Team Notes Week 20 2018
NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFF
Directly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
Access specific teams by clicking on a team name in the schedule appearing directly to your left or by clicking on a helmet below; return to the helmets by hitting the link labeled "Menu" following each teams notes. ...
Kansas City ChiefsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 15 January 2019
The Chiefs ended a long run without a home playoff win by beating the Colts 31-13 on Saturday and that win means they will be hosting the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium next Sunday.
It is the first time the game will be played in Kansas City and it is just the second time the Chiefs have gone to the conference championship since the AFL-NFL merger. Winning the game would mean winning the Lamar Hunt Trophy, which is named after the franchise's founder and father of current owner Clark Hunt.
"It's been a long time coming. It's something we feel as an organization we should have accomplished in recent history," Hunt said, via Adam Teicher of ESPN.com. "Since Andy [Reid] came here, we've had a lot of shots. But finally we get a chance to win that AFC championship and to get to do it at home is so special for us."
The Chiefs will host the Patriots Sunday. They lost 43-40 in New England in Week 6.
It's worth noting that when he was growing up in Texas, Patrick Mahomes watched a lot of Tom Brady's game.
According to Teicher, one of Mahomes' earlier Super Bowl memories, he said, is of Brady and the New England Patriots upsetting the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
That doesn't mean Mahomes was a fan.
"Being from Texas, I was a Cowboys fan when I was younger," Mahomes said. "I wasn't necessarily a fan of him winning all the time. You definitely respected his game and how he played. When you have that much success, it takes a lot of hard work, so you respect that."
Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs will get a chance to deprive Brady and the Patriots of another Super Bowl on Sunday.
Brady, 41, and Mahomes, 23, are separated by many years on a calendar and many seasons in experience, but they are connected in the passing record book. They are two of the three quarterbacks to throw 50 touchdown passes in a season, Brady in 2007 and Mahomes this season.
They are two of the seven quarterbacks to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season, Brady in 2011 and Mahomes this season.
Mahomes, in fact, watched a lot of Brady video while in college at Texas Tech at the request of coach Kliff Kingsbury, who was briefly a teammate of Brady in New England.
"He liked to show me some things that he did where he was in the pocket, his pocket movements and things like that," Mahomes said. "I have definitely taken some things from him. He does it at such a high level. It's something you have to strive to be like."
If this contest is anything like the Week 6 meeting between the Chiefs and Patriots in New England, a classic AFC title game is ahead. Brady threw for 340 yards and a touchdown, Mahomes for 352 and four.
The teams combined for 946 yards, and scored 30 points between them in the fourth quarter. The Patriots won 43-40 on a walk-off, 28-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
"I have the ultimate respect for Tom and everything that he did this game and his whole entire career," Mahomes said afterward. "He's had success in this league because he's won games with last-minute drives like that. For us, you just have to find a way to win games like this. If you want to get to where you want to get to, you have to win games that are going to be tight and they're going to be against really good opponents.
"He gave me congrats on playing a good game and. ... of course I did the same to him. I just kind of told him good luck for the rest of the season and we're going to go out there and hopefully we can keep playing and hopefully we might get to see him again."
Going up against the Colts this past weekend, Mahomes showed why he is a frontrunner for the league's MVP, as he picked apart the Colts' Cover 2 defensive coverage by completing 27 of 41 passes for 278 yards and rushing for a touchdown. As NFL.com's Herbie Teope noted, Mahomes also put his shortstop-like sidearm throws in the face of pressure on full display, connecting numerous times from different platforms with various receivers.
Mahomes got a lot of help from his All-Pro teammates. Tight end Travis Kelce caught seven passes for 108 yards, while wide receiver Tyreek Hill hauled in eight catches for 72. The league's MVP award was voted on at the end of the regular season. But any doubt as to whether Mahomes should win it likely ended Saturday as the Chiefs simply don't enjoy a 12-4 season, clinch the top seed in the AFC and advance to the AFC Championship Game without him.
Also worth noting. ... A much-maligned Chiefs defense picked a good spot to be a reason K.C. has a shot at a trip to the Super Bowl. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton's unit, which finished the regular season ranked 31st in the league, manhandled the Colts with three sacks and five quarterback hits and limited the Colts to 263 total net yards of offense. Outside linebacker Justin Houston paced the Chiefs with three sacks, two quarterback hits, two tackles for a loss and a fumble recovery.
While the Colts got on the scoreboard early courtesy of a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown, the Chiefs shut down quarterback Andrew Luck and the league's seventh-best offense until surrendering a fourth-quarter score.
