AFC/NFC Championship Weekend Breakdown & Predictions

I was a mediocre 2-2 in my divisional round picks. I was wrong about the Ravens-Bills game and the Saints-Bucs game. I thought the Ravens would be able to score more, but it turns out Justin Tucker picked the playoffs to have the worst game of his career. I’ve got to give Buffalo’s defense credit for stepping up during the playoffs, though. Will it be able to continue against the Chiefs?

As for the Saints-Bucs game, the whole story of that game was the turnovers. The Saints were -4 in the turnover margin. That’s really all you need to know. The Saints were great in terms of turnover margin during the regular season, but completely collapsed against Tampa. We’ve also learned that Michael Thomas was dealing with a bunch of different injuries, which probably explains why he was held to 0 catches in the game:

The ankle have never been right all season long, and apparently he also was dealing with a torn delt. He’s going to have multiple surgeries now. Those high ankle sprains are really nasty injuries. Even when players come back from them mid-season, they’re not the same until they get a full offseason to recover. Remember, last year Alvin Kamara and Saquon Barkley were both dealing with high ankle sprains, and you could tell neither guy was really playing at 100% even when they returned. Kamara had his worst season as a pro last year (although “worst” is only by his standards; it was still a really good season overall when compared to other running backs). Barkley looked like he regressed last season, but I think the high-ankle injury had a lot to do with that.

So hopefully Michael Thomas will be back to his normal self in the 2021 season.

Anyway, on to this weekend’s games:

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP

Bucs at Packers, 3:05pm EST

We finally get a postseason Brady vs. Rodgers matchup. For the past 10 seasons, analysts and talking heads have made preseason Super Bowl predictions of Packers vs. Patriots, but it never came to fruition. In both 2014 and 2016, the Patriots and Packers were both among the Final Four teams left in the league, but the Packers came up short both times. But now we finally get to see Brady vs. Rodgers in the playoffs now that Brady has moved to the NFC.

It has been a long time in the making, as Brady is now 43 and Rodgers is 37, but it’s not like the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight where one of the fighters was clearly past his prime. Both Rodgers and Brady are still playing great. Rodgers had arguably the best season of his career with 48 TDs and only 5 INTs, while Brady’s 40 passing TDs this season were the 2nd most he’s ever thrown in a season in his career (50 in 2007).

This will be Green Bay’s 4th NFC Championship game of the past 7 years, the others being 2014 when they lost to Seattle in an overtime heartbreaker (which Green Bay led 19-7 with barely over two minutes left in the game), 2016 when they got housed by Atlanta 44-21, and last year when they got mauled by San Fran 37-20.

The Bucs haven’t been to the NFC Championship since 2003, when they won the Super Bowl. This is their first playoff appearance since the 2007 season. For reference, it was the same year Brady and the Patriots went 16-0 and ultimately lost in the Super Bowl to the Giants. That year was the last time the Bucs made the playoffs. So it’s impossible to deny the impact Tom Brady has had on this franchise.

Clearly this is one of the most anticipated playoff football games ever. It is not often that we get to see two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time go head to head with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

Right now the Packers look pretty unstoppable. They shredded the Rams’ top-ranked defense in the Divisional Round, racking up 484 yards of offense and scoring 32 points. They scored on their first 5 possessions and didn’t punt until the middle of the third quarter. If you exclude the Packers’ last drive of the game where they kneeled the clock out, they scored on 6 of their 8 possessions, punting only twice. They averaged a whopping 6.7 yards per play against LA. For reference on that, anything over 6.0 yards per play is elite territory, normally only a few offenses in the league in a given season average over 6.0 yards per play. The best offense in terms of yards per play over the past decade was the 2018 Chiefs who averaged 6.8 YPP. The 2013 Broncos, statistically the greatest offense in the history of the NFL, averaged 6.3, and the 2007 Patriots averaged 6.2. During the regular 2020 season, this Packers team averaged 6.3.

So they’re a very, very good offense, in case you hadn’t noticed.

