Pictured: Tom Brady (left) & Jared Goff (right)
Source: Zuma Press

Breaking down Sunday’s big game.

Back in 2002, the Los Angeles Rams lived in St. Louis, seeking their second Super Bowl title in three years against an upstart New England Patriots team. It was a group of no-name players from the AFC seemingly sent to be sacrificed against one of the best NFC teams fielded this century.

The Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick, was a prodigy who’d failed to deliver in six previous NFL seasons. He had as many playoff victories, one, that equaled what he was really known for: days as head coach of the New York Jets before quitting the job. His quarterback, Tom Brady, was a sixth-round draft pick who had thrown a total of three career NFL passes entering the year; he was pressed into service when longtime starter Drew Bledsoe got hurt.

That left the AFC champs as heavy underdogs against the “Greatest Show On Turf,” a Rams group who had cruised to a 14-2 record and the NFC’s top seed. The offensive juggernaut was favored by 14 points; Kurt Warner and Rams head coach Mike Martz were the ones fit to be football kings.

But something happened on the way to their coronation; the Patriots refused to cede the crown. A late drive by Brady led to a game-winning field goal, producing a 20-17 upset that snuffed out the Rams’ dynasty and started his. Seven more Super Bowls would follow, producing four more wins and turning the Patriots into arguably the greatest NFL team of all time.

So here we are, 17 years later, with the script flipped on Brady and Belichick. It’s a group of young upstarts in the Rams who aren’t supposed to be here yet, led by the league’s youngest head coach, 33-year-old Sean McVay. The quarterback is 24-year-old Jared Goff; he was in second grade when Brady won his first Super Bowl. The Rams come in as the second seed, like the Patriots in 2002, peaking at the right time while persevering through a few lucky breaks. A timely interception preserved a victory against the Eagles, the league’s defending Super Bowl champs. One week later, a no-call on pass interference boosted the Rams in an upset of the NFC’s top seed, the New Orleans Saints.

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Now back in Los Angeles, the Rams have a chance to bring the city their first Super Bowl victory since 1984. The Patriots and Brady, meanwhile, are looking to cement their legendary status. A 6-3 record in Super Bowls looks a whole lot better than 5-4; a win also would tie Brady with Michael Jordan’s six NBA titles and break one with Charles Haley for the most rings ever won by an NFL player.

Historically, it would also put a bow on a Brady career most believed would never still be active at age 41. He is the only player remaining from that game on the Patriots, outlasting everyone who stepped foot on the field in Super Bowl XXXVI except kicker Adam Vinatieri. It’s a quarterback that gutted it out on that fateful night, willed his team to the win and hasn’t looked back… for 17 years.

Will Brady refuse to give up, yet again? Or can the Rams usher in a new generation through their collection of young talent?

Super Bowl 53: New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams

Kickoff: Sunday, Feb. 3 at 6:30 p.m. ET

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome (Atlanta)

TV: CBS

Spread: Patriots -2.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Brady’s big game experience vs. Goff’s biggest moment

There’s not much to say about Tom Brady that hasn’t already been said. His postseason experience includes more playoff wins (29) than Jared Goff’s actual age (24). He enters his ninth Super Bowl with the highest playoff completion percentage of his NFL career (71.1) through two games and a healthy 7.7 yards per attempt. And his three straight third-down conversions on a touchdown-winning overtime drive against the Chiefs? Yet another chapter in a book growing too large for your shelf at home. If you’re looking for Brady to slip Sunday, don’t; it’s a man who’s as battle-tested as they come.

Instead, this Super Bowl becomes all about Goff and his ability to carry the Rams. The first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft took a major step toward stardom this season. His 8.4 yards per attempt ranked fourth in the NFL; a 101.1 QB rating ranked eighth, four notches higher than Brady. And only Patrick Mahomes, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan threw for more yards than Goff (4,688).

For much of the year, Goff lurked in the shadows behind young Mahomes, who set the league on fire with 5,097 passing yards and 50 touchdowns. But Goff has had success of his own, in particular in big games. He outdueled Mahomes in a 54-51 win for the Rams in the regular season, throwing for 413 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. He also calmly led the Rams on both the game-tying and game-winning drives last week in the NFC Championship, succeeding in one of the sport’s most hostile road environments: the Superdome.

Through it all, Goff maintained a calm, even-keeled demeanor that’s drawn comparisons to his Super Bowl rival. The question is whether he can continue that in the biggest game of his NFL career. He’s shown inconsistency late in the year, in particular after the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp to a torn ACL. He’s failed to throw a touchdown in three of the last five games and had a career-worst four interceptions against the Bears last month.