The Colts entered the game as the top team in the league in third-down efficiency, converting 104 of 214 attempts for a 49 percent conversion rate. On the game, the Colts converted 0 of 9 third-down attempts, and went three-and-out on their opening four possessions. The Colts' running game, which pounded out 200 yards and a touchdown in the opening round of the postseason, found no sledding against the Chiefs and managed 87 yards. A lot of credit must go to Sutton for devising a scheme to confuse Luck and Co. Luck finished the game completing 19 of 36 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown for a 78.8 passer rating.
If the Chiefs can continue to get the level of play out of their defense, Brady and the Patriots will have a long day. ...
As Profootballtalk.com's Josh Alper reminded readers, the Chiefs released running back Kareem Hunt during the regular season after video of him hitting a woman came to light, but their offense hasn't missed the NFL's leading rusher from 2017 too much.
Damien Williams has been a big part of keeping things humming despite the change to the backfield. After running three times and catching three passes through the first 12 weeks of the year, Williams ran 47 times for 255 yards and four touchdowns while adding two touchdown catches over the final five games of the regular season.
Williams followed that up by running 25 times for 129 yards and a touchdown and catching five passes for 25 yards. Those 25 carries included three fourth-down conversions and Williams said after the game that it showed Reid's confidence in the team.
"He's letting you know he trusts us," Williams said, via the Wichita Eagle.
Williams' efforts over the last couple of months give the Chiefs plenty of reason to trust that he can continue getting the job done in next week's conference title game and beyond. ...
On the health front. ... The Chiefs have been nursing a group of significant players, and at least one of them came out of his return in good shape.
Via Brooke Pryor of the Kansas City Star, Chiefs wideout Sammy Watkins played 81 of their 87 snaps Saturday against the Colts, a full workload in his first game back from a foot injury.
"I think he's doing OK," Reid said Monday. "He felt good after the game. He felt pretty good yesterday. He's sore just from playing, but the foot feels good."
Watkins hadn't played since Week 11, and his return was not without its hiccups, including a fumble. But he also made a few splash plays, adding an element to an offense that was hardly struggling.
There's less certainty about two other starters with lingering issues.
Tuesday was the deadline to activate guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif from injured reserve and the Chiefs did just that early Tuesday. He broke his fibula in Week 5 and has been practicing for the last three weeks.
Safety Ron Parker has been dropped from the roster in a corresponding move.
Duvernay-Tardif was the starter at right guard at the time of his injury and Andrew Wylie has held down the job since Duvernay-Tardif dropped out of the picture.
Meanwhile, they're playing the day-to-day game with safety Eric Berry, who has played parts of two games this year but was inactive against the Colts.
"I'm not disappointed," Reid said. "We've had great communication through the process. And most important that when and if he can play, he can protect himself and play at the level he wants to play at. He didn't feel like he was at that level. He's been great with communicating. One of those deals.
"If he can go, he can go. If he can't, he can't. I'm proud of the guys who stepped in and played and played at such a high level to give us an opportunity to be here."
Parker played eight snaps in last Saturday's win over the Colts. His departure could be a sign that the team thinks Berry could return to the lineup this week. .....
At this point, as PFT's Darin Gantt suggested, "Any snaps they get out of him have to be considered a bonus. ..."
And finally this week. ... The National Weather Service is forecasting an arctic blast to hit Kansas City, according the Associated Press.
Temperatures at kickoff could range from 10 degrees to zero. Arrowhead Stadium twice has hosted games where it was 1 degree at kickoff, including the Chiefs' 2016 regular-season game against the Titans when the wind chill was minus-9.
It was 32 degrees at kickoff for the Chiefs-Colts game on Saturday.
For what it's worth, Reid isn't concerned about the forecast.
"It will be a little chilly and that's OK," Reid told reporters on Monday. "We are at that time of the year. You go play. I don't think it will be an issue."
Reid addressed whether the weather will affect Mahomes' grip on the ball.
"I think it's just the focus you put on, whether you're throwing the ball, carrying the ball, all of those things you just have to make sure you focus and take care of it," Reid said. "Then you go. We've had enough practice; we continue to practice outside where it's cold. It's all part of it. You just have to adapt."
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne, Matthew McGloin
RBs: Damien Williams, Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West, Anthony Sherman
WRs: Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, Chris Conley, Demarcus Robinson, Gehrig Dieter, Marcus Kemp
TEs: Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris
Los Angeles RamsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 15 January 2019
According to ESPN.com's Lindsey Thiry, "It's the rematch the Los Angeles Rams have been waiting for."
