Grant Cohn: Picking winners in AFC, NFC title games

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First, I want to pick the Patriots to beat the Chiefs this Sunday.

I’ll get to the Saints and Rams.

I certainly don’t want to bet against the experience of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, especially after last week when I picked them to lose to the Los Angeles Chargers, a tough team. The Patriots just emasculated them. Made them look like chumps and made me feel foolish.

I should have known not to pick against the Patriots at home. They’re 9-0 in Foxborough this season and haven’t lost a playoff game there since 2013. The Chargers had no chance.

The Chiefs are better than the Chargers.

The Chiefs and Patriots already played each other this season, and the Patriots won 43-40. But that game was in Foxborough. This weekend’s game will be in Kansas City, and the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game away from Gillette Stadium since 2007. Plus, they’re 3-5 on the road this season.

I want to pick the Patriots, but these numbers trouble me:

On the road, their offense ranks 18th out of 32 teams in points per game (21.2), 20th in third-down-conversion percentage (36.6), 26th in red-zone-touchdown-scoring percentage (45.8) and 28th in yards per carry (3.9).

The Patriots’ problems start with their tight end, Rob Gronkowski. He used to be their biggest scoring threat, but this season has scored only three touchdowns. And the past four games, he has averaged merely 17.5 receiving yards. A non-factor.

Without a dominant Gronkowski, the Patriots have just two good pass catchers — slot receiver Julian Edelman and running back James White. Which means they have to run the ball to be effective.

Against the Chargers last week, Patriots rookie running back Sony Michel rushed 24 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns. He was their most valuable player.

At home this season, Michel averaged a gargantuan 90.8 rushing yards per game. But on the road, he averaged just 55.1 rushing yards per game. Meaning the Patriots’ most important player other than Brady doesn’t show up for road games.

And that means Brady will have to carve up the Chiefs defense by himself. Not easy, because at home in KC, the Chiefs pass defense gives up only 216.7 passing yards per game (seventh best in the league), and an average opponent quarterback rating of 76.9 (third best).

The Chiefs defense also leads the league in sacks and doesn’t have to blitz to pressure the quarterback. Teams with great four-man pass rushes historically have performed well against Brady in the playoffs. The New York Giants come to mind.

The Patriots may struggle to score more than 21 points.

And the Chiefs have outscored opponents by more than two touchdowns per game at home this season.

I want to pick the Patriots, but I just can’t. I’m picking the Chiefs.

Next, I want to pick the Saints to beat the Rams.

Before the season even began, I picked the Saints to win the Super Bowl, and I don’t want to give up on them now, especially when they’re three-point favorites at home.

The Saints and Rams played each other on Nov. 4 in in the Superdome, and the Saints won 45-35. Easy. Drew Brees threw four touchdown passes and his quarterback rating was 137. A perfect rating is 158.3.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff played well in that game, too — he threw three touchdown passes and his quarterback rating was 115.7. But that was the final full game he played with his No. 1 receiver, Cooper Kupp, who tore his ACL the following week against the Seahawks.

When Kupp was healthy, Goff used to throw as many as 50 passes in a game. But, since Kupp has been out, the Rams offense has completely changed. Now, it’s run first. Since Week 16, Goff has averaged only 26 pass attempts and just 200 passing yards. He mostly turns and hands the ball off Todd Gurley or C.J. Anderson.

Combined, those two must gain at least 200 rushing yards for the Rams to beat the Saints.

Goff won’t beat them. On the road this season, he has thrown 10 touchdown passes, nine interceptions and his quarterback rating is a measly 82.7. The rest of the Rams prop him up.

The Saints have the third best run defense at home this season — it gives up only 71.7 rushing yards per game. So, the Saints defense should hold its own against the Rams running backs.

And the Saints offense should have no problem scoring. Unlike the Rams, the Saints still have their No. 1 receiver, Michael Thomas, who caught 12 passes for 211 yards and one touchdown the last time he faced the Rams.

I want to pick the Saints, and I do pick the Saints.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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