Heading into Championship Sunday I looked at these two matchups and how things might play out. Instead of trying to preview one of them and pointing out schematic advantages and disadvantages like I did a week ago, I decided to present one X-factor for each team on offense and defense respectively. I believe these are truly the four best teams in the league when I combine players and coaching. There might have been more talented teams on paper, but when I look at these four head coaches and their staffs I think we are blessed with some of the very best play-callers and guys who excel at preparing their troops. So which players for each of them, who don’t usually play a primary role, could be key factors on Sunday?
Kansas City Chiefs:
Offense – Sammy Watkins
When Tyreek Hill is the only outside threat on the field, you can somewhat double him by simply putting a safety over the top on his side and then be aggressive at the line with him. You won’t be able to shut him down, but as far as the passing game goes you can limit him and there’s no other team more disciplined than New England against jet sweeps, reverses and all those gimmicks that Hill is so dangerous on. I don’t see how a Bill Belichick-coached team will allow one player to catch seven passes for 142 yards and three touchdowns. Neither do I see them play the amount of zero coverage they did against the Chargers, because Kansas City has even more speed at the skill positions and they can’t sit on routes like they did against Philip Rivers, because Patrick Mahomes can throw the ball 50+ yards through the blasting wind. So what I think they will actually do in passing situations is roll their coverage towards Hill in zone and when they do decide to man up, I think they will ask their high safety to shade towards him and use a robber or hook defender to take away easy completions on dig and curl routes by Travis Kelce. Unlike most years New England has the personnel they can trust in man-coverage, but what separates them from most teams in the league is what they do with those two additional zone defenders, in how they use them in different situations. So if the Patriots decide to make the deep ball to Hill their main focus and bracket Kelce to some degree, all the pressure shifts to that number two receiver in Sammy Watkins. Can line Sammy up at any of the of receiver positions. He can play X and win one-on-one matchups on the backside, clear space underneath for teammates with go-routes at Z or move inside and use quickness on stick and out-routes. Even though it wasn’t very successful last weekend, Andy Reid put the ball in his hands inside the five on a shovel pass and jet sweep on consecutive plays. That could be a setup for what’s to come in the AFC Championship game. Watkins can work in space on slants and post routes on the backside of those RPOs. Kansas City didn’t pay him an average salary of 16 million per year with 30 million guaranteed to keep him on the shelves. While he has been fighting through injuries for about half the year, in the eight games he has been on the field for at least 75 percent of the snaps, he caught an average of just under five passes for 64.5 yards. Unfortunately his worst of those outings came at Gillette stadium. However, despite snowy field conditions he looked his best versus the Colts since late October and he will look to make a mark in this one, as New England might have to pick their poison.
Defense – Derrick Nnadi
On the other side of the ball, the biggest question for KC’s defense will be “Can they stop New England’s power rushing attack?” Those guys run more 21 personnel I-formation plays than any other team in the league. The Chiefs come in with the 27th-ranked rush defense, but they are coming off their best performance of the year in that department. Indianapolis was averaging 129 rushing yards per game since Marlon Mack became the full-time starter in week six and they had just ran all over Houston in the Wild Card round for 200 yards, but Kansas City held them to just 87 yards on the ground, thanks to in large part being able to keep those guys behind the chains with their work on early downs. I wasn’t really high on Derrick Nnadi coming out of the Florida State back in April because I thought he was a two-down run-stopper with little upside as a pass rusher, but exactly that role will be asked for on Sunday. Nnadi is the one guy on that Chiefs front who plays more of the role of a conventional run-stuffer, meaning standing his ground. The rest of their front-players like to get upfield and that can create openings due to how far they get vertically. Nnadi is mostly asked to take on double-teams and not allow movement at the point of attack, which helps the rest of his buddies to rally to the ball. When he does face single-coverage, he can go through the shoulder of his blocker and ride him into the backfield, especially in the zone game. He had a seven-yard TFL against the Colts on the back-side of an inside zone play.
