2018 NFL: AFC & NFC Conference Championship Previews
The 2018 NFL season has been filled with fireworks, bluster, hoopla, hijinks and more. From the opening kickoff at the beginning of September all the way through last Sunday, there were more twists and turns than one could count.
And now that the dust has settled, we’re left with the top two seeds from each conference battling it out for a spot in the Super Bowl. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. While I’m usually the first person to cheer when a dark horse candidate makes the big game, I don’t really mean it.
All you have to do is turn back the clock 10 years, when the Cardinals reached Super Bowl XLII despite finishing with a 9-7 regular season record. And as much as the Steelers annoy me (it’s not really the team, it’s the fans), I felt the proper thing to happen was for them to win that game. And they did.
So, here we are. The Rams vs. the Saints and the Patriots vs. the Chiefs on Sunday. Two delicious matchups. So, let’s start by breaking down the names to watch.
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Sony Michel and James White
The names of the running backs in New England have continued to churn over the years: Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and now, Sony Michel and James White.
The faces change, but the production seemingly doesn’t waver that much. And Michel was huge in the Patriots’ flawless win over the Chargers in the divisional round, scoring three touchdowns with 129 yards rushing.
And White? Is he even a running back anymore? All he did last Sunday was tie Darren Sproles’ NFL playoff record with 15 catches for 97 yards.
If these two backs get whatever they want on Sunday, that’s it. Game over.
There’s no doubting what he has accomplished in his 2 years in Los Angeles. He started with a 4-12 team and took them to back-to-back division titles and an appearance in the NFC Championship game. These are the facts of the case and they are not in dispute.
However, he needs this win. And it has nothing to do with him. It has to do with the fact that the NFL went crazy and started hiring anyone who has shared a vanilla latte with Sean McVay. And with that trend came several pundits mocking the teams that hired McVay’s underlings and the phrase “boy genius” being tossed at the Rams coach as a pejorative. He can’t have a coaching tree! He’s too young!!
A Super Bowl appearance will at least curb that chatter. The move to hire anyone who has worked with McVay is dumb, but there is no reason he needs to get caught in the crossfire.
The Rams lost their first game of the season in New Orleans and Talib wasn’t in the lineup with an ankle injury. Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas — among the best the game has the offer — went off, catching 12 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown that sealed the victory.
Rams CB Marcus Peters covered Thomas for most of that game and as the stats show, he didn’t do well. In fact, the key Thomas touchdown went right over his outstretched hand. The Rams can take heart that Talib will be the guy matching up with Thomas on Sunday. Not saying Talib can hold him down, but he’ll have a much better chance at doing so than Peters.
The linebacker was a terror off the edge during the Chiefs’ win over the Colts. Indianapolis, mind you, came into the game with arguably the best offensive line in football and Kansas City pushed them around easily.
If the Chiefs hope to get critical stops against the Patriots, Ford and his pass-rushing compatriots must have a huge game. And for the love of God, let’s hope the Chiefs don’t play that limp zone the Chargers used last week.
Note to L.A. coach Anthony Lynn: If the Patriots drive to three easy touchdowns in a row to start a game, maybe change things up a bit. Tom Brady has been around far too long. If you play zone without getting pressure, he’s going to carve you up.
I can’t remember ever rooting for the Patriots. Even when they were terrible, I didn’t care. I’ve always found Boston fans insufferable and I always will. So, they don’t deserve to have a national fan base and for the most part, they don’t.This season has been even more intolerable. Nobody can tell me this is a team that deserved to get a first-round bye and a playoff game. And it would gall me even more if the Patriots got past the Chiefs and reached yet another Super Bowl.
There is one positive that could come out of this. If the Patriots win a Super Bowl, it would be amazing if Brady decided to tie a bow on his career and retire on the heels of a sixth championship ring.
Look, I’ve already made peace with the fact that Tom Brady is the best quarterback to ever play the game. That debate is over. So, whatever gets his stupid face off my TV on Sundays in the fall is worth it. Even if it means rooting for a Patriots win.
The Saints defense suffered a big blow last Sunday when defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins went down with a torn Achilles in the win. And with the Rams bringing the best running game of the remaining playoff teams into the Superdome, people will need to step up.
Enter Onywemata, and to a lesser extent, Taylor Stallworth. Onyemata isn’t far behind Rankins when it comes to stats and Pro Football Focus rankings. It’ll be up to him to help fill the gap and keep Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson in check.
Sometimes you stumble into the best things in life. The Rams were in a crappy spot just a few weeks ago, as Gurley was laid up with a knee injury with their backup running back Malcolm Brown already out for the season.
