After a wild-card round that was truly wild, with three visiting teams advancing, the divisional round of the NFL playoffs offered no surprises.
The top four seeds all advanced, setting up a pair of compelling title games. In the AFC championship, the Chiefs and Patriots will face off in a rematch of New England’s memorable 43-40 victory earlier this season. In the NFC, the Rams get another shot at the Saints in New Orleans, after having lost there in November, 45-35.
The quarterback matchups offer a nice symmetry, with one young star facing a veteran, soon-to-be Hall of Famer: Patrick Mahomes versus Tom Brady, and Jared Goff versus Drew Brees.
There are lots of interesting subplots in this season’s NFL championship round. Let’s take a look at the factors in each matchup that will determine who advances to the Super Bowl.
This year’s AFC title runs through Kansas City, not Foxborough. Brady is 28-10 as a playoff quarterback, the greatest record ever. But he’s not used to being on the road in January. He has a 3-4 record on the road in the playoffs, and believe it or not, he hasn’t won a road playoff game since 2006.
Brady is in his eighth consecutive AFC championship game. During that stretch, he’s played a title game on the road only twice, losing to the Denver Broncos in the 2013 and 2016 seasons.
On the road, Brady is almost human. In home playoff games, his touchdown-to-interception ratio is an incredible 46-to-18. In those seven road playoff games, it’s 8-to-8. In this matchup, Brady’s challenge is trying to minimize the Chiefs’ pass rush trio of Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Chris Jones. It won’t be easy, as Andrew Luck found out Saturday in the Colts’ loss to Kansas City.
One of the stories of the Patriots’ win over the Chargers was their success on the ground, led by rookie running back Sony Michel’s 100-yard game and three touchdowns. But equally important was their running backs’ role in the passing game, as Brady targeted them on 19 of his 44 attempts. James White caught 15 passes, tying a playoff record.
That will matter again against the Chiefs, who gave up a league-high six passing touchdowns to running backs this season and are vulnerable at the linebacker position.
“You can’t get one-dimensional in these types of games,” Brady said of the team’s balance after the win over the Chargers. “It’s too tough against too many good teams. You can get to this point and there’s very little margin of error and you’re going to have to be good in all phases. Running it, throwing it, kicking it, playing defense. Everything. We’ll have to do it again.”
Mahomes followed his 50-touchdown season with a great performance against the Indianapolis Colts, completing 27 of 41 passes for 278 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but he did everything else, including running for a score.
Mahomes has the look of a quarterback destined to win multiple Super Bowl rings. He’s a gunslinger in the mold of Brett Favre. He’s a great running quarterback in the mold of Russell Wilson. He has the smarts of Drew Brees. And in this game, Mahomes is at home, where he ended his team’s six-game home playoff losing streak that dated back to 1994.
The Chiefs’ offense also has gotten a boost from the return from injury of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who caught six passes for 62 yards against the Colts, and the emergence of running back Damien Williams, who rushed for 129 yards on 25 carries. Williams has gone from third-down back to a starring role following Kareem Hunt’s release and Spencer Ware’s injury, and he and Watkins have returned this offense to a unit that can put up 30-plus points per game.
Saints Coach Sean Payton doesn’t get enough credit for regularly putting together great offensive lines, and they are loaded again this year, with Pro Bowlers Max Unger and Terron Armstead and Pro Bowl alternate guards Larry Warford and Andrus Peat.
But the Rams have also been great up front this season, and the blocking of their offensive line was one of the keys to their 30-22 win over Dallas on Saturday. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth admitted after the victory that the line didn’t perform well in the playoffs last year.
“I thought last year we didn’t execute,” Whitworth said. “It was probably our worst game we played all season from the execution standpoint. This year that was in Chicago. I think in some ways it’s benefited us to get that game out of the way.”
L.A.’s line is talented. Whitworth and guard Rodger Saffold were first alternates to the Pro Bowl. Rob Havenstein is one of the better, higher-paid right tackles. John Sullivan is smart and solid at center.
That group paved the way for a stellar game from running back C.J. Anderson, who might have been the best story of the divisional round. He rushed for 123 yards on 23 carries, allowing the Rams to ease back Todd Gurley in his return from a knee injury. Gurley still chipped in with 115 yards on 16 carries.
Anderson earned the respect of Peyton Manning when the two played together in Denver not just for his running ability, but for his pass protection. That’s big for the Rams, as well, and L.A. will need to run the ball and control the clock to beat the Saints on the road next week.
The soon-to-be 40-year-old quarterback is 6-0 at home in the playoffs for New Orleans, having thrown 14 touchdowns to two interceptions and never posted a passer rating below 96.2. That’s why it wasn’t surprising to see Brees rally the Saints after their slow start versus Philadelphia.
Rams Coach Sean McVay says his team has learned a lot since that November loss in New Orleans, but no matter what adjustments they make, beating Brees in the Superdome is no easy task.
The midseason trade for the struggling former first-round cornerback of the Giants has flown under the radar a bit, but it has had a big impact on the Saints’ pass coverage. Apple’s ability to play man coverage has allowed the New Orleans defense to play less zone, and that will matter against the Rams.
Down the stretch, most teams have tried to double cover-one of the Rams’ top two receivers – either Brandin Cooks or Robert Woods – and also commit an extra defender to stopping Gurley. New Orleans has a true shutdown corner in second-year pro Marshon Lattimore, who was one of the stars of Sunday’s win for his shadow coverage of Alshon Jeffery and his two critical interceptions, and it is able to use him in that role due to the presence of Apple, who doesn’t need to be in zone coverage to be effective.
The loss of Cooper Kupp to a knee injury looms large for the Rams in this one, as they don’t have a third wide receiver to truly test the defense. With the Saints matched up in man coverage Sunday, that will free them to be creative in drawing up schemes to stop the Rams.
— The biggest story of the offseason will be whether the Pittsburgh Steelers trade star wide receiver Antonio Brown. There is no doubt that there is plenty of interest in a trade, and the early word is he could end up in the AFC West.
Teams selecting at the top of the draft all need wide receiver help, but a top-5 pick is too much to spend on Brown, given the level of defensive talent in this draft. The team to watch, though, could be the Raiders, who could use the No. 4 overall pick on a defensive lineman and then consider dealing one or both of their remaining first-rounders (acquired in trades with the Bears and Cowboys) to bring in Brown.
It creates an interesting debate, especially after they traded wide receiver Amari Cooper to Dallas this year. Brown is older than Cooper, but arguably is the best receiver in the league. Coach Jon Gruden has always said great things about Brown’s skills. The other AFC West team to watch in the Brown trade market is the Broncos, who have a need at wide receiver.
— Even though the Indianapolis Colts have the cap room to sign running back Le’Veon Bell, it still looks as though the New York Jets are the leading candidate to land him. The Jets have the cap room, and new head coach Adam Gase would like to call plays around Bell’s running ability.