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Resetting the NFL playoff bracket: Early projections and more

And then there were four. Following the divisional-weekend games, the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints are all just one win away from reaching Super Bowl LIII.

Let’s reset the field, breaking down the upcoming Rams-Saints and Patriots-Chiefs conference championship games with early projections from ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI).

Note: Both games will be Sunday, Jan. 20.


3:05 p.m. ET | Fox | Mercedes-Benz Superdome

Early FPI projection: New Orleans, 62.1 percent

Rams’ best chance to win: Run the ball the way they did Saturday night against the Cowboys. In their 45-35 loss to the Saints in Week 9, the Rams had just 92 rushing yards on 19 carries. Part of the reason was the Saints built a 35-14 second-quarter lead and the Rams had to throw to get back into the game (which they did, by the way, tying it at 35-35 in the fourth quarter). But that just serves to underline the importance of establishing the run early and getting some control of the game. The Rams had a somewhat excessive 273 rushing yards on 48 carries in Saturday’s playoff victory over the Cowboys. It is probably too much to expect a repeat of that, but keeping Drew Brees on the sideline by running the ball and controlling the clock is the way to go.

Saints’ best chance to win: Keep Aaron Donald and the Rams’ pass rush off Brees. Donald hit Brees four times in the first meeting, but no one else on the Rams hit him even once, and he was not sacked. (Neither quarterback was sacked in the game, actually.) Michael Thomas, the Saints’ top wide receiver, had 211 yards and a touchdown on 12 catches in that game (he had 12 catches against the Eagles on Sunday). And while Aqib Talib wasn’t playing in that game and is now back from his injury, Brees should be able to find openings in the Rams’ secondary if the line can keep him clean.

Stat to know: Counting the one he threw on his first pass Sunday, Brees has thrown only six interceptions all season, but he’s thrown one in five of his past six games. Only two teams — Chicago and Miami — intercepted more passes in the regular season than the Rams.

Bottom line: The conference championship games are rematches of two of the most exciting games of the season, and the reason this game is in New Orleans and not Los Angeles is the Saints won the first matchup against the Rams, as each team finished 13-3. Each team scored more than 500 points. Rams coach Sean McVay is the red-hot young offensive genius everyone’s trying to copy, while Saints coach Sean Payton is the long-established offensive genius who’d just love to remind everyone he’s been at this for a while. The result will either be Brees’ second Super Bowl appearance or Jared Goff‘s first.


6:40 p.m. ET | CBS | Arrowhead Stadium

Early FPI projection: Kansas City, 66.2 percent

Patriots’ best chance to win: Run the ball and keep Patrick Mahomes off the field. As easy a time as Tom Brady had Sunday, a big reason the Patriots were so dominant was their Sony Michel-led run game, which helped bleed off the first quarter before Philip Rivers even took the field. New England had the fifth-most rushing yards and the fourth-most rushing touchdowns in the league this season. The Patriots averaged a time of possession of 32 minutes, 21 seconds in their wins and 28:17 in their losses. Against Mahomes, who had 50 touchdown passes this season, and a Chiefs run game that rolled up 180 yards in Saturday’s home playoff victory over the Colts, it’s vital the Patriots control the ball, the clock and the game with their offense.

Chiefs’ best chance to win: Well, based on Sunday, it’s obviously not “load up on defensive backs, sit back in an insanely soft zone and let Brady pick you apart as if he’s playing on a football-toss machine at Dave & Buster’s.” That didn’t work too well for the Chargers. No, the Chiefs’ best chance to win is to do what they did Saturday and play out of their minds on defense. Kansas City was able to pressure Andrew Luck just enough (especially considering how hard that was to do in 2018) while their corners covered as well as they have all season. If Kansas City’s defense can crank it up at home again the way it did in the divisional round, the Chiefs will make it a lot tougher on the Patriots than the Chargers did. But that isn’t saying much.

Stat to know: Chiefs coach Andy Reid is 1-4 all-time in conference championship games — all in the NFC while he was coaching the Eagles, and none since 2008. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, meanwhile, is 8-4 all-time in conference championship games (all with the Patriots). Belichick will be coaching in his eighth consecutive AFC Championship Game and has won the past two.

Bottom line: The game is at Kansas City, not Foxborough, Massachusetts, and that could make the difference. During the Brady/Belichick era, the Patriots are 20-3 in postseason home games, but just 3-4 in playoff games as the visiting team. They haven’t won a road playoff game and the Super Bowl in the same season since 2004. The past two times they played an AFC Championship Game on the road, they lost — in Denver three and five years ago. This season, the Patriots are 9-0 at home and 3-5 on the road, including double-digit losses at Jacksonville, Detroit and Tennessee. The Chiefs are 8-1 at home. When they faced the Patriots in Week 6, it was in Foxborough, and New England beat them 43-40 on a last-second field goal in a game that featured 30 combined fourth-quarter points. This should be a classic rematch, and the fact that it’s in the Chiefs’ building would seem to give them a chance to slay the league’s most fearsome January dragon.

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www.espn.com – TOP

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