You shouldn’t expect that many turnovers against the Patriots. But all it takes is one fumble or a pick-six and suddenly momentum turns against you. Goff can’t make that type of mistake against this opponent.

2. Is Todd Gurley healthy? If not, who becomes the star of the Rams’ offense?

Gurley remains the biggest x-factor in a running game that’s been carried most of the postseason by C.J. Anderson. Anderson isn’t a full-time back for a reason; he averaged just 2.8 yards per carry in the NFC Championship against the Saints.

But despite Anderson’s ineffectiveness and claims that Gurley was healthy, the Pro Bowl running back rarely spent time in the backfield. Just four carries for 10 yards have everyone scratching their head as to how much time Gurley will play on Super Bowl Sunday.

He was on the field for less than half the snaps, touching the ball just five times for his lowest output of the season. Even worse, the first pass targeted his way bounced right through his hands and into the arms of a Saints defender for an interception. That’s not the way you’d expect a guy who has a league-leading 3,924 yards from scrimmage the last two seasons to perform in your biggest game.

So is a knee injury suffered back in December hobbling Gurley?

“C’mon man,” he said to reporters Friday, adamantly denying it. “If there was an issue with my knee, it would be on the injury report. I’m at practice. I’m playing.”

“You just have to feed off what we are doing, and C.J. was running the ball well,” added Goff to FOX’s Chris Myers after the NFC Championship. “I expect Todd to have a hell of a game in the Super Bowl.”

But will he play well? The Patriots have allowed just 30 rushing yards per game in the postseason, redeeming themselves after an inconsistent regular season. It’s difficult to see Gurley breaking through if he’s less than 100 percent, putting even more pressure on both Anderson and Goff. Gurley’s reduced presence could also hurt in the passing game; he had 59 receptions for 580 yards during the regular season, good for third on the team.

Compare Gurley’s ailment to Sony Michel’s accomplishments over the past two weeks. He’s posted 242 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in the postseason, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and allowing the Patriots to spread the field and open up passing windows for Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Rams All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald must take charge here and stop Michel or Rex Burkhead from establishing a rhythm.

3. Trench warfare

The Patriots’ offensive line has been the unsung heroes of these playoffs. With a 41-year-old quarterback who’s not as mobile they’ve given up a grand total of zero sacks. The offensive line of the Rams is close behind; just one sack in two games.

So what now? Both teams have used defensive penetration to their advantage; they’ve racked up nine sacks between the two of them. Something’s got to give, somewhere and you have to figure the Patriots have the edge despite the Rams’ Donald. Kyle Van Noy and Trey Flowers have formed an effective 1-2 punch with two sacks apiece. Dont’a Hightower, despite just four tackles in the postseason, has proved generally disruptive.

The key for the Rams is simply to get Donald going. He has just four tackles during the postseason and no major plays of note, at least on paper. Can those three postseason quarterback hits turn into sacks? Contact is more likely to hobble Brady based on his age and current mobility. Getting to Brady is key to getting the Lombardi trophy.

X-Factor: A tale of two coaches

Bill Belichick has done it all. Sean McVay? He’s just getting started. But both coaches benefit from unconventional styles and a penchant for doing things their own way.

The two men met at the NFL Scouting Combine and have texted since, with Belichick taking his time to congratulate McVay after games. The normally tight-lipped Patriots head coach was even willing to compliment the prodigy half his age during Super Bowl media festivities.

“I have a ton of respect for Sean,” he said. “He’s done a great job in the two years he’s been with the Rams. His teams have performed at an extremely high level. They’re very consistent. They’re well-coached. The players execute on a consistent basis on a very high level.”

But for all the confidence Belichick shows in McVay, he also has the experience earned from Super Bowl victories. The Patriots are also coming off a Super Bowl in which the aggressive, youngish coaching style of Doug Pederson kept them off guard. He pushed down on the accelerator and never relented, taking high-risk approaches and offensive gambles that paid off.

One thing about great coaches, they don’t get fooled by the same method twice. Expect Belichick to have learned from that experience and for McVay to be the innocent victim of last year’s frustration.

Final Analysis

This year’s Super Bowl line opened with the Rams favored by one. But as game time inches closer, the Patriots have edged back on top and seem to be regaining respect. They’re presenting themselves as a healthy, loose team in position to avenge their narrow loss to the Eagles a season ago.

