By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. Other times, good things happen to bad people. The world is cruel like that.
But whether you’re a modern day angel or a sleazy degenerate, you can at least know this: The NFL is going to give you one magnificent Super Bowl.
Well, the actual football game may not live up to the hype (who can ever really know with that?), but in terms of the weeks-long buildup, and Media Night, and they storylines, and the history, etc., etc., etc.? You — and the league — couldn’t have asked for a better final four.
In one corner, you have the future of the NFL. Patrick Mahomes, in his first year as a starting quarterback, threw 50 touchdowns in a season when nobody else threw 40. At 23 years of age, he drove the train for the league’s No. 1 offense. If he wins a Super Bowl? Sky’s the limit for The Next Great Thing™.
If he doesn’t reach the Super Bowl, it will be because the old guard of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick didn’t let it happen. Their resumes are well-established at this point, but for the sake of clarity: Those two could be making their ninth Super Bowl together. That would be nine Super Bowls in 18 years. NINE SUPER BOWLS IN 18 YEARS. That ain’t right, folks. Eventually the run will end — could be this year, could be next year, or maybe it was last year — but the late stages of this Patriots Dynasty 2.0 is fascinating for all to take in.
In the NFC, you’ve either got validation for a coach in Sean McVay who’s being seen as some sort of revolutionary figure. That’s warranted, to an extent, because of how fun and exciting the offense is for his Los Angeles Rams. Their second-ranked scoring offense has been a thrill ride, and with Jared Goff still just 24 years old, an early Super Bowl appearance and perhaps even a victory could be the start of something special.
And once again, standing in the way of the new guys reaching the Super Bowl will be the old guys. In the NFC, it’s Drew Brees and Sean Payton, whose pairing doesn’t go back as far as the Brady/Belichick match game but nevertheless has been a rare constant in an NFL that is obsessed with constant change. There aren’t many folks in the country who would mind seeing the Saints get back to the sport’s biggest game one last time.
(All of that is the simplistic, coach/quarterback situation for each team. There’s obviously a little bit more to each team. But don’t be such a nerd right now, OK? OK.)
And so, with four possible matchups for Super Bowl LIII (that’s a terrible Roman numeral, by the way), it is time to POWER RANK the best ones. Let’s go.
HONORARY FIFTH PLACE: Nick Foles vs. Anyone
If you weren’t rooting for Nick Foles to randomly reel off two straight Super Bowl wins, then you’re either a weirdo or a Patriots fan. Or both. Alshon Jeffery dropping that pass was the saddest moment of my week. (It’s been a pretty good week overall, to be honest. Not finding time to squeeze in a haircut was the second-saddest moment.)
FOURTH PLACE: Kansas City Chiefs vs. Los Angeles Rams
You know, a lot of people are hoping for this one, because it would be a rematch of the most insane Monday Night Football game of all time. I hear ya. The thing is, you’d almost certainly be let down if you had such high expectations. A near-guarantee. Let’s leave that game where it belongs — in history — and move on to bigger, better things.
THIRD PLACE: New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams
You have to imagine that most of the country is sick and tired of seeing the Patriots in these games. You’d be partially right but also VERY WRONG. People go nuts over the Patriots. If Tom Brady makes a funny face on Instagram, it’s national news. If Bill Belichick gives the same press conference he’s given for 15 years, it’s national news. If a stadium employee is caught sneezing on security footage, it’s news. You get the idea. Now add in the aforementioned young/old dynamic, and the Boston-Los Angeles cross-country rivalry? Fun times, man. (America disagrees.)
SECOND PLACE: Kansas City Chiefs vs. New Orleans Saints
Now we’re talking. We’re getting there. We’re getting close. This one might actually get you to that point explosion you’d be hoping for with a Rams-Chiefs matchup. This one just might deliver the goods.
