Hidden keys to victory for Rams, Patriots, Chiefs and Saints in conference title games

Senior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

We’ve all been guilty of it. For the better part of four-plus months, many of us have been fawning over The New NFL, and the increased emphasis on passing that has coincided with rule changes that helped offense.

But in the divisional round last week, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that all four winners lived up to the old-school adage of “run the ball, stop the run” that once permeated the game.

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That’s why the first topic in this week’s “Things I Enjoyed” column is … 

1. How Chiefs, Patriots, Saints and Rams defended the run

The Kansas City Chiefs outgained the Indianapolis Colts on the ground 180-87. The New England Patriots outgained the Los Angeles Chargers 155-19. The New Orleans Saints outgained the Eagles 137-49. And the Los Angeles Rams outgained the Dallas Cowboys 273-50.

During a season in which points and yards went up from 2017 while total plays went down, the winning teams all managed to snuff out the opposition’s rushing attack while controlling the clock themselves. I go into detail about that in the finely produced video above, so please check that out.

By the way, speaking of running games the next thing I enjoyed was … 

Damien Williams is running wild at the right time for the Chiefs. (AP)
Damien Williams is running wild at the right time for the Chiefs. (AP)

2. Damien Williams makes case to be the Chiefs’ starting RB in 2019

If there’s one thing you need to know about Kareem Hunt as a football player, it’s this: the man can make people miss. Seriously, at the time of his release in early December for the role he played in an altercation at a Cleveland hotel, Hunt was second in the NFL in missed tackles forced, one of the most important stats for running backs since, you know, the whole job entails making people miss by running around or through them.

After Spencer Ware’s 47-yard performance in their first game without Hunt in Week 13, there was reason for concern in Kansas City. Since then, Damien Williams — a free-agent pickup in the offseason — has taken the job and run with it (excuse the pun).

Williams, 26, is a tough-nosed player who runs hard, catches the ball well and blocks, too (in other words, my kinda guy). And while he never rushed for more than 181 yards in his four NFL seasons prior to joining the Chiefs, he has shown flashes of elusiveness, regularly making players miss last season in Miami in his 66 touches. Now that he’s gotten an opportunity, he has been awesome. In his past three regular-season contests, he rushed for 203 yards and three TDs on only 34 attempts — a sterling yards-per-carry average of 5.9 — and even caught 14 passes for 119 yards, to boot.

His explosion is why the Chiefs signed him to a two-year extension before the regular-season finale against Oakland,  and in their divisional-round win over the Colts he was masterful, rushing 25 times for 129 yards and a touchdown while making four men miss and showing a tackle-breaking ability on par with Hunt’s.

“Those were some big shoes to fill,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I think Damien has done a nice job of stepping in and putting his own personality to that position and how he plays the game. He brings a lot of energy.”

The Chiefs are in the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots, a team that has struggled to defend the run against three-wide sets. And while the Chargers oddly opted against attacking that weakness while playing the Patriots last week, it would be surprising if Reid — a master of offensive play-calling — follows suit.

3. James White, a running back doing work in the passing game

New England Patriots veteran James White is a running back, which makes the fact he caught 15 passes for 97 yards against the Chargers last week — without rushing a single time — a remarkable stat.

When you combine the fact that White, 26, is a wizard as a receiving threat out of the backfield with the fact that Tom Brady wants to get the ball out of his hands quicker than ever, it makes sense that White, not a somewhat-diminished Rob Gronkowski, is now Brady’s security blanket.

“We have so much trust in him and his ability to make the right decision,” Brady said of White. “He’s great with the ball in his hands — run game, pass game. He’s just been an exceptional player in every way.”

White set franchise records for catches (87) and receiving yards (751) this season, and against the Chargers last week, his 15 catches tied the NFL’s postseason record.

His routes of choice against the Chargers? Flares:

And screens:

“Their defense, they play a lot of zone so as running backs, we have a lot of opportunities to catch the football,” White said of the Chargers. “[You] get vertical, kind of scan the defense before I turn my eyes back to the quarterback and just do what I can to try and make defenders miss.”

Why will this matter in Sunday’s conference title game? The Chiefs yielded the fifth-most receiving yards per game against running backs during the regular season, and unless linebacker Dorian O’Daniel plays — he missed practice Wednesday and Thursday — White could have a chance to exploit two middling cover linebackers in Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens if the Patriots attempt to establish the run early in base sets. 

4. C.J. Anderson’s no-nonsense style

Save your jokes about Anderson’s weight, please. While the 5-foot-8, 235-pounder isn’t as trim as he was during his early days with Denver, the 27-year-old’s combination of quickness and desire for contact has made him an ideal slider to Todd Gurley’s fastball, which Anderson showed off with a dominating 23-carry, 123-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Rams’ divisional-round win over the Cowboys last Saturday.

