Svehla’s thoughts on NFL playoffs, Super Bowl LIII

Austin Svehla, Assistant Sports Editor

The NFL Playoffs are in full swing and the league’s last four teams are slated for matchups on Sunday to determine the two teams competing for the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 3. The Wild Card and divisional rounds have been wildly entertaining to watch, and I don’t see that theme changing at all with the top two seeds from both the AFC and NFC battling for conference championships this weekend. Here is one thing I learned from each of this past weekend’s games and who I believe will be competing for Super Bowl LIII.

The Chiefs defense has rounded into form: The Kansas City Chiefs haven’t been to a Super Bowl in 49 years and haven’t been to the AFC Championship game since 1993, where the Joe Montana-led Chiefs were ousted by Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills. Most probably thought as the 2018 season progressed that if the Chiefs were to make a Super Bowl run, it would be because of the high-powered offense led by perennial MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes. While Mahomes has continuously played great through the course of the season, it is the Chiefs defense that has stepped up in recent weeks, making them arguably the most complete team in football. During the regular season, the Chiefs were second to last in the NFL in yards allowed per game at 405.5. However, against an Indianapolis Colts offense that ranked seventh in the league in yards per game, the Chiefs defense only gave up 263 total yards to a then red-hot Colts offense led by Andrew Luck. It’s obvious that the Chiefs have the offensive guru coach, the MVP favorite quarterback, and a deep backfield, but all of that grouped with a stout defense could lift the Chiefs over the top.

The Rams weren’t about to lose at home in the playoffs for a second year in a row: Throughout the first half of the season, we grew accustomed to watching pure dominance from the Los Angeles Rams week in and week out. That dominance wavered when the second half of the season rolled around, but that was in large part because of a very tough schedule and the loss of then leading receiver Cooper Kupp because of a torn ACL. The Rams started the season 8-0, then suffered losses in the second half of the 2018 campaign to the likes of the Saints, the Bears, and the Eagles. There were rumblings about the struggles of Quarterback Jared Goff and the Rams’ offense on whether they could round back into the form they displayed through the season’s first half. Those rumblings were put to bed on Saturday night when the Rams rushing attack steamrolled the Cowboys for 273 yards on the ground, led by recent addition C.J. Anderson with 123 and usual lead back Todd Gurley III with 115. The Rams put all the chips in this past offseason to win a Super Bowl this year and advancing to the NFC Championship game was a step in the right direction after a season-ending loss last year at home to the Atlanta Falcons.

You just can’t doubt the Patriots come playoff time: The New England Patriots advanced to their eighth consecutive AFC Championship game with a dominant 41-28 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers, who were top 10 defensively in both yards allowed and points allowed during the regular season, simply had no answer for the Patriots offense. Tom Brady delivered an excellent stat line, throwing for 343 yards and a touchdown. When it came to the Rams, it was just simple questioning whether they could get back to their early season dominance or not. With the Patriots, it wasn’t just questioning, but doubt, as to whether Tom Brady still had it in him, whether the Patriots had enough talent on defense, and whether it was simply the end of a dynasty. This doubt was put to rest on Sunday when the Patriots built a 31-point lead en route to a nearly 500-yard day on offense. Simply said, the Patriots shouldn’t be doubted. They may not win the Super Bowl this season, and they may not even make it there, but one thing Bill Belichik has always done is show the rest of the league that if the Patriots are to be beaten come playoff time, the opponent will have to beat New England at their best.

Michael Thomas should be considered a top-five receiver: While 39-year old New Orleans Saints Drew Brees had arguably the best season of his career and is the main contender to Patrick Mahomes for league MVP, something he will be the first to tell everyone is that he could not have had the season he has had without wide receiver Michael Thomas. Not only has the Ohio State product hauled in more than 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first three seasons, but he delivered when the Saints needed him. There are receivers who often put up big numbers during the regular season, but where the best of the best is determined is playoff time. Thomas has provided the statistical resume through his first three seasons to garner star-like attention, and his big-game performances have earned him the right to be in the same conversation as guys like Odell Beckham Jr. Julio Jones, and Antonio Brown. The Saints will need Thomas’ strong play to continue in the NFC Championship game against the Rams.

Conference Championship game predictions: I truly believe that the NFL’s four best teams remain. Because of that, I think that this Sunday’s games will both be close. Both games will be played at perhaps the two toughest places to play in the NFL (Arrowhead Stadium and Mercedes-Benz Superdome), so it should make for excellent storylines come Sunday. I only believe that one of the home teams will take advantage of playing in front of their home crowd, however, I am going with the Patriots over the Chiefs at Arrowhead for the AFC Championship and the Saints over the Rams for the NFC Championship. If these were in fact the results, Super Bowl LIII would pit legends Tom Brady and Drew Brees against each other on the biggest stage in football.