Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore celebrates with fans after intercepting a pass against the Philadelphia Eagles during the fourth quarter of an NFC divisional playoff game on Jan. 13, 2019, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.


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Jason Keidel
January 14, 2019 - 10:28 am

Just when you have a finger on the NFL's pulse, you feel like a fool. As soon as you have a great weekend predicting games, you -- to quote Chicagoans -- pitch a steamer the next weekend.  

Just when it becomes clear that underdogs are the play, they get swatted away. The underdogs of the NFL playoffs went 10-1 against the spread last year and started 4-0 during wild-card weekend. Then this past weekend happened. 

The Chiefs clobbered the Colts. The Rams sprinted like Secretariat from the Cowboys. The Patriots humiliated the Chargers, who are better than the Pats at almost every position beyond quarterback and head coach. 

Then we had the last game Sunday in the Superdome between the hometown Saints and defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Sometimes -- especially Sunday evening -- you must toss stats out the window. There wasn't a stat, trend or pathology that wasn't turned on its head in New Orleans. 

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Start with the opening drive. Saints QB Drew Brees had thrown one interception in 226 passes at home this year. Then he throws one on the first play of the game against the Eagles. 

Conversely, Nick Foles had completed 85 percent of his passes to Alshon Jeffrey entering Sunday's game, averaging 14.7 yards per attempt with one TD and no interceptions. On Sunday, it was just 63 percent, 7.9 yards per attempt, no touchdowns and one interception.

The Eagles dashed out to a 14-point lead and were 12-0 in the NFL playoffs when staked a 14-point lead. Likewise, the Saints had never hurdled a 14-point deficit. 

When the Eagles -- who jumped out 14-0 in the first ten minutes -- muscled the ball past the 50-yard line with 2:45 left in the game, it was their first trip into Saints territory since the first quarter. Also since the first quarter, Saints star wideout Michael Thomas had 141 receiving yards, while the Eagles had 81 total yards as a team.

A few Eagles shielded Jeffrey -- who dropped the final throw, which bounced off his hands and fluttered into Marshon Lattimore's arms -- saying the Eagles' clutch wide receiver had broken ribs. But the old saying tells us that if you're injured, you don't play, and if you play, you're not injured. 

The Saints' go-ahead drive consumed 11:29 of clock on 18 plays for 92 yards, but if you include penalties, the Saints really traveled 117 yards. On the other side, the Eagles were in full backslide, with their final eight drives lasting 12:51 -- 30 plays, 99 yards, zero points. 

One more astonishing stat from the Big Easy: This season the Saints have converted 15 of 18 fourth-down attempts -- including that gutsy fake punt on their own 30-yard line Sunday -- with five touchdowns.

If the Rams, who already lost, 45-35, to the Saints in the Superdome this year, are to win in the the NFC championship game, they need to break through the Saints' home dome decibels, the hometown mojo and a nice little streak. Indeed, Drew Brees is 6-0 at home in the playoffs, while just 1-5 as a visitor. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, and TD-to-interception ratio are all way better in the Superdome. 

Despite the epic uptick in scoring over the last few years, we saw some serious defense during the opening week of the playoffs. The Colts held the Texans to seven points. The Chargers held the Ravens to 17 points. And the Eagles held the 12-4 Bears to 15 points in Chicago. 

So just as we relish in the old-school football motif of frigid weather and fierce defense, the NFL tells us to take a hike. The AFC and NFC title games will, of course, feature the top four scoring teams for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger (according to Elias). 

It's also ironic that despite the improved role of the underdog in today's NFL, the two most daunting road games and haunted home fields are in play this coming Sunday. We all know about the ear-bending decibels of the Superdome, forcing teams to face the twin-threats of a nuclear Saints offense and somehow calling plays while snapping the ball in noise equaling several jet engines.  

Then we have Kansas City. Arrowhead Stadium is a house of horrors for visiting NFL clubs. Sure, the Chiefs just broke an 0-6 playoff streak at home and hadn't won such a game since 1994, when Joe Montana was QB. But that streak is over. It's time for the best AFC title game in years when the Chiefs host the Pats, a game that should have Vegas scratching its head before an official spread spits out. 

After all the talk of underdogs, it's all chalk this coming Sunday, with the Saints and Rams the top two seeds in the NFC, and the Chiefs and Pats carrying the same seeding in the AFC. The NFL may be hard to predict and harder to understand, at times, but one thing they always produce is a quality product, like this -- a final four for the ages. 

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel.