Conference championship week always reminds me of the good — and bad — personal experiences with my teams in the most pressure-filled game of the NFL season.
Yes, I’ve always believed NFL conference title games rise above the Super Bowl in magnitude from a team exec’s perspective. For any team other than New England, for whom it’s always Super Bowl win or bust, a loss in this round is the ultimate downer with a Super Bowl trip on the line.
My teams played in this game six times, winning two (1976 Vikings, 1999 Titans) and losing four (Vikings in 1977, ‘87 and ‘98 and Titans in 2002). We lost the two Super Bowls we played in, but it was definitely more painful to lose in the conference championships (especially Minnesota’s 30-27 overtime loss to Atlanta in ’98, after our 15-1 regular season).
As this year’s final four teams are doing this week, we worked hard on all of the logistics to prepare for the Super Bowl. That included meeting with the league office and host city; working up ticket distribution plans and fan travel packages; figuring out team hotel allocations, team itineraries and family activities; reserving buses; and planning arrival and post-game parties.
It’s a huge disappointment to have all this planning in place, and then lose — but what a thrill it was to win that conference title game and know we were headed to the Super Bowl.
When a team hasn’t been to a Super Bowl in many years, it creates even more pressure and excitement once it reaches this point. That’s the case for three of the teams playing this Sunday, all except the Patriots, who are seeking an amazing fourth Super Bowl appearance in five years.
Kansas City has the longest drought, going back 49 years. The Rams’ last Super Bowl was in 2001, when they resided in St. Louis, but the L.A. version hasn’t been since 1979. The Saints had their epic 2009 Super Bowl season, but it’s still been nine years of waiting to get back to the big game.
With that said, here are my picks for which of these high-scoring teams (the league’s top four scoring offenses are left) will experience the high of Super Bowl 53 on Feb. 3.
NFC Championship, Rams at Saints
Even with two high-powered passing attacks, I see the ground game as a key in this rematch of the Saints’ 45-35 Week 9 win in New Orleans (which ended L.A..’s unbeaten start). The Rams overpowered the Cowboys last Saturday with a 273-yard rushing performance. The Saints held the Eagles to 49 yards rushing last week and had the second-ranked run defense in the regular season. But they’ll have to overcome the loss of premier run-stopping defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who tore his Achilles against Philly.
I see the Saints keeping Todd Gurley in check as they did last time (68 yards) and forcing Jared Goff to beat them in the passing game. Goff threw for 391 yards in the last meeting, but has been less effective since excellent wide receiver Cooper Kupp was lost for the season with an ACL in Week 10.
The ultra-loud Superdome is a big advantage for Cameron Jordan and the Saints’ pass-rushers, who should be able to pressure Goff into a couple interceptions. Meanwhile, I see a big game out of Drew Brees and terrific receiver Michael Thomas, who are both coming off big performances against the Eagles.
Brees threw for 346 yard and four touchdowns against the Rams in the November victory while Thomas torched the Rams secondary that day (12 catches, 211 yards, one touchdown). But Rams starting corner Aqib Talib was on injured reserve for that game, and his presence should help the L.A. defense on Sunday. Aaron Donald also needs to make a big impact for the Rams to have a chance to win (he had just one tackle but four quarterback hits on Brees).
I think the Saints’ excellent rushing duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram will find openings against a Rams run defense that gave up a league-worst 5.1 yards per carry in regular season. Kamara also will do damage as a receiver.
I think the difference in this one is the homefield and winning experience of Brees and gutsiness of coach Sean Payton (who turned the Eagles game around with the fake punt call from the Saints’ own 30). Brees and Payton should be a big advantage against conference title game newbies in third year quarterback Goff and 32-year old phenom coach Sean McVay.
I see the Saints marching on to the Super Bowl with a 38-24 win.
AFC Championship: Patriots at Chiefs
What a quarterback matchup: the greatest of all time, Tom Brady, with his five Super Bowl rings, vs. second-year Patrick Mahomes, the likely MVP whose playmaking ability makes him the most exciting player in the NFL. This also is a rematch of a thrilling Week 6 43-40 victory for the Pats at New England. Brady (340 passing yards, two touchdowns plus a rushing score), Sony Michel (106 rushing yards, two touchdowns), Mahomes (352 passing yards, four touchdowns) and Tyreek Hill (seven catches for 142 yards, three touchdowns) were stars in that game. But Mahomes also threw two costly interceptions to aid New England in its win.
The Chiefs are 8-1 at home this season, while the Patriots are 3-5 on the road. So K.C. should win, right? Not so fast.
The Patriots — a true dynasty — are in the AFC championship game for an incredible eighth straight year (4-3 during this run). Just as in the NFC title game, Brady’s history of clutch performances in big games will be matched against the young upstart in Mahomes, who is certainly capable of leading K.C. to the promised land. But I don’t see it happening this week.
The weather forecast is projected around 30 degrees — just below freezing. The later start will make it even tougher to throw the cold football, especially if the winds pick up (Mahomes did beat the Colts on a snowy day last week, but it wasn’t as cold as this weekend, and Mahomes had several downfield misfires against Indianapolis).
Arrowhead Stadium is an intimidating place to play, but I think the cold weather plays right into the hands of Brady and teammates, who will feel like they’re back in Foxboro. I saw this first-hand with the Titans in the 2004 AFC divisional playoff, when we lost at New England on a sub-zero night in which Brady threw well.
Brady will handle the elements better than the less-experienced Mahomes, who also will find it tougher this time around against an improved Pats defense and a Bill Belichick scheme that will double team Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. The Chiefs will need to find success in the running game as they did against the Colts (180 yards rushing) to allow their passing game to find success. New England, which held the Chargers to 19 yards rushing last week, should play them tougher than the Colts did.
The Patriots are coming off a big game against the Chargers, in which they scored touchdowns on their first five drives. They’ll spread the field with receivers, go up-tempo to tire Chiefs defenders and run it effectively against the Kansas City’s No. 27 run defense.
Of note: Brady is trying to further motivate himself and his team by playing no-respect card, saying, “Everyone thinks we suck and we can’t win any games so we’ll see.” (I’ve never heard anyone say the Patriots suck, have you?).
Andy Reid has done a tremendous job coaching up Mahomes as a first-year starter, encouraging his scrambling and playmaking ability. But the elephant in the room is Reid’s big-game record: He’s 1-4 in conference title games going back to his Philly days, and 0-2 in playoff games vs. Belichick (including a divisional round loss for the Chiefs at Foxboro in 2015). Belichick’s AFC title game record is 9-4, including 2-2 on the road.
The Chiefs defense surprisingly throttled Andrew Luck and the Colts last week. I don’t think that happens against Brady with his quick release. New England wins 31-27.
Then, it will be 41-year-old Brady vs. 40-year-old Brees in a truly super matchup.
Jeff Diamond was the NFL Executive of the Year in 1998 after the Vikings’ 15-1 season. He also is former president of the Tennessee Titans. He does sports/business consulting, media and speaking work including corporate and college speaking on Negotiation, Management, Leadership and Sports Business–contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.