New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton does not have an issue with the Los Angeles Rams' Marcus Peters.

New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman is embracing the team's underdog status in the NFL playoffs after tweeting the hashtag "#BetAgainstUs".

The New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams will meet for the second time this season on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, and both will look to their not-so-secret weapons in order to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.

In the teams' previous matchup in Week 9, things were a little different for the visiting Los Angeles squad, while New Orleans enjoyed the home-field advantage in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Now, the Rams will hope to use their high-powered rushing attack, which has boosted the offense after the midseason loss of wide receiver Cooper Kupp. At the same time, the Saints, who will again be hosting the Rams, will rely on their biggest playmaker, receiver Michael Thomas, to expose an inconsistent secondary.

Here we take a look at each team's X-factors as both franchises bid to ensure they are still playing in February.

Los Angeles Rams

X-factor: The run game

There has only been one other playoff performance in the past decade that was like Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson's display last week. It was in 2013 when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore each had 100-plus receiving yards, and the last pair of Rams to complete the feat were Marshall Faulk and Trung Canidate when they combined for 328 yards in 2001.

Gurley and Anderson combined for 238 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Dallas Cowboys, who had allowed just 3.8 yards per carry during the regular season — the fourth-best run defense in the NFL. By all accounts, it should have been difficult for Gurley to finish his seventh game with 100-plus yards (115) and Anderson to have his third consecutive games with 120-or-more yards (123), but the pair got it done behind a stout offensive line.

The two will again need to bring that sort of form to the table again against the Saints. But it will not be easy.

New Orleans finished the regular season with the second-best rushing defense and allowed only 3.6 yards per carry. The Saints have talent in four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan and there have only been a handful of times they have given up more than 100 yards on the ground.

In Week 9, the Rams rushed for 92 yards. It was their second game up to that point with fewer than 100 rushing yards. Meanwhile, the Saints had only allowed 100-or-more rushing yards once before their first meeting with Los Angeles. Since then, three other teams have been able to rack up yards on the ground against New Orleans, and the Rams will need to add their name to the list.

New Orleans Saints

X-factor: Michael Thomas

Yes, Drew Brees orchestrated another come-from-behind win last week to put the Saints one game away from their second Super Bowl appearance. But if Brees is the conductor then Thomas is just waiting for his solo.

Thomas, who led the league in catches in the regular season with 125 receptions for 1,405 yards, helped the team to a 20-14 win over the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round. He had 12 catches and one touchdown, which gave the Saints a lead they would not relinquish. He set a franchise playoff record with 171 receiving yards that included a handful of catches that would be difficult for anyone not named Michael Thomas.

But what is more impressive than his colossal numbers is that it was not even his best performance of the season. The two-time Pro Bowl receiver has had two other games with 180 yards or more — Week 1 (180 yards) and Week 9 (211). His 211-yard day was against the hot-and-cold Rams defense.

Los Angeles boasts a defensive front that includes the likes of Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers. The three have 26 combined sacks and will pressure quarterback Brees every opportunity they get. It is the Rams' secondary that should cause concern, especially against Thomas.

In Thomas' previous matchup against the Rams, cornerback Marcus Peters was exposed on big plays more than he made them. Los Angeles employed a zone defense which Brees and a wide-open Thomas took full advantage of, and when Peters was playing man coverage Thomas overpowered him to snag the ball for 12 receptions — his second highest total of the season. Peters, who can and does have the ability to make those big plays, had a pass breakup that nearly resulted in an interception.

It just depends on which secondary shows up to face Thomas.

Patrick Mahomes warned the Kansas City Chiefs cannot afford to make the same mistakes they did in Week 6 when they face the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship showdown.

Bruce Arians' criticism of Antonio Brown has drawn a response from the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver, who has not taken kindly to being called a "diva".

New Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Arians spent time in Pittsburgh as offensive coordinator for the Steelers when Brown was a rookie, and he is not impressed with his recent behaviour.

"There's too much miscommunication, too much ... diva," Arians told The Adam Schefter Podcast. "I've heard so many stories — I like Antonio — he plays as hard as anybody on Sunday, and he practices hard. He's just gotta make better decisions off the field, be on time, do some of those little things."

Brown hit back at both Arians and former Steelers team-mate Sanders - who had also criticised his ex-colleague when doing punditry at the weekend - in a Twitter post that said: "He didn't draft me he drafted Emmanuel Sanders, same guy who missed rehab to go on networks to talk about me on [a] situation he has zero clue [about]! Arians now wears kangoo hats n glasses. But I'm a diva!"

