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The Unfinished Business Conference Championships: What the Regular-Season Matchups Tell Us About This Weekend

The AFC and NFC championship games feature a pair of exciting rematches—but a lot has changed since these teams last met

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In a season defined by high-flying offenses, it’s fitting that the NFL’s championship round features not only the league’s four highest-scoring teams, but delivers rematches of two of the most exciting offensive showcases of the year. The no. 2 seed Patriots duked it out with Patrick Mahomes II’s top-seed Chiefs back in Week 6, winning a 43-40 shootout in Foxborough to hand Kansas City its first loss of the year. And the no. 1 seed Saints handed the no. 2 seed Rams their first loss this season as well, knocking off the then 8-0 Rams in a Week 9 barn burner, 45-35.

What can those two midseason bouts tell us about this weekend’s slate? What’s different about these four teams, what’s the same, and should we expect similar results? Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and break down what the regular-season Pats-Chiefs and Rams-Saints matchups mean for the NFL’s championship round.

Week 6: Patriots 43, Chiefs 40

This game, billed as a potential preview of the AFC championship game even early in the year, did not disappoint. Pitting the then-undefeated Chiefs (5-0) against the 3-2 Patriots on Sunday Night Football, this matchup featured four lead changes, 946 yards of total offense, and a combined 83 points. It also took home “Best Game” honors in my midseason superlatives column. (Which is obviously a huge deal.)

The Recap

Mahomes was uncharacteristically off-target in the first half, tossing a handful of errant red zone throws and a pair of picks while Kansas City fell into a big hole early. The Patriots, meanwhile, leaned on a balanced attack throughout the first two quarters, with rookie back Sony Michel rushing for 60 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Julian Edelman grabbing a touchdown. With a Mahomes end zone pick essentially closing out the first half, New England carried a 24-9 lead going into the intermission.

But Mahomes and his squad were far from done. This Chiefs erased most of the Patriots’ big halftime lead in a third-quarter flurry: Mahomes hit Kareem Hunt for a 67-yard touchdown on the team’s first second-half drive, showing off incredible torque and accuracy on a deep pass down the sideline as he moved to his right.

And when Mahomes found Tyreek Hill in the back corner of the end zone with 1:03 to go in the third quarter to cut New England’s lead to 27-26, the stage was set for what would be an epic back-and-forth final frame.

The Patriots opened the final quarter with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, pushing the score to 30-26, but the Chiefs quickly answered. Rookie Tremon Smith returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards, setting up a 1-yard touchdown pass to Hill that gave the Chiefs their first lead since the first quarter. New England mustered a counterattack, scoring 10 straight points—a 4-yard touchdown scramble by Brady and another Gostkowski field goal—to push their lead back to 40-33 with 3:19 to go.

Once again, the Chiefs had an answer: On the first play of Kansas City’s ensuing drive, Mahomes fired a laser deep to Hill, who caught the ball, turned all the way around, then hit the afterburners to get the edge on Duron Harmon for a 75-yard touchdown.

That tied the game up at 40 apiece, but there was one very big problem: The Chiefs left far too much time on the clock for Brady. The Patriots mounted a seven-play, 65-yard drive that culminated in a game-winning Gostkowski field goal as the clock ran out, re-establishing the Patriots as a bona fide AFC power.

What’s Changed?

The Chiefs went into that first matchup with one of the worst defenses in the NFL. To that point, they’d given up more yards (2,309) than their prolific offense had gained (2,065) and had surrendered the same amount of passing touchdowns (14) as their precocious playmaker of a quarterback had produced. And while Kansas City hasn’t exactly turned into the ’85 Bears since the last time they’ve played New England, they’ve improved pretty dramatically over the second half of the season. A group that ranked 28th in defensive DVOA after five weeks now ranks a more respectable 17th. The Chiefs pass rush has been a big part of that shift, an underrated group that’s been spurred by the return of a now-healthy Justin Houston to the lineup (he missed the Week 6 game with a hamstring injury). On offense, the Chiefs will be without Hunt in this weekend’s tilt—but backup running back Damien Williams has proven to be a more than capable replacement.

The Patriots have cleaned up some of the issues they had on defense early in the year as well, moving from 19th in defensive DVOA after five weeks to their current rank of 11th. In the secondary, Stephon Gilmore has quietly played the role of shutdown corner for the team (he won first-team All-Pro honors), rookie J.C. Jackson has emerged as a playmaker on the other side, and the team’s contingent of versatile chess-piece defensive backs—Duron Harmon, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, and Patrick Chung—give the team plenty of options in coverage. Up front, Trey Flowers has notched 7.5 sacks in a contract year. Don’t be surprised if this Patriots defense puts up a stronger fight this weekend against the high-flying Chiefs unit.

Offensively, the Patriots have jumped from fifth in DVOA going into Week 5 to their current rank of third, but on the personnel side, they look a little different. Josh Gordon, who caught five passes for 42 yards in the first matchup, is no longer with the team, and Rob Gronkowski’s role in the passing game has diminished as the year’s gone on. Gronk was a major factor the first time around, racking up three catches for 97 yards—including a huge 39-yard grab that set up the game-winning field goal in the final minute—but he’s caught just three passes in the team’s past three games. If Gronk can’t get back to being Gronk this weekend, it could severely hinder the Patriots’ ability to attack the improved Kansas City defense.

Of course, the biggest difference between the Week 6 matchup and Sunday’s game will be the venue. The last time these two teams faced off, they played in balmy 45 degree Boston weather. This time around, the game is in Kansas City at uber-loud Arrowhead Stadium (which, by the way, set the world record for loudest crowd roar in a game against the Patriots in 2014), and weather forecasts point to the possibility of an artic blast descending on the field. We’ll have to wait and see, but if game temperatures hover anywhere near current projections of -5 degrees to 10 degrees, it could dramatically affect the quality of play, particularly in the passing game. We may even see a low-scoring, rush-heavy slog.