The Rams, meanwhile, have seen some clouds roll in. The news stories surrounding the pass interference call won’t die; a local New Orleans car dealership has bought billboards all over Atlanta claiming the Saints got robbed. Calls have come from their owner, other NFL players and even Congress itself to change the rules going forward. (Had the penalty been called, the Saints would have run down the clock and attempted a chip shot field goal for the win.)

It leaves the Rams, well, a bit off balance while the Patriots enter the Super Bowl playing at their peak. A motivated Brady is on a mission; one year after losing a step from his MVP status at age 40, he’s out to reinforce his top-tier status at age 41. Add in another week of rest for Gronkowski, the emergence of a rushing star in Michel and it makes the Patriots’ offense seemingly impossible to beat.

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Pictured: Aaron Donald
Source: Getty Image North America

Aaron Donald and the Rams’ defense have dominated the line of scrimmage in their two playoff victories

The Rams are back! While this isn’t exactly “The Greatest Show on Turf,” the Rams are back in the Super Bowl after knocking off the top-seeded Saints 26-23 in overtime in the NFC Championship on Sunday in New Orleans. The win not only marked the franchise’s first conference title since 2001 (back when they were in St. Louis), it also means that for the first time in more than 30 years, the city of Los Angeles will be represented in the Super Bowl.

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Even though there was some questionable officiating on Sunday, credit goes to the Rams who overcame a 13-0 first-quarter deficit to fight back, force overtime, and hand the Saints just their third home loss this season. Next up is a date on Feb. 3 in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to face the seemingly unstoppable New England Patriots. Los Angeles has already been installed as the underdog, which should came as no surprise since New England will be making its third straight appearance and fourth in five years.

And most of us remember when these two teams met in the Super Bowl nearly 20 years ago when Bill Belichick/Tom Brady were leading the upstart team against the heavy favorites. Obviously much has changed since then but it seems the roles have been reversed. So can the Rams slay the NFL’s current giant and this time take care of business in Atlanta? Here are five reasons to expect the NFC champion to be the victorious team by the end of Super Sunday.

5 Reasons Why the Los Angeles Rams Will Win Super Bowl LIII

1. The Rams’ emerging pass rush

Even with a stout defensive line led by the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Aaron Donald, Los Angeles finished the regular season in the middle of the pack with 41 sacks (15th). But that has changed during the playoffs where the pass rush has already made an impact.

In their wins over the Cowboys and Saints, the Rams have collected three sacks and nine quarterback hits and also have recorded 12.5 tackles for a loss. On Sunday, Dante Fowler Jr. was the one who was able to put enough pressure on Drew Brees to hit his arm which resulted in the interception that gave the ball to Los Angeles near midfield and resulted in the game-winning field goal by Greg Zuerlein.

In the AFC Championship, Kansas City not only didn’t record a sack of Tom Brady, the Chiefs had just one quarterback hit and were flagged for roughing the passer in a key spot. They did have two interceptions but in the end, Brady still threw for 348 yards in leading his team to victory in overtime. Brady is similar to Brees in that he’s not the most mobile of quarterbacks but he gets rid of the ball quickly and the Patriots’ offensive line has done a good job protecting him. The Rams need to keep bringing the heat with Donald, Fowler, Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers and other rushers so Brady doesn’t pick them apart from the pocket. Consistent pressure also can force Brady to have happy feet and potentially force some throws or make mistakes.

2. Keep it on the ground

Another thing that Los Angeles has done well in January is run the ball, even if Todd Gurley hasn’t been his usual explosive self. The Rams have put up 350 rushing yards and four touchdowns in their two playoff wins, with most of that damage coming against Dallas in the Divisional Round. C.J. Anderson (167 yards, 2 TDs) has come up huge since signing with the team a month ago, and Gurley will get a little more time to let his knee recover from the injury that caused him to miss the last two games of the regular season.

New England was OK against the run in the regular season (112.7 ypg) but has been very good in the playoffs, holding the Chargers and Chiefs to a total of 60 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Game script had a lot to do with this as both teams were playing from behind for most of their games, but Sean McVay knows he can’t simply abandon the run as much as he may want to air it out with Jared Goff. With two solid options to run the ball with, some old-school football could work in Los Angeles’ favor.

3. The Rams can also stop the run

While Wade Phillips’ defense gave up five yards per carry during the regular season, the unit has tightened things up considerably in the playoffs. Dallas and New Orleans managed a total of 98 rushing yards while averaging just 2.3 yards per carry. The longest running play the Rams have surrendered in the postseason is 16 yards.