FIRST PLACE: New England Patriots vs. New Orleans Saints
We can deny it all we want, but deep down, we are a Coach-QB-obsessed country. Baseball, beer, hot dogs, and coach-quarterback combos. And while Andy Reid is nice, and while McVay is the hottest name on the block, you know that deep down, you want this. Tom Brady. Drew Brees. Bill Belichick. Sean Payton.
It’s what you want and, frankly, it’s what you deserve.
Will we get it?
Let’s make a couple of picks.
(Home team in CAPS; Thursday lines)
Los Angeles Rams (+3) over NEW ORLEANS
You can say a lot here, but I’ll keep it simple.
I think the Rams are better.
I’m also a big proponent in current trends over season-long data. Unfortunately for both teams, I don’t see either team riding a particular surge.
We know that the Saints got stuck in the mud on Thanksgiving night, won three games (two by very narrow margins) and then punted in Week 17 before rallying from a 14-0 hole to squeak past the Eagles last Sunday. They went from being 10-1 and averaging 37 points per game to going 4-2 and averaging 23 points per game.
It hasn’t been much better for the Rams, though. They were once 11-1, averaging 35 points per game. They’ve since gone 3-2 while averaging 28 points per game.
We’re looking at a couple of teams who may be living off the reputations they earned from September through November. Neither has been particularly spectacular since then.
Alas, one will win. and advance to the Super Bowl. I can’t tell you I feel great about either one. But you know what I do like? Those 3 points.
(I also like C.J. Anderson rumbling and bumbling through a mediocre run defense, but don’t tell anyone about that. That’s my special thing.)
(I do think Payton is the superior coach, though. New guy can BUZZ RIGHT OFF if you ask me.)
(And if you’re asking, no, I don’t care about the game these two teams played on Nov. 4. That was like, one hundred years ago, man.)
(Just wanted to do another parenthetical here, to be honest.)
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (-3) over New England
There’s a million reasons to like either team here. Lots of logical reasons. I actually find myself leaning logically more toward the Patriots than the Chiefs. Namely, the Patriots have a dominant running game, and the Chiefs have a dreadful rush defense. That’s a recipe for disaster for the home team.
Add in that first-year postseason starters are 0-10 vs. Bill Belichick-coached teams, that Tom Brady is almost invincible when it’s frigid outside, plus the experience factor and the fact that the Patriots are now 5-0 vs. playoff teams (including a head-to-head with the Chiefs) while the Chiefs are 3-3 against playoff teams? You’d be nuts to not pick the Patriots. Nuts I tell you, nuts! (There are so many of these reasons that I had to go ahead and enumerate them.)
But things don’t often work out as neatly as you might expect, and frankly, there are some factors and forces that defy all logic. I tried to fight this reality earlier this year when I picked New England -8.5 in Miami. Oh, so you say weird things happen in Miami and the Patriots flop in half of their visits? Poppycock! That makes no sense! What does make sense is that the Patriots are better than the Dolphins. Duh. I’ll stick with that.
Then this happened:
So, in line with the “Things That Don’t Make Sense” line of thinking, the Patriots went 3-5 on the road this year. They went 1-4 on natural grass. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, not when the Patriots were good enough to 8-0 at home.
It’s not totally random, though. Take the run game, for instance. The Patriots ranked 11th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, but without the silent crowd at home, they struggled to establish that part of their offense on the road. The Patriots had exactly one good rushing day on the road (at the bummy Jets, for 215 yards); in their other seven games, they averaged 81 rushing yards per game. At home, by contrast, they averaged 176 rushing yards per game.
So for as dominant as the Patriots looked last weekend, it’s not entirely difficult to envision a scenario where they head to a raucous Arrowhead Stadium and have some trouble.
Another factor I’ve yet to add in here: The Chiefs are really good.
I did note last week that I went 3-4 this year when picking against the Patriots. And I’m only 5-4 picking Patriots playoff games over the last four years. So I can tell you this: No matter which team I went with here, I had very little confidence. That’s just the mark of a game that should be an exceptional treat for football fans … or the mark of me being somewhat bad.
It’s up to you to decide.