On Sunday, in their first NFC Championship Game appearance since 2001, the Rams will play the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The winner will advance to Super Bowl LIII, where they will face the winner of the AFC Championship Game between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots.
"It's a great opportunity for us. I think it's something that when you get a chance to play for one game away, that's exactly why you do all this hard work," head coach Sean McVay said Sunday evening. "We're going to go there and give it our best shot."
A loss to the Saints in Week 9 remains fresh in the Rams' memories. Drew Brees and the Saints ended the Rams' bid for a perfect season, and took over the top seed in the NFC. Brees proved unstoppable in the first half of that Nov. 4 meeting, as he shredded the Rams' defense to build a 21-point lead. But savvy second-half adjustments slowed Brees just long enough for Jared Goff to orchestrate an extraordinary comeback effort and tie the game, 35-35, in the fourth quarter.
Brees, however, connected on a late 72-yard pass to Michael Thomas over Marcus Peters to secure a 45-35 win.
"The last time we played them, it came down to the game just running out of time," left guard Rodger Saffold said. "I think that we'll have a better plan against them the second go-around, and you got to be excited to go back there and get another chance at those guys."
As the Rams prepare to return to New Orleans more than two months after the loss, McVay, who at 32 years old became the youngest head coach in NFL history to win a playoff game with a 30-22 win over the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional-round game, said there was plenty to gain from their previous experience in the Superdome.
"Getting a chance to feel what a tough atmosphere that is to play in where I think there's a lot of times a fear of the unknown, and now that we kind of know what to expect with a great crowd and how that's going to have to alter some of the different things that we'll do specific to offense, some of our communication," McVay said. "We can use that as a positive, but we know it's going to be a great challenge."
The Rams and Saints rank second and third in points per game, averaging 32.9 and 31.5, respectively. And both teams won 13 games in the regular season, making this the ninth conference championship game between 13-win teams in postseason history, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The home team has won the past two games, while the road team won the previous six.
Sunday's game will be the third time in two seasons that a McVay-led Rams team will play the Saints. The Rams defeated the Saints, 26-20, in a Week 12 matchup last season in L.A.
Worth noting. ... C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley both rushed for more than 100 yards in leading the Rams to victory over the Cowboys.
The Rams ran for 273 yards, gained 459 total yards and punted only once. They scored on six of nine possessions, missing a 63-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, punting on their seventh possession and kneeling in victory formation to end the game.
Anderson had 23 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns, and Gurley 115 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in his return from left knee inflammation that kept him out the final two regular-season games.
The Cowboys ranked third against the run this season, had allowed only three 100-yard rushers and held the Seahawks, the top-ranked rushing offense, to 73 rushing yards last week. They had not allowed two backs in the same game to rush for 100 yards since Dec. 20, 2008, in the final game at Texas Stadium when La'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee did it for Baltimore.
Anderson and Gurley were the first pair of running back teammates to run for 100 yards in a playoff game together since 1997, when Denver's Terrell Davis and Derek Loville each topped 100 yards in a playoff win over Jacksonville. (Other teams have had two 100-yard rushers in the playoffs since, but only when one was a quarterback.)
"I thought C.J. and Todd both were outstanding. I thought the offensive line was great from the start," McVay said.
As Profootballtalk.com's Michael David Smith suggested, what's been fascinating over the Rams' last three games is how Anderson -- who has been cut by three different teams in the last 10 months -- has been every bit as effective as Gurley, who signed a four-year, $60 million contract last offseason.
In three games with L.A., Anderson is averaging an outrageous 140.67 rushing yards per game and has scored four touchdowns.
"I guess it was a good thing I got hurt," Gurley said laughing, via the team's official website. "C.J. got me, was able to come in and was able to do his thing. I mean he's been doing his thing his whole career. The last three weeks been phenomenal, 100 yards each time, so we just going to keep it going."
The change couldn't have happened if three non-playoff teams hadn't jettisoned the 27-year-old running back. First, the Denver Broncos hit the eject button on his contract in the spring. Then, after wallowing behind Christian McCaffrey in Carolina, Anderson was granted his release. He landed in Oakland for a week before Jon Gruden found no use for his skills.
After Gurley went gimpy with a knee injury, the Rams scooped him off the couch, and now he's starring on a playoff run.
