Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Conference Championship Picks & Predictions

NFL StaffContributor IJanuary 18, 2019

Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Conference Championship Picks & Predictions

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    For only the second time in the last 14 years, the top two seeds in each conference are facing off in the AFC and NFC title games. Sunday's matchups also contain the NFL's four highest-scoring teams from the regular season, and both games have low spreads and high totals.  

    That makes betting on said games between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs tricky. But at this point, Bleacher Report NFL analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski have nothing to lose. 

    That trio agreed unanimously on all four games when picking against the spread last week, and although they went 2-2 straight-up, they laid a goose egg ATS. 

    The crew is now 1-6-1 against the spread and 3-5 straight-up this postseason, which is the kind of record the 😥 emoji was created for. 

    Those who view the glass half-full might argue that the law of averages is on the experts' side, and that mean regression dictates they could be in for a bounce-back Sunday. The only problem is, there aren't any unanimous consensuses among the group this time around. 

    In case you believe in buying low, here's what our panelists are thinking as the playoff field is reduced from four to two. 

                 

    Lines based on consensuses at OddsShark as of Thursday.

No. 2 Los Angeles Rams (14-3) at No. 1 New Orleans Saints (14-3)

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    When: Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET

    Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

    TV: Fox

    Referee: Bill Vinovich (the Rams are 0-8 in games officiated by Vinovich)

    Line: New Orleans -3

    In a nutshell: The Saints beat the Rams in a regular-season shootout at this same site, but that game was tied 35-35 midway through the fourth quarter. Both teams have since experienced ruts, but the younger Rams appear to be healthier and fresher. Will that be enough to upset a significantly more experienced opponent in a tough environment? 

    Injuries to watch: With running back Todd Gurley (knee) practicing fully, the Rams listed zero players on their midweek injury report. Meanwhile, the Saints offensive line continues to be banged up, with tackles Andrus Peat (hand) and Ryan Ramczyk (shoulder) both limited alongside center Max Unger (knee). On defense, they'll be without in defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (Achilles).

    Random tidbit: Nearly 16 years separate Saints quarterback Drew Brees (40) and Rams quarterback Jared Goff (24), while more than 22 years separate Saints head coach Sean Payton (55) and Rams head coach Sean McVay (32).  

The Pick: Rams +3

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    Two of our three analysts are convinced that enough has changed since that Week 9 regular-season meeting for the Rams not only to cover but to punch a ticket to Atlanta on Sunday. 

    "There are two significant differences with the Rams between their Week 9 loss to the Saints and now," Sobleski said in defense of his decision to pick the Rams straight-up. "First, Sean McVay's scheme evolved into a ball-control offense, running over opponents with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson. The Rams have been strong up front all season, but they fell behind the Saints early during their initial meeting. The ability to control the game will be crucial, and Los Angeles is more than capable of doing so.

    "Second, cornerback Aqib Talib didn't play in the Week 9 game. Talib has performed well since his return from an ankle injury, and his presence should help slow a Saints passing attack that accumulated 346 yards in that first matchup."

    While Sobleski is focused on good changes for the Rams, Gagnon is also concerned about a potential turn for the worse with the Saints. 

    "The Saints have averaged only 19.2 points in their last six games," he said, "and their offensive line is a bloody mess inside. Peat's abysmal performance last week might have cost New Orleans that game if not for a mid-game injury to Fletcher Cox, but that doesn't bode well considering Aaron Donald is the most dominant defensive player in the league and Ndamukong Suh is coming off his best game as a Ram.

    "The Rams went toe-to-toe with the Saints in Week 9, and I think their young players will have learned from that experience. They're gaining momentum with that one-two punch in the offensive backfield, and that running game now won't have to deal with the injured Rankins. Throw in the return of Talib—who should at least make it easier to cover Michael Thomas while the underrated Cory Littleton limits Alvin Kamara underneath—and I think the Rams can pull this off against a team that is lucky just to be here based on its performance against Philly."

    But Davenport, who dominated the expert pick standings during the regular season, can't bring himself to pick against a grizzled New Orleans team at the Superdome. 

    "After last week's catastrophe, I'd be tempted to pick against my colleagues since our unanimous agreement creates an inescapable vortex of wrong from which neither light nor hope can escape," he half-joked. "It would also be tempting to pick the Rams because they were my preseason pick to win the NFC. Or because they have looked better than the Saints as of late. Or because the Rams can run the ball and the Saints will be without Rankins.

    "But I just can't bring myself to pick against Drew Brees, Sean Payton and the Saints in the Superdome. Since Brees joined the team, the Saints are a perfect 6-0 at home in the postseason. The home team has won the last five NFC title games, and since 2013, only one non-No. 1 seed from either conference has advanced to the Super Bowl. In a building that's going to shake most of the afternoon, the Saints will win a close one, and then it'll be party time in America's ultimate party town."

