Guide to NFL conference championships: Predictions & key matchups


Two rounds of the 2018 NFL playoffs are in the books, and only four teams remain. Now we’re previewing Sunday’s conference championship game slate with a rundown for both matchups from Dan Graziano, score predictions and injury updates from our NFL Nation reporters, and Football Power Index projections from ESPN Stats & Information.

Plus: Key matchups to watch from Matt Bowen, what to know from a sports betting perspective by Rob Nelson of ESPN Stats & Information, officiating nuggets from Kevin Seifert and more.

Fox, Bruschi like the Saints at home.

John Fox and Tedy Bruschi explain that the Saints’ running game and Michael Thomas will play key roles in New Orleans’ quest to reach the Super Bowl.

NFC: No. 2 Los Angeles Rams at No. 1 New Orleans Saints

3:05 p.m. ET | Fox | Point spread: NO -3.5 | Matchup quality: 87.2 (of 100)

By record, these were the two best teams in the NFL, and the reason the 13-3 Saints are hosting the 13-3 Rams is because the Saints won their regular-season matchup 45-35 in Week 9 in New Orleans. In that game, the Saints built a 35-14 second-quarter lead, but the Rams came back and tied it up at 35-35 in the fourth. A Wil Lutz field goal put New Orleans back on top, then a 72-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Michael Thomas sealed the victory. After the game, Rams cornerback Marcus Peters, who was the victim of the big Thomas catch, was told that Saints coach Sean Payton said he liked the Thomas-Peters matchup for his side. Peters responded by saying he looked forward to seeing Payton again and having a “nice little bowl of gumbo together.” Well, there are myriad gumbo options in the neighborhoods surrounding the Superdome, where the Saints are 7-2 this season. — Graziano

FPI win projection: NO, 63.2 percent. Expect offensive fireworks with the No. 2 (Rams) and No. 3 (Saints) offenses in terms of efficiency this season, according to FPI. Though the Rams did rank sixth in defensive efficiency on the road, it will be a tough task against the Saints, who ranked second in offensive efficiency at home (85.0), led by Brees’ league-leading 89.7 Total QBR in home games this season.

Matchup to watch: Thomas vs. the Rams’ secondary. Thomas caught 12 passes for 211 yards — including a 72-yard touchdown over Peters — in New Orleans’ Week 9 victory over L.A. Look for Payton to bump Thomas inside to get favorable matchups against the Rams’ zone coverage while featuring Thomas on deep inside cuts that allow Brees to make high-percentage throws. With Aqib Talib now healthy, however, don’t be surprised if the Rams play more man-to-man coverage to get the veteran corner matched up with Thomas to limit the quick game and challenge the fade on the boundary. — Bowen

Betting nuggets: The Rams haven’t been an underdog all season, but Jared Goff struggled in this spot during his first two seasons, going 2-8 against the spread in 10 career starts as an underdog. As for the total, the over is 4-0 in the four postseason games with an over/under of at least 57 in the past 30 seasons (all have come since 2009). — Nelson

Officiating scouting report: Chances of a low-penalty game are good. Referee Bill Vinovich’s regular-season crew threw the fewest flags per game (13.1) this season, and he called 11 in the Colts-Texans wild-card game. Both the Saints (No. 5) and the Rams (No. 7) were among the NFL’s least-penalized teams. Vinovich was the referee for the teams’ Week 9 matchup, and there were seven flags in that game. One twist to be aware of: The Rams are 0-8 in games Vinovich has handled since the start of the 2012 season. — Seifert

Injury update: The Rams have a clean bill of health. But the Saints will be without defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (torn Achilles in last Sunday’s win), a big blow to the New Orleans defense. The only other players in limbo this weekend are Keith Kirkwood (calf) and Benjamin Watson (illness), both of whom missed practice Wednesday and Thursday for the Saints.

Lindsey Thiry’s pick: The loss earlier this season lingers, but this is not the same Rams team that visited the Superdome in November. The Rams now feature a 1-2 punch in Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, who combined for 238 rushing yards in the divisional-round win, and their defensive front is finally playing up to expectations, thanks in large part to Ndamukong Suh raising his level of play. Plus, Talib — who was on injured reserve in Week 9 — is back in the secondary and will surely play a part in slowing down Thomas. Rams 32, Saints 30

Mike Triplett’s pick: Expect a bigger impact from both defenses in this rematch. The Saints won’t be able to exploit the Thomas-Peters matchup as much now that Talib is healthy, and it’s hard to imagine they can hold Aaron Donald & Co. without a sack again, especially with their offensive line a little banged up. But New Orleans’ defense also has been playing some big-time football down the stretch. Since that Week 9 win, the Saints’ defense has allowed just five points per game after halftime. Saints 27, Rams 26

Fox and Bruschi like the Pats to advance to the Super Bowl.

