Barnwell: Welcome to the most exciting NFL final four ever

Ryan Clark is “speechless” along with Trey Wingo on how consistent Tom Brady has been throughout the playoffs in his career. (1:11)

If you were looking for upsets during NFL divisional round weekend, you didn’t get much with which to work. The blisteringly hot Colts were blown out, while the similarly aflame Cowboys needed a late score to make things look close. The Chargers, who you guys said were the most likely team to pull an upset, might as well have stayed in California. The Eagles were the only team that had a shot to win their game late in the fourth quarter, and even after a Wil Lutz miss seemed to set up another episode of Nick Foles‘ playoff magic, Alshon Jeffery‘s drop handed a game-sealing interception to Marshon Lattimore.

While big victories by favorites didn’t necessarily make for the most exciting divisional round, what comes next should be a lot of fun. With the Chiefs, Patriots, Rams and Saints making it to the final four, we’re set for what might be the most exciting conference championship Sunday in league history.

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On paper, Patriots-Chiefs and Rams-Saints make for a wildly entertaining duo of matchups. There’s a backstory, rivalries, and legacies, both beginning and ending. When you put these matchups in context, there are reasons to think we’re in store for classic games.

Why? Let’s run through eight notable reasons:

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Best offenses | Worst defenses
Elite coaches | Who’s passing the torch

The Vegas lines for Patriots-Chiefs and Rams-Saints basically paint each side as equals. Vegas has the Chiefs as 3-point favorites at home against the Pats, while the Saints are 3.5-point favorites as they host the Rams. When you remember that home-field advantage is generally considered to be worth between 2.5 and three points, what Vegas is basically saying is that these two teams are about equal on a neutral field. That’s pretty remarkable.

This is rare, although it isn’t quite a record. The smallest combined spread for two conference title games in one season is four points, per ESPN Stats & Information, which was set in 1970 and 1982. Those games didn’t end up actually coming in all that close — they were decided by just over 11 points per contest — but in general, games with smaller spreads are going to be closer than those with larger ones.

Furthermore, as you probably suspect, we’re also projected to see the two highest-scoring conference title games in history. The totals for these two games come in at 57 (Rams-Saints) and 57.5 (Patriots-Chiefs) for a total of 114.5 points on Sunday. That number represents the largest combined over/under in at least 30 years, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Given that the NFL ended up posting its second-highest average point total in league history this season, it’s not necessarily a surprise that we would see some remarkably high totals here. If we take things a step further, though, we can see that this isn’t simply a product of a high-scoring era.

No, I’m not figuring that out by adding up their points per game, because that’s going to immediately rule out great offenses from lower-scoring eras. If you were a fan in 1981, you got about as excited about the league-leading Chargers as a fan in 2018 does about this season’s Chiefs, even though those Chargers averaged 29.9 points per game and this season’s Chiefs averaged 35.5 points. To get a sense of how good these offenses are, we have to measure them against the rest of the league in 2018 and each of the teams from conference championships past against the teams from their time.

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Let’s reset the chances to win the title for the teams in the conference championship games, according to the ESPN Football Power Index.

I can do that with standard score, which I went back and calculated for every conference championship attendee going back through the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. By measuring how much better (or) worse each team is from the rest of their league at the time, we can compare teams between eras and see which year actually delivered the most impressive batch of conference title opponents.

On offense, even after you adjust for era, the answer to that question is 2018. The Chiefs, Colts, Patriots and Rams are — on average — 1.77 standard deviations over the mean. That’s the best mark going back through 1970, topping the previous record-holder of 1.67 standard deviations, set back in 1998. (More on that year in a moment.) This is just the second time in the past 49 years that there are two offenses (the Chiefs and Saints) in the conference championships that rank more than two standard deviations above the average offense.

The worst offense in this year’s group is the Patriots, who would have ranked as the best offense to make the conference championships during the 2010 playoffs. That was the worst conference title game Sunday for offenses in league history, as offensive juggernauts such as the Patriots, Colts and Eagles all lost on their way to the third round of the postseason. If you’re trying to use 2018 as proof that you need a great offense to make it deep into the playoffs in modern football, well, I’d hold off for a moment.

Again, after accounting for era, there aren’t great defenses left in the postseason. In fact, we have a defense that actually rates as downright bad in the Chiefs, although I think they’re better than their raw numbers might indicate. Keeping in mind that I’ve flipped the scale so good defenses are above league average, the Chiefs are 0.91 standard deviations below the mean, which is the fourth-worst defense in a conference championship game since the 1970 merger.