But here’s the thing about the Rams’ defense that Green Bay picked apart: as good as it was, it only ranked 15th in the league in pressure percentage (23.0%). The Bucs, on the other hand, rank 3rd in the league with over 27% pressure rate. Tampa had the second-most QB pressures in the league with 187 during the regular season. In terms of QB hurries, the Rams actually ranked 30th in the league at 7.3%, while the Bucs ranked 8th in the league at 10.6%. Even though the Rams were the consensus top defense in the league during the regular season, the Bucs were and are much better at pressuring opposing QBs.

And they might be about to get even better, because Vita Vea, their 350lb monster of a starting nose tackle who is arguably the most important player on their defense. He’s been out since he broke his leg in the week 5 matchup against the Bears, which was on October 8. It has now been over three months, and the Bucs just designated him to return from IR on Monday. They haven’t said for sure whether he’s playing on Sunday or not, but they designated him to return for a reason. He’s back practicing, so while it’s definitely a stretch to say he’ll retake his starting role, I think Tampa will probably give him some snaps in the game just to bolster their defensive line rotation. But any little bit helps. Vita Vea is a beast and commands double teams, which gives the other guys on the Tampa defense much better matchups. He clogs up the middle and makes it nearly impossible for opposing teams to run on Tampa. When he was on the field this year, opponents ran for just 2.7 yards per carry, which is absurd. Essentially Tampa’s entire defensive scheme against the run the past two years has been predicated around him wreaking havoc up front in the middle.

That said, he’s unlikely to be in full game-shape after such a long absence, but he’s so good that he will make an impact on the game no matter what so long as he’s on the field.

I know Green Bay did a great job against Aaron Donald last weekend, but he was clearly not 100% in that game and it showed.

Green Bay does have a very strong interior offensive line with center Cory Linsley (All Pro) and guard Elgton Jenkins (Pro Bowler), so they should be able to hold up pretty well against whoever Tampa throws at them there. But this might be the game where losing David Bakhtiari really hurts, because the Bucs have some really good edge rushers in Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. They’ve also got Ndamukong Suh up front, too, and he was all over Rodgers in their week 6 matchup.

The point here is, I see no reason why Tampa won’t be able to get pressure on Rodgers and stop the run again just like they did in week 6. They didn’t even have Vita Vea for that game (he got hurt in week 5, remember), and Green Bay still had Bakhtiari back then.

The Bucs have the 5th-most blitz-happy defense in the league, too, blitzing 39% of the time. The Rams were 19th in the league in blitzing at 27.3%. So this is another reason why I expect Tampa to put more pressure on Rodgers. As we’ll get into in a bit, Tampa’s blitzing was a main reason they were able to dominate the Packers in week 6.

However, the big difference between this game and the week 6 game is that this game will be played in northern Wisconsin in January. It’s going to be completely different weather conditions on Sunday afternoon. The Bucs have a lot of guys on their team that come from warm-weather areas. Leonard Fournette and Devin White are from Louisiana, Mike Evans is from Texas, Ronald Jones is from Georgia, Lavonte David is from Miami…. I don’t really want to get into it too much, because then you could point out that Green Bay has a lot of key players from warm-weather states. And you could also say Brady and Gronk are both very used to the cold given their Patriots past, plus Chris Godwin is from Pennsylvania. But the main point is, the Packers have a meaningful home-field advantage at Lambeau even without the fans in the stands. The Packers are way more used to playing in frigid conditions than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The only bigger geographical/climate mismatch would be Packers vs. Dolphins.

I would prefer if we could focus predominantly on the teams themselves rather than the weather conditions, but Lambeau is the one stadium in the league where the weather conditions are a major factor. The Frozen Tundra does give the Packers a unique advantage over visiting opponents, especially one from Tampa. There’s really only a few teams in the league that play outdoors in cities that get brutally cold in January: the Bears, the Browns, the Bills, the Steelers, the Patriots and the Packers. The Lions, Vikings and Colts all play indoors. And cities like Cincinnati, New York, Philly and Baltimore–while they do get pretty cold in the winter, they don’t get quite as cold as those other places. It’s a different kind of cold in northern Wisconsin in January.