For the Patriots, playing a road playoff tilt will be a relatively unfamiliar challenge. Going back to 2001, New England’s posted a 19-3 home playoff record but has gone just 3-4 on the road. This year, that home-field advantage has been clear: Including Saturday’s dominant win over the Chargers, New England went a perfect 9-0 at Gillette and posted a league-best point differential of 143 (winning their games there by an average of 15.9 points). On the road, they went 3-5 and finished with a negative-19 point differential (17th). The Chiefs, meanwhile, are 8-1 at home this year and their win over the Colts on Saturday snapped a six-game home-playoffs losing streak. Kansas City will have to hope they exorcised all the home-field playoff demons.

Week 9: Saints 45, Rams 35

While the Patriots-Chiefs tilt from Week 6 was a battle between the two top AFC powers, the Week 9 matchup between the 6-1 Saints and the 8-0 Rams was a clash of NFC titans. Drew Brees vs. Jared Goff. Alvin Kamara vs. Todd Gurley. Michael Thomas vs. Robert Woods (the best receiver in football). The matchups were scintillating, and the game more than delivered, producing a combined 970 yards and 80 points.

The Recap

In the early going, it looked like the Saints were going to blow the Rams out. The first half belonged to Kamara, who rushed for a pair of easy touchdowns and caught a third on a nifty out route. New Orleans faced little resistance from an overwhelmed Los Angeles defense; Brees was nearly perfect in the first two frames, throwing for 211 yards and three touchdowns, and the Saints capitalized on a missed Greg Zuerlein field goal and a Goff interception to race out to a 35-14 first-half lead.

But it’s tough to ever count out Sean McVay’s Rams. L.A. chipped away at the early deficit, grabbing a field goal just before the half and scoring on their first third-quarter possession, an 11-play, 77-yard drive capped by an incredible feat of athleticism by running back Malcolm Brown.

The Rams defense got itself a pair of big defensive stops, and Cooper Kupp’s 41-yard catch-and-run touchdown (and subsequent two-point conversion) capped L.A.’s 21-point rally to tie the game up at 35 with 9:48 to go.

The Saints managed to regroup and get themselves off the ropes. Brees led the offense on a nine-play field goal drive to recapture a 38-35 lead and held the Rams to a three-and-out on the subsequent drive, which set New Orleans up to hammer the final nail in the coffin. On a third-and-7 from their own 28-yard line, Brees found Thomas on a go-route up the numbers.

Thomas beat Marcus Peters’s press coverage and sprinted the rest of the way home for a game-sealing 72-yard touchdown.

What’s Changed?

The Saints went into this Week 9 tilt as winners of six straight games, but they’d managed that as a mostly one-dimensional team. At the time, New Orleans’s offense was second only to the Chiefs in points per game (33.4) and ranked fourth in DVOA, but its 27th-ranked defense by DVOA was surrendering 26.1 points per game. The win served as a turning point of sorts for that unit, which heads into the championship round now ranked sixth in defensive DVOA. From Week 10 on, the Saints racked up 32 sacks (first), 16 takeaways (tied for first), and held opponents to just 16.9 points per game. Cornerback Eli Apple (who was playing in just his second game with the Saints in that Week 9 game after being acquired from the Giants) settled in opposite Marshon Lattimore, boosting the team’s coverage chops, while the defensive line, led by Cameron Jordan, hit its groove. The Rams will be facing a hard-to-recognize Saints defense in this game—though the loss of defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (who tore his achilles on Sunday) could weaken what’s been one of the most improved units in football over the second half.

That said, the Saints offense has deteriorated somewhat since the last time these two teams met. Brees, a midseason MVP favorite, faltered at times in the second half, including a three-game stretch from Week 13 to 15 in which he threw just two touchdowns to three picks and registered a 77.0 passer rating. The Saints offense that came out of that Rams win ranked fourth in DVOA; it’s now fallen to 10th in that metric, easily last among the four remaining teams (who rank first, second, and third, respectively).

The Rams defense looks a little different than the first time these two teams met. After missing eight games with an ankle injury, cornerback Aqib Talib is back in action, giving L.A.’s secondary a much needed boost. Opposite Talib, Marcus Peters—who gave up seven receptions for 146 yards and that game-sealing touchdown to Thomas in the Week 9 game—will look to show he’s improved over his brutal midseason stretch of play, and defensive end Dante Fowler could play a bigger role this time around. Fowler played in the first matchup, but it was just his first game with L.A. after being acquired from the Jaguars, so he’s now had plenty of time to acclimate to his new scheme.

Offensively, the Rams have had to reshuffle the deck a little bit. The steady offensive line remains unchanged, but with Cooper Kupp and Brown both out for the year with injuries, Josh Reynolds has inherited a big role in the team’s heavy three-receiver sets, and veteran running back C.J. Anderson’s now a major factor in the ground game. Anderson’s physicality on runs up the middle could bring an element this Rams offense didn’t have in the first meeting this year. The loss of Kupp, though, has hurt the team’s passing attack.

The game is also once again in New Orleans, giving the Saints the home-field edge. The crowd noise could benefit the team’s suped-up defensive line, making things tougher for Goff, but the loss of Rankins may tip the scales in L.A.’s favor when it comes to who wins in the trenches. These two teams remain closely matched, but if the Rams have any hope of reversing the results of the first meeting between these two teams, they better get off to a much quicker start.