Being able to stop the run on first and second down will be crucial for the Chiefs D, if they want to be able to get off the field. In their week six meeting the Patriots were 7 of 13 on third downs, with an average of 4.5 yards to go. When it was 3rd & 5 or longer they went one for six, including a strip-sack, while they were six of seven when the distance to go was at four or below. In the Divisional Round last Saturday the Chiefs didn’t allow the Colts to convert a single one of their third downs, with an average of 7.9 yards to go. Once Kansas City reaches obvious passing situations, their top three pass rushers Dee Ford, Justin Houston and Chris Jones can pin their ears back and get after Brady. Pro Football Focus gave that trio the highest pass rushing grade in the league with Ford leading all edge defenders in total pressure, Houston was one of just a few guys to win on more than 20 percent of his pass rush snaps and Jones only trailed Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt with 15.5 sacks on the year. The Chiefs like to move those guys around, such as putting Houston inside next to Ford or moving Jones to edge. However, their ability to get into situations where they can be creative with their sub-packages and focus on how they can make Brady uncomfortable inside the pocket will have a lot to do with how well they can hold up against Sony Michel and the Patriots oldschool rushing attack, which puts a guy like Nnadi at nose tackle in the spotlight.
New England Patriots:
Offense – Rex Burkhead
I have said this many times. The Patriots truly are a power run offense when they are healthy. They use a traditional fullback more than any other team and they want to gash defenses with heavy sets to take away that trend of defenses getting smaller all the time to keep up with the speed of opposing offense. Their workhorse has been rookie Sony Michel. In 13 games the former Georgia Bulldog has carried the ball 209 times for over 900 yards, but he caught just seven passes all year. James White on the other hand is New England’s premier receiving back, recording 87 catches compared to 94 rush attempts. That trend was in full effect last Sunday in Foxborough, when Michel carried the ball 24 times while recording just one catch and White caught 15(!) passes, which tied a playoff record, but didn’t have the ball handed to him once. So the fact that Michel has clearly been their power runner, as the Patriots have run the ball on 75 percent of the snaps he has been on the field, and White ate up the Chargers soft zone defense on quick passes into the flats shows you obvious run-pass splits for this teams depending on who lines up in the backfield. There I believe New England’s third back could be the difference-maker versus the Chiefs.
The Patriots went into the season saying Rex Burkhead would be their go-to guy out of the backfield and even though I never believed that because I knew what kind of talent they had in Michel and that Brady loves to have White on the field on third downs, I anticipated a larger role for the former Bengal. Burkhead has appeared in just eight games and been on the field for a mere 13.5 percent of their offensive snaps, carrying the ball 57 times and being targeted 20 times in the passing game. However, I believe he could be a key factor in the AFC Championship game. The Patriots are notorious for rotating their backs and switching up snap counts on a weekly basis and with those run-pass splits Burkhead can be a wildcard and mess with the tendencies Kansas City has been studying. On the first snap of the Divisional Round game Burkhead was on the field to run off the flat defender and open things up underneath for fellow RB James White. I can already see him streaking down the sideline as the defender with that responsibility gets sucked up against White after those 15 catches. It just feels like it is all set up for Burkhead to come into Kansas City and be a featured weapon for the Pats, plus he is a key special teamer for them.
Defense – Duron Harmon
We all know the names of All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, stalwart free safety Devin McCourty and to a lesser degree veteran Patrick Chung. I have also talked about rookie corner J.C. Jackson on plenty of occasions recently, but there is one guy in this secondary that has been playing very well and could play a big role in this game – Duron Harmon. While the Rutgers alumn has started just 24 of 95 career games for the Patriots and even gave up his number 30 to new teammate Jason McCourty (who has also played plenty of snaps for them), Harmon has been an impact player for New England in several games. Like so many other Belichick guys, the coach saw something in him not a lot of other people did when he selected him in the third round after being projected to go undrafted. He has played more than 60 percent of the Pats defensive in these last two years and recorded four interceptions respectively, as the Patriots use more three safety sets than any other team in the league. With all those spread offenses and wide open playbooks around the NFL this is the way these guys up in Boston are countering with versatile defenders.
While Devin McCourty is still their primary free safety, having Harmon in the lineup gives New England way more flexibility. They can drop Patrick Chung down on tight-ends or ask him to cover shallow zones or even use McCourty in a robber role while they roll Harmon into the deep middle. As the Chargers game went along and the Patriots went to more conservative two-high safety looks, Harmon controlled one deep half and Los Angeles could not go over the top on him. As the Chiefs will try to spread their opponents out, the Patriots will play with five or six defensive backs constantly and Harmon could be the key to avoid the deep ball to Tyreek Hill or make a tackle one a receiver running free, looking to cross the field on him. This game has the potential be a high-scoring affair just like their first meeting, when the Chiefs came up just short by the score of 43-40. One key tackle by the last line of defense or an interception on a deep ball could make the difference – and Harmon already picked off Patrick Mahomes in when he faced him the first time. I expect him to be on the field for the majority of the snaps once again and we will know early on what his role is going to be for the afternoon, until Belichick and his guys could completely change things up at halftime that is.