It is no secret that tensions between Brown and the team, specifically quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, have grown this season in the aftermath of Le'Veon Bell's ugly contract dispute.

Despite leading the NFL with 15 touchdown receptions this season, Brown sat out the team's regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals after a reported row with Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for the first time in five years despite a win over Cincinnati.

Steelers president Art Rooney II — who said it is "hard to envision" Brown being with the team come training camp — released a statement last week insisting the organisation is open to every option this offseason except for releasing Brown.

Linebacker Ryan Shazier remains intent on doing everything he can to return to the NFL, according to Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II.

Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Rooney said Shazier is still eyeing a return to the field and will continue his rehabilitation with the hope of playing again.

Although Shazier's contract is up in March, the Steelers are open to working out a deal to keep him with the team.

"To the extent that he wants to do that, we’re open to working that out," Rooney said.

Shazier was injured when he tackled Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Josh Malone in December 2017. He was carted off the field in Cincinnati, unable to move his lower extremities, and was later diagnosed with a spinal contusion that required a stabilization surgery and left him in a wheelchair.

But the 26-year-old has since made significant strides in his recovery. He has been seen in videos on social media jogging and even lifting weights.

"Just a year ago my life changed forever," Shazier said in December on the anniversary of his injury. 

"It was a scary moment for many people. I'm not going to lie, I was one of them. I've learned this was an amazing opportunity for the Lord to show how great He is. It's been a crazy, long journey, but it is not over yet. The best worst part about this journey that I'm on is the unknown. Day by day it's getting better than the day before."

The New York Jets are bringing in Gregg Williams as their new defensive coordinator.

The Carolina Panthers could be without star quarterback Cam Newton next season.

Similar to the AFC, Sunday's NFC championship game will pit a young gun against a savvy veteran under center.

Los Angeles Rams third-year quarterback Jared Goff takes his squad to New Orleans with the hope of defeating Saints QB Drew Brees after the 40-year-old helped his team secure the top seed in the NFL playoffs and best odds to win the Super Bowl.

Brees and the 24-year-old Goff have an age gap of nearly 16 years, which is the third largest between two quarterbacks in postseason history. While much of Goff's history remains unwritten, Brees has sealed his status as a Hall of Famer.

Here, we break down their season to this point and what to expect from Sunday's showdown.

How they stack up this season


Regular season

Jared Goff
Completion percentage:
64.9
Yards: 4,688
Touchdowns: 32
Interceptions: 12
Rating: 101.1

Drew Brees
Completion percentage: 74.4
Yards: 3,992
Touchdowns: 32
Interceptions: 5
Rating: 115.7

 

Post divisional round

Goff v Dallas Cowboys
Completion percentage:
53.6
Yards: 186
Touchdowns: 0
Interceptions: 0
Rating: 74.4

Brees v Philadelphia Eagles
Completion percentage: 73.7
Yards: 301
Touchdowns: 2
Interceptions: 1
Rating: 103.1

 

Beyond the numbers

While Goff's offense seemed to sputter toward the end of the season, Brees' only got better, and it could be argued that his supporting cast gave him the edge.

Yet, the Saints could be slowed by the Rams' dominating defensive front led by NFL Defensive Player of The Year favourite Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers.

 

Getting Goff going

Though the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes stole the show under center during the regular season, Goff was still in the mix for MVP along with Brees, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. However, Goff's performance cooled down the stretch before igniting once again in the final two weeks before the postseason began. He then put on a lacklustre performance at the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round, leaving his consistency in question entering a crucial rematch in New Orleans.

Los Angeles were the league's lone undefeated team when they visited the Saints in week nine but left with a 45-35 loss after a lopsided outing. That outcome was in line with Goff's overall struggles on the road this season, as he has thrown for 10 touchdowns with nine inteceptions and a 82.7 passer rating away from the Coliseum.

 

Breesing on through

Brees has been in top form this season, playing as well as ever in his 18th year in the league. While the regular season marked the first time since 2005 that he did not throw for more than 4,000 yards, he achieved three notable milestones through the first 10 weeks of action in becoming the NFL's all-time passing leader while also reaching the second-most passing touchdowns and most career completions.

Furthermore, Brees is an even bigger threat in front of a home crowd as he posted a 133.3 passer rating at the Superdome in the regular season.

