Lawrence: The Final Four

Buckle up, NFL fans: For the first time in the Super Bowl era, the four top-scoring teams are the last ones standing

Amy Lawrence
January 16, 2019 - 10:48 am

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And then there were four...just four teams remaining with a shot to win Super Bowl LIII. With the Saints, Rams, Chiefs, and Patriots surviving to battle in the conference championships, we get a perfect blend of the fresh with the familiar, the same entertaining formula that powered the NFL all season.
 
For the first time in the Super Bowl era, the top four scoring teams are the last ones standing. Kansas City led the league with 35.3 points per game, while New England averaged 27.3 and put up the most points on Divisional Weekend by far. Los Angeles scored at a clip of nearly 33 points per game this year with New Orleans at 31.5 points. The NFL's gaudiest offenses all enjoyed byes in the first round of the playoffs, and the week off to rest their physical bodies and recuperate played a major role in their wins. It also extended a recent NFL trend. Every team to compete in the Super Bowl since the 2012 season had the advantage of a bye – not just the winners of the last six Lombardi Trophies, but their competitors, too.
 
The extra energy and explosiveness were easy to spot in the trenches, where the home teams dominated the lines of scrimmage. The Rams rushed for a franchise playoff record 273 yards and stuffed the Cowboys' attempts to ride Ezekiel Elliott. The Chiefs didn't need any touchdown passes from league leader Patrick Mahomes; instead, they scored all four TDs on the ground. It was the first time all season the Colts allowed a 100-yard rusher, Damien Williams, plus Kansas City sacked Andrew Luck three times after he was sacked a mere 18 times all year. Patriots rookie running back Sony Michel logged three touchdowns in his playoff debut; while the Saints finished with 137 rushing yards as a team, despite having ZERO yards after the first four possessions of their battle with the Eagles.
 
Each of the remaining contenders put on a show last weekend, including the Saints who rallied from 14 points down early and pitched a shut-out the rest of the way. If Championship weekend is anything like the regular season shoot-outs among these final four, we're in for a treat. Of course, not everything is the same as it was in Week 6, when the Patriots edged the Chiefs in Foxborough, or Week 9, when the Saints marred the Rams' perfect record. Both were thrilling, edge-of-your-seat clashes with a total 163 points and 1,916 yards generated between them! But a lot has changed since those autumn days.
 
The Chiefs will host their first ever conference championship, and the venue change from the regular season could be a major factor. Arrowhead Stadium is formidable to its foes, and the Patriots have dropped their last three AFC Championships on the road (to Denver twice and Indianapolis). This season, all five of the Pats' losses occurred away from home, so the location is the biggest difference between then and now. Each team has also adjusted to major modifications on the offensive side of the ball. In October, Kareem Hunt racked up 185 total yards and hauled in a 67-yard touchdown catch for the Chiefs. Josh Gordon was just settling in with the Patriots; he was targeted nine times with five receptions. Both are currently out of the league. Rob Gronkowski rumbled for 97 yards on three catches; but in the last month, his primary role is to throw blocks.
 
One more factor that can't be ignored with the Patriots in January is their extensive playoff experience. It's not just Tom Brady and Bill Belichick heading into their 13th AFC Championship; it's other veterans like Gronk, Julian Edelman, James White, Chris Hogan, Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Dont'a Hightower, and Stephen Gostkowski who are all comfortable on the sport's biggest stage. The Chiefs don't have that background on which to draw. Last weekend was just their second playoff win since 1993 and the postseason debut for Mahomes.
 
The venue for the NFC Championship will be the same as the regular season track meet between the Rams and Saints in early November. Both teams are battle-tested now. They each faced some adversity and had to dig their way out. Los Angeles dropped back-to-back contests to the Bears and Eagles in December. New Orleans lost its offensive rhythm late in the season during a three-game stretch against the Cowboys, Bucs, and Panthers. As for personnel, the Saints' defense will have to contend with a new/old face in the Rams backfield. C.J. Anderson was only signed a month ago as a stopgap while Todd Gurley nursed a knee injury. He'd already been cut by the Panthers and Raiders this year. But the former Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champ is now one half of a dynamic rushing duo. Anderson and Gurley combined for 238 yards and three touchdowns and ran roughshod over the Cowboys last Saturday. It's not enough for the Saints to corral Gurley; the Rams' ground game is more potent now. And the secondary once again features the brash, aggressive play of cornerback Aqib Talib, who missed the first meeting while he recovered from ankle surgery. He's a potential thorn in the side of Michael Thomas and the Saints' passing attack.
 
What else is different? The Rams got a taste of their first postseason glory since 2004, when they trounced Dallas. Sean McVay became the youngest head coach in history to earn a playoff win. Even more notable, offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth finally knows how it feels to win in January. At 37, he was the only player in the league to ever lose all seven of his playoff games (six with the Bengals). But the Saints have unfinished business going back to last winter and their stunning dismissal by the Vikings in the Divisional round, courtesy of the Minneapolis Miracle. They're on a mission.
 
Any combination of winners will be worthy of Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, now just weeks away. It all come down to this--the NFL's final four.

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, cbssportsradio.com and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.