John Fox and Tedy Bruschi break down how Chris Jones and Tyreek Hill need to be contained in order for the Patriots to win.


AFC: No. 2 New England Patriots at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs

Andy Reid and the Chiefs are 2-2 against Bill Belichick and the Patriots since Reid became Kansas City’s coach in 2013, and all four of the games have been memorable. There was the Chiefs’ 41-14 Monday night drubbing of the Pats in September 2014 that became known as the “On to Cincinnati” game. There was a January 2016 playoff game the Patriots won 27-20, as the Chiefs’ offense took way too long to score in the fourth quarter. Alex Smith and Kareem Hunt knocked off the Super Bowl champion Patriots in a 2017 season opener that announced Kansas City was now an offensive powerhouse. And there was the Week 6 game this season that saw only one punt, 30 combined fourth-quarter points and a last-second Stephen Gostkowski field goal to win it 43-40 for New England. That brief history says it’s Kansas City’s turn, and the fact that the game is at Arrowhead at least gives the Chiefs a chance against a Patriots team that’s playing in this game for the incomprehensible eighth season in a row. The Patriots haven’t won at Kansas City since Nov. 22, 2004, when Corey Dillon rushed for two touchdowns. The place will be rocking. — Graziano

FPI win projection: KC, 66.8 percent. This game features the top two offenses in the AFC in terms of efficiency, according to FPI, with the Chiefs ranking first in the NFL and the Patriots fourth overall. The Patriots are the only remaining team in the final four that ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency this season, finishing eighth, but most of that was due to success at home, as they finished 23rd in defensive efficiency on the road. As a result, the Chiefs are the favorite at home, where they posted the highest offensive efficiency in the league this season (86.6) and the sixth-highest by any team since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2008.

Matchup to watch: Patriots’ play-action passing vs. the Chiefs’ defense: New England’s power play-action is a staple in Josh McDaniels’ offense. Out of both base and three-wide-receiver personnel, the Patriots will pull the guard to influence the second-level linebackers, which opens up space for Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski to win on crossing routes. And against a Kansas City defense that leans on man-to-man coverage, clearing the linebackers off play-action will allow Tom Brady to pepper the middle of the field. — Bowen

Betting nuggets: The Patriots haven’t been an underdog since Week 1 of the 2016 season, but have thrived in this spot, having gone 5-1 ATS with five outright wins in six games as a ‘dog over the past five seasons. As for the total, the under is 21-8-1 in the Chiefs’ past 30 home games. — Nelson

Officiating scouting report: Referee Clete Blakeman’s regular-season crew threw an average of 16.9 flags per game, fifth most in the league. He called 13 in the Chargers-Ravens wild-card game. The Chiefs’ active pass rush should be aware that Blakeman threw 10 flags for roughing the passer during the regular season, tied for third most in the league. — Seifert

Injury update: The Patriots have no players on their injury report after removing defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. (ankle) on Thursday. As for the Chiefs, Eric Berry has a good chance of playing Sunday after participation in both of the week’s practice sessions so far. Asked how Berry looked in those practices, Reid said, “He looked good out there. I see him out there looking like Eric Berry.”

Mike Reiss’ pick: In the immediate aftermath of the AFC divisional round, the thought was to lean toward the Chiefs because of home-field advantage. But after spending all week around the Patriots and seeing how they are adopting an underdog mentality and seem especially loose (dancing from some players at the start of practice Thursday highlighted this point), there has been a switch. It also came down to one of the top rules from the Patriots beat-reporting handbook: If you’re going to bet against Brady and Belichick, do you have full confidence in the quarterback and head coach on the opposite sideline? Patriots 27, Chiefs 24

Adam Teicher’s pick: The direction of this game turned in a span of a few minutes on Dec. 9, when the Chiefs rallied for a victory over the Ravens at about the same time the Patriots were beaten on an improbable final play by the Dolphins. Otherwise, this game would be played in New England. But it’s in Kansas City, where Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are 8-1 (the loss coming in the final four seconds) and allow just 17.4 points per game. The Patriots were 3-5 on the road and averaged 21.6 points — more than 11 fewer than at home. Chiefs 30, Patriots 24


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