Ageism. Who would've thought that would become a theme of the conference championship games?
Tom Brady and the Patriots travel to Kansas City to face Patrick Mahomes, a quarterback who is Brady's junior by 18 years and 45 days. That's the largest age gap among starting quarterbacks in postseason history. Newly minted 40-something Drew Brees is 15 years and 270 days senior to his counterpart in the NFC Championship Game, the Rams' Jared Goff. That difference is the second-largest in conference championship history -- yes, behind only Brady-Mahomes -- and it ranks third in overall playoff lore. You will be hearing of and about these anomalies all the way through Sunday's games. Probably ad nauseum by the time the first kickoff rolls around. But does this subplot really matter?
There is a poignant scene in "Castaway" where Tom Hanks' character, Chuck Noland, laments how he came to realize he had control over nothing while stranded on a deserted island, including the manner in which he considered ending his own life. In many ways, each of the quarterbacks playing this weekend is stranded in his own prison of greatness. Few people can understand the pressure on a quarterback who is able to put a team on his back in order to reach the Super Bowl, whatever the signal-caller's age. The average quarterbacks don't carry that burden; expectations for them aren't as suffocating as they are for a player of Brees' ilk. Or Mahomes'. Or even Goff's.
Like Noland, these players have less control than you would think over how their remaining legacy will play out. Brady's body could break down as soon as next year, causing the kind of abrupt regression in his game seen most recently in the final campaigns of Peyton Manning and Brett Favre. Conversely, Mahomes seems destined for multiple Super Bowl appearances, but could his career take the same turn as Dan Marino's did after that early Super Bowl appearance, where his supporting cast was never viable enough to get him back to the promised land? Mahomes can make any throw with that rubber-band arm of his, but a GM he is not. He can't ensure his (successful) football fate. Nobody knows what will transpire in his or Goff's careers going forward, no matter how young and promising they are at this moment. It's that uncertainty beyond this weekend that adds intrigue -- and a sense of urgency -- to what are already fascinating matchups on Sunday. Put another way: Age doesn't matter.
Those are my overriding thoughts today. On to yours ...
Because then it would turn into the NIT.
Find you a furry friend to watch football with -- it will do you both some good.
Elliot Harrison went 3-1 on his predictions for the Divisional Round, bringing his record for the season to 180-82-2. How will he fare on Championship Sunday? His picks are below.
SUNDAY, JAN. 20
3:05 p.m. ET (FOX) | Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
The question on most people's minds, presumably: Will this title bout resemble the Week 9 game between these two teams? The Saints and Rams played arcade football in early November, trading blows (and points) until New Orleans emerged with a 45-35 win. It was a huge factor in the Saints earning the very home-field advantage they will enjoy when Los Angeles comes to town this Sunday. So, will the NFC Championship Game mirror that previous meeting? No way.
Two and a half months later, both defenses are different -- and, frankly, much better. Start with the visitors, who were without a key cog in their defense back in November. With CB Aqib Talib sidelined by injury, coordinator Wade Phillips was forced to start Troy Hill opposite Marcus Peters. Talib's ready to rock for this Sunday's affair. Moreover, Aaron Donald's production really picked up after that loss. The All-Pro defensive tackle -- and likely Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season -- recorded 10.5 sacks, 20 QB hits, 13 tackles for a loss and 31 overall tackles since the loss ... in only seven games. Phillips' defense as a whole picked it up during the back stretch, as well. After getting embarrassed by the Russell Wilson-led Seahawks and the Patrick Mahomes Experience in back-to-back weeks, L.A.'s defense came out of the bye and authored three quality starts in December, and then another last Saturday night against Cowboys. The outliers being a 30-23 loss to the Eagles and Nick Foles (shocking ... not really), and in Week 17 against the 49ers, when the team tapped the brakes late with a huge lead (L.A. was up 48-17 midway through the fourth quarter before the Niners tacked on two late touchdowns).
The Saints started off the 2018 campaign with a shocking 48-40 home loss to the Fitzmagic Bucs. But New Orleans matured into top-shelf Scotch over the remainder of the regular season, and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen deserves a ton of credit for getting the Saints to where they are today. After looking like a lost heap of preseason promise through the first eight games (a stretch that ended with the Saints spotting Sean McVay's outfit 35 points), Allen's side of the ball responded. Over the next seven games, New Orleans gave up 102 points -- that's 14 and change per outing. (We're not counting that meaningless Week 17 dance-off with the Panthers when Sean Payton rested numerous starters.) Last week, Foles shredded New Orleans early, but then Marshon Lattimore came up with the biggest takeaway of the Saints' season. After that play early in the second quarter, the only Philly special was a deep drive that resulted in another Lattimore pick (with a little help from Alshon Jeffery). New Orleans didn't allow a single point in the final 49 minutes of play. Thus, I have a difficult time seeing 45-35 2.0.
So, who wins? Taking the Rams. Jared Goff is out of his slump. Todd Gurley is healthier. C.J. Anderson suddenly appears to be the top RB2 since Bronko Nagurski was spelling Red Grange -- and he's plowing people like the Bronk, too. McVay has almost all of his tools at his disposal. Three more factors worth noting:
1) The Saints' offense hasn't been the Saints' offense for some time. Since Week 13, New Orleans has reached 30 points once. And three times during this span, Payton's crew has failed to eclipse 20. (Again, that is excluding the Week 17 "contest" with Carolina.)
2)Alvin Kamara is one of the most explosive and exciting players in the NFL today. Yet, since taking that huge (illegal) hit from Jaylon Smith in Week 13, the running back's productivity is way down. During this span, including the Divisional Round, he is well under his season averages in rushing yards per game, yards per carry and yards per catch. His touchdown production is down, too, although I've always felt that is overrated as a measure of individual performance. It's still a team stat, really.
3) I have often stated that Goff might be the premier intermediate thrower in the game. Well, he's certainly the most prolific. The third-year QB leads the league in passing on throws that travel 10-30 yards (2,223 yards on the season). His 11.1 yards per attempt on these throws is an excellent figure.
6:40 p.m. ET (CBS) | Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Mo.)
What a fun matchup: The NFL's royalty at the quarterback position faces the flashy newcomer, an unexpected (uninvited?) guest to the pantheon of league greats just 18 starts into his NFL career. Tom Brady has been an NFL starter for 18 years. So, what to expect from this quarterback matchup? Will the Patriots' offense take advantage of a Chiefs defense that has bordered on bend-and-bend-some-more all season? Will it be enough to keep up with a dynamic Kansas City offense?
Quality, yes and no are the answers to those three questions.
While Brady hasn't won an AFC title game on the road since the 2004 championship clash at Heinz Field -- a game I watched with an ex at an overpriced Irish Pub in L.A. (that story at another time) -- don't expect him to flop. He will be forced to get the ball out quick, seeing how the Chris Jones/Dee Ford/Justin Houston triumvirate made like the Three Amigos in the Colts' backfield last week. (Would you say they had a plethora of sacks, Jefe?) Mahomes, despite this only being his second postseason start, has answered every challenge. This game won't be any more difficult than when the Ravens and their top-ranked defense came to town in early December. Mahomes answered the bell -- ding, ding -- late in that context. The Pats will score some points Sunday. On that thought, Anthony Hitchens had better get out in space on James White, or the latter will grab 10 balls in the first half for the second straight week. (Chiefs DC Bob Sutton can't have Ford and Houston wasting valuable pass-rush snaps sprinting into the flat to cover White.)
But the real issue here is whether New England can match up with Kansas City's offense. Thinking no. If the running game is rolling (like last week), doubling Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce becomes quite problematic. And what to make of Sammy Watkins, who suddenly emerged from a web of new surroundings and more injuries to become a factor again?
Pertinent Note I: Against man coverage this season, Mahomes' 9.5 yards per attempt, 10.3 touchdown percentage (TD/pass attempts) and 121.3 passer rating are all league-high figures. Meanwhile, the Pats employ man coverage on 51.6 percent of their coverage snaps -- the highest rate in the NFL.
Pertinent Note II: The Patriots' defense finished the regular season ranked seventh in points allowed and tied for fifth in takeaways. Put another way: Ignore the yards-allowed crap everyone uses to rank "Total Defense." (New England's D ranked 21st by that flawed measurement.)
Pertinent Note III: The Jones/Ford/Houston trio has racked up 40.5 sacks this season (including in last week's playoff win). That's incredible. Brady can't throw 3-yard ins and none-yard outs forever.
Fun Fact I: Brady is more than 18 years older than Mahomes, the largest age gap ever by two starting QBs in a playoff game.
Fun Fact II: Fun Fact I has no relevance. Didn't you read the intro??
Fun Fact III: Mahomes threw 50 touchdown passes during the regular season. Brady tossed 50 in 2007. This will be only the third postseason meeting ever between QBs who have enjoyed 50-touchdown seasons. The first two? Manning-Brady showdowns. (Peyton, not Eli.)