Conference Championships bring Top 4 NFL Offenses

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For a sixth consecutive season the Super Bowl will feature a pair of teams seeded either No. 1 or No. 2 in their respective conferences.

The top seed and second seed in each conference won at home last week against the winners of the Wild Card round to advance to this week’s conference championship games with the winners of each to meet on February 3 in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, Georgia.

As that first season would indicate, the home team in the conference championship game has won each of the last 10 such games over the past five seasons. Over the past five seasons those home teams are 8-2 ATS.

Interestingly, in the season before this streak began, 2012, both road teams won the AFC and NFC title games which also marked the end of an eight-season stretch in which six teams seeded three through six won the Super Bowl.

Going back to 2002, when the playoffs last had a structural change to involve eight Division winners and four Wild Cards, home teams are 25-7 SU and 18-14 ATS. Nineteen games have gone over the total with 12 staying under and one pushing.

Sunday gets underway with the NFC Championship game between top-seeded New Orleans and the second- seeded Los Angeles Rams.

The Saints defeated Philadelphia 20-14 in what was a surprisingly low scoring game that was highlighted by a brilliant 18-play, 92-yard drive that consumed 11 1/2 minutes of the third quarter with the resulting touchdown giving the Saints their first lead at 17-14.

The Rams were much more dominant in their win over Dallas than the 30-22 final score would suggest although the Cowboys were resilient in scoring two of the three touchdowns scored in the second half.

The AFC Divisional games were more one-sided as both Kansas City and New England won by double digits over Indianapolis and the Los Angeles Chargers respectively.

The Chiefs led wire to wire in their 31-13 win over the Colts, storming out to a 21-0 lead three minutes into the second quarter. The defense played surprisingly well in limiting the Colts to just 266 yards of offense and to 0 for 9 in third down conversions.

The Colts did convert their lone fourth down attempt in their only offensive touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter while trailing 24-7.

New England was just as dominant in defeating the Chargers 41-28. After the Patriots scored on their first drive and the Chargers matched with a TD on their first drive to tie the game at 7-7.

The Patriots dominated to the point of leading 35-7 at the half which became 38-7 before the Chargers scored thrice over the game’s final 16 minutes to make the final appear respectable.

In this era of offense it should not come as a surprise as the top four scoring offenses are involved in the two Conference championship games with three of the four averaging more than 30 points per game.

Kansas City led the NFL at 35.3 points per game followed by the Rams (32.9 ppg), New Orleans (31.5 ppg) and New England (27.2 ppg). Lest you think the Patriots are at a disadvantage in ranking last in scoring among the quartet, the Pats allowed the fewest average points per game (20.3 ppg) of the four and over the final nine games of the regular season held all but two of those nine to 17 points or less.

On the surface, both games would seem to handicap as being high-scoring games in what are rematches of regular season games. The Rams and Saints combined for 80 total points in their meeting while the Chiefs and Patriots combined for 83 in theirs.

And the totals posted for these games reflect that anticipation even though there has been some early movement. The Rams at Saints game opened at 55.5 and within a few hours settled in at 57. The Patriots at Chiefs game opened higher, at 59, but has crashed down to 55.

It will be interesting to see if any sports books offer an Over/Under prop on the combined total for both games. Adding the current totals together would put such a number at 112 but there likely would be an added premium to reflect the public’s expected preference for overs so that such a prop might involve Over/Under a total in the neighborhood of 115 or so.

Since Divisional realignment in 2002, Conference championship games have gone through stretches of blowouts and competitive games. Nine of the 10 games played between 2002 and 2006 were decided by double digits.

From 2007 through 2012, eight of 12 were decided by 7 points or less including four by a FG and another by 4 points. Since 2013, eight of 10 have been decided by 6 points or more.

Favorites are 23-9 SU and 18-14 ATS with those 23 winning favorites 18-5 ATS. And of those 23 favorites who won straight up, 21 won by 4 points or more, enough to cover the spread in both of this week’s games. And the two favorites that won but did not win by 4 points or more each won by a FG.

It figures to be an entertaining and potentially dramatic six or seven hours on Sunday afternoon and by early evening Pacific time we will know the two participants in this season’s Super Bowl.

Will the Patriots make it to their third straight Super Bowl or will the Chiefs make their first trip since winning Super Bowl IV played 49 years ago? In the NFC, will New Orleans get the chance to improve its Super Bowl record to a perfect 2-0 or will the Rams have the chance to even theirs at 2-2?

Whatever the result of these two games, Super Bowl LIII should be one of the more entertaining games in recent seasons, and there have been several that went down to the wire.

The prediction here is that we will see the Patriots against the Saints. But Chiefs vs. Rams would be equally attractive considering their mid-season 54-51 shootout that left even the television audience exhausted at its conclusion.