With the Chiefs dragging down the pack, the four remaining defenses are essentially league average at 0.1 standard deviations above the mean, which is the worst mark of the past 49 seasons, topping the high-flying 1982 campaign. Then, Washington averaged nearly 34 points per game during the regular season and scored 75 points in their first two playoff games before falling to the Raiders 38-9 in the Super Bowl.

Do you know when the best set of defenses in post-merger league history advanced to the conference championship round? You’ll have to go all the way back to … 2017, when there were five teams to allow fewer than 300 points all season, and four of them (the Vikings, Jaguars, Eagles and Patriots) made it to the conference championships. Those four teams averaged a relatively modest 22.2 points in the semifinals, only for the Pats and Eagles to put up a legendary 41-33 shootout in Super Bowl LII.

With that in mind, drawing any grand conclusions about how the league has changed and how you need a dominant offense to win is a bad idea, just as it was to assume that the league was going to be run by defenses based on what we saw a year ago. The Bears were one field goal away from the divisional round, where they very well might have upset the Rams in Los Angeles and upset the offensive balance of the top four teams. The most realistic way to make it to the conference title game is to have a team that’s great on one side of the ball and good at the other, regardless of whether that side is offense or defense.

In terms of overall performance, measured by point differential, this is the ninth-best set of teams we’ve seen in the conference championships. We’ve been blessed with precious few mediocre teams in the final four over the past few years, as the 2017 bracket ranked fourth, the 2013 bracket (Broncos-Patriots, Seahawks-49ers) was fifth, and 2015 (Broncos-Patriots, Cardinals-Panthers) was sixth.

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The best single season would be the 1998 campaign I mentioned earlier, where the top two seeds in each conference also made it to the round of four. There, the 12-4 Jets fell to a 14-2 Broncos team that was undefeated until December, while the 15-1 Vikings were upset at home by the 14-2 Dirty Bird Falcons 30-27. The Broncos brought John Elway’s career to a close with a 34-19 victory in the Super Bowl.

So overall, we have four really good teams who bring more offensive firepower than any set of semifinalists in league history. That alone would make for a promising set of games. There’s more.

It’s impossible to quantify coaching, of course, but I think most people would agree that we’re looking at some of the league’s brightest minds in the final four. In the AFC, we have Bill Belichick, who has a strong case as the greatest coach in modern NFL history. Joining him is Andy Reid, who obviously hasn’t had the same sort of playoff success Belichick has enjoyed, but who also quietly tied Mike Holmgren this weekend for the sixth-most wins in postseason history. Reid also has 195 regular-season wins, which is tied for eighth most in NFL history. His coaching tree includes last year’s Super Bowl winner (Doug Pederson) and the my pick for Coach of the Year (Matt Nagy). Unless your only measure of coaching success is Super Bowl wins, Reid is a legend.

The guys on the other side aren’t bad, either. Sean McVay was a little rough around the edges in terms of clock and game management against the Cowboys, but the coach everyone is trying to copy with their new hires won his first playoff game on Saturday night. He’ll try to get his second against Sean Payton, who has the 14th-best winning percentage in NFL history among guys who have coached more than 150 games. Reid probably justifies a Hall of Fame spot with a Super Bowl win, as does Payton with his second. McVay would be everyone’s pick as the coach most likely to dominate over the next decade.

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Most importantly, there’s no obvious weak point, which is rarely the case when you get to the final four. (See: Marrone, Doug.) While we don’t know how McVay’s career will turn out after Year 2, there’s at least a reasonably strong case that we’re looking at one of the best sets of coaches this deep in the playoffs in recent memory.

Who would come close? You probably have to go back to 1992 or 1993, when the threesome of Marv Levy, Jimmy Johnson and George Seifert each made the conference championship round, where they were joined by either Don Shula (1992) or Marty Schottenheimer (1993). If McVay is as good as he has looked in his first two years, though, I’d still put the current bunch ahead of them.

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Go back to 1984 and I think you’ll find a better comparison. You had two legendary veterans in Shula and Chuck Noll, who had combined for six Super Bowl wins and were essentially 10-win locks every season at that point of their careers. They were joined by one of the most influential coaches in league history in Bill Walsh, who was in the middle of a 15-1 season and about to win his second Super Bowl. The guy on the other side was Mike Ditka, who had just become the first Bears coach in 19 years to win a playoff game. Ditka was a year away from winning his own Super Bowl and probably slotted in as the McVay of his group.

