The odds indicate that competition will be tight in both conference championship games. Even better, precedent shows that the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots as well as the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints will come down to the wire to decide who gets to play in Super Bowl LIII.
The Chiefs and Patriots first played each other this season on Sunday Night Football in Week 6. While New England held a convincing 24-9 lead at halftime, the Chiefs roared back in the second half to force Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski to win the game, 43-40, with a 28-yard field goal as time expired in Foxborough.
In that game, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was intercepted twice in the first half but showed what has already become his trademark resilience. Because of that, the Chiefs have to feel confident that they can push back against a more experienced Patriots team coming out hot to start—especially since the game is at Arrowhead this time around.
There are changes to location and rosters since Week 6, but will the result stay the same or change, too?
In the NFC, the scene will be the exact same as Week 9 when the Rams arrived in New Orleans only to leave the SuperDome with their first loss of the season. The Saints outscored L.A., 45-35, as wide receiver Michael Thomas torched the Rams secondary—namely Marcus Peters—for 211 yards.
However, there are a few key players on both teams whose injury statuses have changed since then.
Below are updated odds and more in-depth predictions for Sunday's conference championship games. (It should be noted, though, that only one thing is for certain: Fans can't blame Drake this time if their team loses.)
All odds are courtesy of OddsShark.
NFC Championship Game
Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints (-3) | O/U 57
AFC Championship Game
New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs (-3) | O/U 56
NFC Championship Game
The Rams and Saints have the first game of the Championship Sunday slate, but it can't come soon enough.
L.A. is a young, buck-against-the-system squad with 32-year-old Sean McVay eight years younger than future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, but Brees and head coach Sean Payton don't appear to be done with what they've built together in New Orleans since 2006.
In Week 9, Rams cornerback Marcus Peters said after his team's loss to the Saints: "Tell Sean Payton keep talking that s--t. We gonna see him soon. You feel me? 'Cause I like what he was saying on the sidelines, too, so tell him keep talking that s--t, and I hope he see me soon. And then, we gonna have a nice little bowl of gumbo together."
Payton had said during his postgame presser that he liked the matchup between Peters and Michael Thomas.
Fast forward to the present, and neither Payton nor Peters wants to talk about the words they exchanged through the media in November. Luckily for them, it actually should be irrelevant because the Rams now have a healthy Aqib Talib, who was sidelined in Week 9, who should be the one covering Thomas instead of Peters.
John Ruggiero of Pro Football Focus gives context to the impact Talib could have on Thomas' game:
"In 2016 when Denver won the Super Bowl, Talib finished with an 88.9 overall grade which was the third-highest among cornerbacks as well as a 49.5 passer rating when targeted which ranked second. Having an All-Pro with playoff success such as Talib back in the Rams secondary will bolster the unit that struggled against the pass in his absence."
Outside of Thomas, Talib has palpably made the Rams defense better in 2018 across the board in points per game, pass yards per game allowed, touchdown-to-interception ratio and opponent passer rating, according to NFL Research.
Talib can't do everything, of course, as the Saints also boast running back Alvin Kamara, and the Rams rushing defense was 23rd in the league during the regular season. If the Rams perform against the run as they did when they held Cowboys star back Ezekiel Elliott to just 47 yards, Kamara can still beat them as a receiver.
As far as rushing defenses go, the Saints finished the regular season at No. 2 and held the Philadelphia Eagles to 49 total yards on the ground in the divisional round. The only problem with the Saints feeling confident about that performance against the Eagles is that the Rams have Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson in the backfield.
From the outset, it seems this game will come down to how the Rams secondary accounts for Thomas and how the Saints front seven tame the Anderson-Gurley two-headed monster.
Health is always a factor, and the Rams are the healthier team. The Saints lost defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins to a torn Achilles in the divisional round, tight end Ben Watson to appendicitis and wide receiver Keith Kirkwood to a calf injury.
According to Rams wide receiver Robert Woods, the one thing that won't have an impact is Who Dat Nation.
Prediction: Saints march on to Atlanta, 38-30
AFC Championship Game
Many of the factors outlining the NFC Championship Game in the afternoon will also shape the AFC Championship Game in the evening at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium: one team's passing game, the other team's running game and roster changes.
To start, the Chiefs will have All-Pro safety Eric Berry on the field. The 30-year-old has missed all but two games this season because of a lingering heel injury. Berry back in the fold will only strengthen a unit that has struggled all season but has come into form at just the right time.
With Bill Belichick coming to town, the Chiefs will need as much leadership on defense as possible to help identify and order the younger players into position against what is sure to be a complicated Patriots' scheme—especially when it comes to New England's dynamic running backs.
Rookie Sony Michel has already made his presence felt in the ground game with five 100-yard rushing games this season (including playoffs). One of them came last weekend in the divisional round against the Chargers, and another came in Week 6 against the Chiefs.
The wild card, though, is James White—running back by position, more dangerous at wide receiver. White makes it impossible for any team to play the run straight up.
The running back who won't be present for this game but played a prominent role in Week 6 is former Chief Kareem Hunt, who was cut by the team on Nov. 30 after video of him shoving and kicking a woman emerged. In his place is Damien Williams—a fifth-year back who went for 129 yards and a touchdown in the divisional round.
If Williams can get going early, Mahomes will have even more opportunity to exploit the Pats through the air. To be clear: The Chiefs' Super Bowl hopes begin and end with Mahomes. However, the weapons that have been placed around him accelerate his ability to change the game.
Against the Patriots in Week 6, Tyreek Hill torched New England for 142 yards and three touchdowns on only seven catches. Meanwhile, New England's leading receiver was Rob Gronkowski, who had three receptions for 97 yards but no scores. Between Hill, Gronkowski, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, there's no telling who will be the X-factor this time around.
One man who has—time and time again for 18 seasons—decided the outcome of games is future Hall of Fame Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. This will be Brady's 13th appearance in an AFC Championship Game, with New England making it to this stage for the eighth season in a row.
Will potentially frigid temperatures intimidate him? No. Will a couple of sacks take him out of his game? No, but it can't hurt. The only way the Chiefs beat the Patriots to advance to their first Super Bowl since Super Bowl IV is if 23-year-old Mahomes is simply able to make more decisive plays than Brady.
Prediction: Mahomes magic brings Lamar Hunt trophy home, 45-42