With NFL games only on Sunday after two action packed weekends of NFL playoffs and the three day weekend upon us, we have some time to mull over our selections for the upcoming conference championships and an extra day off from work to rejoice in our soon to be winnings or sulk over our losses.
Before we get into the predictions and analysis, it can be a fun activity to view the history of the AFC and NFC title games. Since the NFL merger in 1970, we have had 48 title games in each conference. This can be considered the equivalent of the Final Four in NCAA Basketball. Here are two typical but very good links that display the results of the previous conference championships.
For those somewhat new to football or just haven't paid close to attention, each title game comes up with a trophy. Even though this trophy is not quite as spectacular and lustrous as the Vince Lombardi Trophy which most of the world will see hoisted up by the Super Bowl winner in about 3 weeks from now, it is still considered a huge accomplishment to take home the goods that comes from winning your conference. In the NFC, the trophy is called the George Halas trophy named after the long time owner of the Chicago Bears and one of the founders of the NFL. The AFC trophy is also named after an innovator of the game of football who was intrumental in merging the AFL and NFL in 1970: Lamar Hunt. He was the original owner of the Kansas City Chiefs (originally the Dallas Texans before moving to Kansas City in 1963) and founder of the AFL. Interestingly the last time the Chiefs made it to the Super Bowl was the year before the merger happened. Since then, the Chiefs have been in the AFC title game just once losing to the Buffalo Bills on the road in 1993. A famous QB known for winning big games (Joe Montana ... maybe you have heard of him) was the starting QB for that Chiefs team. Seems fitting that arguably the greatest QB of all time has come the closest to helping the Chiefs win the trophy named after its founder. Back then, the Bills simply dominated the AFC title game winning it 4 times in a row only to lose the Super Bowl also 4 times in a row.
Fast forward 25 years and now the Chiefs have another crack at finally winning the AFC title but this time it will be at Arrowhead Stadium, easily considered one of the loudest outdoor stadiums in the world (in fact it set the world record for the loudest outdoor stadium in 2014). The Chiefs also have a dynamic QB in Patrick Mahomes who can be considered the best QB they have had since Montana. On the other side, you have a team led by someone who idolized Montana while growing up just 20 miles south of Candlestick Park: Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Like the Bills in 1993, the Patriots have owned the AFC and in fact you can call the Patriots a dyntasy. Since 2001, Brady's and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's first AFC title game together, the Patriots have earned 13 trips to the AFC Championship. Let that sink in for a little bit ... 13 times in the last 18 seasons. That is absoultely insane! What is even more insane is that this is the Patriots' 8th straight trip to the AFC title game. The NFL has never seen this kind of dominance. What's even more impressive is that the only two constants here are the head coach and QB whereas all of the other players and coaching staff has consistently changed.
The parallels between the Chiefs' previous trip and current trip to the AFC title game are quite strong given their fortuitous QB situation and dominant opponent. This is a great story line rich with football history and hopefully the game itself lives up to the hype.
The NFC title game doesn't quite have the same story line but you have two teams who used to play in the same division many years ago in the old NFC West and were the laughing stocks of the NFL. The Rams are all too familiar with long stretches of futility with 9 abysmal seasons between their NFC title game appearance in 1989 and their miraculous Super Bowl run in 1999 and then 12 more years of horrendous football from 2005 until Sean McVay and Jared Goff arrived in LaLa land last year. Prior to Kurt Warner's Cinderella season in 1999, the Rams had been to the NFC title game 7 times but won it just once. Warner helped the Rams win two NFC titles but since losing to Tom Brady in the Super Bowl for the 2001 season, the Rams reverted back to their losing ways until recently. As for the Saints, they didn't earn their firt NFC title berth until 2006 which was Saints QB Drew Brees' first season in New Orleans. During the first few years of the Saints franchise (late 60s and most of the 70s), the fans would wear paper bags over their heads just to avoid anyone noticing them at the game. In fact, the Saints did not win its first postseason game until 2000 against the Rams. Go figure! The Saints made it to the NFC title game again in 2009 and of course won that game and the Super Bowl to become the darlings of the sports world given the catastrophe New Orleans endured 4 years prior with Hurricane Katrina. The NFC Championship game this Sunday still has a pretty good story line and whoever wins this game will probably have an even better story line against the AFC Champions.
OK, no more foreplay ... time for the predictions and analysis! Well, actually just a bit more foreplay! Let me ask you a few questions when it comes to prognosticating the winner of a big football game.
- Would you select the team with the better QB?
- Would you select the team better at pressuring the QB?
- Would you select the team better at sustaining drives?
- Would you select the team better at getting the job done in the red zone?
- Would you select a team with a true home field advantage?
If you said yes to all five of those questions ... congratulations! You definitely know football!
Guess which teams in each conference championship have the better QB based on QBR (a metric designed by ESPN 7 years ago) and were top two in the NFL: Chiefs and Saints.
Guess which teams had more QB sacks than their opponent and were both in the top 5: Chiefs and Saints.
Guess which teams had a higher 3rd down conversion percentage and were also both in the top 5: Chiefs and Saints.
Guess which teams had the better red zone scoring percentage (TDs only) and again both in the top 5: Chiefs and Saints.
The answer to the last question is obvious and no team has been more dominant at home than the Chiefs and Saints this season and of course both stadiums are raucous.
We could consider weather, other positions like RB and WR, the head coaches' game preparation and play calling ability, previous team's history, etc. Still, let's keep it simple by focusing on the key metrics which have proven time and time again to be the best predictors for winning NFL games.
