This weekend we are headed for a very exciting Championship Sunday. Rarely can we look at the NFL’s four best teams at the halfway point of the year, and determine that those will be the last four teams standing come January. However, this year it is clear that these are the four best teams in football, and they are ready to duke it out. We have two legendary quarterbacks against two young up-and-comers in both games. Which will win out? Will it be the experience of the old timers or the savvy young quarterbacks led by innovative offenses? Read to find out.
Championship Sunday: Biggest Storylines
The first Championship Sunday game is a rematch of a high scoring affair from Week Nine. However, don’t expect these teams to combine for 80 points again in this game but, in the Superdome anything is possible. So what are a few things to keep your eyes out for?
1. Ground Game
Both of these teams possess two of the top running games in the league. The Saints are fuelled by a two-headed lightning-thunder duo with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Kamara has carried more of the load lately and may be relied upon more in this game. Ingram is at his best when he runs between the tackles up the middle. However, the Rams interior line led by Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh make it very difficult for backs to run up the middle effectively. Expect to see a lot of counter and off-tackle runs with Kamara that allow him to use his speed to get around the edge and break a few big runs.
For the Rams, the Todd Gurley injury may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as it allowed them to discover a two-headed monster of their own. They now have a reliable second running option with C.J. Anderson. Anderson has been a revelation since joining the Rams and has taken a bit of the load off of Gurley. Gurley is still, of course, the lead back, and arguably the best one in the league, but don’t be surprised to see the Rams run the ball at least 10 times with Anderson.
2. Cornerbacks vs. Wide Receivers
We already know about the bad blood between Rams cornerback Marcus Peters and Sean Payton. Peters likes to talk, but too many times this year, his play has not backed that up. He and Aqib Talib will have their hands full trying to limit Drew Brees. Talib is likely the better matchup with Michael Thomas, but expect both corners to see time shadowing arguably the best receiver in the league. As good as Thomas is, don’t expect to see zone coverage or safety help over the top too often. Wade Phillips runs a man defense primarily and does not switch his strategy regardless of the opponent. The one-on-one matchup with one of the big talking corners and the very stoic Thomas may very well decide this game.
The Rams, on the other hand, have a couple big-play receivers that the Saints to need consider. Saints corner Marshon Lattimore will shadow Brandin Cooks for most of the game. Lattimore was great in the divisional round, and he will have to be once again to limit Cooks. Cooks has the ability to take the top off the defense with his elite level speed and very underrated route running. On the opposite side of the offense, Eli Apple will have the task of covering Robert Woods. Woods is a superb route runner and is Jared Goff’s go-to man on third down.
I think the Rams start fast out of the gate with Sean McVay having some special plays lined up early. However, I believe Brees is throwing the ball too accurately and efficiently right now. The Rams have many big-name players on defense, but that hasn’t translated to top-tier defensive play. Brees will make a couple more plays than Goff, and the Saints bend-but-don’t-break defense will be stifling down the stretch. The NFL’s golden boy Sean McVay will have to wait another year to reach the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs
Championship Sunday features another rematch of one of the best games of the year. Bill Belichick and company travel to Arrowhead to take on sophomore phenom Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. What will potentially decide this matchup?
1. Defensive Schemes in the Passing Game
Defensive schemes will play a huge part in deciding this game. Both the Chiefs and Pats are atop the league in percentage of plays using a man-to-man defense, which will prove to be vital in this game. For the Chiefs, they have to find a way to get pressure with rushing only four guys and dropping seven back in coverage, while playing man-to-man defense on the receivers. Tom Brady has historically had trouble when teams have been able to get pressure without a blitz, but only when the defense is playing man-to-man. Brady has a knack for ripping apart zone defenses, as Julian Edelman and James White find the soft spot in the zone and turn a five-yard pass into a 15-yard gain. The Chiefs are top six in the league in terms of playing man-coverage so expect a lot of the same come Sunday. The good news for them is that the Pats don’t have a deep field burner, so the corners have to watch the underneath routes and routes out of the backfield.
If you think the Chiefs play a lot of man coverage on defense, the Pats play even more. The Pats play more man-to-man defense than any other team in the league. Against Mahomes, expect to see even more man defense than usual. As Mahomes extends plays and scrambles, it becomes imperative for the defensive backs to stick onto their receivers and not let them get open, because regardless of where they are, Mahomes can find them. The Pats are known for blitzing in obvious passing downs, but Mahomes will make them pay for that with his speed and quick decision-making ability, so expect to see less of an emphasis on blitzing Mahomes. The defensive matchup to watch is Stephon Gilmore against Tyreek Hill. Gilmore has enjoyed the best year of his career, but Hill has the breakaway speed that matches up perfectly with Mahomes’ huge arm.
2. Special Teams
It may seem odd to say that special teams are one of the two most important things to watch out for in this game, but it really is. The Patriots have been notoriously good on special teams historically. Two things are certain when the Pats win big playoff games: 1. They win the turnover battle and 2. They win the special teams battle. As good as the Pats usually are on special teams, the Chiefs may be even better. Hill is the most dangerous special teams weapon in the league. The Pats will attempt to keep the ball out of his hands, but he is bound to have a couple opportunities, and if he can burn the Pats’ special teams during those opportunities, that can change the game.
The Pats have a return specialist of their own this year. Cordarrelle Patterson has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence with the Pats. He also has the ability to break a few big returns and completely turn a game. Both punters will be heavily advised to kick away from the returners and touchbacks will be emphasized. However, with the cold weather, kicking may be difficult so watch out for some big returns.
The cold weather will have a more significant impact on this game than people think and Brady is used to it, so advantage Pats. The run game will be emphasized, and even though the Chiefs have managed without Kareem Hunt, their running game hasn’t been as dynamic without him. The Pats have been running effectively lately and will likely continue that as they go against a weak Chiefs running defense. Expect a lower scoring game than their previous matchup, but an exciting and nail-biting one none-the-less.
I look forward to a riveting Championship Sunday and I will be back with a Super Bowl preview in the coming weeks.