The stakes could not be higher on Sunday, with a spot at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta up for grabs.
The Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints first duke it out for the right to represent the NFC, before finding out whether they’ll be facing the New England Patriots or the Kansas City Chiefs from the AFC.
Ahead of the matchups – both rematches of regular-season, high-scoring shootouts – Sky Sports’ Jeff Reinebold talks through his keys to each game…
Watch the Conference Championship finals live on Sky Sports USA (channel 407) from 7pm on Sunday.
Los Angeles Rams @ New Orleans Saints
Controlling the crowd
Like every team that goes into in the Superdome, the Rams simply have to take the crowd out of the game. How can they do that? Well they showed exactly how just last week – this is the No 3 rated rush offense in the NFL – they need to run the football.
C.J. Anderson has given the team a huge lift, and with Todd Gurley – the pair combined for 273 yards in the divisional round – the Rams now have a one-two punch like the Saints have in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
Sheldon Rankins on the defensive line for the Saints is out. Los Angeles have to take advantage of that, run the ball, get in front early and keep the crowd out of the game.
For the Saints, similarly they’ve got to keep the ball, keep in control of the clock and play to the crowd. Get scores and make the game too big for the Rams.
Learning the lessons of last time
Defensively, this game could come down to the discipline the Rams have in the secondary.
Marcus Peters is about as good a defensive back as there is in the league, but he’s just so inconsistent with his attention and discipline during a game. He was torched a couple of times for long touchdowns in the previous meeting between these two teams earlier in the season.
Aqib Talib on the other side will be fine. They will play a bunch of man-to-man but will just have to make sure they don’t give up big plays.
The Rams pass rush will also be critical, because Aaron Donald is just about as disruptive a defender in the NFL right now. When he gets one-on-one, he has to win. Last time he had no sacks so that will have to change.
Saints’ ‘X Factors’
Drew Brees is going to have to move around in the pocket, because he is going to get pressured. I don’t think the Saints keep Donald quiet again.
Brees is going to need to find his one-on-one matchups. If Michael Thomas is up against Peters, he can double-move him, but against Talib it might not be so easy.
Also, Kamara will be key. He is the X factor in the game. How are you going to deal with him? If you put a defensive back on him, you may be able to cover him, but a linebacker? No shot. And, if you treat Kamara like a receiver, then you’re going to get the ball run on you by Ingram. It’s a dilemma.
New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs
Containing the QBs
The Patriots have to eliminate Patrick Mahomes’ ability to make big plays outside of the pocket. I think their rush plan will be to box him in, make him throw from inside, because when you break him down as a quarterback, you see that he is at his most dangerous when he is running around, extending plays.
For Kansas City, defensively they have to win on first down. Get Tom Brady throwing the football on 3rd and 5 or greater. If you give him short yardage situations, he will make you pay for it all day.
Julian Edelman will run option routes on you and Brady we deliver the ball before any pressure can get there. They have to keep Brady in long down situations and force him to thrown down the field to win the game.
Run, run, run
The Patriots have to run the football. The Chiefs have been deficient in run defense all year. By running the football, they control the clock, keep Mahomes on the sideline and take the crowd out of the game.
In contrast, the Patriots on defense will likely give Kansas City the run game. ‘Rush for 150 yards if you want’, they’ll think. It doesn’t matter. Because, as far as they are concerned, every time the Chiefs run the ball, it means Mahomes is not making big plays.
Chiefs playmakers stepping up
I really believe that tight end Travis Kelce has got to have a 100-yard receiving game for the Chiefs to win.
If Mahomes can break out of the pocket regularly, then guys like Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Kelce have the chance to improvise on the fly.
But, if not, the Patriots can double-team Hill, and possibly take their chances with Watkins. But I don’t see how Patrick Chung can lineup one on one against Kelce?
If he does, then the Chiefs need to target Kelce often in the game. He’s got to be the guy.
(c) Sky News 2019: NFL Conference Championships: Jeff Reinebold’s keys to Sunday