It's stunning to see the bowling-ball Anderson quickly get north-and-south and pick up chunk gains against a good defense like he did Saturday night at the Coliseum.
"I can't go 70 [yards]. Todd can go 70-80 if he wants to," Anderson said of his style. "From the 40 in, man. You know? When they say the 40 at the [NFL] Combine matters, that's where it matters."
Whatever the case, if the Rams can run the ball just as well with a guy they picked up off the street, it raises the question of why they should be paying so much for Gurley (and it's certainly something that's being considered league wide). ...
Meanwhile, as Los Angeles Daily News staffer Rich Hammond reminded readers this week, Rams-Saints 1.0 is remembered for two major things: New Orleans' sudden 21-point run in the second quarter, and Thomas' 74-yard catch-and-run touchdown over the flailing Peters.
The Saints won that game at the Superdome, but certainly they did not dominate the Rams, who moved the ball well throughout the game and -- the Thomas touchdown play aside, Los Angeles played quite well on defense in the second half. The Rams certainly didn't embarrass themselves that afternoon.
What do the Rams need to do this time?
According to Hammond, the obvious things remain, such as avoiding turnovers and maintaining good communication inside one of the NFL's loudest stadiums.
Then the game can be boiled down to a small handful of things the Rams must improve in order to give the Saints their first home playoff loss since 1992.
The first objective, is to get a handle on Thomas, who caught 12 of his 15 targets for a season-high 211 yards and one touchdown. That game-clinching, fourth-quarter touchdown marked a low point of the season for Peters. The Rams played that game without cornerback Aqib Talib, who was recovering from ankle surgery. Now, Talib is back and the Rams are playing more zone defense than they did in early November.
The Rams typically like to have Talib and Peters each stay on one side of the field, but Hammond thinks Talib would be the better matchup option against Thomas, so the Rams would be wise to have him "travel" with Thomas.
They also need to do a better job of keeping Alvin Kamara, who ran for two touchdowns and caught another in that first meeting, in check. Kamara is speedy and shifty, and the Rams sometimes had trouble tackling him on first (or second) contact. In that first game, Kamara had 13 first-half touches and totaled 84 yards and three touchdowns. In the second half, Kamara had only 32 yards on 10 carries (and didn't have a reception). In part, that's because the Rams were much more purposeful in their tracking and tackling of Kamara.
The other major second-half change for the Rams was the pressure they got on Saints quarterback Drew Brees. They need to duplicate that.
All of the above items have focused on defense, and that's because the Rams didn't have any glaring problems on offense in the first meeting, other than a bad interception by Goff.
Still, the Rams could help themselves all around by running the ball more.
The Saints' worst offensive output of the season -- 10 points, 176 yards -- came against Dallas, as the Cowboys held the ball for almost 37 minutes.
All of that is hard to do, but against Dallas last Saturday, the Rams' offensive-line play was extraordinary, so it's worth a shot. Especially with both Gurley and Anderson demonstrating an ability to make hay working behind them over the last month.
One last note from Hammond: "The Saints are great, but they've also been a bit puzzling over the past few weeks. They scored only 20 points in their divisional-round victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, and they failed to score more than 14 points in three of their final five regular-season games.
"On the other hand, the Saints played some extraordinary defense against the Eagles, and didn't allow a point after Philadelphia scored on two early touchdown drives."
In other words, we have all the fixings for a great game -- perhaps one with less scoring than we'd hope for as fantasy owners -- or at least fewer than we saw back in Week 9.
QBs: Jared Goff, Sean Mannion, Brandon Allen
RBs: Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson, John Kelly, Justin Davis
WRs: Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds, JoJo Natson, KhaDarel Hodge
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett, Johnny Mundt
New England PatriotsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 15 January 2019
As Profootballtalk.com's Michael David Smith framed it, "Tom Brady has been the Patriots' starting quarterback for 17 healthy seasons. This week he will go to Kansas City and start his 13th AFC Championship Game. ..."
This after Brady's Patriots dominated the Chargers in New England, winning 41-28 and earning a berth in the AFC Championship against the Chiefs. It will be the 13th AFC Championship Game for Brady as the Patriots' starting quarterback, and for Bill Belichick as their head coach.
According to Smith, it was "an absolutely incredible performance" by the Patriots, who whipped the Chargers in all phases of the game. Brady was masterful, the running attack controlled the clock when the Patriots wanted to, and the defense shut down Philip Rivers for most of the game after an early coverage breakdown led to a long touchdown pass.