Brees' experience gives the Saints an advantage at the game's most important position in most matchups, and Sunday is no exception.

Sunday's AFC championship game will showcase a special matchup that features the NFL's past and future: the greatest of all time against the kid.

Patriots veteran Tom Brady will head to Kansas City for New England's eighth straight conference title game appearance as the Chiefs host their first AFC championship game with second-year gunslinger Patrick Mahomes leading the way.

Brady, 41, and Mahomes, 23, are separated by the largest age gap between two starting quarterbacks in postseason history, but they share common ground in the NFL record books.

Here, we break down their season to this point and what to expect from Sunday's showdown.

 

How they stack up this season

Regular season

Patrick Mahomes
Completion percentage: 66.0
Yards: 5,097
Touchdowns: 50
Interceptions: 12
Rating: 113.8

Tom Brady
Completion percentage:
65.8
Yards: 4,355
Touchdowns: 29
Interceptions: 11
Rating: 97.7

Post divisional round

Mahomes v Indianapolis Colts
Completion percentage: 65.9
Yards: 278
Touchdowns: 0
Interceptions: 0
Rating: 85.2

Brady v Los Angeles Chargers
Completion percentage: 77.3
Yards: 343
Touchdowns: 1
Interceptions: 0
Rating: 106.5

 

More than numbers

Mahomes has outperformed Brady in only his second season in the league, both from a statistical standpoint and a talent perspective as he flawlessly threw left-handed and no-look passes during his 2018-19 campaign as a first-year starter.

On the other hand, Brady will be in an unusual spot on Sunday as the Patriots are underdogs for just the second time since 2007 entering Arrowhead Stadium. And if his outing in the divisional round against the Chargers is any indication, Brady will not be playing like he did during the regular season. In fact, it could be argued that the pressure brings out his best performances.

 

Mahomes just getting started

This season has been all about Mahomes and his magnificent growth after former starter Alex Smith was traded to the Washington Redskins last January. Mahomes capped his MVP-worthy season in historic fashion when he became just the second NFL player to throw for 50 touchdowns and 5,000 passing yards in a single season.

He then helped the Chiefs secure their first playoff victory since 2015 and first at Arrowhead since 1993.

But Mahomes has seen the Brady effect firsthand before. Kansas City rallied from a 15-point deficit against New England in week six but fell 43-40 on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal as time expired. The loss was a learning experience for Mahomes as he realised his team "cannot make mistakes" even after he threw for an impressive 352 yards and four touchdowns.

 

Brady or bust

With five Super Bowl rings and eight AFC titles, Brady is the most successful postseason quarterback in the league's history. But even the most seasoned signal-callers get worn down eventually.

Despite no signs of slowing down, retirement has been a common topic last offseason and likely will be again in 2019. However, Brady's focus now is firmly on helping the Patriots win their first playoff game on the road since the 2006 season.

In contests Brady has started, New England had been favoured in 67 straight games. The probability of him winning on Sunday, however, has taken a hit as his age was exposed at times this season.

Doug Pederson has confirmed the Philadelphia Eagles remain committed to Carson Wentz as their starting quarterback.

Speaking in a news conference on Tuesday, the head coach insisted the Eagles will stick with Wentz as the starter, despite him missing the past two postseasons due to injuries, including their Super Bowl triumph last season.

Wentz being out meant back-up Nick Foles came under center once again, and he had great results. 

After leading the Eagles to glory last year, he helped them into the playoffs this year and beat the Chicago Bears in the Wild Card round before being knocked out of the playoffs by the New Orleans Saints in agonising fashion this past weekend.

But Pederson has not been tempted to make a change, saying: "Yes, Carson Wentz is the quarterback going forward.

"In Nick's case, listen, we'd love to have everybody back throughout the roster but as I've said many times, it's not about one guy, it's about the team, and we're going to do what's best for the team."

Foles, who was the Super Bowl MVP when the Eagles defeated the New England Patriots, was 4-1 as the starter for the Eagles in the 2018 campaign, with the only loss coming to the Saints. 

He has a $20million option for the 2019 season, which the Eagles must opt into no later than one week after the Super Bowl. If the team does not exercise the option, Foles can be a free agent this offseason. If they do, he can pay $2m to opt out himself, or play out another year and be available in 2020.

"We would love to keep Nick Foles," executive vice-president of football operations Howie Roseman said. 

