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10 key questions for NFL conference championship weekend

Larry Brown Sports logo Larry Brown Sports 1/19/2019 Grey Papke, Larry Brown Sports
a group of football players © David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

When we go to bed on Sunday night, we will know which two teams will contest Super Bowl LIII in two weeks. The New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints have been here before, while this is newer for the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs. Expect the weekend to feature a lot of offense, as it’s the calling card for these four teams much more than any of their defense.

What factors will determine the AFC and NFC champions? Here are 10 key questions to watch out for this Sunday.

1) Can the Chiefs get pressure on Tom Brady?

Long considered vital to the notion of containing Tom Brady is the need to pressure him and hurry him. The Chiefs, it could be argued, actually have a pretty solid pass rush. Chris Jones had 15.5 sacks this season, Dee Ford added 13, and Justin Houston contributed nine. Kansas City doesn’t necessarily have to sack Brady to be successful, but those three and their defensive teammates need to at least give him something to think about. The Chargers failed to do so a week ago.

2) How much will revenge be a factor for the Rams?

For Rams cornerback Marcus Peters, we already know the answer to this question. On Nov. 4, the Saints saw off the Rams, 45-35, in a game that wasn’t even as close as it looked, handing the Rams their first defeat of the season and leaving a very bad taste in the mouths of some of their players. The chance to play in a Super Bowl is enough of a motivational factor for Los Angeles, but it’s pretty clear that Peters, at least, wants to get one over on New Orleans. Whether that ends up helping or hurting remains to be seen.

3) Will Eric Berry provide the boost Kansas City’s secondary needs in a tough matchup?

While the Chiefs really locked it down against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, their secondary has struggled at times this season. Most of that has been without safety Eric Berry, who is expected to play at least some role in Sunday’s game. It’s not really fair to put too much on Berry. As good as he is, he’s barely played this season and is stepping in against the likes of Tom Brady. That said, it’s not unreasonable to expect him to offer a lift to the secondary that they’ll badly need against this sort of passing attack.

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4) Can the Rams’ run defense produce a repeat performance against Ingram and Kamara?

The Rams’ occasionally criticized run defense locked down Ezekiel Elliott last week, a key factor in their win over the Dallas Cowboys. They’ll be faced with another difficult challenge in the pairing of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram of the New Orleans Saints. The Saints aren’t as reliant on the run as the Cowboys are, so there’s an argument to be made that the Rams have to play even better this week to contain the New Orleans offense, running game included.

5) Have the Chiefs learned anything from their first matchup with the Patriots?

On Oct. 14, the Patriots fought off the Chiefs, 43-40, at Gillette Stadium in one of the season’s more dramatic contests. The Chiefs nearly came back to win from a 24-9 halftime deficit in that game, but it was hard to overcome the 500 total yards they gave up. Kansas City’s defense, in particular, has to take something from that game and perform better this time around if things are going to end better for them here. They’ll also have home field, which could be another key advantage that they didn’t have in October.

6) Was C.J. Anderson a fluke or the real thing?

Nobody was really expecting Anderson to run for 123 yards against the Dallas Cowboys, besting even Todd Gurley in terms of rushing yardage. The question becomes what the repeat performance will look like. The Rams may not want to rely on the run game as much against New Orleans, and Gurley will likely still get the bulk of the looks, but the Rams could get an enormous boost if Anderson once again contributes significantly on the ground. It’s an intriguing subplot, and a lot depends on whether the Rams discover New Orleans’ tells.

7) Will Patrick Mahomes go off in the playoffs?

Mahomes certainly wasn’t bad in his playoff debut by any stretch. He threw for 278 yards, but didn’t have to run much or throw for a touchdown to beat the Indianapolis Colts. That probably won’t be enough against New England. During their regular season meeting, Mahomes was electric against the Patriots, throwing for 352 yards and four touchdowns. A similar performance may well be required this week, and he’ll probably have to step it up and deliver a signature playoff performance.

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8) Can the Michael Thomas-Drew Brees combination be stopped?

The Philadelphia Eagles certainly couldn’t control Thomas, who caught 12 passes for 171 yards in the NFC Divisional round. It’s safe to count on Thomas being Drew Brees’ favorite target once again, and against the Rams’ secondary, he has the potential to put up big numbers. It’s not really reasonable to expect the Rams to totally shut down Thomas, but they have to at least keep him contained and prevent him from doing serious damage on the offensive side of the ball.

9) Can Sony Michel keep up his torrid pace?

One of the biggest boosts the New England Patriots got in their win over the Chargers was a very productive running day from rookie back Sony Michel. He scored three touchdowns with 129 rushing yards and proved to be a potent weapon against a Los Angeles defense that seemed more focused on Tom Brady. It remains to be seen if Michel can do something similar against the Chiefs, who kept the Colts’ rushing attack locked down a week ago. If he can find success, the Patriots’ path to victory becomes a lot clearer.

10) Can Jared Goff match Drew Brees for production?

Goff hasn’t thrown for 300 yards or more since Week 15 against the Philadelphia Eagles, and he only completed 15 passes for 186 yards in beating the Dallas Cowboys thanks to the Rams’ rushing attack. The odds are that won’t get it done against Drew Brees and the Saints. Goff will need to go to the air and find success there and at least try to keep pace with Brees. If he can’t, it’s entirely possible that the Rams’ offense finds itself in a hole that it just can’t dig itself out of.

Related slideshow: Best of NFL playoffs (provided by USA Today Sports)

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