Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints: 2018 NFC Championship Pick

Los Angeles Rams (14-3) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)

These two met back in week 9 in New Orleans, but a lot has changed since then. At the time, the Rams were favored by a couple points, despite being the road team, because they were an undefeated 8-0 and seen as the early Super Bowl favorite. That changed when the Saints pulled the upset and subsequently went on to win 7 of their next 8 meaningful games, while the Rams went “just” 5-3 over the second half of the season. As a result, the Saints were able to clinch the #1 seed in the NFC before week 17, despite being a game and a half back of the Rams going into their week 9 matchup.

The Saints’ strong play is a big part of the reason why they overtook the Rams in the NFC, but the Rams also regressed a little bit down the stretch, particularly on offense after they lost slot receiver Cooper Kupp. The Rams still have a talented duo of receivers in Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but Kupp had been Jared Goff’s most effective receiver over the past 2 years. Goff completed 72.4% of his 152 targets to Kupp for 1,504 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions, a ridiculous 124.5 QB rating. Kupp has missed 9 games in total including playoffs, but was also knocked out of 3 games with injury this season. In the 5 games he started and finished, the Rams had a 46.96% first down rate. In the 3 games he was knocked out, the Rams had a 44.72% first down rate. And in the 9 games he missed entirely, the Rams had a first down rate of 40.54%.

That’s still a good number and would have ranked 6th in the NFL over the course of the season, but they’re not quite the dominant offense they were going into the previous matchup, one of the five games Kupp started and finished (45.76% first down rate in a 45-35 loss). Their passing game in particular has fallen back to earth. Goff completed 71.8% of his passes for an average of 10.33 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in the 5 games Kupp started and finished, but just 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the 9 he’s missed completely. They’re still a strong offense, but they’re more reliant on the run than they were when Kupp was healthy.

Fortunately for them, the Saints also are missing a key player from the first matchup, with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins going down with a torn achilles early in last week’s win over the Eagles. Outside of Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore, Rankins was probably the Saints’ best defensive player this season, so that’s a big loss. Not only does losing him significantly hurt their chances of slowing down Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson on the ground, but he had a productive year as pass rusher as well, totaling 8 sacks, 6 hits, and 32 hurries on 450 pass rush snaps (10.2%).

On top of that, the Rams also have cornerback Aqib Talib healthy, which they didn’t have in the first matchup. In 6 games in which Talib has played more than half the snaps, the Rams have allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 34.45% rate, as opposed to 40.12% in the 11 games in which he was inactive or limited. The Rams faced a pretty easily schedule in those 6 games (Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Arizona, San Francisco, and Dallas), but it’s not hard to imagine how the return of the 6-1 209 Talib could have an impact in a rematch of a game in which the 6-3 212 Michael Thomas went for 12/211/1. I still have the Saints a little higher in my roster rankings, but I don’t think we’re getting enough line value here to bet on the Saints confidently.

New Orleans Saints 34 Los Angeles Rams 30

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Low

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 AFC Championship Pick

New England Patriots (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

The Patriots won in convincing fashion at home over a strong Chargers team last week, wrapping up an undefeated 9-0 home record, but now they have to go on the road (where they are 3-5) and travel to Kansas City for the AFC Championship game. The common narrative seems to be that they will continue to struggle on the road and, as a result, they are underdogs in a game started by Tom Brady for the first time since week 13 of the 2014 season.

The statistical difference between the Patriots at home and on the road has been very significant this season, beyond even what the records show. At home, 7 of those 9 wins came by double digits, with the only exceptions coming against the Texans and the Chiefs, a pair of AFC division winners. They have a first down rate differential of +9.65% at home. For comparison, the Bears finished 1st in first down rate differential on the season at +6.64%. On the road, however, they have a first down rate differential of -5.29%. For comparison, that would have ranked 29th in the NFL over the course of the season, most comparable to the Washington Redskins.

Fortunately for them, home/road differentials tend to be random more than anything. Over the past 30 seasons, teams with a home winning percentage of more than 90% and a road winning percentage under 50% are 40-36 straight up on the road in week 11 or later and are 21-12 ATS as road underdogs. The Patriots have been incredible at home since 2001, going 141-26 straight up, but they are also 99-49 on the road, including 24-15 ATS and 20-19 straight up as road underdogs. Any time you’re getting points with the Patriots, even against the most dominant of teams, they are worth a bet, as they tend to rise to the occasion against tough opponents, going a ridiculous 38-13 straight up against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including 7-2 in the post-season.

The Chiefs have been a dominant team on offense this season, finishing the regular season by far #1 in first down rate at 45.18% (Rams are 2nd at 43.05%), but they’ve been far from dominant on defense. They finished the season ranked 24th in points per game allowed at 26.3 and were even worse in first down rate allowed at 42.20%, worst in the NFL. Against playoff qualifiers, their defensive numbers were downright ugly, as they allowed 36.0 points per game and a ridiculous 46.54% first down rate in 6 regular season games against playoff qualifiers (2-4).

The strength of this defense is its pass rush, which led the league in sacks, led by edge rushers Dee Ford (13 sacks) and Justin Houston (9 sacks) and interior rusher Chris Jones (15.5 sacks). Combined with their explosive offense, their pass rush has allowed them to dominant weaker opponents. They go up big early with their offense, forcing their opponents to pass more than they’d like (most pass attempts against in the league), which allows their pass rushers to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. That same formula hasn’t worked as well against tougher opponents, who have been able to exploit their weaknesses against running games and quick passing games. The Patriots both rode of those to victory last week, so it’s not hard to imagine them following a similar formula this week in Kansas City.

The big exception to the Chiefs’ defensive struggles this season came against the Colts last week, in a game in which the Chiefs held the Colts to a 30.19% first down rate in a blowout 31-13 win. However, when you look at their whole season, last week’s performance looks like a fluke, especially when you consider there wasn’t any personnel change that was made between last week’s game and a month ago, when they allowed 67 points combined in a 2-game stretch against the Chargers and Seahawks.

The one player who could boost this defense is Eric Berry, who is expected to play through a heel injury this week, after sitting out the previous 2 games, but he’s played just 99 snaps since week 1 of 2017, so it’s unclear how much having him active will benefit the Chiefs. Unless the Chiefs suddenly became a different defense overnight or Eric Berry can somehow return to Pro Bowl form by Sunday, I like the Patriots’ chances of pulling the upset and they’re a great bet if you can get the full field goal.

New England Patriots 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: New England +3

Confidence: High