In fact, it was such an incredible performance that it was a fairly bad football game: It was so obvious by the second quarter that the Patriots would win a blowout that there wasn't any drama in the second half. The Chargers scored a couple of garbage-time touchdowns to make the score look a little closer than the game really was.
The story coming out of the game is that Brady, who at age 41 did not have his best season by any stretch but is still playing at a high level. As of this week Brady will have started as many conference championship games as Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana combined. (Bradshaw started six AFC Championships, Montana six NFC and one AFC.) That's an incredible achievement.
The last play of the first half spoke volumes about Brady: The clock ran out with the Patriots in field goal range and out of timeouts, and Brady was furious that the Patriots had botched the clock. The score was 35-7 at the time, but Brady wasn't happy. That Brady is upset about one mistake in a game his team leads 35-7 is why Brady's teams so often have 35-7 leads.
Now the Patriots will face the Chiefs in a rematch of one of the best games of the 2018 regular season. And Brady will try to reach his ninth Super Bowl.
Brady is also a bit salty.
Remember, by their special standard, the Patriots have been less than perfect this season.
They finished 11-5 and flirted with not earning a first-round bye until the final few weeks of the season. They weren't anything close to a consensus pick to beat the Chargers in the Divisional Round.
And then the Patriots blew their doors off.
New England and the Chiefs tangled in a classic Sunday-night shootout in Week 6. It seems like ages ago, but with Sunday's performance considered, could be an indicator of what's to come.
"It'll be a good game, they're a good team," Brady told CBSSports' Tracy Wolfson after the win Sunday. "We played them earlier this year and I know everyone thinks we suck and you know, can't win any games. So we'll see. It'll be fun."
If anyone thought they weren't good enough to contend for a Super Bowl, they'll likely have a new opinion now.
"We've been hearing things like that forever now, for a few years," tight end Rob Gronkowski said after the game. "We just laugh at it, whatever, whatever they say and we just keep moving forward."
Speaking of Gronk. ... The start tight end caught one pass in the Divisional Round win over Los Angeles but he made it count, barreling through defenders for a 25-yard gain.
The play came just hours after a report that Gronkowski may once again mull retirement this offseason, with expectations that he may truly step away from the game.
If that were the case, Sunday's win could mark the final game Gronkowski ever plays at Gillette Stadium.
After the game, the 29-year-old tight end was asked if he'd considered the possibility that Sunday could be his last game in front of home fans. He largely dodged the question about retirement, saying that no such special significant weighed on his mind.
"No, I mean, I was focused on L.A. the whole game and it's gonna be the same thing this week," Gronkowski said via MassLive.com's Nick O'Malley. "I'm all in now. We've got the Kansas City Chiefs now. We've got another week of preparation and I haven't thought of anything like that. So just gotta go all in, keep our focus and keep on doing what we've gotta do. I gotta keep on doing what I've gotta do to help this team out to win next week."
So with the game over and preparation yet to start, does he have any thoughts about the future and the significance of this game for himself personally?
"My thoughts about it right now? That I'm gonna have to enjoy the win," Gronkowski said. "That's what we do. You get one night to enjoy the win. You do, you get one night. Then, when you wake up tomorrow morning, then it's onto Kansas City. You get a couple hours, so I'll be doing that and then I'll be thinking about next week."
Despite the looming speculation that he's mulling the end of his NFL career, Gronkowski was upbeat as he addressed the media Sunday. He expressed excitement over his contributions in the run game. He cast off any concerns over his lack of production in the passing game (or as he put it, "all that reception stuff") and reflected on the huge rise he did get on his long catch-and-run during the game.
"I always feel the love from the crowd," Gronkowski said. "I haven't really been having all that reception stuff, but I had one today and you could tell. It's definitely great to get the love from them, even with just the one catch, which is super neat."
Gronkowski finished with just that one catch and he drew a significant pass interference penalty on the opening drive of the game.
We'll see if "all that reception stuff" comes back against a Chiefs defense that ranked toward the bottom of the league defensively this season.
Other notes of interest. ... James White helped demonstrate just how much offensive football is changing on Sunday.
In the Patriots' win over the Chargers, White had 15 catches, tying an NFL postseason record. And he had zero carries.
The Patriots love throwing the ball to White, who also had a 14-catch game in the Super Bowl two years ago. The 26-year-old White already has 49 career postseason receptions.
White gained just 97 yards on those 15 catches on Sunday, an average of just 6.5 yards per catch. But in the Patriots' offense, short passes to running backs often stand in for runs. White has more catches than runs in his NFL career (248 receptions and 207 rushing attempts), and is really more a receiving back than a running back, in an offense that is based in the passing game.