For New England, rookie Sony Michel was come up huge in the Patriots’ two playoff victories, as he’s piled up 242 yards and five touchdowns on a whopping 53 carries. He averaged a healthy 5.5 yards per attempt against Kansas City and his effectiveness opened up opportunities for fellow running back Rex Burkhead (2 TDs including game-winner vs. Kansas City in overtime) as well as the passing game (Brady completed passes to eight different Patriots in win over Chiefs).

Brady has proven in years past that he can beat teams even without a strong running game but if Los Angeles can make things easier on itself on defense if the Rams can somehow make Michel a non-factor.

4. The offensive line has stood its ground

Not only have the boys up front cleared a path for the rushing attack, they’ve also kept the pocket mostly clean for Goff in recent weeks. He’s been sacked just once in the two playoff victories and the six hits the Saints got on him in the NFC Championship were the most since the Eagles got seven back in Week 15. Goff also has been sharp with his throws and decision-making with just two interceptions over his last five games.

The Patriots’ defense has wreaked havoc this postseason by collecting six sacks and 17 quarterback hits. Even though New England has able to harass Patrick Mahomes on Sunday, it still took overtime to beat a pesky Chiefs team. If the Rams’ offensive line can do its job and give Goff the time he needs to find his receivers downfield, Los Angeles should be able to move the ball against he Patriots.

5. The Rams have made their presence felt in Atlanta through the years

When the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV at the conclusion of the 1999 season, they’re only Super Bowl title thus far, they did so in Atlanta. Since then the Rams have made six trips to Georgia’s biggest city where they’ve won twice and have scored 161 total points. Those games, however, were in the since-demolished Georgia Dome. This will be the Rams’ first appearance in Mercedes-Benz Stadium where they hope to create some more history.

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Pictured: Tom Brady
Source: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Image North America

Will the ninth time be the charm for an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl ring for Belichick and Brady?

Love them or hate them, the New England Patriots have established an NFL dynasty that may never be matched in the salary cap era. Defeating the Kansas City Chiefs on the road Sunday earned them a fourth Super Bowl bid in the past five seasons and the team’s ninth with Bill Belichick as head coach. Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady will now go for their sixth Super Bowl ring 17 years to the day after they earned their first, coming against the same team they’ll face a second time down in Atlanta.

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Of course, the Rams are hardly the same in terms of personnel since that fateful Super Bowl in 2002; they don’t even play in the same city anymore. Not a single player that played for the franchise then remains on the Rams; head coach Sean McVay was in high school when that game happened. Rams quarterback Jared Goff? He was in second grade.

That type of longevity is what makes these Patriots, Belichick and Brady one of the game’s all-time greats. It’s also experience that leaves them well-positioned to win the Super Bowl, yet again, in a game where they’ve opened as 1.5-point favorites.

5 Reasons Why The New England Patriots Will Win Super Bowl LIII

1. A resurgent running game

Saquon Barkley may be getting all the buzz as the best new running back this season but Sony Michel made a case of his own during these playoffs. Michel just trampled over the Chiefs in the first half of the AFC Championship, finishing with 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns despite inexplicably sitting unused for much of the fourth quarter and overtime. (It was Rex Burkhead, not Michel, who scored the game-winning touchdown and had a number of key runs in the Patriots’ final two offensive drives.)

But the fact the Patriots could switch out Burkhead and get the same effectiveness shows you the state of their run game. Michel has now put together back-to-back 100-yard performances against two AFC playoff teams; he has three 100-yard games in his last four. (That puts him one behind Barkley’s 2018 benchmark of four straight.)

While the Rams have buckled down in the playoffs this is still the same defense that ranked just 23rd overall during the regular season. On offense, their own rushing attack is questionable with the health of Todd Gurley II a major concern after he was used sparingly in the NFC Championship.

2. An unheralded offensive line

The Patriots’ line paved the way for a 41-year-old Tom Brady to make magic in the late stages of their comeback win against the Chiefs. During two postseason games, Brady has yet to be sacked. That’s right; zero sacks from a Chiefs defense that tied for the league lead with 52 during the regular season.

Not one of these linemen were selected to the Pro Bowl but rising from virtual anonymity is how the Patriots have done it all these years. The group of David Andrews, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason and Trent Brown have an average of just 4.6 years of experience between them. But this quintet is growing up at the right time and provided Brady some extra comfort to make key throws down the stretch, especially on third downs.

3. Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman

Speaking of third downs, both Gronkowski and Edelman were money when it mattered, although the latter dodged one potential, game-changing mistake. Two key throws to Edelman kept alive the overtime drive before Gronkowski stepped in to set up the Patriots near the goal line. That duo appears to be all the Patriots need, although Chris Hogan had a key third-down catch himself in the fourth quarter.

Edelman was stopped just short of 100 yards in the AFC Championship one week after going for nine catches and 151 yards in the convincing win over the Chargers. He’s Brady’s most reliable target and has had a chip on his shoulder after his four-game suspension reminiscent of his quarterback’s time away a few years ago. Edelman did get a mulligan when an apparent fumble on a muffed punt return about midway through the fourth quarter was overturned on replay. Brady threw an interception two plays later on a ball that, ironically, bounced off of Edelman’s fingertips.

But otherwise as a receiver Edelman came through, hauling in seven of his 10 targets. And when No. 11 was covered? Gronk lined up on the outside and delivered after a season that increasingly appears to be his last. But a creaky, hobbled tight end from years of injuries pulled one out of the hat in the AFC Championship. Seemingly every one of his six catches was a game-changer but it was his blocking that was the real secret weapon, opening up even more running lanes for Michel, Burkhead and James White.

Once again, a Rams defense that allowed 23 points to the Saints’ many talented offensive pieces will struggle to stop a “healthier” Gronk. And if it’s the tight end’s last game ever? He won’t hold back.

4. A defense that pressures the quarterback

The Rams’ offensive line has been almost as good as the Patriots’; Jared Goff has been sacked just once during the postseason. But it’s hard to see that number staying low with the Pats’ numbers against the speedy NFL MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes. Their four sacks of the young quarterback included one that pushed them out of field goal range late in the first half, a score that would have potentially made the difference.

Weirdly enough, the Rams and Patriots have the same turnover margin during the postseason, coming out even. But who do you trust heading to Atlanta? The 24-year-old Goff, playing in his first Super Bowl without two major weapons at 100 percent? (Gurley and deep threat Cooper Kupp, out for the season with a torn ACL?) Or do you trust the guy in Brady that’s been there more times (nine) than Goff’s age (seven) when Brady won his first ring?

That leads us to…

5. Belichick-Brady

This duo got beat at their own game last year, Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles using the underdog mantra and dog masks to waltz their way to an epic Super Bowl victory. It’s the first time Belichick-Brady has been beaten in the big game by a team other than Eli Manning and the New York Giants.

Since then, it’s felt like the Patriots have had the odds stacked against them. A bizarre, game-ending miracle play against the Miami Dolphins robbed them of home-field advantage. Eleven wins were their fewest since 2009; inconsistent play dogged both sides of the ball. It all added up to the Patriots being labeled an underdog on the road in the AFC Championship for the first time in what felt like forever.

But that’s when the mastery of Brady and Belichick turned on. The underdog mantra became a rallying cry in the locker room, most famously by Edelman and his Hashtag BetAgainstUs shirts. Then, both quarterback and coach came to play. Belichick and his coaches had perhaps their most inspiring performance during the postseason in years Sunday; the variety and gustiness of play-calling kept the Chiefs’ defense off guard all night. Remember, the staff was so aggressive they tried to win the game through a flea-flicker with time ticking down in the fourth quarter! Who does that?

Through it all, there was the steady hand of Brady. Sure, he’s had his rough moments this year; an interception in the end zone was the type of mistake he typically doesn’t make (and might have put the game away in the first half). But when it mattered, with the game on the line Brady brought that team down three straight times and scored. His stat line on those drives (taking away the one kneel down to force overtime): 5-for-6 on third down, no sacks taken, 21 points scored. That’s all that matters.

And it’s the type of gritty performance that offers a storybook ending to the 41-year-old 17 years after his first ring. Perhaps the real question is, if the Patriots win again, will Brady choose to retire with the storybook seemingly as complete as it can possibly be?

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Posted in NFL, Top Fantasy Picks

Source: 2019 NFL Super Bowl 53 logo. (AP)

The New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams will meet in Super Bowl LIII (aka Super Bowl 53, or 2019 Super Bowl) on Sunday, Feb. 3 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This will be the seventh time the Super Bowl features a rematch. These two teams met in Super Bowl XXXVI back in 2002 as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady won their first Lombardi Trophy by knocking off the heavily favored Rams (then in St. Louis) and the “Greatest Show on Turf” 20-17 in the Superdome in New Orleans.

Much has changed since then, as Belichick and Brady are now making their ninth Super Bowl appearance and the 11th in Patriots’ franchise history. A win would tie New England with Pittsburgh for the most Lombardi Trophies (six).

For the Rams, it’s their fourth Super Bowl appearance, but the first for a team from Los Angeles since the Raiders beat the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII way back in 1984. A victory for the Rams would even their Super Bowl record at 2-2 while exacting a bit of revenge for what happened 17 years ago.

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WHEN, WHERE AND HOW TO WATCH

Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)

Date: Feb. 3, 2019

Time: 6:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: CBS (20th Super Bowl, breaks tie with NBC for the most); ESPN Deportes (Spanish language)

Broadcast Team: Jim Nantz (play-by-play), Tony Romo (color commentary), Tracy Wolfson and Evan Washburn (sideline reporters)

Radio Network: Westwood One

Halftime Performance: Maroon 5, Travis Scott, Big Boi

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Photo: Tom Brady
Source: Maddie Meyer / Getty Image North America

The top two seeds come together for a rematch of their 43-40 thriller earlier this season

It’s hard to look at this year’s AFC Championship between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs as anything other than a potential changing of the guard. Tom Brady, 41, will be eyeing an unprecedented ninth Super Bowl appearance; to do it, he’ll need to rise to the challenge of 23-year-old emerging superstar Patrick Mahomes. Perhaps the greatest ever to play the sport at his position will be pitted against the man who may define it for the next generation.

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But the rivalry runs far deeper than just those two men. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is looking to erase his record of playoff futility by finally beating the game’s best on the other sideline in Bill Belichick. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce hopes to displace an aging, injury-prone Rob Gronkowski as the AFC’s best at the position. And despite the Patriots’ undefeated home record this season (9-0) it’s the Chiefs’ fans at Arrowhead who have one last opportunity to prove what home-field advantage in the postseason is all about.

Their last matchup, a 43-40 Patriots victory in Foxborough, was easily one of the best in the NFL this season. Expect Sunday’s game to bring the same amount of offensive firepower and late-game drama with a berth in Super Bowl LIII on the line.

AFC Championship: New England at Kansas City

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 6:40 p.m. ET

TV: CBS

Spread: Chiefs -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Mahomes keep from making mistakes?

In this type of game, it’s fairly clear what you’ll get from the Patriots’ Tom Brady. A roller-coaster regular season was put to rest last week against the Chargers; 343 passing yards and no turnovers meant the outcome was never in doubt. The Chiefs can’t expect to capitalize on his mistakes although Brady did have a lost fumble in their matchup earlier this season.

The real focus is on whether Patrick Mahomes can keep it together. On paper, he had one of the best statistical seasons in history with 50 touchdowns and nearly 5,100 passing yards. He did nothing to cost his team in a cruise control-type performance against the Colts in Arrowhead last week.

But the Patriots in the playoffs are a different story altogether. The Chiefs were mortally wounded in their regular-season matchup through multiple mistakes by Mahomes early on. Two interceptions led to seven Patriots points and cost the Chiefs seven more at the end of the first half. It’s enough to make the difference in a game where we’ll count the number of punts on one hand.

“We didn’t feel good,” Mahomes said this week about the Patriots’ loss earlier this year. “We didn’t play our best, especially early in the game. And when you play teams of this caliber, with this much history of knowing how to win and capitalizing on people’s mistakes, you can’t come back and win games like that.”

“For us, we have to learn from that, know we can’t make those mistakes. It’s going to be a dogfight for the entire game.”

Can he outduel the Patriots’ secondary this time? Philip Rivers never looked comfortable last week and New England’s defensive unit heads in with momentum. The Patriots know how to create takeaways in the playoffs. It’s imperative Mahomes puts those demons behind them by striking early and often in the first half.

2. Can Sony Michel outduel Damien Williams?

You might be surprised to know all four of the Chiefs’ touchdowns last week came on the ground. After releasing Kareem Hunt last month, many felt their rushing game would struggle but Williams has proven up to the task. The fifth-year player has stepped in admirably, posting a higher yards per carry average than Hunt (5.1 to 4.6) and two 100-yard rushing efforts. (That included 129 yards against the Colts last week). Hunt, by comparison, had just one 100-yard rushing game this year despite his speed and explosiveness.

