2018 NFL Conference Championship Picks: Youth Movement
Last Week: 1-3
One missed field goal and some wildly unimaginative defense from the Chargers, and we’re right back to .500 for the playoffs. We’ll need to pick every remaining game correctly to reach .500 for the year, and we’re trusting the young QBs to get us there. It has a chance to look extremely foolish when Tom Brady and Drew Brees defeat two quarterbacks with a combined 56 starts between them, but in the words of the recently hired Bruce Arians: No Risk It, No Biscuit.
Los Angeles Rams +3.5 at New Orleans Saints
Every part of me wants to pick Drew Brees instead of Jared Goff, especially in New Orleans. As a longtime Brees fan, I even want the Saints to win to help secure his standing in the same echelon as Manning and Brady. Something about this Saints’ offense makes me nervous, though. While their defense has rebounded from an abysmal start to rank 6th in weighted DVOA after last week, their offense has plummeted, averaging 19.2 points per game since Week 13 and slipping to 7th in weighted DVOA. I can’t tell what’s changed, and it’s even more mystifying when it seems like every 3rd-and-long pass to Michael Thomas picks up 15 yards. The Rams’ defense hasn’t been great, but neither had the Eagles’; New Orleans still only managed 20 points last week. Throw in a combination of Aaron Donald and Ndomakung Suh attacking Brees’s weakness against interior pressure and a guard who recently had hand surgery, and you have the recipe for another middling offensive performance from the Saints.
The Rams’ offense went through a similar slump in the second half of the season, coinciding with Cooper Kupp’s season-ending injury. Goff struggled to find any success against the Bears’ defense in Chicago and again the next week at home against the Eagles, and last week’s dominant rushing display against a solid Cowboys’ defense still didn’t resemble the explosive Rams’ offense of Weeks 1-11 when they averaged 35.4 points per game. I think Sheldon Rankins’ injury will have a big impact on this game, allowing the Rams to run the ball consistently and limit the number of total possessions. Combine an effective running game with the deadly play-action designs from Sean McVay, and I don’t think Los Angeles will be limited to 14 points like the Eagles were last week.
Jared Goff could melt down and let this game turn into a blowout, but I think he’ll play well enough to keep the Rams in the game until the end. Unless the Saints can find a solution to the Aaron Donald problem, he’ll create at least one turnover to swing the game in the Rams’ favor. I can see the Saints driving for a last-minute score to win the game, but I don’t think it will be by more than 3 points.
Kansas City Chiefs -3 vs. New England Patriots
I know, I’m doing it again; picking against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the playoffs. There are a few reasons to be more optimistic about this line, though, starting with Patrick Mahomes. In his first season as a starter, Mahomes threw for over 5,000 yards and 50 TDs, 11 more than second-place Andrew Luck. The Chiefs’ offense became the first in NFL history to score at least 26 points in every game, and it’s hard to envision them slowing down against a mediocre Patriots’ defense they scored 40 on in New England earlier this year. Andy Reid’s clock management leaves much to be desired, but his offensive game-planning is second to none, and Kansas City will be able to stretch Belichick’s defense horizontally and vertically en route to another 30 point showing.
Can the Chiefs hold the Patriots under 30? I would stake my reputation on it, but only because my reputation and picks record this year suggests there isn’t much to lose. They do have some advantages this time around, though, starting with home field. The Kansas City fans will have Arrowhead rocking, but you shouldn’t expect any crowd to faze Tom Brady. Let’s just look at each team’s performance by location instead. The Chiefs’ defense allowed 18.0 points per game at home this year compared to 34.6 points per game on the road. Whether it’s due to crowd noise or an inspirational poster in the home locker room, something is helping Kansas City’s defense at home. The Patriots were just 3-5 on the road this year, scoring 21.6 points per game, 11.3 fewer than their home average. The playoffs haven’t been a different story for the Brady-Belichick Patriots either. For all of their sustained success, they’ve routinely made it to the Super Bowl by avoiding this exact situation. Since Brady took over in the 2001 season, the Patriots are 20-3 in Foxboro and just 3-4 on the road, with their most recent road win coming in 2006.
Schematically, the Patriots won’t be able to hold the Chiefs in check. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce each present unique matchup problems, and adding in Mahomes’ brilliance and Reid’s play-calling gives the Chiefs a significant edge. Belichick teams have only given up 40+ points seven times, and three of those came against Andy Reid teams. Kansas City will need to get pressure on Brady to avoid a last-score-wins type shootout, and their defensive line of Justin Houston, Dee Ford, and Chris Jones combined for the 7th-best adjusted sack rate in the league. They won’t be shutting the Patriots down, but they’ll force enough mistakes to keep Kansas City ahead by a touchdown and secure the Chiefs their first trip to the Super Bowl since the 1969 season.
That's all for this week! Kick back, grab a drink, and feel free to blame me if you put money on these picks and come out behind. I won't compensate you, but maybe your significant others will send their wrath in my direction instead of yours.