 in the first quarter against the defending Super Bowl champions, The Philadelphia Eagles, the Saints buckled down and ended the game on a 20-0 run. The Saints struggled to run the ball as running back Alvin Kamara was held to 71 yards on 16 carries. Quarterback Drew Brees was clutch in the second half as the Saints took the lead with a 3rd quarter touchdown pass to Michael Thomas and never looked back.

As expected with two high powered teams, there are many story lines to be had:

Los Angeles Running Game

Newly acquired veteran running back C.J. Anderson helped solidify the Rams running game. Though a backup to starter and M.V.P. candidate Todd Gurley,  C.J. Anderson’s recent performance against the Cowboys (123 yds, 2 TDs) put the rest of the playing field on notice.

Michael Thomas (WR) vs. Aqib Talib (CB)

One of the more intriguing matchups to watch for is Michael Thomas vs Aqib Talib. Michael Thomas torched the Rams in week 9 to a tune of 211 yards and the game-sealing touchdown. Like C.J. Anderson, Aqib Talib was not on the field vs. The Saints in the week 9 matchup. Talib is a Super Bowl Champion and 5x pro bowler, who was brought in by the Rams last offseason for this very moment, to shut down the opponent’s best receiver in big game situations.

Third-year receiver Michael Thomas is coming off a dominant performance against The Philadelphia Eagles, as he caught 12 passes for 171 yards and a crucial touchdown in the 3rd quarter to put the Saints up 17-14. This heavyweight batte could determine the outcome of the game and neither of the two will back down from the challenge.

Drew Brees (QB) vs. Jared Goff (QB)

The biggest storyline of this game will be the quarterback matchup. Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees vs. the young gun Jared Goff. Neither of the two had spectacular games in the divisional round as Goff completed 15 of 28 passes for 186 and failed to find the end zone. Drew Brees completed 28 of 38 passes for 2 touchdowns, but threw an interception and fumbled twice. In there week 9 matchup, these two set fireworks as they combined for 737 passing yards and 7 touchdowns.

Brees must find playmakers Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas early and often if he wants to tear through this Rams defense for the second time. Goff played like a game manager as the Rams dominated the Cowboys on the ground in the Divisional Round. Goff will need to make more plays this weekend to match Drew Brees and this deadly Saints offense.

Battle of the Defenses

The biggest key for this matchup is which defense can make the timely stops. This may very well be another shootout, though the key in the Saints victory over the Rams was that the Saints defense stopped the Rams after the field goal By Wil Lutz, then got the stop after Michael Thomas’s 72 yard touchdown. Whichever team can make that clutch stop in the 4th quarter will be heading to Atlanta to play for the Super Bowl.

AFC Championship

The #2 seed New England Patriots vs. The #1 seed Kansas City Chiefs will cap the night off at 6:40 p.m. et. This is a rematch from week 6, where the Patriots scratched out a 43-40 win over the Chiefs. Unlike the NFC Championship participants, both of these teams are coming off dominant performances in the Divisional round.

Even the snow couldn’t slow down The Chiefs offense as they put up 24 points in the 1st half vs. the Colts. Though what was even more impressive was the defense played by the Chiefs, who were ranked 31st in the NFL in total defense in the regular season.

Coming off a 222 yard 2 touchdown performance where Andrew Luck was not sacked, Andrew Luck did not have the same luck vs The Chiefs. The Chiefs held luck to 203 yards, 1 touchdown, a 53% completion percentage, and a QBR of 19.7. The Chiefs were dominant running the football vs The Colts, tallying a total of 180 yards and 4 touchdowns, including an electrifying 36 yard run by Tyreek Hill in the 1st quarter. Mahomes had a solid playoff debut as well throwing for 278 yards and a 4 yard scamper for a touchdown.

Though not to be outdone, The New England Patriots laid a beating on the Los Angeles Chargers, as Tom Brady sent Phillip Rivers home in the playoffs, AGAIN. Though Tom Brady was not the star of the show as rookie sensation Sony Michel rushed for 129 yards and 3 touchdowns. The rookie opened up the pass game and Tom Brady scorched the Los Angeles Chargers defense for 378 yards with a 77% completion percentage and added a touchdown.  The Patriots offense put up 41 points on the Chargers and the defense held Phillip Rivers to an awful 49% completion percentage.

Both teams are coming into this rematch red-hot and there are many storylines to follow:

Feed Sony Michel

The big question is can Sony Michel repeat the performance he had against The Chiefs in week 6. Sony Michel went for 124 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday Night Football. He has made a name for himself ever since his Georgia days as a big game performer . He ran for 181 yards and 3 touchdowns vs. Oklahoma in the 2018 Rose bowl. After his performance in the Wild Card Game vs. The Chargers, it looks like his clutch gene hasn’t wavered one bit.

Tyreek Hill vs. the Patriots Secondary

Sony Michel wasn’t the only player to have a big day back in the week 6 matchup, as Tyreek Hill went for 142 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. Tyreek Hill is a mismatch for anybody guarding him, but against the Patriots he looked like he was going against a practice squad. If the Patriots want to get stops against the Chiefs they have to do a better job gameplanning for the cheetah.

Can Damien Williams dominate the Patriots like Kareem Hunt

What Bill Belicheck won’t have to worry about gameplanning for is the suspended Kareem Hunt. Kareem Hunt racked up a combined 431 total yards in the two previous matchups. Though his replacement Damien Williams had a field day against the Colts as he racked up a total of 154 total yards and 1 touchdown. If the Chiefs can get him going earlier, The Patriots will have to put more players in the box which will open up the passing game even more.

Patrick Mahomes (QB) vs. Tom Brady (QB)

The key matchup, just like the NFC Championship game, is the quarterback play. Tom Brady will be making his whopping 13th AFC CHampionship appearance. He will definitely have the experience factor over gunslinger Patrick Mahomes. Though what Patrick Mahomes lacks in experience, he makes up for in talent. Patrick Mahomes has the strongest arm throughout the four quarterbacks playing on sunday and you know he will be looking for his deep ball threat Tyreek Hill often.

Predictions

The Rams vs. Saints will be decided in the 4th quarter. The Rams will dominate the Time of Possession because of Anderson and Gurley. But Drew Brees will have a big game. Alvin Kamara will also have another great game vs. The Rams. Though Aaron Donald will play a major factor in the 4th quarter with getting pressure to Drew Brees. Michael Thomas will be held in check by Aqib Talib. The Rams will go into the SuperDome and leave NFC Champions. 38-31

The Patriots vs Chiefs will be very different. The Chiefs will get up early and keep pushing the lead. Patrick Mahomes will officially arrive as he will pass for over 350 yards. The Chiefs will defend Arrowhead Stadium and become AFC Champions. 35-17

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NFC and AFC Championship preview