Anderson still has quick feet, and he regularly gashed the Cowboys by shuffling through a hole between the tackles, lowering his head and laying the boom on defenders. Anderson rushed for 11 first downs on those 23 carries, and 68 of his 123 yards came after contact. And he did all of this in only 28 snaps.

“Having C.J. run the football, if you watch closely, you see him finish the runs aggressively — meaning he gets really low to the ground and when you tackle him, he’s going to gain a couple more yards that you weren’t expecting,” Rams offensive line coach Aaron Kromer said. “You look out and say, ‘Hey, that’s a nice five-yard run,’ and then you look up and it’s a seven-yard run or it’s an eight-yard run. I think that finish that he has – that power at the end of the run – is really what makes him a good back.”

The Rams may need him against the Saints’ second-ranked run defense Sunday. Gurley rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown the last time these two teams met, a 45-35 Saints victory two months ago. But in the Rams’ last three games, Anderson is averaging 140 rushing yards a game. While the strong, speedy Gurley can take it the distance any play, Anderson is a workhorse who can help Gurley move the chains and perhaps continue giving an unsteady red-zone offense a boost in the Rams’ biggest game of the season.

5. Michael Thomas, the evolutionary Cris Carter

Yeah, I said it. Carter is a Hall of Famer, but when he watches Thomas, he has to see some similarities. They’re roughly the same size — Carter was 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds while Thomas is 6-3 and 203 pounds — with large, extremely reliable hands and toughness, as both take pride in moving the chains and working the middle of the field.

This makes Thomas, 25, one of the league’s toughest covers, and boy, did the Eagles find that out in their divisional-round loss to the Saints last week. In that game, Thomas — who led the NFL in catches (125) and finished sixth in yards (1,405) — caught 12 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown, with an overwhelming majority of those catches (at least eight of them, by my count) coming over the middle. In the clip below, watch Thomas dominate the overmatched Eagles with his size, hands and route-running:

“He was physical — there were some extended plays, off-schedule plays where [quarterback] Drew [Brees] climbed the pocket, scrambled and found Mike,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Mike did a really good job of tracking Drew and the direction he was moving.”

You know who else also knows about Thomas’ ability? The Rams, who surrendered an absurd 12 catches for 211 yards and the game-clinching score to him in the Saints’ victory over them two months ago.

“I think we all know they are going to feed him the ball,” said Rams cornerback Marcus Peters, who surrendered that game-clinching score.

But this time, the Rams will have Peters’ fellow corner and running buddy, Aqib Talib, who missed that game with an injury. I personally think Peters tends to play better when Talib is out there with him, and if you think you think those two aren’t going to be fired up to face the man who pulled out a cell phone from under the goalpost the last time these teams met, then you don’t know Talib and Peters.

“I think just having him out there, his veteran presence – like we’ve talked about a lot, his ability to communicate, his ownership and his study throughout the course of the week – in terms of just his situational awareness, concept recognition and then most importantly, his ability to communicate,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “So, when you get your two guys out there on the edges, I think that will enable us to do some different things coverage wise, be a little bit more flexible.”

We’ll see. It’s time for some playoff football!

WC RD: Why Patrick Mahomes can pierce Colts and avoid Chiefs’ dreaded January flop
WEEK 17: Why Dak Prescott needed extra work in Week 17, plus more wild-card observations
WEEK 16: Here’s why Jadeveon Clowney is going to make a lot of money this offseason
WEEK 15: Colts proved they can protect Andrew Luck and plow way toward playoffs
WEEK 14: No-looks and sidearms — 7 more throws from Patrick Mahomes you missed
WEEK 13: Here’s what Seahawks have to do if they want Russell Wilson to keep rolling
WEEK 12: Bills QB Josh Allen is changing some skeptical minds
WEEK 11: Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Chiefs-Rams gave us glorious forecast of the future
WEEK 10: This is why Rams’ Todd Gurley is mentioned in MVP talk
WEEK 9: Here’s how Dez Bryant can make Saints scarier
WEEK 8: How Golden Tate, 3 others dealt at NFL trade deadline can impact their teams
WEEK 7: These Amari Cooper plays can help Dak Prescott, Cowboys soar
WEEK 6: Flying to the football, Steelers’ nasty blocking & Matt Nagy channeling Andy Reid
WEEK 5: A Tale of two Cams (Newton and Erving)
WEEK 4: The juice of Patriots RB Sony Michel and lineman who slowed down Von Miller
WEEK 3: Mahomes magic and Lane Johnson’s acting chops
WEEK 2: Dallas’ deep ball, and the ridiculousness of Mahomes and Saquon
WEEK 1: Andy Reid’s goal-line circus and more

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