I think the 1975 season has the best case for truly legendary coaches. There’s no Shula, but Noll has just won his first Super Bowl and was about to win his second. His Steelers made it to the Super Bowl by beating John Madden and the Raiders, and the longtime broadcaster requires no introduction. On the NFC side, Tom Landry already had been the Cowboys coach for 15 seasons and already had a Super Bowl win; he was up against Chuck Knox, who had started his career with the Rams by going 34-8. McVay, by comparison, is 24-8. I don’t know that these coaches were better-regarded at the time than our four current coaches are now, but they all went on to have legendary careers, and all but Knox are in the Hall of Fame.

It was overshadowed by the legendary Chiefs-Rams game that followed, but when I tried to identify the most exciting regular-season games of all time, the 43-40 Patriots-Chiefs game from Week 6 made the top 10. It had two fourth-quarter lead changes, a 75-yard touchdown to Tyreek Hill to tie things up with 3:03 left, and a bomb to Rob Gronkowski to set up a 28-yard game winner from Stephen Gostkowski at all zeros. The two teams combined for just one punt, which came from the Chiefs midway through the fourth quarter on the only three-and-out of the game.

Of course, Pats-Chiefs has turned into quite the rivalry since Reid made his way to Kansas City in 2013. The Chiefs handed Brady and Belichick one of their worst losses in Week 4 of the 2014 season in a 41-14 romp, leading to concerns that Brady was past his prime, but the Patriots righted the ship and won their next 11 games before eventually beating the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. The Pats knocked Reid and the Chiefs out of the playoffs with a 27-20 victory in Foxborough in 2015, only for the Chiefs to respond with a 42-27 romp behind 368 passing yards from Alex Smith in Week 1 of the 2017 campaign. The Pats’ win in Week 6 brings the current score to 2-2, although Belichick went 4-0 against Reid when the latter was in Philadelphia, including a 24-21 victory in Super Bowl XXXIX.

The battle between Payton and McVay is also knotted up. The Rams comfortably beat the Saints in Los Angeles last season, with a late Alvin Kamara touchdown making the 26-20 score look closer than the game actually was. New Orleans was down Marshon Lattimore in that game, although their numbers with and without Lattimore on the field since 2017 are surprisingly similar. Dennis Allen’s defense has allowed a 90.1 passer rating with Lattimore on the field and an 89.1 mark without their star corner.

The Saints responded this season with a 45-35 win that actually was a closer game, given that the Rams tied the score at 35-all with 9:48 to go after Jared Goff threw a touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp and hit on the subsequent two-pointer. The Saints kicked a field goal to go up three, and after a Rams three-and-out, Michael Thomas burned Marcus Peters on the 72-yard touchdown that led to the Joe Horn tribute cell phone celebration. The Saints will get to play the rubber match in New Orleans on Sunday.

The most obvious candidate here is Gronkowski, who has been the subject of retirement reports. It certainly looks like the 29-year-old isn’t the same receiver we saw in years past. He had just two 100-yard games this season, one of which came in that infamous game against the Dolphins where he failed to defend the goal line effectively on Miami’s game-winning laterals play.

Since, Gronkowski has five catches for 70 yards in four games, including one catch for 25 yards against the Chargers on Sunday. Gronkowski is an excellent blocker and adds significant value without catching the ball, and he was facing the league’s best defense against tight ends, but he has been a difference-maker as a receiver against the Chiefs. The Patriots turned to their star tight end for two big catches late in Week 6. It seems likely that Brady will go back to him in a key spot during the second half on Sunday if one arises.

The Chiefs’ defense across from Gronk might not look the same. Eric Berry played a key role in stopping Gronkowski in Week 1 of the 2017 season, only to tear his Achilles in the second half. Berry has played only one full game since and sat out the divisional-round win with heel pain. The Chiefs would owe nearly $15 million in dead money, although they could free up $9.6 million in 2019 cap room, if they designated Berry as a post-June 1 release.

More likely, Reid will look toward Justin Houston for cap space. Houston is still a useful pass-rusher, but the 29-year-old hasn’t cracked 10 sacks since 2015 and is no longer worth the $21.1 million cap hit he’s set to make in 2019. Kansas City could free up $14 million in cap room to re-sign Dee Ford and work on an extension for Chris Jones, both of whom figure to be the future cornerstones.

