The four best teams in the NFL play each other on Sunday. And both games are likely to be decided by the finest of margins
NFC Championship game
Los Angeles Rams (No2 seed) @ New Orleans Saints (No1 seed). Sunday, 3.05pm EST/8.05pm GMT
What the Rams need to do: The Rams need to keep relying on their running game. Everyone was expecting Todd Gurley to have a big game against the Dallas Cowboys last weekend but nobody was expecting CJ Anderson to outdo him, or for both running backs to pick up more than 100 yards each. Now the Saints defense will have to game plan for both men.
What the Saints need to do: Get in front early. The Saints had to crawl out of a 14-0 hole against the Philadelphia Eagles last week. That’s not going to work against a much tougher opponent in the Rams, who dominated in the first half against Dallas, going up 20-3 on their way to a 30-22 victory.
Key player for the Rams: Aaron Donald, DT. Donald led the league in sacks during the regular season with 20.5, and is favorite to be named defensive player of the year. He’s going to have his work cut out against Drew Brees, however. Donald managed a few tackles on the future hall of famer in their last meeting, but no sacks.
Key player for the Saints: Michael Thomas, WR. Last time these two teams faced each other, Thomas accumulated 211 yards and scored a key touchdown late on. Last weekend, Thomas went off for 171 yards and yet another touchdown against the Eagles. He will be a factor again.
Unheralded players to watch: The kickers. It doesn’t get much more unheralded than being a kicker, but we’ve already seen how important they can be in a winner-takes-all scenario. Just ask poor Cody Parkey, whose blocked field-goal ended the Chicago Bears’ season. So, watch Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein and Saints kicker Wil Lutz. If casual football fans know one of their names after the game ends, that probably means something bad has happened. The usually reliable Lutz, in fact, nearly found himself the Saints’ fall guy with his fourth-quarter miss against the Eagles, but the Saints were able to hold on to win 20-14.
Prediction: Rams 24-28 Saints
AFC Championship game
New England Patriots (No2 seed) @ Kansas City Chiefs (No1 seed). Sunday, 6.40pm EST/11.40pm GMT
What the Patriots need to do: Make Patrick Mahomes look like a playoff rookie. Mahomes had a successful postseason debut against the Indianapolis Colts, but he didn’t have a passing touchdown (although he did rush for one). That didn’t really matter in a comfortable 31-13 win, but that’s not going to cut it against Tom Brady and the Patriots. Every drive in which the Patriots defense can limit the Chiefs to a field goal (or less) will be crucial if this becomes a shootout similar to the teams’ previous meeting.
What the Chiefs need to do: Watch the clock. The Chiefs’ Andy Reid is one of the best head coaches in the league, but he’s also notorious for his poor clock management in big games. If Sunday’s meeting ends up being close down the stretch, both teams must use their timeouts wisely and have perfect awareness of how much time is left (or at least glance at the clock on occasion).
Key player for the Patriots: Julian Edelman, WR. There are plenty of benefits to being Tom Brady’s favorite target and that includes climbing up the Most Postseason Receptions list. With his 94th postseason reception last Sunday, Edelman moved up to second on the list, passing Reggie Wayne, and he ended the 41-28 blowout with 98. It’s safe to bet that he won’t beat Jerry Rice’s record of 151 but he’s probably a good bet to break the 100 mark this Sunday.
Key player for the Chiefs: Damien Williams, RB. You think the Patriots regret not signing Williams? Kansas City’s running game could have taken a stumble when they cut Kareem Hunt. Instead they inserted Williams who has thrived in their system. He is coming off a 129-yard performance against the Colts.
Unheralded player to watch: Cordarrelle Patterson, KR, New England Patriots. Patterson is technically a wide receiver, but the Patriots used him as a running back during the regular season when Sony Michel was unavailable. Now that Michel is healthy, as his mammoth game against the Chargers established, Patterson’s biggest impact will be as a kick returner. In fact, Los Angeles brought in a second kicker, Nick Rose, to handle kickoffs and limit Patterson’s chances (he would end up returning just one kick, for 23 yards). In a game that may well come down to the wire, one huge return could end up being key.
Prediction: Patriots 31-34 Chiefs