And then, there were four!
Yes, after 256 regular season games and eight more playoff games, we are down to the conference title games in the NFL, and while the lack of upsets last weekend in the divisional round continued to pillage and plunder my prognosticating winning percentage —- seriously, you have to almost TRY to be as bad as I've been the last three weeks — I am pretty excited that we are left with the four best teams.
The four head coaches in these matchups are arguably the four best in all of football — Sean Payton, Sean McVay, Andy Reid, and Bill Belichick. In each of these games, there's an "O.G." head coach with pelts on the wall and very little to prove (Payton, Belichick) going up against a head coach with quite a bit to prove. Sean McVay needs to prove that all the fuss over his wunderkind status, and the rampant hiring league-wide of any coach that's been in the same room with him at some point, is justified. Andy Reidjust needs to prove that he can stop being Andy Reid in the postseason. (Last week was a good start.)
So how do we see these two games playing out. Before diving into each matchup, here is a stat you should know, and perhaps a not-so-subtle hint as to where I'm leaning:
Pretty remarkable, the last Super Bowl participants to go on the road and win a playoff game during their postseason runs were the Harbaugh brothers leading up to the 2013 Super Bowl, with both going on the road (Jim taking San Francisco into Atlanta and winning, John leading the Ravens to a win in New England) to secure their spots in Super Bowl XLVII.
SAINTS -3 over Rams
Rams/SAINTS UNDER 57
These two teams met back in Week 9 in New Orleans, in a game where the Saints roared out to a 35-14 lead, only to see the Rams come back and tie the game at 35. However, the Saints scored the final ten points, and ultimately that game was the difference in where THIS game is being played. Believe it or not, the Rams were favored in that first matchup in the Superdome, as they came into that game 8-0 SU at the time. This will be the first time all season that the Rams have been underdogs, so it will be interesting to see how they channel that. I'm not so sure that Jared Goff strikes me as a "chip on the shoulder" kind of quarterback in this situation. (Conversely, Tom Brady is the underdog on the other side, and he seemingly goes out of his way to mention every slight the Patriots have received heading into the postseason.)
The Saints are 9-0 SU in their last nine home games against teams with winning records, and when they play at home in the postseason under Payton, they're undefeated (7-0 SU). Both teams can run the football with a two-headed monster approach, with the Rams pounding MVP candidate Todd Gurley and chunky street free agent C.J. Anderson, and the Saints going with the dynamic Alvin Kamara and the plucky veteran Mark Ingram. As prolific as both these offenses are through the air, I think both teams want to control the clock, and run the football, so I like the UNDER here. Ultimately, at home and going against the 28th rated run defense in football, according to DVOA, I think the Saints are the ones who are better able to control the game and head to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII.
CHIEFS -3 over Patriots
Patriots/CHIEFS UNDER 55.5
Like the NFC title matchup, this is a rematch of a regular season game, a 43-40 Patriots victory in Gilette Stadium all the way back in Week 6. Like the NFC title matchup, that regular season game knocked the loser from the ranks of the undefeated, as the Chiefs came into that game an impressive 5-0 SU. Still, even with that win to serve as a possible tiebreaker, the Patriots were unable to secure home field advantage over Kansas City, thanks to a 3-5 road record during the regular season. It's not just that the Patriots were a bad road team this year, though — it's who they lost to, and how they lost. Their five losses were all to non-playoff teams (Jaguars, Lions, Titans, Dolphins, Steelers) by an average margin of 12 points per game, including one of the most ridiculous final plays in a game in league history — the Kenyan Drake multi-lateral kickoff return — versus the Dolphins.
The mitigating factor causing hesitancy for me taking the Chiefs is Brady as an underdog, 6-1 SU and ATS the last seven times he's been in this spot. However, this is one of the best home field advantages in all of football, and despite the head coaching matchup reading "Reid versus Belichick," I don't think the Patriots have enough answers on defense for Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce. The handicap on the over/under total is weather-based, as the temperatures are supposed to hover near single digits, and in those conditions (11 playoff games played in weather 10 degrees or colder), no team has scored more than 30 points in a game.
Last Week: 1-5
Season Record: 54-63-3 (46.2 percent)
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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