Of course, that doesn't preclude them from running, a fact that Sony Michel demonstrated by rushing for 129 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries against the Chargers.
The flexibility to go run-heavy, pass-first and pretty much everything in between is a huge plus for the Patriots heading into Sunday's game, a contest that will be played under inclement conditions. ...
Julian Edelman production as a go-to-guy for Brady in the postseason has put himself in some elite company. In recording his fifth 100-yard receiving game in the postseason, he moves into third place all-time, behind only Jerry Rice (8) and Michael Irvin (6).
Meanwhile, his nine receptions against the Chargers upped his career total of playoff catches to 98, moving him past Reggie Wayne (93) and in sole possession of second place behind Rice (151).
"That's pretty cool. I grew up in the Bay Area, close to the family, and he's the GOAT. Any time you're in the same sentence as him, you pinch yourself," Edelman said. "But it doesn't mean anything unless you win."
Edelman also moved into seventh place all-time for postseason receiving yards with 1,175. He is positioned to make a big jump with those ahead of him being: Rice (2,245), Irvin (1,315), Cliff Branch (1,289), Wayne (1,254), Andre Reed (1,229) and Hines Ward (1,181).
According to Reiss, the chance to play in the postseason isn't something Edelman is taking for granted, especially after missing last year with a knee injury.
"It was nice to be able to go out there and compete and get a win in the playoffs. That's why you play this game," he said. "The regular season is awesome. It's fun. But postseason, that intensity and adrenaline you get from it is a lot. It definitely feels good to be out there. ..."
A few final notes here. ... New England is a 3-point underdog at Kansas City and that makes this the first time since 2014 that Brady has played a game in which he was the underdog
The last time was November 30, 2014, when the Patriots visited Lambeau Field and were 3-point underdogs against the Packers. The Patriots lost that game, 26-21.
Part of the dynamic this time, might be the team's shortcomings on the road this season. The Patriots are 3-5 on the road this year, marking the first time since 2009 that one of Belichick's squads has accrued a losing record away from home. So, the coach was asked if better execution on the road a point of emphasis this week?
"We try to play well every week, so that's what we're going to do this week," Belichick said, swatting away the topic. "At home. On the road. We try to play well every week in all three phases."
The Patriots have obviously accomplished that goal much better at Gillette Stadium, where they were 9-0 (including playoffs) this season. At home, the challenge of pre-snap communication isn't as daunting.
But the weather conditions often are.
This week, in Kansas City, temperatures at kickoff could range from 10 degrees to zero. It was 26 degrees at kickoff for the Patriots-Chargers game on Sunday.
That sounds balmy compared to what the teams could face in the AFC title game.
One other thing that's hotter?
The Patriots defense.
As Profootballtalk.com's Michael David Smith noted, last year the Patriots lost a Super Bowl when Brady threw for 505 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, thanks to the defense failing to stop the Eagles' offense. That was the story of the season in New England, when the offense was great but the defense couldn't hold up its end of the bargain.
This season has been different: Brady's stats declined in 2018, but the defense was better. New England improved in defensive DVOA from 31st last season to 16th this season. By yards per play allowed, New England improved from 30th to 19th. By takeaways, New England improved from 25th to sixth.
Last year's Patriots defense forced 19 turnovers in 19 games, counting postseason. This year's Patriots have forced 30 turnovers in 17 games, even though turnovers league-wide were slightly down this season.
Takeaways will be particularly important on Sunday against the Chiefs. When the teams met in the regular season, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes had a lot of big plays, but the Patriots also intercepted him twice, and New England won the game.
The defensive improvement is a credit to linebackers coach Brian Flores, who took over many of the coordinator responsibilities when Matt Patricia became head coach of the Lions after the Super Bowl. Flores is expected to become the Dolphins' head coach after the Patriots' postseason run ends, and the way the Patriots' defense has performed this season suggests that the Dolphins found themselves a good coach.
QBs: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Danny Etling
RBs: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, James Develin
WRs: Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett
TEs: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen
New Orleans SaintsCompiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 15 January 2019
As Associated Press sports writer Brett Martel understated, "Coach Sean Payton the New Orleans Saints are anything but risk averse. ..."
After all, Payton's Saints won a Super Bowl with the help of a surprise onside kick nine years ago, and now New Orleans is one home victory away from its first Super Bowl since then -- thanks to a pair of aggressive and pivotal fourth-down play calls when the Saints were trying to come back from a two-touchdown deficit.
