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Banks' Conference Championship NFL Picks

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With Super Bowl LIII berths on the line this Sunday, here’s some sobering statistics for fans of either the Rams or Patriots, the road teams in the NFC and AFC Championship games: Home teams are 10-0 in conference title games the past five seasons, and 16-4 (80 percent) in the past 10 years. Gulp.

The last visitors to win in the NFL’s final four were the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers in 2012. The No. 2-seeded Ravens knocked off the top-seeded Patriots in Gillette Stadium, in a rematch of the 2011 AFC Championship game. In the NFC, the No. 2-seeded 49ers upset the No. 1 Falcons on the road in title game, the only time both away teams have prevailed on Championship Sunday in the past decade.

As for this weekend’s double-barreled No. 1 versus No. 2 glamor showdowns, we haven’t had that particular quinella to look forward to in the AFC and NFC Championship games since 2015, when No. 1’s Denver and Carolina held serve at home against No. 2’s New England and Arizona, respectively.

But history doesn’t determine what unfolds on game day, and any way you look at it, Sunday’s two marquee matchups are pairings we’ve been anticipating for most of the season, or at least since the Patriots and Chiefs met in that 43-40 shootout in Week 6, and the Saints vanquished the Rams 45-35 in Week 9.

Two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Drew Brees) will be at work this weekend, and three of the four coaches have Super Bowl experience as well (Bill Belichick, Sean Payton and Andy Reid). Then there’s the youth contingent that adds top-notch buzz to these games, with star quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff trying to deny Brady and Brees more glory, while Rams coaching wunderkind, Sean McVay, matches wits with another Sean (Payton) known for his offensive-minded pedigree.

Unless you’re New England, with its eight consecutive AFC title games, reaching a conference championship is a rare and lofty feat for this year’s participants. The Saints last were here in 2009, and the Rams franchise hasn’t qualified since 2001. As for the Chiefs, who collected their first home playoff win in 25 years last week, you have to go back to 1993 and Joe Montana’s three-game postseason run with Kansas City to match this year’s opportunity.

We’re in for a great Super Bowl pairing no matter who wins, but Atlanta can wait. It might be hard to beat the intriguing matchups we have in store on this highly-anticipated Championship Sunday.

Last week: 4-0 (1.000); Season: 167–95 (.637).

SUNDAY

No. 2 Los Angeles (14-3) at No. 1 New Orleans (14-3)

Pounding away with the Rams’ productive two-headed running game of Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson will be the best way to keep the ball out of Drew Brees’ hands and ensure the score doesn’t get away from Los Angeles, like it did the last time these teams met in the Superdome. New Orleans built a 35-14 lead that day, then watched the Rams storm back to tie it 35-35 in the fourth quarter. If Los Angeles can pressure Brees up the gut with its defensive tackle duo of Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, the Rams defense might be able to set the tone of the game and help quiet what promises to be a deafening and full-throated crowd.

The Saints absolutely can’t afford the same slow start they had at home against the Eagles last week, because Los Angeles has more firepower and McVay will keep the pedal to the metal if his Rams build an early lead. New Orleans’ stout defense is the key factor in how this game turns out, and if the Saints win the turnover battle they should be able to pack for the short jaunt to Atlanta and invade the team complex and home stadium of their NFC South arch-rivals, the Falcons. That’s when the real party will start in the Big Easy.

Winner: New Orleans

No. 2 New England (12-5) at No. 1 Kansas City (13-4)

Without an ounce of hype necessary, this is the biggest pro football game to ever take place in Kansas City, because the Chiefs have never played host to either an AFC Championship or AFL title game in the franchise’s 59-season, two-city history. That’s a lot of pressure and I can’t wait to see how Andy Reid’s team responds to the size of the stage and the weight of expectation, because Kansas City’s existence is dotted with epic cases of postseason underachievement.

Not that Patrick Mahomes is responsible for any of that, and the second-year quarterback and likely league MVP is the Chiefs’ best hope of turning a completely new page in what promises to be a frigid setting at raucous Arrowhead Stadium. The Patriots haven’t won a road playoff game since the 2006 Divisional round at San Diego, and last earned a Super Bowl berth away from Foxboro in Pittsburgh in the 2004 AFC title game. New England is a three-point underdog, and apparently loving it. It’s been since late November 2014 that the Patriots haven’t worn the favorite’s label in a game, and their hope is that adds the extra motivational fuel needed to secure the ninth Super Bowl berth of the Belichick-Brady era. With big-game experience and superb coaching schemes providing their most obvious edge, some how, some way, I expect it to once again be New England’s day.

Winner: New England

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