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NFL Conference Championship Sunday predictions, analysis and open thread

It’s Chiefs-Patriots and Saints-Rams this weekend. May the best (read: ones we like) teams win.

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Today’s the day. We are one game away from either having to see the Saints in the Super Bowl or getting a reprieve, hopefully in the most crushing way imaginable for New Orleans. It’s fair to say I’m more nervous about this game than I typically am for non-Falcons games.

There’s also the plucky, exciting Chiefs in the AFC going against the frankly exhausting Patriots, but that’s slightly less important for our prospects.

Let’s take a look at both matchups ahead.

Patriots @ Chiefs

The weather favors the Patriots, who despite their evident talent and brilliant coaching remain a team committed to winning ugly slugfests when the chance presents itself. With snow and freezing temperatures on tap in Kansas City, that high-powered passing attack probably won’t be quite as productive.

To make matters worse, the Patriots have smartly transitioned to a team that can run the ball very effectively when they need to. If the snow’s flying and the ball is slippery and the passing games go away, wouldn’t you pick New England?

So why am I still picking Kansas City, despite all that? They’re simply the more talented team, especially on offense, and they’re well-positioned to win a shootout if it comes to that. The Patriots have been extremely productive on offense and should have little trouble shredding the Chiefs on the ground, but Kansas City’s pass defense has quietly been solid and their ground game has been way better than you’d expect with Damien Williams toting the rock. Andy Reid has a history of bungling games against the Patriots, but this might be the most talented team he’s had, while the Patriots team he’s facing is still excellent but not quite the juggernaut it has been in years past.

It’ll be close, but hopefully, Kansas City can win.

Chiefs 38, Patriots 35

Rams @ Saints

Weather isn’t a factor in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which leaves two teams to square off on their merits. The last time that happened, unfortunately, New Orleans won.

Why should this time be any different? I never count out the Saints because they infuriatingly manage to win in all sorts of circumstances, but after the Eagles slopped around for most of the game and still managed to almost take them to the brink, the answer is plenty.

Consider this:

The Saints offense has been a shadow of itself for about a half season now. They put up 40 points six times in the first 10 weeks of the season and managed over 500 yards of offense three times in that span, absolutely strangling teams with that and a strong defense. In the seven games since, they’ve put up over 500 yards zero times and scored over 40 zero times. Heck, they’ve only cleared 30 twice, and they’ve suffered two of their worst offensive games in recent memory in that span.
There is no one thing behind that, but Brees has been missing on more throws, the Saints have a surprising lack of weapons in the passing game beyond Michael Thomas, and their offensive line is a big banged up. It’s relevant not because the Saints aren’t capable of a quality game on offense, but because they’re going to need to come out on the right end of a shootout or clamp down defensively or both to beat the Rams. Their defense has certainly remained game in recent weeks, but if the offense falters New Orleans could be in real trouble.

The Saints absolutely shredded the Rams last time out, and obviously I’m concerned they’ll do so again. But their offense has not been the same for a long time now, and that’s not an accident.The Rams, meanwhile, have continued to dominate on that side of the ball. They put up 30 against a Cowboys defense that practically shut out the Saints earlier this year and minus a hiccup against the Bears in Week 14, they’ve rolled right along with 30 point games. The defense has been hit or miss in turn, but that has been the case all year.

Crucially, there’s been no massive fall-off since the last time these two teams played, and the Rams did plenty against the Saints the first time out. They’re on the road in a very hostile environment, which gives me some pause, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t put up 30-plus against a quality Saints defense.

This game should come down to which defense can actually get stops, which would seem to favor New Orleans at home. But I genuinely don’t know if the Saints offense is up to the task of putting up 30 or 40-plus points on the board if that’s what it takes, and barring a total collapse from the Rams, that’s probably what it’s going to take. May Aaron Donald be endowed with heavenly powers and get six sacks.

Prediction: Rams 42, Saints 35

Use this as your open thread for today’s game, if you please.