However, the Bucs did win a road playoff game at Washington just two weeks ago. Again, while Washington doesn’t get quite as cold as Green Bay, the temperature for that game was in the mid-low 30s. As of right now, the forecast in Green Bay for Sunday afternoon is 31 degrees–but with snow. So that’s the difference. I think Tampa should be fine with the temperature (although on the other hand, maybe the temperature in Washington was the reason their defense got low-key lit up by Taylor Heinicke…) The snow is the real x-factor here, not the temperature.

Luckily for Tampa, this game isn’t not going to be played in “Ice Bowl” conditions. Normally when people think of playoff games at Lambeau, they think of the 1967 NFL Championship game (which would be the equivalent of today’s NFC Championship as it was still pre-merger) where temperatures were -15 degrees and -48 with the wind chill. Or the 2007-08 NFC Championship Game where the Giants came in to Lambeau and won in OT amid -1 degree temperatures and wind chills of -23 (remember Tom Coughlin’s red face?)

This game is not going to be played in those conditions. Not even close. So I do think that when viewed in this context, maybe the weather angle for this game is getting a bit overhyped. I mean, come on: it’s expected to be in the low 30s. And these are professional football players we’re talking about. To regular people like you and me, playing a game of football with short sleeves on in sub-freezing temperatures just seems unfathomable. But pro football players are a different breed. For most of these guys, this is the biggest game of their lives. This is for a chance to go to the Super Bowl. I doubt Tampa’s players are just going to crumble due to the cold with so much on the line. I’m not saying the weather doesn’t matter, but there’s too much on the line for these guys to let the weather get in the way. They’re going to be ready, they’re going to be hyped, they’re still going to play as hard and as fast as humanly possible.

Plus, they’ve got the GOAT, and he is not going to let the weather beat them. Tom Brady played and won in the cold for 20 years. I still remember that game against the Bears in 2010 where he absolutely dominated in the snow. The Packers were probably hoping to get the Saints, because the Saints are a team that has historically not done well at all when they have to go play in the cold in the playoffs.

What I’m trying to say is, if the Bucs lose this game, I doubt it will be because of the weather.

It will be because they couldn’t stop Aaron Rodgers.

I’m sure everyone knows these two teams met in week 6, and the Bucs won 38-10. I said in my post earlier this week that we can’t really take a lot away from that game as far as trying to use it as an approximation of how this game will go. Rodgers threw basically two pick sixes in that game, but he only threw 5 picks all season so clearly that Tampa game for him was kinda fluky.

But as much I am trying to downplay that game in order to make the point that we’re not likely to see another Tampa beatdown, there are things that we can and should take away from that game. After all, I’m sure Green Bay is making some adjustments to their gameplan based on that game.

Flat out, Green Bay just got outcoached. Bucs’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was just a step ahead of Matt LaFleur. Tampa sacked Rodgers 4 times and had a whopping 13 QB hits. And if you go back and watch the tape, you can see that Green Bay simply couldn’t figure out Tampa’s blitzes and defensive schemes. It looked like Bowles’ dialed up the perfect blitzes every time and Green Bay had no idea what was coming. We all know Green Bay has a very good offensive line, and while Tampa’s pass rush is really good, a lot of the sacks they had against Green Bay were just perfect playcalls and execution. Sometimes you get a coverage sack, sometimes you get a sacked based on your pass rush just beating the protection–and then sometimes you get a sack because you dial up the perfect play call. That’s what happened a lot in week 6. Tampa just won the chess match. Resoundingly.

The question will be how well Green Bay adjusts and how prepared they are for Tampa’s blitz packages this time around. I’d wager they’ll fare far better than they did in week 6. But Tampa will also make some adjustments; I can’t imagine they’re just going to roll out the same gameplan and assume it’ll work again. You can’t do that in the NFL. Teams adapt and adjust too quickly. So Tampa will likely be adding some wrinkles and making some more adjustments in order to keep Green Bay on their heels.

