Nobody’s forcing me to make a pick, and I’m sure I’d be better off abstaining. I can make a case for any/all of the NFL’s final four to reach Atlanta, but if I had to pick -- which I don’t, but I will -- I’d pick the teams Atlantans would, given the dire alternatives, prefer to have visit.
I’d pick the Rams over the Saints. And I’d pick the Chiefs over the Patriots.
I know, I know. The Saints are at home, and they’re great at home. And the Saints and Patriots have Hall of Fame quarterbacks. And those teams have Super Bowl-winning coaches, and who in his right mind would go against teams with both great quarterbacks AND great coaches?
Well, me. Not that I’m in my right mind or anything.
These are essentially coin-flip games. The spread on both is three points, when means Sunday’s visiting underdogs would be three-point favorites were they playing at home. (On a neutral field, these would be pick ’em games.)
The Rams got lucky. They don’t have to take their offense outside. They did that in Chicago in December and lost 15-6. They’ve already visited the Superdome, losing 45-35 on Nov. 4, but that game was tied with seven minutes remaining. And Drew Brees, who was running neck-and-neck with Patrick Mahomes through November, hasn’t been quite as good after Thanksgiving. FYI, he turned 40 this week.
The Saints got away with one in the divisional round. The Eagles led 14-0 – Brees threw an interception on the game’s first play – but didn’t score again. (Though they were driving at the end when Alshon Jeffery mishandled Nick Foles’ pass.) That could have been the sort of wobble that eventual Super Bowl winners sometimes have, but the Saints’ Super dreams would have been dashed then and there had they been playing someone with a better offense. The Rams’ offense can stand with any.
Even the Chiefs’. Their Nov. 11 collision was the game of the season. L.A. beat K.C. 54-51 in a game that saw 1,001 yards gained – and also three defensive touchdowns. Everyone has fretted all season about the Chiefs’ statistically terrible defense, but that defense bowed up last week and held the Colts and Andrew Luck to one offensive touchdown, that with 5:31 remaining.
The Patriots beat the Chiefs 43-40 in October, but that game was in Foxborough. The Pats on the road this season have been sub.-500. They were 3-5, with three of the losses coming by double figures. (Oh, and there was the double-lateral Miracle in Miami, the most embarrassing on-field moment of the Belichick Era.)
It’s possible that Belichick outcoaches Andy Reid – somehow Reid becomes the anti-Belichick in January – and the Pats do as they invariably do, which is win the AFC. But the all-conquering Patriots of Belichick/Brady have won exactly three road playoff games, the most recent in January 2007. The past three times they’ve played a conference title game anywhere other than Gillette Stadium, they’ve lost.
I’ve never considered this a vintage Belichick/Brady bunch. This team finished 11-5, the worst Pat yield since 2009. The Chiefs’ defense does give me pause, but I’m not sure even Belichick – whose Patriots yielded 40 points and 446 yards when these teams met earlier – is going to stonewall Mahomes and Co.
And there’s my reasoning, such as it is. I’m picking against one home team, and no home team has lost a conference title tilt since Jan. 20, 2013, when both the Falcons and Patriots did. I’m picking against Belichick/Brady and Payton/Brees, two legendary combos. I’m picking the teams that have lost to today’s opponent once already. I don’t have to do it, but I just did.