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The Keys to the AFC and NFC Championship Games

Brady, Mahomes, Brees, and Goff—it’s easy to focus on the names of the quarterbacks playing for the chance to go to the Super Bowl. But the most important matchups happening Sunday are the chess matches happening between the men on the sidelines.

Elias Stein/Getty Images

The four best NFL teams will play rematches of two of the best games of the NFL season on Sunday, and the winner will be everyone who watches. The NFC championship game features the two teams with the league’s best record this year in the 13-3 Saints and the 13-3 Rams and pits the two best offensive-minded head coaches named Sean against one another. The AFC championship game features the Kansas City Chiefs, who have a cool quarterback, a fun offense, and a coach known for collapsing in the playoffs, against the New England Patriots, who have the exact opposite of those things. The star power includes the four best coaches in football, the best quarterback ever in Tom Brady, the all-time leader in passing yards in Drew Brees, the likely 2018 Most Valuable Player in Patrick Mahomes II, and former no. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, who could join the upper echelon of quarterbacks with a statement win. We live in an age of hyperbole, but the hype surrounding these games is real. Sunday could be the best day of pro football in a long time. Let’s break down the keys to the conference championship games.

Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints

Kickoff Time: 3:05 E.T.
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Chris Myers, Mike Pereira
Line: Saints -3.
Over/Under: 57
Key Rams Injuries: Wide receiver Cooper Kupp (IR, knee), running back Malcolm Brown (IR, collarbone)
Key Saints Injuries: Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (IR, Achilles), tight end Ben Watson (illness, did not participate), right tackle Ryan Ramczyk (full participant, shoulder), center Max Unger (full participant, knee), left guard Andrus Peat (full participant, hand)
Overworked Story Line: Everything C.J. Anderson–related
Key(s) to the Game: Sean McVay vs. Sean Payton

It will be said ad nauseam throughout the Battle of the Seans that both coaches are offensive gurus. It’s repeated often because it’s true. In the 39 years before Sean Payton was hired, the Saints offense finished in the top five in points three times. In the 13 seasons since Payton took over, they’ve done it eight times. Since 2006, when the Saints hired Payton and signed Drew Brees, New Orleans has led the league in yards and yards per play, and is second to New England in points scored. Under Payton, the Saints have been twice as likely to finish in the top two of total yards (eight times) than outside the top two (four times), and that consistency is the product of meticulous weekly game-planning that goes into each Saints game. The only defense that’s stopped New Orleans in the last 13 years is its own. In the six seasons the Saints have not made the playoffs since 2006, the New Orleans defense ranked 25th, 26th, 31st, 28th, 32nd, and 31st by points allowed. Every season that their defense has been in the top 75 percent of the league, New Orleans has been a contender. This year they rank 14th, six spots ahead of the Rams.

McVay has not been coaching nearly as long as Payton, but he’s made a splash that created a tidal wave in his short tenure. When McVay was hired at 30 in 2017, he was the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, and the team he inherited had just gone 4-12 and sported the least efficient offense in football by DVOA. In his first season as head coach, the Rams went 11-5 and finished as the sixth-most-efficient offense (the Saints were no. 2). McVay earned Coach of the Year honors—the youngest to do so, obviously. In his second year, the Rams went 13-3 in 2018 and finished as the second-most-efficient offense (and overall team) in the league. His unique use of on-field personnel and innovative play-designs has earned him the label of most creative coach in the league, and his wisdom to assemble an experienced coaching staff to counterbalance his youth, headlined by veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, has earned his management skills nearly as impeccable a reputation.

McVay has been so good so quickly that every team wanted to find a McVay clone in the most recent coach-hiring cycle. The Packers hired McVay’s offensive coordinator in 2017, 39-year-old Matt LaFleur; Cincinnati took it a step further and has reportedly zeroed in on the Rams’ quarterbacks coach, the 35-year-old Zac Taylor, to lead the Bengals when L.A.’s season ends. When the Arizona Cardinals hired former Texas Tech head coach (and briefly USC offensive coordinator) Kliff Kingsbury, the official team website wrote in the accompanying post that “Kingsbury is friends with Rams coach Sean McVay.” In a copycat league, McVay has become the top dog.

The “guru” praise for both coaches is warranted, but so is the praise both teams earned this season. They tied for the best record and were two of the top-scoring offenses in the NFL, but that might undersell how well these offenses performed this year. Here is a sampling of stats each team put up this season. (Non-counting numbers are from Football Outsiders.)

