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Most interesting storylines for NFL Championship Sunday

Sportsnaut logo Sportsnaut 1/17/2019 Vincent Frank, Sportsnaut
Bill Belichick talking on a cell phone © Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

For a whopping eighth consecutive season, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots will be playing in the AFC Championship Game for an opportunity to earn a ninth Super Bowl appearance under his watch. Only this time, New England heads into Arrowhead as underdogs against the Chiefs.

Can Patrick Mahomes announce his presence on the broader NFL stage en route to defeating Brady and Co.? If so, it could lead to speculation that the AFC is no longer New England’s domain.

In New Orleans, the No. 1 seed Saints will attempt to fend off a Rams team that was super impressive against Dallas last week. It will do so with Drew Brees and Michael Thomas in complete domination mode.

We’re equally intrigued to see how Jared Goff and his young Rams team handle the hostile environment of the Superdome in New Orleans.

These are among the most interesting storylines for NFL Championship Sunday.

a close up of a baseball player wearing a helmet © Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots just won’t go away

We’re sick of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the New England Patriots. They are NFL’s version of the evil empire — a force that just won’t go away and continues to make a mockery of those it battles on a weekly basis. For the 13th time under Mr. Brady, the Patriots will be playing in the AFC Championship Game Sunday in Kansas City.

The contrast couldn’t be any more real here. Fresh off blowing out the Chargers this past weekend, the Pats have won 14 playoffs games since 2010. The Chiefs? They have appeared in 13 postseason games since Joe Montana was tossing the rock around Arrowhead back in 1994. That’s some insane stuff right there.

a man wearing a blue hat © Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

How far will Wade Phillips’ genius take the Rams?

Phillips’ performance calling plays against the Cowboys’ offense in the divisional round win over Dallas was legendary. Already considered one of the greatest defensive minds in NFL history, Phillips completely outclassed Jason Garrett and Co. at every turn. That included stacking the box against Ezekiel Elliott in hopes that Dak Prescott wouldn’t be able to take advantage. He didn’t. And the rest is history.

The conference championship game provides a much different challenge for Phillips and his defense. You can’t stack the box against Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram — expecting Drew Brees to struggle through the air. You can’t play zone with the expectation that the two backs will struggle and the most-accurate quarterback in NFL history won’t hit the soft spots.

This was an issue we saw back in Week 9. Despite the Rams’ offense going toe-to-toe with Brees and Co., Los Angeles just couldn’t stop the Saints. New Orleans put up 487 total yards and a whopping 31 first downs en route to winning 45-35. This is what enabled the Saints to acquire home-field advantage for Sunday’s game. Yeah, something has to give here.

a group of people in uniform © Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Brady has a chip on his shoulder

If Brady’s social media activity is any indication, he’s apparently carrying a New England-sized chip on his shoulder. Someone who does pay attention to the narrative thrown in his team’s direction, Brady seems to believe others think their dynasty is over. Wherever he came up with that notion is anyone’s guess. But it’s real. And now, the Chiefs must take on the GOAT with a huge chip on his shoulder.

Much like what we saw in the Patriots’ blowout win over Los Angeles last week, this might not bode well for a suspect Chiefs defense. Remember, Kansas City yielded the second-most yards in the NFL during the regular season. If Brady is playing with this backdrop, no one knows how the game itself will turn out. It’s a scary thought for the faithful inside Arrowhead.

a group of football players playing a football game © Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The power connection in the Bayou

Most of the talk in New Orleans has surrounded the otherworldly play of ageless wonder Drew Brees. For good reason. After starting slow out of the gate last week, Brees completely outplayed Nick Foles. It led to the Saints scoring 20 unanswered after Philadelphia opened the game with a 14-0 lead.

As good as Brees has been, his favorite target — record-breaking wide receiver Michael Thomas — has been even more astonishing. Thomas broke the Saints’ single-game playoff record in receptions (12) and receiving yards (171) last week. He caught a ridiculous 85 percent of his targets during the regular season and led the NFL with 125 receptions. If Thomas’ works Rams cornerback Marcus Peters the way we saw during the regular season, the Saints will win this one going away. It’s that simple.

a man wearing a red hat © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Chiefs host first AFC Championship Game

Given the regular-season success Kansas City has had under Andy Reid, it’s absolutely shocking to realize that this is the Chiefs’ first AFC Championship Game appearance since the 1993 playoffs. It’s also the first time this heralded organization has hosted the conference title game.

There’s not much here that suggests the Chiefs won’t be up for the task. It’s more about experience and lack of experience on the field. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has started 18 combined regular-season and playoff games throughout his career. Pats quarterback Tom Brady has started more than twice as many postseason games. 

The hope here is that fans at Arrowhead will help make up for this lack of experience by creating a deafening environment for Brady and Co.

a man wearing a helmet © Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Jared Goff looks to repeat Week 9 success

Compared to what we’ve seen at home this season, Goff has struggled to an extent away from Los Angeles Coliseum. He threw 22 touchdowns compared to three interceptions at home. That dropped to 10 scores and nine picks on the road. This certainly is not good news for the Rams heading into New Orleans on Sunday.

The good news here is that Goff’s best road performance came in a 45-35 loss to the Saints back in early November. That game saw the third-year quarterback complete 28-of-40 passes for nearly 400 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. The Rams will need a similar performance to stay with a high-octane Saints offense in the championship game. That’s for sure.

a football player holding a baseball bat © Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Chiefs ground New England’s rushing attack?

Kansas City did a great job halting the Colts rushing attack last week — holding Indy to 87 yards. Marlon Mack and Co. still went for 6.2 yards per attempt. This has been a major issue for the Chiefs throughout the 2018-19 season. They finished the regular season giving up an average of 165 rushing yards over the final five games.

That’s just not going to cut it against the top-five rushing attack New England brings into the AFC Championship Game. Led by rookie Sony Michel, the Patriots put up 155 yards on the ground last week against Los Angeles. They are now averaging a robust 186 rushing yards over the past three games.

a crowd of people watching a football ball © Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson up for tough test

These two backs ran roughshod through the Cowboys’ defense to the tune of 238 yards and three scores on 39 attempts. Given that Dallas finished the regular season having yielded the fifth-fewest rushing yards in the NFL, this was a major surprise. Specifically, Anderson’s ability to dominate in just his third game as a member of the Rams was eye-opening.

It will be much more difficult to do this against a Saints defense that gave up the second-fewest rushing yards in the league during the regular season. New Orleans allowed just 80.2 yards per game at a clip of 3.6 yards per attempt. Star defensive tackle Sheldon Rankings being out for this one could help the Rams. But these Saints are no joke stopping the run.

Related slideshow: NFL playoffs (Provided by USA Today Sports)

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