After an exhilarating weekend of divisional round playoff match ups, we saw the top seeds in both conferences outlast their opponents to secure a place in this weekend's Conference Championships.
In the NFC, the top-seeded New Orleans Saints will host the Los Angeles Rams for a berth in the 2019 Super Bowl, and the New England Patriots will travel to Arrowhead Stadium to challenge the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC Championship.
With everything still left to play for, and four of the best offenses in the league lining up on Sunday, expect fireworks in both games.
Here are 4 things to watch out for during Conference Championship weekend.
Patriots Far from Home
No team is more accustomed to home field advantage over the past two decades than the New England Patriots, but Tom Brady and company have to work out of their comfort zone when they line up at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. While the way that the Patriots dismantled the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round may have come as a surprise, the outcome isn't much of a shock. New England was 8-0 at home in the regular season, fully using Gillette Stadium's atmosphere to their advantage.
But Bill Belichick's side was 3-5 on the road, and saw a big dip in performance all around when not on their own turf. While they averaged 32.9 points per game at home in the regular season, that number dropped to 21.6 points per game on the road. The defense also became more susceptible on the road, giving up an average on 24 points in away games compared to only 16.6 points when at home.
One interesting thing to hone in on is Brady's production specifically when playing on the road this season. He threw a total of 16 more passes on the road than at home this season, but only gave up three interceptions instead of the eight he threw at Gillette. However, Brady's completion percentage saw a 5.5-percent dip on the road, and he was sacked five more times. This can be attributed to several factors, but crowd noise and an increased sense of sending defensive pressure when you're playing at home do seem to be prevalent.
Can Mahomes Outdo Brady?
In the past decade, only three AFC quarterbacks have been able to defeat Tom Brady in the playoffs — Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning. The point? This is the highest mountain to climb for a quarterback if they have hopes of driving their team to a championship.
But it isn't insurmountable, especially for Chiefs quarterback Pat Mahomes. His meteoric sophomore campaign has pushed him to the forefront of MVP discussions, and he will have the advantage of dueling with Brady in front of one of the biggest home field advantages in the league. But he's also at the disadvantage of playing in his first ever conference championship game; this is Brady's eighth straight.
The key to Mahomes' success on Sunday will be his mobility. The Patriots defense proved tough against the Chargers by putting pressure on Philip Rivers and making him throw the ball a half-second before his plays fully developed. But Mahomes, with his incredible gift of athleticism, has the ability to stretch out plays a little bit longer to let his receivers either complete their routes or to just scramble and create something out of nothing.
The key for Mahomes is to learn from his match up with the Pats from earlier this season, where he threw for 352 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in a 43-40 loss. Mahomes went punch-for-punch with Brady, but it was small mistakes, like the two interceptions and a handful of overthrown passes, that made the difference. Football is a game of inches, even for guys who are throwing for 300-plus yards a game.
Gurley and Anderson to Set a Tone
It's rare for one of the most prolific running backs in the league to be overshadowed by the rest of his offense, but that is what helps Todd Gurley succeed. While media and fans alike boast about the tandem of head coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff, it's Gurley who have been the stable presence in the offense as they'd put together a historic season.
No where was that more obvious than in the Rams' divisional round victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Facing a defense that many considered one of the toughest in the league, Los Angeles went with a run-first philosophy that paid dividends. It was Gurley and C.J Anderson who combined for 238 yards on the ground and three touchdowns on 39 carries in the win. With Gurley not playing at 100-percent, Anderson picked up the load where the main back left off, putting together a tandem that the Cowboys couldn't conquer.
While many expect a match up with New Orleans to result in another shootout akin to the first meeting of the year between these two sides, look for the Rams to opt for a more balanced approach on the road. Unless the Saints offense goes charging for multiple big drives within the first quarter, expect the Rams to try and establish the run game early. This lets them keep the offensive creativity even while also prolonging the time that Brees and his arsenal of options are off of the field.
Brees to Target Michael Thomas
Quietly, Michael Thomas put on one of the greatest playoff performances in modern history against the Philadelphia Eagles. In the divisional round victory, Thomas amassed 12 catches for 171 yards and a touchdown. He acted as both a safety blanket for Brees when the Eagles sent pressure, but also as a big play threat when the New Orleans was given time for routes to develop.
With Thomas coming off of this type of performance, it's hard to imagine that his lips aren't salivating at the prospect of facing off again against the Rams' defense. In the Week 9 meeting between the two teams, Thomas exploded for 211 receiving yards and one touchdown on 12 catches. The Rams had no answer for the 6-foot-3 target, and he continued to make the game his own throughout the entire 60 minutes.
One might think that the Saints focus will shift off of Thomas for this second game against the Rams. On one hand, he's a known commodity at this point and can be used as a decoy (akin to how the Patriots sometimes use Rob Gronkowski). The odds of Thomas seeing single coverage without at least a one safety overlay is slim to none, meaning that some other target will definitely have space.
But for as much of a gambler as Sean Peyton is at times — if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Expect Brees and Peyton to use to use Thomas in different ways against the Rams schemes, but to use him nonetheless.
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