"We needed to shift momentum and we were able to, fortunately, and take advantage of it," said Payton, who's bound to carry that approach into the NFC title game against the Los Angeles Rams next weekend.
Facing fourth-and-short on their own 30, Payton called for a fake punt on which third-string quarterback and special teams virtuoso Taysom Hill took a direct snap as the up back.
So when the Saints faced another fourth down on the Eagles 2 later that same drive, it only seemed fitting that they dialed up a touchdown pass from Drew Brees to rookie receiver Keith Kirkwood instead of settling for a field goal.
That marked the beginning of 20 unanswered points scored by New Orleans in a 20-14 triumph in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs on Sunday.
"It's that play-to-win mentality," Brees said. "I've been with Sean long enough now to say that he's always been like that. From '06 until now, I think it's something that he knows the offense and the team feeds off of.
"When you get that in guys' minds that we are going to be aggressive, we are going to play to win, it allows guys to relax and cut loose," Brees added.
Payton's gambles often occur with Hill on the field, perhaps because they seem to think alike. Hill had the option to check out of the fake and let the snap sail to punter Thomas Morstead if the defensive alignment looked unfavorable. But Hill was in no mind to wait for a better opportunity. He had seemingly nowhere to go when he got the ball, and powered through anyway.
"At the end of the day I'm going to error on being aggressive. I'm going to error on taking the opportunity to create some momentum and have a game-changing play for sure," Hill said. "It's all about taking calculated risks. It's finding that balance and that was a look that I felt like we could get it. That was a look that the coaches felt like we could get it, and I think at the end of the day it shows how much trust coach has in us."
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said the Saints' risk-reward propositions had less to do with the element of surprise than simply New Orleans ability to call a good play situationally and execute.
"You kind of expect it in that situation," Pederson said. "You've just got to be prepared for that. We had our defense stay on the field. It was a great play by them."
Worth noting: The Saints outgained the Eagles 137-49 on the ground, with the elusive Alvin Kamara rushing for 71 yards, including a 12-yard, first-down run that let the Saints run out the clock. The hard-charging Mark Ingram added 53 yards. The running back tandem also combined for six catches for 44 yards.
During the last three quarters against the Eagles, the Saints possessed the ball for more than 32 minutes and had one 92-yard drive that took 18 plays -- or more than 20 plays when counting plays wiped out by penalties.
Brees pointed to that possession as "the turning point in the game."
They needed a turning point. Because it wasn't a great start.
As NFL.com's Chris Wesseling noted, the home crowd was silenced on the first play from scrimmage, with nickel back Cre'Von LeBlanc intercepting an underthrown Brees deep ball meant for streaking speedster Ted Ginn. Clicking on all cylinders with impressive focus and precision, the undaunted Eagles jumped out to a 14-0 lead with Nick Foles thoroughly outplaying a jittery Brees.
But then came the fake punt and follow-up scores.
The Superdome crowd was a factor from then on, shaking the press box and sending the decibel-level soaring and the Saints took control of the festivities coming out of halftime, going 92 yards (or 112, counting penalties) in 18 plays while burning nearly 12 minutes of game time during an instant-classic drive that culminated in a Michael Thomas touchdown -- and New Orleans' first lead of the day.
Not surprising, Thomas was a major factor in the first meeting between the Rams and Saints.
In one of the most thrilling NFL games of the regular season, on Nov. 4 at the Superdome, the Rams entered with an 8-0 record but had their dreams of an undefeated season dashed with a 45-35 loss. The Rams appeared to be on their way to a blowout loss when they faced a 35-14 deficit late in the second quarter, but then stormed back to tie the game 35-35 late with less than 10 minutes left in regulation.
The Rams, quite reasonably given how the game went, seemed to run out of gas on defense and allowed 10 points over the final 7 minutes.
As Los Angeles Daily News staffer Rich Hammond suggested, "Thomas was nearly unstoppable," with 12 receptions for 211 yards and one touchdown.
The Saints are great, but they've also been a bit puzzling over the past few weeks. They scored only 20 points in their divisional-round victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, and they failed to score more than 14 points in three of their final five regular-season games. On the other hand, the Saints played some extraordinary defense against the Eagles, and didn't allow a point after Philadelphia scored on two early touchdown drives.
The big question: It's still all about Thomas. He got the better of Rams cornerback Marcus Peters in the first meeting, but now veteran corner Aqib Talib is back from an ankle injury and figures to draw that assignment.