Is that more because of the Chiefs’ offensive line or is it Williams himself? The answer is a little bit of both. But the Patriots’ defense will offer a stiffer test than the Colts’ front line. New England held Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon to just 15 rushing yards and the Chargers to 19 total. Ranked 11th against the run, allowing 112.3 rushing yards per game over the course of a full season that number drops to 65.0 when you include just the last three weeks.

Kansas City, meanwhile, has a rushing defense that ranked 27th in the NFL. It provides a make-or-break opportunity for rookie Sony Michel to put up some big numbers once again after a masterful 129-yard, three-touchdown performance last week. Michel, who lost part of his season due to injury, has been left in the shadows while other rookies like Baker Mayfield and Saquon Barkley have taken center stage. But they’re not playing this late into January. Michel might be the most important person on the field for a Patriots offense that finally appeared to loosen up with the chains constantly moving on the ground.

3. All Tyreek, all the time

Tyreek Hill was unhinged the last time these teams played. Seven catches, 142 yards and three touchdowns almost singlehandedly kept the Chiefs in the game. Last week’s postseason contest was a bit more pedestrian (eight catches, 72 yards) but a bounce-back performance should be expected.

Travis Kelce may be the Chiefs’ most reliable receiver but Hill is the one who can score at any given moment. The fastest player on the field can get more yards after the catch than anyone else in this game when given space and he’s already proved he can outrun the Patriots’ secondary.

This 75-yard touchdown play from the first matchup truly highlights the explosiveness of the Chiefs’ offense when both he and Mahomes are on the same page. It’s why the Patriots can’t fall behind in this game but the Chiefs will never feel like they’re out of it.

X-Factor: Kicking Game

Stephen Gostkowski is one of the game’s most reliable kickers. But a 27-for-32 season obscured the fact he was just six-for-11 on kicks over 40 yards in length.

During a year where long field goals have become the norm, not the exception, that may give the edge to another changing-of-the-guard figure: 23-year-old Harrison Butker. Butker was eight-for-11 on kicks 40 yards and longer while nailing a 54-yarder just a few weeks ago against Seattle. He also has the advantage of kicking within his own stadium during a night where the wind will make a difference (forecast to be 10-15 mph).

One miss from either kicker could be all that’s needed to determine the outcome.

Final Analysis

Conventional wisdom says the Chiefs should come out on top in this one. It’s a youthful team playing at home and hungry for revenge after their national stub-a-toe moment against the Patriots earlier this year. Andy Reid, 1-4 in championship games is too good a head coach to get shut out of the Super Bowl with this team.

And yet. The Patriots, labeled as rare underdogs have embraced that mentality with a bear hug. Julian Edelman’s Twitter posted a hype video followed by T-Shirts fans could order with the hashtag BETAGAINSTUS. It’s the type of us against the world mentality that plays well within a Bill Belichick locker room and the same type of emotional boost the Eagles used against them in Super Bowl LII (with great success, I might add).

Add in Tom Brady, who seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder amid criticism his play has slipped at 41 and it’s hard to count the Patriots out. They need everything to break right for them to pull this out but we’ve seen that type before from them in the postseason, haven’t we?

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Photo: Todd Gurley
Source: Harry How / Getty Image North America

A rematch of heavyweights set to brawl in the Big Easy for a ticket to Super Bowl LIII

The Los Angeles Rams make their second trip to the Crescent City to battle the New Orleans Saints this season as the top two seeds meet in the NFC Championship game on Sunday. The Rams (14-3) and Saints (14-3) find themselves one victory away from a spot in Super Bowl LIII after taking care of business at home last week in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

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Los Angeles trampled Dallas 30-22 out on the West Coast last Saturday. The Rams’ tandem of C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley piled up 238 rushing yards and three touchdowns while averaging more than six yards per carry (on 39 total attempts). Los Angeles controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage, limiting Dallas to just 50 rushing yards, and dominated time of possession (36:13 to 23:47).

New Orleans stumbled through the first quarter of its game this past Sunday against Philadelphia. Drew Brees threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage and the Eagles jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead. But a Marshon Lattimore pick of Nick Foles started to turn the tide, as the Saints’ offense found its footing and the defense shut Philadelphia out the rest of the way. After a shaky start, the Brees-to-Michael Thomas connection got going as New Orleans went on to score the final 20 points of the game.