Going back to the 5 questions we just posed, one can argue that a good defense can counteract a team's ability to convert 3rd downs and hold its own in the red zone. That is very true but the reality is that the Rams and Patriots defenses are good but not great. Unless you have a historically good defense like the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, or 2013 Seahawks, it is awfully hard to stop championship quality offenses like the Chiefs and Saints, especially on the road.
While the Rams and Patriots both had strong seasons, they were pretty awful when they had to travel for games. The Rams lost by double digits to the Saints in the Superdome earlier this season and lost again by double digts to the Bears in Chicago. The only other winning team the Rams beat on the road was Seattle but just by 2 points. The Patriots had a dismal 3-5 road record this season. Meanwhile, the Chiefs were 7-1 at home (losing a heatbreaker to the Chargers thanks to a gutsy and successful 2 point conversion decision by Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn to the end the game) and the Saints each went 6-2 at home getting upset early on by the Bucs and losing a meaningless game at the end of the regular season to the Panthers (by that time the Saints had home field advantage locked up). The regular season home/away splits for Drew Brees and WR Michael Thomas (easily his favorite target) are eye popping. They both thrive in the Superdome iwth Brees throwing for 21 TDs and 1 INT with QB rating of 133.3 at home but 11 TDs and 4 INTs for a rating of 99.3 on the road. Keep in mind that Brees had just 7 home games compared to 8 road games since Brees sat out the last regular season game. Thomas has 68 receptions for 822 yards and 6 TDs at home while catching 57 balls for 583 yards at 3 TDs on the road. No wonder Thomas went off for 12 catches, 171 yards, and a TD last week. As for the Chiefs, the point differential at home is +15.625 per game but just +2.375 per game on the road.
No question that home field advantage is a true advantage for both Kansas City and New Orleans and a being on the road is a true disadvantage for the Rams and Patriots. Going back to the first 4 questions, we know that Goff and Brady are good QBs but not nearly as good as Mahomes and Brees. The QBR was 81.6 for Mahomes and 80.7 for Brees. The 3rd best QBR was 72.7 by Mitch Tribusky so one would be hard pressed to argue that other QBs were more successful this season than Mahomes and Brees. In fact, only 7 other times has a QB cracked 80 for QBR for an entire season with Brees doing two others times and Brady owning the best QBR of all time at 87 during his nearly undefeated 2007 season. Again, Rams and Patriots can play defense well but well enough to stop historically good QBs like Mahomes and Brees? I don't think so.
As for pressuring the QB, there are several variables that can play a part in that. For instance, what kind of defensive scheme will the teams use? How is the pass blocking for each team? Is the QB adept at avoiding pressure by either escaping out of the pocket or just throwing the ball away. We can dissect this important aspect of the game all day but the bottomline is that if the data suggests that you are good at sacking the QB, chances are that you can pressure him often and disrupt his rhythm. The Chiefs were tied with the Steelers with 52 sacks this season. You can't ignore the home/away splits for KC: 31 sacks at home and 21 on the road. The Saints were tied for 5th with Arizona with 49 sacks. They had 17 sacks during the 1st 8 games of the regular season but 32 in the last 8. Again, the last game of the regular season against Carolina was meaningless in which the Saints had one sack. This Saints defense is definitely peaking at the right time. While Goff has a quick release, he is pretty awful on the road with an 82.8 passer rating but 115.8 rating at home. The crowd noise in addition to the relentless Saints pass rush won't bode well for him.
Often times when you view the box score for a game, the one stat that usually stands out is 3rd down conversion. Over the last 19 seasons, only 10 times out of the 38 conference championship games played did the team with the worse 3rd conversion rate win the game. The more often you can convert third downs, the longer you can sustain drives. That can really wear down the opposition's defense and frustrate its offense as they can never get in sync by standing on the sidelines for an extended period of time.. The Patriots are fairly strong with 3rd down conversion by barely cracking the top 10 with a 41.4% conversion rate but nearly as good as the Chiefs who sit at 3rd with a 45.79% rate. The Saints barely edged the Rams by finishing one place higher and having a rating that is just 0.59% better. However, the Rams numbers can be deceiving since they played 4 games against the Cardinals and 49ers, two teams that combined for just 7 wins. No other division had its bottom two teams play as poorly as the Cardinals and 49ers.
Red zone efficiency is another metric to consider. When you reach a level of football as high as the conference championship, you cannot settle for field goals. Once you march your team down the field, you need to finish off the job by punching the ball into the end zone. With the plethora of offensive firepower at Mahomes' and Brees' disposal, it's no surprise that the Chiefs and Saints both earned at least a 70% red zone rating and finished 2nd and 4th, respectively. The Rams and Patriots were mediocre this season with red zone % both finishing in the middle of the pack. From a defensive standpoint, they were also mediocre with allowing TDs in the red zone so there is nothing that really indicates to us that the Chiefs and Saints will be stopped once they get past the oppositon's 20 yard line.
Even though we just had a lengthy discussion of home field advantage and have thoroughly discussed the other important metrics when comparing teams playing at a championship level, we will mention home field one more time. Since 1970, the home team has a 34-14 record in the AFC title game and a 32-16 record in the NFC affair. In fact, the home team in each conference championship has not lost since 2012. Expect the home team winning streak to extend to 6 games for each conference with Drew Brees and the Saints making it back to the big game after a 9 year hiatus and Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs winning their first ever Lamar Hunt trophy and perhaps ending the Patriots' AFC dyntasy.
NFC Conference Championship
Los Angeles Rams 26
New Orleans Saints 27
Top player: Alvin Kamara
AFC Conference Championship
New England Patriots 17
Kansas City Chiefs 24
Top player: Patrick Mahomes