    Predictions
    Davenport: Saints 31, Rams 27
    Gagnon: Rams 24, Saints 23
    Sobleski: Rams 35, Saints 31
    Consensus: Rams (+3)

No. 2 New England Patriots (12-5) at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

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    When: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET

    Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri

    TV: CBS

    Referee: Clete Blakeman (the Patriots are 3-5 in games officiated by Blakeman)

    Line: Kansas City -3

    In a nutshellIncredibly, Tom Brady has won only three playoff road games in his NFL career. On Sunday, his team is going up against the conference's top seed at cacophonous Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs are 8-1 with a one-point loss and an average margin of victory of 14.8 points this year. That might explain why New England is an underdog with Brady under center for the first time since 2014.

    Injuries to watch: The visiting Pats have no major concerns, while the Chiefs have some potentially great news on their hands. That's because veteran guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif has returned from injured reserve and has been practicing after missing all but five games this year due to an ankle injury. They might also get running back Spencer Ware back from a shoulder injury, and safety Eric Berry looks as though he's good to go after he missed the divisional round due to a lingering heel injury. 

    Random tidbit: Andy Reid's Chiefs have blown out the Patriots twice in the last five years. They also lost twice to New England during that stretch, but those defeats came by a combined 10 points on the road and Kansas City still scored 60 combined points in those outings. 

The Pick: Chiefs -3

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    Two of our three analysts couldn't bring themselves to ride with the Patriots on the road against a team that seems to have their number. 

    "Yes, I'm picking against both of my preseason Super Bowl picks," Davenport said. "After last week, I figure my best bet is to pull a Costanza and do the opposite of what I think I should do. Or it could just be that I don't trust the Patriots away from Gillette Stadium. The Pats were undefeated at home this year, but they were 3-5 away from Foxborough. They're also just 3-4 on the road in the playoffs with Brady under center, they've lost the last three AFC title games they played on the road and the home team is 11-1 over the last 12 AFC Championship Games.

    "The Chiefs won't play as well defensively as they did last week, but they are a much better defensive team at Arrowhead this year than away from it. Since it's going to be colder than Darth Hoodie's soul on Sunday night, we probably aren't going to see the 83 total points we got when these teams met back in Week 6. What we are going to see is the final step of Patrick Mahomes' coronation as the league's MVP and a close win by the home team."

    How much better is the Kansas City defense at home? The Chiefs have allowed 34.6 points per game and recorded 10 takeaways on the road this year, but at Arrowhead, they have 18 takeaways and allowed only 17.4 points per game. That's tied for the third-lowest mark in the NFL, and it's part of the reason Gagnon is reluctantly joining Davenport on Team Chiefs. 

    "I'm reluctant to pick against the Patriots," Gagnon said, "especially when they're getting points. Kansas City has a strong enough defensive front to get to Brady, which is the key to beating New England in January, but that might not matter because Brady gets the ball out so damn fast. And the Patriots have had a lot of trouble with Tyreek Hill's speed (he has 275 receiving yards and four touchdowns in two career meetings with the Pats), but the Patriots aren't as slow on defense as they were before Jason McCourty came on board and J.C. Jackson emerged. Plus, Bill Belichick is the ultimate adjuster.

    "But Kansas City nearly beat the Patriots in Foxborough earlier this season, and the site is everything here since the Chiefs are tremendous at home and the Patriots have never been particularly special outside of New England. Kansas City might also have Berry back on defense and Duvernay-Tardif and Ware back on offense. That should be just enough to pull this out, but the push is a strong possibility."

    But again, there's no unanimity here. Sobleski likes one particular matchup advantage for a Patriots team that has been here, done this. 

    "Even if Kansas City gets caught in an arctic blast, Mahomes is going to get his," he said. "Brady will as well. One particular matchup favors New England, though. The Patriots own the league's best offensive interior. The group dominated the Los Angeles Chargers at the point of attack and provided Brady with plenty of time to throw. The Chiefs create pressure better than any other team, yet their defense isn't nearly as effective if it isn't placed in favorable down-and-distance situations. Meanwhile, Bill Belichick's defense will be well-prepared and do everything in its power to confuse Mahomes. Experience matters."

    In Sobleski's defense here (and Davenport's defense above), it's worth noting that those among this group who have picked against the majority as lone wolves are 66-61-1 this year.

    Predictions
    Davenport: Chiefs 24, Patriots 20
    Gagnon: Chiefs 30, Patriots 26
    Sobleski: Patriots 27, Chiefs 23
    Consensus: Kansas City (-3)