Charles Krupa/Associated Press
No more Foles magic. No more feeding Ezekiel Elliott. No more talking about the Chargers as “sleepers” or the Colts “playing with house money.” No more “momentum,” which in the playoffs means limping into New Orleans, Kansas City or Foxborough after an exhausting stretch of games with nagging injuries and wobbly legs.
The Chiefs, Patriots, Rams and Saints all advanced to the championship round of the playoffs, just as most of us would have predicted as of Week 13 or so. They’re the NFL’s four best teams, and they proved it with four convincing wins. (Or three convincing wins and a narrow triumph over Nick Foles the 20th-level Archmage, anyway.)
There will be plenty of analysis of next Sunday’s Patriots-Chiefs and Rams-Saints matchups in the segments to come. But let’s start with a quick tale-of-the-tape breakdown of the field:
Best quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
Tom Brady and Drew Brees have combined to play in 52 playoff games. Mahomes will just be making his 19th career start. Experience is invaluable, but we’ll take the guy who all year long has been playing like he unlocked every cheat code in the game.
Best running back: Todd Gurley, Rams
The Rams and Patriots (Sony Michel) rely heavily on running backs they drafted recently in the first round, and the Saints also get mileage out of 2011 first-round pick Mark Ingram.
The Rams are also the team that now “does everything right” (Rams equipment managers will soon get head coaching offers), and the Patriots are of course the one that has done everything right for 20 years.
So maybe the never draft a running back early rule of modern roster architecture is more of a nuanced guideline than a firm Moneyball commandment. Just something to keep in mind when the draft rolls around.
Best receiving corps: Chiefs
Sammy Watkins returned to join Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce against the Colts, making the Chiefs so deep and talented that they didn’t bother activating Kelvin Benjamin. OK, bad example. But good luck covering all these guys.
Best offensive line: Four-way tie
The Rams, Saints and Patriots finished first, second and third in run blocking and sixth, third and first, respectively, in pass protection this season, according to Football Outsiders. The Chiefs finished 16th and fifth, but good luck defending a screen pass when their blockers get out on the perimeter.
Hmm, maybe your JV coach was right and football games really are won and lost in the trenches.
Best defensive player: Aaron Donald
Best defensive player no one talks as much about: Trey Flowers, Patriots
Flowers recorded just 7.5 sacks but was a constant source of pressure throughout the season and is one of the best run-defenders off the edge in the league.
Best defense: Saints
The Rams have big names but are vulnerable to the run and the deep pass to whichever side of the field Marcus Peters lines up on. The Patriots are disciplined and creative but lack depth and blue-chip talent. The Chiefs’ best defense is to score 45 points. The Saints commit too many penalties but are stout against the run and can shut down the short passing game.
Biggest weakness: Chiefs run defense
They allowed 5.0 yards per rush and 19 rushing touchdowns in the regular season before allowing 6.2 yards per rush to the Colts on Saturday. Luckily for the Chiefs, opponents are usually forced to abandon the run after Mahomes’ second across-his-body touchdown pass.
Second-biggest weakness: Saints’ secondary receivers
Michael Thomas may be the most indispensable non-quarterback left in the playoffs. All of the other Saints receivers and tight ends would have trouble cracking the Jaguars roster.
Fewest weaknesses: New England Patriots
Their running game and defense are far better than they were last year. And while their downfield passing attack isn’t what it used to be, Brady can poke little holes in a defense until the whole thing collapses.
Most significant newcomer: C.J. Anderson
Cut by the Panthers and (after one week) the Raiders in the second half of the season, Anderson has rushed for 167, 132 and 123 yards in three games, giving the Rams a hefty counterpunch to Todd Gurley, not to mention a veteran in the locker room with a Super Bowl ring.
Best return game: Chiefs
Tyreek Hill, folks.
Best punter: Johnny Hekker, Rams
Hekker has the biggest leg, but it is worth noting the Chiefs allow just 5.7 yards per punt return, one of their little edges that add up when teams are trying to come back against them.
Most reliable kicker: Will Lutz, Saints
Lutz was 28-of-30 on field goals this season.
Most significant number to remember for next week: 17
That’s the expected high temperature (in degrees Fahrenheit) in Kansas City next Sunday, per The Weather Channel; the low by the local early-evening kickoff may be closer to 11 degrees. The Chiefs offense had a hard time gaining traction in icy conditions Saturday, while the Patriots have a long history of winning playoff games in a winter wonderland.
That’s right, folks: If the Patriots can’t get home-field advantage in the playoffs, Mother Nature finds a way of letting them bring it with them on the road.