Life in general and sports in particular is rife with Recency Bias. Whatever is happening now or just happened tends to enjoy undue weight. Nevertheless, Sunday’s AFC and NFC Championship Games might be the NFL’s best final four ever, or be close enough for argument, at least.
This is only the eighth time in 29 years of the current playoff format that both games are No. 1 vs. 2 seeds, and the first time in the 53-year Super Bowl era the league’s four highest-scoring offenses are featured. Both games are rematches of regular season meetings that saw a combined 163 points scored.
The Super Bowl play-in games also come wrapped with a bow in an overarching theme: Old Guard vs. New. Can Tom Brady, 41, stave off the Next Big Thing in 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes? Will Drew Brees, 40, stay on top or is it time for 24-year-old Jared Goff? A tetonic power shift could be coming in the NFL ... or not.
Let’s dive in!NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
RAMS (14-3, No. 2 seed) at SAINTS (14-3, No. 1)
Line: NO by 3½
Cote’s pick: NO 34-27
TV: 3:05 p.m., Fox
Holding the No. 1 seed in the NFL playoffs is like drawing pocket aces in Texas Hold ‘Em. Ten consecutive conference championship games have been won by the home team. (The last exception was the 49ers winning in Atlanta in 2012). And N’Awlins’ home-field edge is greater than most. Saints are 15-2 in past 17 games on the Bayou, while Sean Payton (6-0) has yet to lose at home in the postseason. Saints parlayed the home gris-gris to a 45-35 win when the Rams visited in Week 9 — and another shootout is in the offing in Sunday’s first of two Super Bowl play-ins. Saints reached and won the Super Bowl when last they held the No. 1 seed, in 2009. Rams were last in a Super Bowl in 2001 (as St. Louis) and last in one as the L.A. Rams in 1979. Drew Brees and the home field are the loud differences in this game. The quiet one is the Saints’ edge on defense, especially at home, especially against the run, and especially later in the season. In contrast the Rams’ D is seen as better than it really is because of Aaron Donald and his 20½ sacks. Donald might bother Brees some, but Brees will bother L.A.’s defense more. The Rams have below-average run defense and nobody (including Aqib Talib) who can stop elite receiver Michael Thomas from being a difference maker on Sunday.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
PATRIOTS (12-5, No. 2 seed) at CHIEFS (13-4, No. 1)
Line: KC by 3
Cote’s pick: KC 30-24
TV: 6:40 p.m., CBS
It’s funny to hear Tom Brady, of all people, wearing the underdog hat and playing the nobody-believes-in-us card. (Picture Bill Gates begging change at an intersection). But sure enough, Bill Belichick and his G.O.A.T. are ‘dogs here, and should be. It isn’t that Kansas City is unbeatable. It is that, mysteriously but without question, New England, so mighty in Foxborough, is so mediocre away from home. The Patriots were 3-5 on the road this season, all five losses to non-playoff teams, and averaged 12.2 fewer points per game on the road — a seismic dropoff. Not coincidentally, the Pats have lost their last three playoff road games. New England’s 43-40 October win over KC was (of course) at home. Having said all that, even on the road I still give Brady and NE a large upset shot — better than the Rams’ chances in the earlier game. Pats are in a record eighth straight AFC title game, while Chiefs, infamous postseason fizzlers, are in their first since 1993. Belichick is 29-11 in the playoffs to Andy Reid’s 12-13, with Bill 6-2 in head-to-head meetings.
Brady owns the stage Patrick Mahomes is stepping on for the first time. Oh, and New England is 7-1 in its past eight games as an underdog. Still gotta roll with Kid Mahomes at that big KC offense. Brian Flores, the Dolphins coach-in-waiting, calls defensive plays for the Pats. Best of luck, sir.