NFL PLAYOFFS: We’re nearing the end of a season that has been been remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which the fact that it happened at all, and every game was completed, with no cancellations. We’ve dealt with empty stadiums, masks on the sidelines, COVID-ravaged rosters, and game reschedulings, and now we get our reward: a Championship Sunday that is as good as any I can remember, with two games featuring four great teams, a robust collection of future Hall of Famers, and subplots galore.
The quarterback matchups, naturally, head the discussion. The season that Tom Brady has put together at age 43 is incredible and unprecedented, but Aaron Rodgers has probably been better, and will soon have another MVP trophy to prove it. The fact that they’re meeting on Sunday at Lambeau Field with so much on the line– probably the last, best chance for both aging legends to reach another Super Bowl– I mean, it’s like something straight out of a movie script. Sports truly are the best reality television.
The other game features a quarterback matchup that is every bit as compelling, as the NFL’s young king, Patrick Mahomes, will try to fend off the first serious challenge to his freshly won crown. Josh Allen played as well as any QB in the league over the second half of the season, including Mahomes, and that Buffalo offense has been looking awfully Chiefs-like in terms of yards and production. With Mahomes possibly hobbled with turf toe and only a couple of days removed from concussion protocol, is Kansas City ripe for the upset?
Both games are essentially toss-ups, with neither home team favored by more than 3.5 points. That’s something we don’t always get with these championship games, and I don’t think anyone is complaining. Speaking of not complaining, I definitely haven’t been hearing any complaints from the peanut gallery on twitter and elsewhere lately, as we’ve been on an 8-2 ATS run in these playoffs to top off a profitable season. Here are my thoughts on what should be a memorable Sunday:
NFC Championship Game
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Green Bay Packers Sunday, 20:05 GMT
Line: Green Bay -3.5, 52
When these teams met back in Week 6 the Packers suffered their only blowout loss in an otherwise tremendously successful regular season, as the Bucs rode 28 2nd quarter points to a 38-10 victory. Aaron Rodgers was consistently pressured and harassed by a Tampa defense that finished the game with 5 sacks, 2 interceptions, and only 201 total yards allowed. Rodgers and Matt LaFleur undoubtedly learned a lot from that game and I’m sure the Green Bay offense will have some new wrinkles, but protecting Rodgers will be a concern once again, particularly without Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari. The Tampa defense is playing with a lot of confidence after shutting down the Saints last week and possibly ending the career of another future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees, and the defenses that have given Rodgers the most trouble through the years generally employ zone concepts similar to what Todd Bowles’s Bucs have been doing all season, with the focus on limiting big plays downfield.
I’m sure Rodgers will have some answers, but he better have plenty of ’em, because the Tampa offense is going to put up some points in this game. Brady has been flowing during the team’s current 6-game winning streak, and the Bucs are averaging 36.6 ppg in their last five contests. Antonio Brown will have to sit this one out with a knee injury, but there’s ample depth in the receiving corps, with guys like Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson ready to take on a bigger role. And it’s not only Brady and the passing attack that the Pack have to worry about: Leonard Fournette has been getting lathered up in recent weeks, and he and Ronald Jones should find plenty of room to operate against an exploitable Green Bay front seven that surrendered 4.5 yards per rush this season. It just feels like things are going to be more difficult for the Green Bay offense than they will be for Brady and the Bucs– that was definitely the case the first time around, and while I expect this game to be much closer, I’m not sure the Pack are going to be able to hold off this Tampa freight train that has picked up so much momentum in recent weeks. Gimme the Bucs in the outright upset– they’ll become the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 28, Green Bay 24
AFC Championship Game
Buffalo Bills @ Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, 23:40 GMT
Line: Kansas City -3, 54.5
After what we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons, it’s hard to bet against the Chiefs, isn’t it? Andy Reid’s offense was always difficult to defend throughout Reid’s many years in Philadelphia, and now that he’s staffed it with players like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and most importantly Patrick Mahomes, it’s nearly unstoppable. Teams either choose the slow death of Kelce and the Chiefs underrated running game, or the quick death of Hill, Mecole Hardman, and the downfield passing attack. Either way, the final result is generally the same– Kansas City led the league in total yards this season while putting up 29.6 points per game. That’s the stuff that everybody knows: Mahomes is great, the offense he directs is great, and the only things that can really slow the Chiefs once they get rolling are turnovers or injuries.
But those things happen, of course, and Kansas City was given a stark reminder of that last week when Mahomes first appeared to injure his left big toe, and then was later knocked out of the game with a concussion. The Chiefs hung on for a skin-of-their-teeth win over the Browns, and Mahomes has been cleared from concussion protocol, but the status of his foot remains a question. The Buffalo defense is geared specifically to slow down an offense like Kansas City’s, with a talented secondary and linebackers who are excellent in coverage. And the Buffalo offense has been playing so well, putting up 27 points or more in 5 of their last 6 games as Josh Allen has transformed into a sort of Jim Kelly/Randall Cunningham hybrid and Stefon Diggs has staked his claim as the league’s best receiver, that you get the sense that any slippage from Mahomes and the Chiefs– any slippage at all– will be enough for the Bills to pull off the upset. Remember: despite Kansas City’s offensive explosiveness and reputation as a team that is always winning by double-digits, the reality of the situation is a bit different, as each of KC’s last 8 victories has come by 6 points or fewer. The margin between the Chiefs and the rest of the league is slimmer than most realize, and I have a feeling it will evaporate altogether on Sunday in what should be a terrific game.
Prediction: Buffalo 34, Kansas City 31