New Orleans Saints:
Offense – Taysom Hill
I thought hard about putting one of the secondary receivers on here and I actually already had Tre’Quan Smith written down, because I think the rookie has the ability to take a short pass to the house. However, you never know who will be on the field when the Saints throw the ball outside of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara for the most part. Therefore I went with maybe the biggest X-factor in all of football right now. When Taysom Hill first was inserting into the offense in week three it felt more like a little gimmick to throw defenses off balance, but Sean Payton has put together a package with the former undrafted free agent quarterback out of BYU. That dude is a freakish athlete, being built like a linebacker with 4.3 speed and a cannon of an arm, but his best feat is the fact he doesn’t give a damn about who is in front of him. He covers kicks, returns them, runs jet sweeps, lead plays, go downfield as a receiver or play traditional quarterback. There’s only so few guys in the league, who can run by the secondary on one play (and actually get interfered with) and then hit the same throw to his running back a play later, which was unfortunately called back. As smart and precise as Drew Brees is on the short and intermediate level, you saw Hill throw a perfect deep ball on the exact seam route Drew missed twice earlier in that game.
Talking about how the Saints will use unique quarterback, I already mentioned the versatility he brings to the table, but let’s get a little more into his role on offense. Hill is an additional threat on the edges on those jet and fly sweeps, which opens up cutback opportunities for the Saints backs, as that action freezes the backside edge defender. Not only can he truly be a downfield weapon in the passing game for some snaps, he doesn’t shy away from getting his hands dirty as a blocker either and New Orleans have actually used him a couple of times at the point of attack on those screens to the other wide receiver out of motion to a short set, which teams around the league have been running to death this season. What he does when he is lined up as a quarterback is also pretty special, because unlike Brees he gives his team a numbers advantage inside the box. As teams run a ton of nickel and dime defenses, when Hill runs the ball on lead and power plays, those guys have an extra guy when the running back is being used as a blocker. Payton will once again use him in short-yardage situations on third and possibly also fourth downs. While Taysom has taken the snap from shotgun and actually made simple reads as well as a passer, I will look at one aspect specifically. When number 7 comes onto the field, the Saints move Brees out to one of the wideout spots and he has barely come out of his stance in those situations. This has been set up all year long for the ball going to Brees on a double pass and hitting some type of deep crosser. This is the time Payton loves to pull that kind of stuff out.
Defense – David Onyemata
When Sheldon Rankins went down with a torn Achilles last Sunday versus the Eagles, I thought they lost their third-best defensive player and a key piece to their Super Bowl run. The third-year defensive tackle out of Louisville had become the disruptive 3-tech specialist I expected him to be when I watched him dominate the competition at the 2016 Senior Bowl similar to what Aaron Donald did a couple of years prior. With eight sacks, twelve tackles for loss and a large presence in the opposing backfield he was one of the top upfield interior D-linemen and would have made the Pro Bowl is the NFC didn’t have three freaks like that already. With him out the load will fall on teammates David Onyemata and Tyler Davison to hold up against the run and push the pocket, after those guys had primarily split time at that shade nose spot for New Orleans. When you run a defense with four down-linemen and you face a zone rushing attack like the Rams bring to the table, you not only need big guys to hold their but rather you need somebody on the inside to beat blockers to the spot and either make the back change directions or chase him down from behind as he picks his hole. I primarily focused on Onyemata here, because I think he is the better player of the two and more equipped to fill that type of role. Fellow defensive lineman Alex Okafor was asked about Onyemata earlier this week and he said “Big O plays with an edge and reckless abandon” – good for me.
I already explained the role of that 3-tech defensive tackle playing on the outside shoulder of the guards for the majority of snaps in the base sets and how important Rankins has been there. Onyemata certainly doesn’t quite have the same quickness that his injured teammate brings to the table, but he can play half the man and at least drive him into the backfield to force Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson to either cut inside that block or widen their running lane, which puts less pressure on those defenders on the edge to deal with the burst of Gurley and takes some thump out of Anderson when he arrives at the linebackers. Through sixteen games with Rankins in the lineup the Saints were the number two rushing defense, allowing just 80.2 yards per game. So Onyemata will be crucial in that aspect against a Rams rushing attack coming off a 273-yard performance. With 4.5 sacks and six more QB hits he also brings some upside as a pass rusher. I also think another young D-linemen in Trey Hendrickson could be used as an interior rusher in sub-packages, as the Saints might look more towards using “Big O” as a part of twists to free up his teammates along the front.