"You talk about a guy we drafted here and we've grown incredibly close with. I don't know a team that wouldn't want to have Nick Foles on their roster. Certainly as we go into the substance of those discussions, we haven't had them yet, but there's no question we love having Nick Foles as an Eagle in Philadelphia and we'd love to keep him."

Wentz, who was coming off a severe knee injury from the 2017 season, threw for 3,074 yards with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 11 games before a fractured vertabra derailed him. Wentz said Monday he does not expect his back to be a lingering issue.

"We have a lot of confidence in Carson and his ability to be our quarterback and to hopefully be a 19-game starter when we look at the season and what we're trying to do," Roseman said. 

"That being said, coach, from the day he came here, [said] quarterback's always going to be a priority position for us, we're always going to try and have talent at that position. 

"We've got great quarterback teachers in this building. We're always going to be looking at that spot and trying to improve like any other spot that's important to our football team."

Fifteen quarterbacks in NFL history have started games after turning 40. Come Sunday, that number will rise to 16.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees celebrated his milestone birthday on Tuesday and is poised to keep his record-breaking season going strong into the NFC championship against the Rams and possibly to Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta next month. The Saints haven't been to the championship game since they capped their 2009-10 season with the Lombardi Trophy.

In that time, Brees has broken numerous records, with many coming this season as he led the Saints to a 13-3 record and an NFC South title for the second straight season.

Here we take a look at Drew Brees' milestones and numbers to know — with the help of Opta. 

10 facts about Drew Brees on his 40th birthday:

— Since joining the Saints before the 2006 season, New Orleans have gone 125-80 in games Brees has started. The franchise had won 125 games between 1989 and 2005. Additionally, Brees has helped lead the team to an 8-5 postseason record and the one Super Bowl win. Prior to 2005, the team were 1-5 in the playoffs.

— Brees holds six career passing records, including passing yards (74,437), passing touchdowns (520) and completion percentage (67.2 percent). Additionally, he has three of the top four highest completion percentages in a single season and has the fourth-most wins of any quarterback before turning 40 (155).

— He ranks second in regular-season history in game-winning drives (48) and third in comebacks (34). He has been selected to 12 Pro Bowls — only eight players have been chosen for more.

— He has thrown four or more passing touchdowns in 34 regular-season games. Only Peyton Manning (35) has more.

— Brees has thrown 30-plus touchdown passes in 10 of the last 11 seasons. Only two other quarterbacks in league history have thrown 30-plus TD passes more than seven seasons (Brett Favre and Peyton Manning with nine).

— In the regular season, Brees has thrown touchdown passes to 66 different players. Of the four players with 500-plus passing touchdowns, only one — Tom Brady (71) — has thrown touchdown passes to more players. Marques Colston caught 72 touchdowns from Brees – the seventh-most ever for a NFL duo.

— Brees has thrown 15 touchdown passes on fourth down, tied with Peyton Manning for the most since at least 1994.

— He owns a completion percentage of 66.4 per cent in the postseason, the highest of any player with 500 or more postseason pass attempts.

— There have been eight instances of a quarterback age 40 or older throwing 10-plus touchdown passes in a season. Since becoming a starter in 2002, Brees has averaged 30.5 touchdown passes per season.

— A quarterback aged 40 or older has thrown for 4,000 or more yards in a season three times in league history (Tom Brady in 2017 and 2018, Brett Favre in 2009). This regular season marked the first time since 2005 that Brees did not throw for more than 4,000 yards (he finished with 3,992).

Christian Wade could have a shot at making a successful transition from rugby union to the NFL if he learns the game "rapid", according to Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.

Wade announced he was ending his rugby career in October to try to break into the NFL, and joined the league's International Player Pathway Program in December.

Fellow Briton Efe Obada and former South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league player Jordan Mailata have graduated from the program and now play for the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles respectively.

Wade, who scored 82 Premiership tries for Wasps and earned one England cap, is following in the footsteps of Alex Gray in giving up rugby for the NFL. Gray played for Newcastle Falcons, London Irish and Yorkshire Carnegie before making the switch and signing for the Falcons.

And asked by Omnisport about Wade's hopes, Sanu said: "It'll be tough because it's a different sport with different rules but at the same time if he puts his mind to it, and he really works on the fundamentals and learns the game rapid I think he could have a shot.

"We have Alex Gray who's on our teams who transferred from rugby, he's doing a great job for us."

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is optimistic about his health in the future.

Mohamed Sanu believes the Atlanta Falcons' disappointing 2018 season will awaken a deeper fire to succeed in 2019.

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