Hammond went on to point out the Rams' (lack of) coverage of Thomas got all the attention, but Kamara also caused headaches, particularly in the first half when he ran for two touchdowns and caught another. Kamara is speedy and shifty, and the Rams sometimes had trouble tackling him on first (or second) contact.
In that first game, Kamara had 13 first-half touches and totaled 84 yards and three touchdowns. In the second half, Kamara had only 32 yards on 10 carries (and didn't have a reception). In part, that's because the Rams were much more purposeful in their tracking and tackling of Kamara.
Philadelphia did a relatively good job on Kamara over the weekend. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry but didn't have a run longer than 14 yards and didn't score a touchdown. The Rams will need to contain him. ...
By the way, Brees also played well enough in that Week 9 win. He also plays well at home in the postseason.
Since he joined the Saints in 2006, Brees has a 6-0 record in playoff games at the Superdome. In his last conference championship game, 10 years ago against Minnesota, Brees threw three touchdown passes.
Generally speaking, the newest member of the age-40 QB club (Brees turned 40 on Tuesday) continues to make plays in key situations such as second-and-long or third-and-short, but he did miss a pair of long touchdowns against the Eagles due to ostensible arm-strength limitations on his deep ball -- a weakness scouts have been hinting at for a few years.
The best downfield throw of the day came from the arm of Hill, who hit Kamara in stride on a 46-yard touchdown that was nullified by penalty during the 18-play scoring drive. Early in the game, a mistake-prone Brees also dropped a snap, took a bad third-down sack and fumbled twice.
Also of interest. ... Ingram is due to become a free agent this offseason. The eight-year veteran who joined the Saints as a first-round drafted running back out of Alabama in 2011 has no obligation to stay in New Orleans beyond this season.
Nonetheless, his focus remains on the upcoming NFC Championship Game and a potential Super Bowl appearance Feb. 3 in Atlanta, Christopher Dabe of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports.
"I'm not looking just to leave New Orleans," Ingram said Monday (Jan. 14). "I'm not looking just to up and leave New Orleans. My squad, you know we got a good squad. I feel like we could do this type of thing for many more years. I'm not looking just to bail out of New Orleans."
Ingram turned 29 last month, putting him close to the age where running backs tend to show a performance decline, so his future could be dictated by what type of contract offer he receives if he becomes a free agent in March.
His 6,007 career rushing yards rank second in team history behind Deuce McAllister. When including postseason games, Ingram needs another 4 yards to match McAllister's career total of 6,257 yards.
"I was drafted here. I met my wife here. My children were born here," Ingram said. "Very rarely does anybody get to spend their career in one place. I love New Orleans. I love this team. I love this organization, so we'll see. We'll see what happens. I hope we win a Super Bowl and hopefully everything works out. It's a business, and I hope everything works out. I love it here. ..."
On the injury front. ... Offensive lineman Andrus Peat is playing through a significant injury. The offensive tackle underwent hand surgery last week after becoming injured during the season finale against the Carolina Panthers, according to an ESPN report, and is playing through the injury.
"Feet and hands, we need those the most," offensive tackle Terron Armstead said. "Anything dealing with that is an extreme challenge, and he's handling that."
Peat has been seen in practice with his hand wrapped up. He committed four penalties during Sunday's game.
The New Orleans offensive line has been battling injuries but finally had all of its starters on the field during Sunday's win. Armstead was also playing through a pectoral injury.
Armstead said that he won't reach full health this season, and that he still needs to figure out how to compensate for some things, but he was happy with how his muscle held up during the game.
"I'm good. I feel like Week 1 to me," Armstead said. "I got to get myself right, rest, recover, all that good stuff. It's a good pain. It's a good feeling. It's a good terrible. ..."
The Saints needed some help on their defensive line in the wake of Sheldon Rankins' torn Achilles and they found it in a player who has spent time with them in the past. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that the team has signed Tyrunn Walker to their 53-man roster. Walker broke into the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Saints in 2012.
In addition to his experience with the Saints, Walker has also spent time with Sunday's opponent. He was a member of the Rams last season and appeared in all 17 games that the team played.
Walker had 25 tackles and a sack in those outings. He's also spent time with the Lions and was with the Bills last summer before being released when they made their preseason roster cuts.
QBs: Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill
RBs: Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Dwayne Washington
WRs: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Tre'quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr
TEs: Ben Watson, Josh Hill, Dan Arnold