The bad news: A good chunk of the country is going to be pummeled by cruddy weather and bitterly cold temperatures. The good news: It’s championship weekend in the NFL.
By the time the snow gives way to Arctic air Sunday night, we’ll know the combatants of Super Bowl LIII after the NFC and AFC settle their respective conferences in New Orleans and then Kansas City.
In this week’s against-the-spread NFL picks, NESN.com’s Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian have both games covered from all angles.
Before their picks, though, here’s how they did last week.
Mike Cole: 2-2 (130-125-5 overall)
Ricky Doyle: 2-2 (134-121-5)
Andre Khatchaturian: 0-4 (135-120-5)
Here are their championship game picks with odds courtesy of OddsShark.com.
Los Angeles Rams at (-3.5) New Orleans Saints, 3:05 p.m. ET
Mike: Rams. You hear a lot about the Saints’ rush defense, but the same praise was heaped on Dallas’ run defense last week. All the Rams did against that unit was run 45 times for 238 yards on their way to a relatively comfortable win. Obviously, it’s much easier to do that at home, but I think they’ll be able to slow the game down with the run this week and keep it within the number. That the Saints don’t have standout run stopper Sheldon Rankins will make it even more difficult to stop Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson. New Orleans will get its, too, but don’t forget LA was without Aqib Talib in these teams’ first matchup this season. He should do a better job on Michael Thomas than Marcus Peters did — which isn’t saying much, of course.
Ricky: Rams. The Saints fended off a valiant comeback attempt by the Rams in Week 9 to secure a 45-35 win, but things will be different this time around thanks to who is playing for Los Angeles and who isn’t playing for New Orleans. Aqib Talib’s presence will deemphasize the Saints’ biggest receiving threat, Michael Thomas, who went off for 12 catches, 211 yards and a touchdown in the teams’ first matchup and 12 catches, 171 yards and a touchdown in New Orleans’ divisional-round win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Sheldon Rankins’ absence along the Saints’ defensive line, meanwhile, will accentuate the Rams’ biggest weapon, Todd Gurley, who, by the way, now has a partner in crime in Los Angeles’ backfield. C.J. Anderson still was playing for the Carolina Panthers back in Week 9 but since has become an important part of the Rams’ offense, especially since head coach Sean McVay can plug him in with confidence and keep Gurley fresh throughout the game. Also, the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns were the only teams with more takeaways than the Rams this season, so don’t be surprised if Los Angeles’ defense forces a momentum-swinging turnover at some point.
Andre: Saints. The final four teams are the top four teams in terms of yards per play. This tells me the teams that make the situational defensive stops will win the conference championships. Sure, the Rams’ rushing attack succeeded against the Cowboys’ solid rush defense, but I’m not sure they’re going to be able to do the same in consecutive weeks. They’ll be on the road against an elite rush defense that allowed 3.6 yards per carry this season. The Saints have allowed 100-plus yards on the ground just three times since Week 1. Drew Brees shouldn’t have any trouble moving the ball against a Rams defense that allowed nearly six yards per play in the regular season. The Rams have the defensive personnel to make an impact on the line, but the Saints’ offensive line allowed just 20 sacks all year. The Saints are at home, they have the quarterback advantage and the edge at offensive line and on defense.
New England Patriots at (-3) Kansas City Chiefs, 6:40 p.m. ET
Mike: Chiefs. This one was really, really tough to call, and I still don’t feel good about my pick. I know thinking regular-season trends will carry into the playoffs might be a fool’s errand, but it’s just hard to get over the Patriots’ road struggles. And you know what? They might not play bad in this game, but it should be hard to beat a team as talented as the Chiefs without playing on the level New England played at last week. Can they do that two weeks in a row? I’m leaning toward no. Plus, there isn’t one obvious area in which New England’s defense can slow down KC like it did last week with blitzes and rushing Philip Rivers up the middle. The Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs offense is far more versatile, and despite the Patriots’ defensive improvements throughout the season, I still wonder if there’s just too much team speed on the Chiefs’ side.
Ricky: Chiefs. This game being played in Kansas City makes a world of difference, because the Patriots were far worse on the road this season and the Chiefs’ defense has been sneaky good at home. New England, which scored 12.2 fewer points per game away from Gillette Stadium (second-biggest home-road disparity in the NFL), had a negative yards per play differential on the road (minus-0.6), which ranked 24th in the league. The Patriots also ranked poorly on the road in several other key areas, including red-zone scoring (26th), third-down conversion percentage (20th) and opponent third-down conversion percentage (27th) — they finished sixth, seventh and third, respectively, in those categories at home. And let’s not forget the Chiefs scored at least 40 points in three of these teams’ previous four matchups with Andy Reid as the coach in Kansas City. Concerned about the Chiefs’ defense? Just keep in mind Kansas City allowed 17.4 points per game at home (third) vs. 34.6 points per game on the road (31st), and that the Chiefs haven’t allowed an opposing team to score 30 points at Arrowhead Stadium since Sept. 17, 2015, a stretch of 34 games (regular season and postseason). All in all, the Chiefs’ talent will be too much for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to overcome without the aura of Foxboro — something that’s not unprecedented given the Patriots’ 3-4 road playoff record in the Brady/Belichick era.
Andre: Patriots. Once again, the team that makes key defensive stops will win this game because both of these teams have elite offenses. New England gashed the Chargers’ rush defense in the divisional round and there’s no reason why the Patriots shouldn’t be able to do the same against a Chiefs defense that allowed nearly five yards per carry this season. The Chiefs also allowed 9.7 yards per catch to running backs this season (third-most in the NFL.) The Patriots’ offensive line is extremely underrated, as the unit allowed just 21 sacks all year. The Patriots will be able to neutralize the Chiefs’ pass rush. The Patriots have the better offensive line, better quarterback, better rushing attack and are slightly more potent defensively.
Thumbnail photo via Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports Images