These two teams met in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome back in Week 9 as the Saints won a high-scoring affair 45-35. The offenses combined for 970 yards with Brees (346 yards, 4 TDs) and Jared Goff (391, 3) both filling up the stat sheet. Thomas (211 yards) also made his presence felt as New Orleans handed the Rams their first loss of the season. That game ended up being the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

NFC Championship: Los Angeles at New Orleans

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 3:05 p.m. ET

TV: FOX

Spread: Saints -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Michael Thomas vs. Rams’ secondary

Last week against Philadelphia, Thomas hauled in 12 catches for 171 yards and a touchdown. The receptions were his highest since Week 9 when he went for 211 and a score on 12 grabs against the Rams. Will the All-Pro continue to have success against Los Angeles’ defense?

The Rams’ secondary will include a key component who was missing from the teams’ previous matchup. Starting cornerback Aqib Talib will start this Sunday after missing half of the regular season (Weeks 4-12) because of an ankle injury.

How much of a difference will Talib make? In the nine games (including last week’s playoff win) Talib has played this season, Los Angeles is giving up 206.3 passing yards and 17.7 points per game. Without him, those numbers jump to 272.6 and 30.8.

Additionally, no one should forget about the on-going squabble between Rams’ cornerback Marcus Peters and Saints’ head coach Sean Payton. Those two bantered during the first meeting in November. The feisty rhetoric continued this week. Despite what Peters mentioned, it seems unlikely that these two will sit down together to enjoy some gumbo. Will the Saints’ receivers go out and back up their coach’s trash talk?

2. Todd Gurley/C.J. Anderson vs. Saints’ front seven

Gurley’s production dipped toward the end of the regular season as he dealt with a knee injury that caused him to miss the last two games. Before that he failed to gain 50 rushing yards in Weeks 14 or 15, but he did remain a factor in the passing game (combined 13 catches for 106 yards).

But the positive for the Rams was that Gurley’s absence opened up an opportunity for C.J. Anderson, who the team signed following his release by Carolina. The former 1,000-yard rusher showed he was still capable of carrying the load, as he went for nearly 300 yards in the final two games of the regular season and then led the team with 123 in the Divisional Round win over Dallas. Not to be outdone, Gurley showed he was plenty healthy by going for 115 and averaging a robust 7.2 yards per carry against the Cowboys.

The duo will look to keep things going against a New Orleans defense that finished second in the regular season vs. the run (80.2 ypg). In the first meeting, the Rams managed 92 rushing yards and a touchdown on 19 carries with Gurley responsible for most of the damage (68 yards, TD, 5.2 ypc). Anderson wasn’t with Los Angeles then but you can pretty much expect head coach Sean McVay will call on both of his backs on Sunday.

3. Saints’ offensive line vs. Rams’ defensive line

New Orleans has done a superb job of keeping Drew Brees upright. He took all but a small percentage of the snaps from center in 15 games during the regular season with opponents registering a total of 17 sacks. No other quarterback started as many games yet was sacked so few times this season. To put it another way, he was sacked during just 3.4 percent of his pass attempts. That’s the second-lowest rate in the NFL even though Brees attempted nearly 500 passes (489, 16th).

Los Angeles has a formidable trio that anchors its defensive line. It starts with Aaron Donald, the All-Pro who is the front-runner to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second straight year after racking up 20.5 sacks, 25 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in the regular season. Ndamukong Suh has done his part clogging things in the middle while Michael Brockers chips in as the other starting defensive end. These three have started all 17 games together and are tasked with making plays behind the line of scrimmage and getting pressure on Brees, even if it doesn’t result in a sack. Their effectiveness will dictate how the linebackers are used by veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

Can the Saints’ offensive line hold up against the Rams’ fearsome threesome? Three Saints’ linemen were flagged for holding versus the Eagles. Andrus Peat struggled in particular, with two holding calls against him. He is expected to play Sunday in spite of his broken hand, which clearly hampered him last week. Considering that Donald leads the NFL in sacks and tackles for a loss, New Orleans cannot let him dominate a the point of attack and take over the game, even if that means double-teaming him.

Final Analysis

The NFC bracket held to form to give us a No. 1 vs. No. 2 championship game. As a result, fans will witness two evenly matched teams that are tied for the best records in the NFL. If the regular-season matchup foreshadows what will happen in this one, another high-scoring contest awaits.

But this game appears headed for a closer finish than what transpired back in November. The Saints had a 21-point lead late in the first half before a field goal made it 35-17. The Rams battled all the way back to tie the game with less than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter only to watch New Orleans score the next 10 points over a three-minute span. Sunday’s matchup figures to stay tight for the duration and may even need overtime to decide the winner.

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