Saints Offense vs. Rams Offense Statistical Rankings

Statistic Saints Rams
Statistic Saints Rams
Points per game 3 2
Points per drive 2 3
Touchdowns (from scrimmage) 2 3
Touchdowns per drive 2 3
Passing touchdowns 7 8
Rushing touchdowns 1 2
Yards per game 8 2
Yards per drive 2 3
First downs 1 1
Drive success rate (first downs per series) 2 3
Average starting field position 1 3
Punts per drive 3 1
Three-and-outs per drive 2 1
Adjusted line yards (run blocking) 2 1
Percentage of runs "stuffed" 1 2
Pass protection 3 6
Third-down-conversion % 7 6
Fourth-down-conversion % 2 30
Time of possession per drive 1 17
% of red zone drives ending in a TD 5 18

When offenses are this good, the best way to keep them from scoring is to keep the ball out of their hands. Ideally that means creating turnovers. Since Week 10, the Saints are no. 1 in sacks and takeaways, many of the latter coming from a rejuvenated secondary led by cornerback Marshon Lattimore, safety Vonn Bell, and midseason cornerback acquisition Eli Apple. But keeping the ball away from the other team can also mean going for it on fourth-and-short rather than punting or settling for long field goals, and the Saints are one of the best teams on fourth down since the numbers started being tracked. Including the divisional-round win over Philadelphia, the Saints have converted a staggering 15 of 18 fourth-down attempts this season. Of the 376 teams that have attempted 16 or more fourth-down conversions in a single regular season since 1991, which is as far back as the data goes, no team was more successful on fourth down than New Orleans has been this season. The Saints have converted a higher rate of fourth downs (83.3 percent) than Klay Thompson has on his free throws (80.4 percent).

Fourth-and-short might be difficult this week for New Orleans. The Saints’ strong offensive line struggled mightily against the Philadelphia Eagles, especially left guard Andrus Peat, who broke his hand in Week 17 and had surgery during New Orleans’s first-round bye. All five Saints linemen will play, but four of them are less than 100 percent. They face Aaron Donald, the league leader in quarterback pressures (and likely Defensive Player of the Year) for each of the past two seasons, and Ndamukong Suh, a former All-Pro defensive tackle who just had his best game of the season against Dallas. The duo was key to holding Ezekiel Elliott to 20 carries for 47 yards last week. On the other side of the ball, the Saints lost defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins to an Achilles injury last week, and that could be an issue against the Rams’ top-rated run-blocking offensive line that is coming off of a dominant performance against Dallas. That effort was fueled largely by the Rams knowing what the Dallas front seven would do on most plays, and the Rams will likely lean on Goff to win Sunday.

Fourth downs decided the game when these teams met in Week 9. The Rams went 0-for-2 on fourth down while the Saints went 2-for-2, with those attempts coming on a touchdown in first drive of the game and a conversion on the final drive of the game that let the Saints bleed out the clock in the 10-point victory. Last week, the Saints converted a fourth-and-goal opportunity in the second quarter from the Eagles’ 2-yard line to get seven points in a game they won by six. One day earlier, the Rams swung their divisional-round matchup against the Dallas Cowboys by stuffing Ezekiel Elliott on fourth-and-1 on the first play of the fourth quarter and then driving down the field and going for it on fourth-and-goal to push their lead to 15. Of all the metrics that represent how good these offenses are, the confidence their coaches have to convert when it matters is most impressive. The aggressiveness also might be one team’s undoing. If a turnover defines this game, it might be a turnover on downs.

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs

Kickoff Time: 6:40 E.T.
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson, Jay Feely
Line: Chiefs -3
Over/Inder: 56
Chiefs Key Injuries: Wide reciever Tyreek Hill (thigh/heel, full participant), running back Spencer Ware (hamstring, full participant), guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (ankle, full participant), safety Eric Berry (heel, full participant), linebacker Anthony Hitchens (knee, full participant)
Patriots Key Injuries: Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. (ankle, full participant)
Overworked Story Line: Tom Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes
Key(s) to the Game: Bill Belichick vs. Andy Reid

Opposing passers don’t even step onto the field at the same time, so most quarterback “matchups” are overhyped. This one is not. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time and needs no introduction, while Mahomes is poised to take Brady’s place as the face of the sport. If the Chiefs win, that might happen as soon as next week. In his first season as a starter, Mahomes threw 50 passing touchdowns in a season when nobody else threw 40—tying Brady’s career high in the process—and is likely going to win Most Valuable Player at 23 years old. He has captured fans’ imagination with an array of throwing mechanics—left-handed passes, no-look passes, side-arm curving passes, passes that look like they are leaving the stadium—and has expanded what seems possible on a football field to fans, players, and even coaches.

The Brady-Mahomes rematch would already be must-watch television. But with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, this game has the chance to be an official passing of the torch if the Chiefs prevail.