NFC Championship

Rams (+3.5) at Saints (Over/Under 57): When these teams met on this field in Week 9, the Rams were 8-0 and opened as 1.5-point road favorite. After early action moved the 6-1 Saints to 1.5-point favorites, the betting action swung back towards the visitors and the Rams closed as 2-point chalk.

The Saints won 45-35 for their seventh straight win that followed a shocking home loss to Tampa Bay that opened their season. That win ultimately earned the Saints the top NFC seed after both teams finished the regular season 13-3. New Orleans would extend its winning streak to 10 in a row before a Week 13 road loss in Dallas.

In their first meeting, the Rams and Saints combined for nearly 1,000 total yards of offense that was evenly split with the Saints gaining 487 and the Rams 483. New Orleans had the better rushing yardage (141-92) but the Rams had the better yards per play (8.2 vs 7.0).

Both teams have an outstanding tandem of running backs with the Saints’ Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram and the Rams’ Todd Gurley and C J Anderson, arguably a standoff.

Saints QB Drew Brees, a certain Hall of Famer, has to be given the edge over Rams QB Jared Goff although the latter continues to make progress towards elite status in just his third NFL season. Both offenses excel at running the football with the Rams ranking third and the Saints sixth in rushing yards per game. And both offenses also ranked in the top 10 in avoiding turning over the football.

Both defenses were below average statistically but that should not be taken as too much of a negative. With their prolific quick-strike offenses, it resulted in their defenses to be playing loose thanks to having big leads.

In terms of points allowed, both were close to the NFL average. Yes, the fundamentals suggest another high- scoring game. Yet both teams have shown great abilities to run the football and control the clock which often results in time consuming drives and fewer total possessions.

This is further made possible by the fact that both teams have been extremely stingy in losing turnovers. In their first meeting, each team turned it over just once. Both offenses do have big-play capability via the passing game.

Of course, weather is not a factor with the game being played indoors and on the fast track artificial turf. Both teams averaged over 30 points per game. The Rams scored at least 30 points in 13 of 17 games. The Saints tallied 30 or more in 10 of their 17 games but did so just once in their final six games (31).

While solid cases can be made for both teams, the home field and the experience edge of the Saints’ QB/coaching duo of Brees and Sean Payton vs. that of Goff and Sean McVay tilt the scales in favor of the hosts. SAINTS and OVER

AFC Championship

Patriots (+3) at Chiefs (55): In one of the season’s more memorable and entertaining games New England defeated Kansas City 43-40 in Week 6’s Sunday night game.

The Patriots were bet up from 3.5 to 4-point home favorites and although the Chiefs lost the game SU the cover improved their ATS record to 6-0, a streak that would end with a seventh straight cover the following week.

The Chiefs are just 3-6-1 ATS since that streak but did cover each of their last two games, a 31-3 win over Oakland to end the regular season and their dominating 31-13 win over Indianapolis in last week’s Divisional round win.

New England has won three in a row but all were at home where the Pats were 9-0 SU this season. The Patriots are just 3-5 SU on the road, including three double digit losses.

Much as with the NFC matchup we have New England QB Tom Brady, another certain future Hall of Famer, rating the edge over the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is on a career path towards elite status in just his second NFL season (first as starter), displaying the poise and decision making ability of a veteran.

Much has been made of New England’s poor performance on the road, not just this season when the Pats were a sub-par 3-5 SU but even in the playoffs. Since the Brady/Bill Belichick “dynasty” began in 2001 the Patriots have played in 38 playoff games. Eight have been in Super Bowls (5-3 SU) while 23 have been at home as the Patriots have usually been highly seeded (20-3 SU).

Of the seven that have been on the road the Pats are just 3-4 both SU and ATS, not having covered the point spread in a road playoff SU loss. Their last road playoff win was in the 2006 Divisional round at San Diego. The following week, they lost at the Colts and have since lost twice at Denver in the 2013 and 2015 AFC Title games.

Belichick has been excellent when having extra time to prepare for a foe, as was demonstrated last week against the Chargers. And although there is no extra time to prepare for this week’s game, less time is needed as the Pats played the Chiefs earlier this season and has familiarity with Mahomes and the KC offense as well as their defense.

As with the NFC matchup, the experience of the Brady/Bill Belichick QB/coach matchup rates the edge over KC’s Mahomes/Andy Reid. But that edge is not as great as the one the Saints enjoy over the Rams.

At the same time the Patriots do not need to win for their backers to cash their tickets although at the small point spread there is a great likelihood that a New England cover is the result of a New England win.

Teams that have had success over the years against New England in the playoffs have generally had upper tier defenses such as Baltimore, Pittsburgh and – in Super Bowls – the New York Giants twice.

Notwithstanding last week’s effort against Indianapolis, the Chiefs are not in that category. PATRIOTS and UNDER 

Last week: 4-4

Season: 131-134-6

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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