Los Angeles Rams:
Offense – Gerald Everett
I could have easily gone with the Rams’ third receiver Josh Reynolds here, but with Robert Woods taking over more of the slot role since Cooper Kupp went on IR, but instead I went with a different target in the passing game – Gerald Everett. The South Alabama product actually was the first draft selection in the Sean McVay era. The first-year head coach loved the dynamic pass-catcher coming out of college and he was projected to go somewhere late on day two, but instead those guys grabbed him at 44. However in first two years of regular season Everett has totaled just 564 receiving yards and fellow tight-end Tyler Higbee has doubled his snaps in 2018, in large part due to being a better blocker and also because the Rams primarily use their wide receivers to run those shallow and deep crossing routes. Yet I believe the second-year man could be an X-factor in the NFC Championship game because he presents more of a vertical threat and can run some of those routes L.A. tasks their slot receivers. Whoever plays the role of that third pass-catcher next to Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods could play a big role against a Saints defense that has been vulnerable against guys like that.
Everett certainly is not the most productive tight-end in football and he has played just 35 percent of the Rams’ offensive snaps, but he has been on the field for them when they needed to spread out and win with their passing attack. He also came up huge in that 54-51 Monday Night spectacle versus the Chiefs, when he scored twice, including the touchdown that put his team ahead for good. Everett was targeted just twice and didn’t catch a single pass in the Divisional Round versus Dallas, but that could change quickly this week. I could easily see him and Robert Woods streaking down the seams and the free safety jumping on Woods, leaving the tight-end open for a big play or maybe Sean McVay will even draw up a shot play to him with Brandin Cooks running a clearout route to open up room for his teammate. I think both teams will try to establish their ground game early on, but I could easily this turn into shootout as these two coaches are as aggressive as any guys we have in the league. If this becomes a track-meat and the Rams try to put speed on the field, Everett could be the beneficiary and have a breakout game here, because he can basically be a fourth receiver in the formation.
Defense – Ndamokung Suh
Very seldom do you talk about a player with the eight-highest payroll of anybody in the NFL (14 million) as an X-factor. However, when that player has looked like a rather average starter for the most part. Through the middle of the 2018 season, Ndamokung Suh seemed to be one of the most overpriced offseason additions. He had a pretty good game in their second matchup with Seattle and feasted on a bad Arizona O-line, but no dominant efforts. Over the course of the year he recorded a total of just four tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, plus 19 QB hurries. He didn’t have a single game with more than one sack or TFL, but all of a sudden last Saturday Suh came alive against the Cowboys. Until that point it was a few big plays here and there by a Samson Ebukam having a crazy game against the Chiefs and a timely strip-sack by Dante Fowler against the Seahawks a couple of weeks after arriving in Los Angeles, but other than that there was a ton of pressure on reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald to be superhuman-like – and he did. Donald’s 20.5 sacks through the regular season are exactly half of what the entire defense totaled and nobody outside of him even reached five respectively. Not exactly what people expected when they first heard about Suh teaming up with Donald.
When Dallas came to town in the Divisional Round Suh was a man amongst the boys. He showed up in the backfield constantly and took his blocker with him on the way. The play that stands out was that fourth-and-one at the start of the fourth quarter, when he drove back center Joe Looney and stuffed Ezekiel Elliott before his teammate joined in and cleaned things up. That was the defensive stop of the game and his best one of the year. Even though Suh seemed like he mailed it in during the regular season, he turned it on at the right point and if he plays like the bully he was in Detroit (without the dirty stuff) this Rams defense goes to a different level. Those guys just held Zeke to 47 yards on 20 attempts and allowed the Cowboys to convert just one of their eight third downs. A lot of that had to do with Scott Linehan’s uncreate play-calling and that will change when they go to the Dome and face an evil genius in Sean Payton, but his motor and overall play could be the different compared to their first matchup against each other, when Suh was pretty much a non-factor. That offensive line room spent hours setting up protections to slow down AD, but now they have to worry about a motivated Suh as well. Another guy I think could be key for the Rams defense is linebacker Corey Littleton, who leads the team with 125 tackles and 13 pass deflections, while also recording four sacks and three picks. He could be used to drop underneath those potential deep in routes by Michael Thomas, that helped the Saints all-world receiver catch eleven first down passes in the Divisional Round, or cover Kamara in the flats. Plus he has come up with big plays in some of the Saints most important games.