In terms of how the game will go, the matchup to look at is not Brady-Mahomes, but Bill Belichick versus Andy Reid. The two coaches have done as much to influence the sport as anyone else in the past two decades and will be the puppeteers of everything happening on Sunday. A win for Kansas City could elevate Reid beyond his playoff-collapse legacy to being Belichick’s peer rather than his little brother who could never get escape a headlock. (As The Ringer’s Kevin Clark noted this week, Belichick has surrendered 40 points seven times in his career, and three of those occasions have been to Reid.) In 2017, Reid weaved college spread concepts into the traditional West Coast offense to create a “spread coast” offense, and then doubled down in 2018 by replacing Alex Smith with Mahomes. The result is a juggernaut.

“It’s the same stuff Bill Walsh did in the ’70s and ’80s,” Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz told The Ringer’s Robert Mays this week. “It’s just done with more space and more window dressing.”

Mahomes has the biggest arm in football, and he throws to the fastest player in the league in Tyreek Hill, the league’s best tight end in Travis Kelce, and a capable running back in Damien Williams. Sammy Watkins, the fourth overall pick in 2014 who signed with Kansas City for $16 million per year this offseason, spent most of this year behind a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” sign before suffering a foot injury. Now he’s back, though the Chiefs rarely need to dip into their lesser options the same way dragons rarely need to use their claws—the fire usually does the trick. Remember the above chart with the Saints and the Rams showing their offensive dominance? Here’s the same chart with Kansas City added in.

Saints Offense vs. Rams Offense vs. Chiefs Offense

Statistic Saints Rams Chiefs
Statistic Saints Rams Chiefs
Points per game 3 2 1
Points per drive 2 3 1
Touchdowns (from scrimmage) 2 3 1
Touchdowns per drive 2 3 1
Passing touchdowns 7 8 1
Rushing touchdowns 1 2 tied-7
Yards per game 8 2 1
Yards per drive 2 3 1
First downs 5 1 3
Drive success rate (first downs per series) 2 3 1
Average starting field position 1 3 5
Punts per drive 3 1 2
Three-and-outs per drive 2 1 4
Adjusted line yards (run blocking) 2 1 16
Percentage of runs "stuffed" 1 2 13
Pass protection 3 6 5
Third-down-conversion % 7 6 2
Fourth-down-conversion % 2 30 3
Time of possession per drive 1 17 13
% of red zone drives ending in a TD 5 18 2

The Chiefs offense is the fifth best ever measured by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which adjusts for era and goes back to 1986. It’s certainly the most formidable offense that Belichick has faced since the Peyton Manning–led Broncos in 2013. If Belichick slays this dragon, it might be his most impressive performance since beating the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf in Super Bowl XXXVI.

How the Patriots try to beat the Chiefs will be fascinating. In their first matchup in Week 6, the Patriots had All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore shadow Watkins while committing more defenders over the top of Hill and bumping Kelce at the line of scrimmage, but Hill still shredded them for three touchdowns and 142 receiving yards on just seven catches. The Patriots won, 43-40, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they change up their approach—perhaps by forcing Watkins to make plays. Another factor may be to take the ball to start the game, as the Pats did last week against L.A., rather than defer as Belichick usually does. A part of Kansas City’s strength is always starting with a first-quarter lead—their point margin in the first quarter this year was tied for sixth highest of all time, right behind the 18-1 2007 New England Patriots. One of the keys to the Patriots’ win in Week 6 was gaining the lead in the first half, but that will be tougher in Arrowhead, as the Patriots have the second-best defense by DVOA at home and the second-worst defense on the road. Preventing the Chiefs from gaining a lead could limit KC’s pass rush and knock the Chiefs out of their rhythm.

A mundane but crucial factor in the game (Belichick’s specialty) may be penalties. Kansas City had the most penalties and penalty yards in the league this year, while the Patriots had the fourth-fewest penalties for the second-fewest yards. Longtime Belichick consigliere Ernie Adams has a mysterious role in the organization, but some have speculated he studies referee tendencies to give the Pats an edge in what they can and cannot get away with against certain referee crews. The best NFL playoff referee crews are mixed together to create new ones for the playoffs; adding to the intrigue is the head referee in the Chiefs-Pats game is Clete Blakeman, who was one of the referees who measured the footballs in the Deflategate game. If the Chiefs do fall Sunday, penalty yardage might be a huge factor.

The Patriots have sustained longevity by constantly adapting to the league on a year-by-year basis and their opponent on a week-by-week basis better than any other team. They’ve done that with relentless and unforgiving self-scouting to look for any possible angle, no matter how counterintuitive. This week, the Pats found the best angle of all when they discovered they were given the lowest odds of winning the Super Bowl according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

With this information, the most dominant American sports franchise of the last two decades has rebranded themselves as something unthinkable: The “Nobody Believes in Us” team.

If the New England Patriots make the Super Bowl while claiming they don’t get enough respect, it’ll be Belichick’s most impressive team-adjustment of his career.