Thursday 21 February 2019

Forty-somethings Brady and Brees primed to face the young pretenders

Tom Brady. Photo: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Brady. Photo: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Finnis

And then there were four. Not just any four, either - the four highest-scoring teams in the NFL are also the last ones left standing. That's never happened before.

The finalists are also all in the bottom half of the league for yards allowed this season, more proof that offense is king in the 2018 National Football League. They used to say defense wins championships, but we've watched the Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys all fall. The New Orleans Saints, LA Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots remain. One of them will be hoisting the Lombardi trophy in Atlanta in two weeks' time.

With 40-year-old Drew Brees v 24-year old Jared Goff followed by 41-year-old Tom Brady facing 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes, it might be a night for the ages.

Los Angeles Rams @ New Orleans Saints, tomorrow, 8.05 (Sky Sports)

The Rams are a smash mouth, ground and pound offense these days. It looks good on them. Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson battered the Cowboys' supposedly elite defense last week, rushing for a combined 238 yards and three touchdowns. Anderson has been an absolute dream pick-up for Sean McVay's team - he's run for a mouthwatering 422 yards and four touchdowns in his three games in Los Angeles, and his hard-nosed, between-the-tackles style in a perfect complement to Gurley's more electrifying approach. To think, only a few weeks ago he was cut by the Raiders.

The Rams are up against the league's second-best run defense in New Orleans. That battle is going to be absolutely key to their success tomorrow. McVay will also look to make heavy use of the play action and run-pass options which gave Jared Goff and the rest of the offense so much success early in the season.

On defence, the Rams will look to Aaron Donald to make the difference but it's cornerback Aqib Talib who could be their most vital defensive man. Talib missed the 45-35 defeat to New Orleans earlier in the season, and it led to Marcus Peters getting absolutely roasted all night long. The Saints might have the best wide receiver remaining in the play-offs and, against the Rams in Week 9, Michael Thomas caught 12 passes for a monster 211 yards and a touchdown, and averaged 17.6 yards per reception.

Thomas was so unstoppable that every time the Saints got in the red zone the Rams defense couldn't take their eyes off him. The result? Brees threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers, and New Orleans won by 10.

Saints coach Sean Payton will know exactly how vital it is to put a throttle on Los Angeles' runaway ground attack and, if he can, the Saints might just have enough.

New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs, tomorrow, 11.40 (Sky Sports)

The Patriots' performance last week was an NFL post-season masterclass. Sure, the Chargers never turned up to the party, but that's because Bill Belichick double-bolted the castle gates, built a moat and raised the drawbridge.

On offense, they will use a similar strategy to the one which got them here. That means a lot of work for Sony Michel and quick checkdowns from Tom Brady to James White for those defense-debilitating eight-yard gains.

Michel had 24 carries for 129 yards and three touchdowns last week, and the Chargers' run defense is far superior to Kansas City's. And while Brady may not look like he's doing all that much - he's not making the eye-opening throws his opposite number this week does with frightening regularity - he's playing with incredible precision.

What makes Brady so brilliant is he knows exactly where and when to release to ball to give his receivers the best chance possible to hit gaps and gain yards after the catch.

That's why Julian Edelman had such a big day against the Chargers - expect him to find joy again against this KC secondary.

That's the key for New England, really: their experience. Whatever happens tomorrow, even if Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes goes haywire and the Chiefs jump out to an early two-score lead, Belichick won't panic. The Pats head coach was asked if he could coach for Tyreek Hill's eye-watering speed earlier in the week, and in true Belichick fashion he replied: "What, by making people faster?"

The thing is, if there's anyone who can scheme for Hill, for Travis Kelce, and even for Mahomes, it's Bill Belichick. The Patriots are underdogs for the first time in 70 games, but who would bet against them making the bookies look like fools?

Against that, for all their scheming, it's tough to see how the Patriots keep Mahomes quiet, although he will probably need a good running game to back him up in the shape of Damien Williams.

It's this year's Most Valuable Player Mahomes against the Greatest Of All Time Brady. It might just be the day that the torch is passed.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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