If you like offense, next week’s action should be everything you want on a football Sunday. For the first time in the Super Bowl era, the league’s Top 4 scoring offenses, based on points per game, will make an appearance in the conference championship game, per NFL Research. The Kansas City Chiefs led all teams scoring 35.3 points per game during the regular season, followed by the Los Angeles Rams (32.9), New Orleans Saints (31.5) and New England Patriots (27.3).
Of course with such potent offenses on the field, it will be the ultimate test for each team’s defense, and how those units perform figures to decide which teams reach the Super Bowl.
AFC championship game: New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET
The Patriots had little trouble getting to their 13th AFC conference championship game in 19 seasons under coach Bill Belichick. New England enjoyed a lopsided victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, so much so the oddsmakers at the Westgate SuperBook penciled them in the AFC title contest with nearly four minutes left to go in the second quarter.
Quarterback Tom Brady completed 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown with wideout Julian Edelman catching nine of those throws for 151 yards. Running back Sony Michel finished the game with 129 rushing yards and had 105 yards and three touchdowns in the first half of his NFL playoff debut, making him the third player in the last 25 postseasons with three first-half rushing touchdowns (1993 Ricky Watters and 2013 LeGarrette Blount are the others) and the only player in the last 25 postseasons with 100 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns in the first half.
The dismantling of the Chargers by the Patriots should be very concerning for the Chiefs since the Chargers were one of the most-balanced teams in the NFL this year. Offensively Los Angeles ranked No. 2 during the regular season per Football Outsiders Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent. Quarterback Philip Rivers was even part of the early MVP conversation and finished the year as the seventh-most valuable passer of 2018 per ESPN. Still, the Chargers managed just seven points of offense against the Patriots in the first half on Sunday and never had more than a one percent win probability in the second half, per ESPN. Defensively, the Chargers ranked No. 8 in DVOA yet New England scored 41 points, 35 points in the first half alone.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, are not so balanced. They had the league’s top offense this season, scoring 3.1 points per drive, including the playoffs, earning them Football Outsiders’ top offensive DVOA ranking. However their defense, after adjusting for opponent, ranked just 26th, which includes a league-worst run defense.
Kansas City’s defensive line stopped only 15 percent of rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage in 2018 (27th) and allowed 78 percent of rushers on third or fourth down, with two yards or less to go, to achieve a first down or touchdown (30th). Three of its starting defensive players, Xavier Williams (73rd out of 112 qualified players), Derrick Nnadi (81st) and Allen Bailey (100th), are among the worst run stoppers in the NFL this season per the game charters at Pro Football Focus.
The tipping point for New England is going to be a lead of 11 points or more. Once they have established that its offensive focus switches from a majority of passing plays to a majority of rushing plays. And if that happens, the Chiefs might not be able to recover.
Regardless of the lead, you can imagine the Patriots will want to focus on a steady, ball-control offense that chews up the clock, which will keep the ball out of the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ explosive offense.
NFC championship game: Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET
The Saints averaged almost three points per drive in 2018, including the playoffs, while the Rams gnashed opponents for 2.7 points per drive, making them the second and third most-efficient offenses of the season.
Both have quality quarterbacks and both have elite players at the skill positions but the Rams have some of their most important players flying under the radar: not a single player on the Rams offensive line was named to the Pro Bowl or either all-pro team. That’s surprising, because the Rams pass-blocking and run-blocking were some of the best in the NFL this season.
For example, the offensive front of Los Angeles allowed one of their rushers to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage just 15 percent of the time, tying them with the Saints offensive line — led by Pro Bowl center Max Unger and second-team all-pro left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk — for the best mark in 2018. The Rams, like the Saints, also provided stout pass protection: per Football Outsiders, these two teams finished the regular season ranked sixth and third, respectively, for adjusted sack rate this season, which are sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent.
On defense, however, we see a very different picture. New Orleans had one of the best defensive lines in football, stuffing 24 percent of rushers (third best) with a 9 percent adjusted stuff rate (fourth best). Los Angeles finished the regular season at 16 (22nd) and 7 percent (19th), respectively.
That edge is why a championship game featuring the Saints is among the two most likely outcomes for Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.