So, they went to the waiver wire and plucked Anderson, a bowling ball with a fierce running style. And he’s been nothing short of a revelation, rushing for more than 100 yards in all three games he’s played in Los Angeles. And in last week’s impressive win over the Cowboys Anderson and Gurley formed quite the thunder and lightning combination.
And make no mistake, while Gurley is back in the lineup, you can tell that his knee is still bothering him. It’s absolutely critical that Anderson keeps his hot streak rolling with tough runs that can wear down the Saints’ defensive front in the fourth quarter.
The Saints head coach had something to say about Rams CB Marcus Peters when his team beat Los Angeles in Week 9, remarking that he got the matchup he wanted on Michael Thomas’ winning touchdown grab.
To say that didn’t sit well with Peters is an understatement. And earlier this week, Peters posted on social media, declaring this “gumbo week.” He quickly deleted the post, but not before it was captured and made the rounds in the national media.
Peters downplayed his remarks and praised Payton’s ability. Payton refused to say anything controversial and complimented the cornerback. Both men wanted to brush this aside.
Come on, you know Sean Payton. And you know he’s got something planned to take advantage of Peters’ aggressiveness and hot-headed style of play. And it would surprise no one if that turns out to be the pivotal moment of this game.
The Chiefs running game took a step back when Kareem Hunt was released midway through the season, and Williams didn’t exactly set the world on fire when he took over the starting job.
Against the Colts, he changed the narrative, rushing 129 yards for a touchdown and catching five passes out of the backfield. All eyes will be on Patrick Mahomes on Sunday, but a solid game by Williams can control the clock and set up those big throws from Kansas City’s stud quarterback.
WHAT’S THE CHATTER?
Cowboys conundrum: Not sure what happened to Big D last week, but they got curb-stomped by the Rams. And while Jerry Jones said some nice things about Jason Garrett in the immediate aftermath of that game, he hasn’t said anything about committing to his current head coach in the long term.
Of course, Garrett’s deal runs through next season, so it’s possible that Jones still plans on giving him an extension.
Then again, maybe not …
Nicky’s next stop: The Eagles made it clear that Carson Wentz will be their quarterback going forward, despite his injury history and Nick Foles’ playoff success. So, what’s next? Foles has earned a chance to be a full-time starter and Philly will see what it can get for him.
One interesting possibility is the Jaguars, who just hired John DeFilippo as their new offensive coordinator. DeFilippo, if you remember, was the quarterbacks coach during Foles’ Super Bowl run last season before taking a short-lived coordinator gig with the Vikings.
Just, shut up: Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman has debuted a new video this week, entitled #betagainstus. You see, he’s piggybacking off Tom Brady’s comments after last week’s win, when he said, “everyone thinks we suck and you know, can’t win any games.” Yes, we do all hate you and it’s bogus you got a home playoff game this season.
Antonio Brown: What a mess. I’m not in the Steelers locker room and I don’t know what exactly is going down in Pittsburgh. But ownership seems completely disgusted with their star wideout and are guaranteed to deal him this offseason.
He’s got future Jet written all over him.
Huh, OK: Jeff Fisher (remember him?) says he misses “competing on Sundays.” I’m not sure you can call what he did in his last season with the Rams “competing.”
IT’S THAT TIME
Rams vs. Saints
I’m a Rams fan. I also picked the Saints to reach the Super Bowl before the season started. I’m going to stay neutral and keep my emotions in check. The reason it’s so crucial to have the best record in your conference is for this game.
New Orleans has the advantage when it comes to head coach and quarterback. They will also have what will assuredly be a raucous home crowd breaking decibel records in the Superdome. Even though the Saints won’t have Sheldon Rankins in the lineup, they still boast the second-ranked rushing defense in the league. They should be able to bottle up the Rams rushing attack and force Jared Goff into making mistakes.
An emotional Drew Brees won’t be stopped from reaching his second Super Bowl and securing his legacy as one of the best to ever play the game.
Patriots vs. Chiefs
The weather report was forbidding early this week as forecasters predicted an “arctic blast” that would drop the temperature below zero. That has changed. It’s not like you’ll be able to wear shorts, but the temperatures will be a balmy 19 degrees.
So, who knows, we might see some high-flying offense. Bill Belichick is known for his expertise in taking away what his opponents do best. It will be interesting to see who the Patriots focus their defense on. That will go a long way in telling the story of this game.
Andy Reid has had Belichick’s number since arriving in Kansas City. With this game at home, I don’t see that changing.
Currently a Mobile Editor at Yahoo, Saraf spent 5.5 years (Oct. 2010 - Feb. 2016) working for FOX Sports as an NFL Editor and Writer. Prior to that, Saraf worked for CBS Interactive for 4.5 years (May 2006 - Oct. 2010) as a Staff Editor.