NFL’s conference championship games have it all: Top seeds, top players, top coaches

Rams head coach Sean McVay celebrates a touchdown by running back Todd Gurley against the Cowboys at the Coliseum on Jan. 12, 2019.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

There’s a written-in-the-stars feel to this weekend’s NFL playoff games, a synchronicity that goes beyond the fact that both conference championship games are rematches from earlier this season.

Maybe it’s that, for the first time, these title games feature the top four scoring teams from the regular season: Kansas City (35.3 points), the Rams (32.9), New Orleans (31.5) and New England (27.2).

Or that each quarterback matchup features a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a new-age star, with Drew Brees versus Jared Goff in the NFC, and Tom Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes in the AFC.

Two of the four coaches have Super Bowl rings (New England’s Bill Belichick and New Orleans’ Sean Payton); Kansas City’s Andy Reid has gotten there; and at 32, the Rams’ Sean McVay is the youngest head coach to win a playoff game.

If there were a draft for head coaches, each of these four would go in the top five picks.


Once again, the value of an off week is on full display. Any team that didn’t get a bye is gone. This is No. 1 vs. 2 in each conference. Nine of the last 10 Super Bowl participants were No. 1 seeds, with the only exception being Atlanta, which was a No. 2.

“Look, there are certain spots you want to start from at the [Kentucky] Derby,” said Payton, whose team will host the Rams in the early game Sunday. “There are certain spots no one has ever won from at the Derby. Then there are some spots that are more favorable, and I think that seeding is probably similar.

“Because it’s not the absolute, and certainly we’ve seen teams win from a lot of different spots — fifth seed, fourth seed — and so for us our focus is taking advantage of playing another game at home, taking advantage of the crowd noise, and trying to put our best foot forward.”

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The Saints handed the Rams their first loss of the season, and the Patriots did the same with the Chiefs.

These aren’t your father’s Rams. They’re not even your last haircut’s Rams. Once a team known for its passing pyrotechnics, it has morphed into a ground-and-pound team the last three games, with the hard-running C.J. Anderson complementing the versatile style of Todd Gurley.

But Payton isn’t expecting a dramatic departure from the team the Saints beat 45-35 in Week 9.

“Studying that team closely as we have — and they’re a team we look at each week, Sean and those guys do a great job — but I think they’ve been a running team,” he said. “Now, make no mistake about it, last week’s game [a win over the Dallas Cowboys] was super impressive. … But all of it sets up what they want to do in the play-action passing game.”

Still, the Rams were virtually unstoppable on the ground in their 30-22 victory over the Cowboys in the divisional round. They ran for 273 yards against a Dallas defense that held the top-ranked Seattle rushing game to a paltry 73 yards the week before.

“Man, that Cowboy run front up until last week has been pretty impressive all season,” Payton said. “That made it that more special when you really know how well Dallas had defended the run.”

It doesn’t help the Saints’ cause that they lost defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins to a torn Achilles tendon Sunday during their 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. That is a significant blow to their second-ranked run defense, and steps up the pressure on backup David Onyemata and undrafted rookie Taylor Stallworth to shoulder more of the load.

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer