Tuesday 7 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# Super Sunday
Something old, something new, something borrowed, and your NFL Championship Sunday preview
This weekend pits the young pretenders against the old guard, writes Steve O’Rourke.

pjimage (15) PA Brady and Brees: Super Bowl could see the oldest quarterback pairing in playoff history. PA

Something old

YOU’RE GOING TO hear a lot about age in advance of Championship Sunday. It’s to be expected because, if the Saints and Patriots both win, it will represent the oldest quarterback pairing in playoff history at a combined age of 81. 

That beats the previous record of 78, set last weekend when New England took care of the LA Chargers, but it’s hardly surprising. 

After all, the past five Super Bowls have all featured a quarterback over the age of 35, with the elder statesman winning three of those match-ups. 

Of course, what Tom Brady is doing at 41 should be no surprise. He is, after all, about to make his eighth conference championship game appearance in eight years (and 13th overall) when no other quarterback has more than seven in total. 

In fact, in 17 full seasons — so excluding 2000 and 2008 — Brady has reached the conference title game 76.5% of the time. 

That makes him more likely to compete in the AFC championship game than Drew Brees was to complete a pass this year when he set the NFL record for regular season completion percentage at 74.4%. 

Something new

But before we get too excited about Tom versus Time taking on Benjamin Brees (himself a sprightly 40) in the Super Bowl, two young quarterbacks stand in their way this weekend. 

In fact, Brady versus Patrick Mahomes will represent the biggest age gap between quarterbacks in playoff history (18 years, one month), while Brees’ clash with Jared Goff will slot in at third on the list (15 years, nine months). 

But experience isn’t everything as Mahomes has shown this year with one MVP-calibre performance after another. In 17 games, he has thrown for over 5,300 yards, completed 50 touchdown passes, and rushed for a further three. 

He has made no-look passes, seemingly defied physics, and — if reports of the Chiefs’ training sessions are anything to go by — is very likely to complete a behind-the-back pass before his career is over. 

Something borrowed

Mahomes’ performances wouldn’t be possible without Andy Reid who, for me, is the best coach in the NFL not named Bill Belichick. 

Sure, he’s easy to poke fun at because of perceived clock management issues but you only have to look at his coaching tree — which includes Super Bowl winners John Harbaugh and Doug Pederson — to see how influential he is.   

What separates Reid from other NFL head coaches is that he’s not afraid to experiment with his playbook or to punch southpaw when everyone is expecting orthodox. 

That makes the Chiefs offence unlike anything else in the NFL, combining the West Coast playbook with spread concepts borrowed from college football, leaving NFL defensive coordinators scratching their heads. 

Which is why, at times, Kansas City often look like they’re playing Madden on easy mode, particularly at Arrowhead Stadium. 

Conference games picks (season record 168-94-2) 

NFC – LA Rams @ New Orleans Saints

Sunday, 8.05pm

Home advantage is huge in the playoffs. Over the past five seasons, all 10 conference championship games have been won by the home team. As a result, the last five Super Bowls have been between teams who played at home throughout the playoffs, and there are few home advantages like the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.   

That’s not to say the Rams are without their chances. 

After all, when you’re a team that includes the likes of Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, and Robert Woods on offence as well as Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, and Aqib Talib on defence, you’ve a good chance in pretty much any game. 

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And yet it is CJ Anderson who may well decide who represents the NFC in the Super Bowl. The same CJ Anderson who totaled 170 yards and no scores on the ground in 10 games with the Panthers before being cut earlier this season and yet has 422 yards and four touchdowns in just three games with the Rams. 

Of course, Anderson benefits from arguably the best offensive line and one of the best offensive minds in the league, but the fact he has looked like an All Pro calibre player when his career seemed washed up just last month is nothing short of incredible. 

With the Saints playing this game minus defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins — by far their best run stopper — McVay will likely call upon both Anderson and Gurley to try overrun the home side. 

On the other side of the ball, Michael Thomas will likely be the focus of the Rams defence. However, despite being the best wide receiver in football at the moment, he has had just two 100+ yard performances since week nine

Compare that to Alvin Kamara who has failed to reach 100 combined yards just twice in the same time period, combine it with Drew Brees’ habit of getting the ball out of his hand faster than most quarterbacks, and you can see just how tough a job it will be for the Rams to claim a road scalp. 

Pick: Saints

New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs

Sunday, 11.40pm 

Like the early game, the battle for the AFC title is also a rematch of a high-scoring regular season affair as the Chiefs look to avenge their 43-40 defeat back in mid-October. 

That Kansas City put up so many points should be no surprise. Since week 15 of 2012 season, the Patriots have played 97 games and conceded 40 points just four times. Three of those were to the Chiefs (the other being last year’s Super Bowl). 

And while it’s not expected to be as cold as first predicted this weekend, low temperatures might be the only way to stop Mahomes — and Tyreek Hill in particular — from picking the Patriots apart again in this game. 

While New England’s secondary allow the second fewest yards per attempt (5.1) and the lowest quarterback rating (56.8) while in press coverage, Hill averages 4.1 yards per route when facing press coverage, the best number by any player in the league since 2016. 

But if the Patriots defence plays zone, they’ll do so against a quarterback who has faced six teams — including the Colts last weekend — ranking in the top 10 in zone (by volume) this season. In those games he completed more than 65% of his passes, at over seven yards per attempt, throwing 14 touchdowns and no interceptions. 

On offence, New England is actually quite predictable — when Sony Michel is on the field, the Patriots run on 76% of plays and when James White is on the field, they pass on 79% of plays — but, it appears, they don’t really care that you know what they’re going to do. 

And, as Julian Edelman has shown this week, they have really taken to the underdog role with gusto. But it’s not that anybody thinks the Patriots are useless, it’s just that this the worst New England team we’ve seen in the Belichick era. That still makes them better than 28 other teams in the league. 

So nobody will be shocked if the Patriots make the Super Bowl for a ninth time this millennium, but Kansas City have the talent, and home advantage, needed to stop them.

Pick: Chiefs

Ahead of the final weekend of European pool games, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey look at what each of the provinces can expect, and who impressed last weekend:

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