Tom Brady and Drew Brees could also theoretically choose to hang it up, with a Super Bowl win perhaps making it easier to move on. Their contract structures seem to suggest that their respective franchises expect their star quarterbacks to each play through the end of 2019. I don’t expect either of them to retire, but stranger things have happened.

It’s hard to find an example of possibly passing the torch quite as extreme as the matchup between Mahomes and Brady on Sunday. Brady is obviously still playing at a high level, but he has thrown 11 interceptions this season. In fact, even though Brady won the MVP in 2017, his numbers suggest the future Hall of Famer has been in a modest decline over the past two seasons after an incredible 12-game run in 2016. I’d pin part of that on the absence of Julian Edelman in 2017 and a limited receiving corps without Brandin Cooks, and with Gronkowski aging in 2018, but Brady is also 41 years old.

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Patrick Mahomes, meanwhile, is the presumptive MVP. If the second-year quarterback does claim the award, he’ll be the youngest quarterback to win the AP’s MVP award in modern history, narrowly dethroning Dan Marino by two days. Both won the award in their age-23 season and their second professional campaign. Even as he had a Hall of Fame career, though, Marino never topped that 1984 campaign. He never made it back to the Super Bowl, and while Marino was first-team All-Pro in 1985 and 1986, he never had those sort of years again after turning 26.

There’s not really a comparable game between quarterbacks in this situation when you combine age, merit and the postseason. If I look for games between a passer 25 years or younger in the middle of their MVP campaign against a quarterback 35 years or older who won the MVP and continues to play at a high level, there are two games: Brady against Mahomes in Week 6, and Marino vs. defending MVP Joe Theismann in Week 1 of that 1984 season. If I’m looking for a playoff game, I have to stretch the criteria to get 26-year-old Brett Favre in the divisional round of the 1995 playoffs against 34-year-old Steve Young, who threw a staggering 65 passes in a 27-17 loss. (To put that in context, Young never threw more than 51 passes in any other game of his 49ers career.)

We often base too much of our evaluations of a quarterback’s legacy on what happens in his first few playoff games. Brady became a larger-than-life figure by winning his first 10 postseason games, although he has gone 17-10 since. Guys such as Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan had to fight skepticism and deal with perpetually moving goalposts after they struggled early in their postseason careers. One league voter in Mike Sando’s QB tier rankings this past year said Ryan was a Tier II and not a Tier I quarterback because of “the ‘playoff’ stuff,” but Ryan posted a 135.3 passer rating in 2016 and came within six points of leading the Falcons to a Super Bowl victory.

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It’s unfair to turn playoff games into quarterback matchups, but if Mahomes beats Brady, it’ll be seen as the official dawn of a new era in Kansas City. If the Chiefs lose and Mahomes struggles, though, the default will be to refer to Mahomes as the same old Chiefs under the same old Andy Reid, as if the 23-year-old had anything to do with the Chiefs’ defense blowing a 28-point lead to the Colts in 2013. It’s not the way I think or I would suggest you think about quarterbacks, but it would be naive to pretend that some subset of the NFL universe doesn’t talk about passers this way.

The narrative stakes aren’t quite as high in Los Angeles, where Goff might have to take the torch from Aaron Rodgers as opposed to Brees, but this would be a huge feather in the caps of both Goff and McVay. If the Rams lose and don’t play well, I think you’ll see Goff come in for some criticism, and it might be warranted. Last season, Goff was 24-of-45 for 259 yards and a score in a loss to the Falcons in which the Rams scored 13 points. On Saturday, while Goff sealed the game with a keeper, he went 15-of-28 for 186 yards against an average Cowboys pass defense. The numbers don’t matter if the Rams win, but if the Rams lose and Goff is averaging less than 7 yards per attempt yet again, there will be complaints.

I don’t want to pick between the Chiefs and Saints for home-crowd noise, and there’s certainly more to home-field advantage than simply being loud, but who could ask for more entertaining venues for these two games? Everyone knows Saints fans are going to show up for their biggest home game since the 2009 NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, but think about how big this is for Chiefs fans.

The Chiefs just won their first home playoff game since 1993, which was the last time they made it this far. Kansas City hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since 1969. It gets a chance to overcome all that on Sunday at home against a team that knocked them out of the playoffs in 2015. The last time the Patriots played in Kansas City, Chiefs fans set the record for the loudest outdoor stadium. You get the feeling they might top that number in a big moment on Sunday.