It’s funny; had that week 6 game not happened, I would be leaning heavily Green Bay in this game because Green Bay’s strength (passing) should be able to exploit Tampa’s weakness (secondary). The Bucs are a really well-rounded and complete team, but their one major weakness this season has been pass defense. They have been beaten over the top a lot, especially by Kansas City in that first quarter (although in Tampa’s defense they did make some great adjustments after the first quarter). I just would’ve figured Rodgers and Davante would pick that secondary apart. But as we saw in the week 6 game, Tampa’s pass rush simply didn’t give Rodgers the opportunity to do so.

We can glean some stuff from the week 6 game, but we have to be careful not to expect the NFC Championship to unfold the same way. After all, the Bucs lost to the Saints twice in the regular season–and one game was a massive 38-3 beatdown–and yet still managed to flip the script and beat the Saints last week. We saw the Titans beat the Ravens in the regular season, and then saw the Ravens beat the Titans in the playoffs fairly convincingly. The Steelers beat the Browns badly in the regular season, and then the Browns even struggled to beat the Big Ben-less Steelers in week 17. Yet in the Wild Card Matchup, Cleveland beat the brakes off Pittsburgh.

You just can’t take anything for granted. These rematches can go way differently in the playoffs.

We haven’t even talked about Tampa’s offense against Green Bay’s defense. This is mainly because I think the far more intriguing matchup is Rodgers vs the Tampa defense. But we do have to talk a little bit about Tampa’s offense vs. Green Bay’s defense.

Tampa has been running it a lot more in the playoffs. Last week against the Saints, Tampa actually had more rushing attempts than passing attempts against the Saints, and the Saints were a very good run defense. Tampa came up with 127 rushing yards in that game, and it’s fair to assume they’ll be running the ball quite a bit against the Packers. During the regular season, I was wondering why Tampa wasn’t running the ball more. They have two high-quality running backs in RoJo and Leonard Fournette (Playoff Lenny). Apparently they were saving them for the playoffs. Both those guys are bruisers. Fournette is 228lbs and RoJo is listed around 208, but he’s a big time power runner, too. These are the types of running backs you want in a playoff game in Lambeau.

It has just been announced that Antonio Brown is out for the game, which is a big loss for Tampa. I know they still have Evans and Godwin, but Antonio Brown has really been getting back to his old self lately. He got hurt in the middle of the Saints game, and apparently now he will be out for the NFC Championship game. Scottie Miller is going to have to step up, as will the other two Tampa receivers.

I think Brady will be going to Gronk quite a bit in this game, though. There’s nobody on that offense that Brady trust more than Gronk. They’ve won so many playoff games together, they’ve won multiple Super Bowls together, and I expect Brady to be looking Gronk’s way in the most crucial moments of the game.

There’s so many different ways to dissect this game to try to gain insight into who’s going to win. I’ve gone on for this long because I really can’t figure it out. My gut is just telling me Packers, and yet it’s hard to bet against the GOAT. This is where I am now, and it’s where I was the moment the Bucs-Saints game ended and this matchup became official.

If the Packers are up at halftime, the game is a wrap. Rodgers is 71-1 at Lambeau when leading at halftime.

I’m going with my gut. Packers 31, Bucs 26.

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP

Bills at Chiefs, 6:40pm EST

I would say Mahomes and Josh Allen have taken over the mantle as the best QBs in the AFC. Poor DeShaun Watson is right up there with them, but unfortunately the Texans are an absolute trainwreck of an organization and so the they finished 4-12 this year. (Seriously, how can you be that bad while being $18 million over the cap? And they don’t even have a first round pick this year). So until either the Houston Texans can get their heads out of their asses or DeShaun Watson gets traded (the latter seems more likely at the moment), then right now it looks like Mahomes and Josh Allen own the AFC.

In other words, we should probably get used to seeing them squaring off in the AFC Championship game. This might be the beginning of a long rivalry.

It’s funny: you have the two best QBs of the past decade in the NFC Championship, and you have potentially the two best QBs of the next decade in the AFC Championship game.

The Chiefs are like that Breaking Bad meme: “They can’t keep getting away with it!” Omitting their week 17 loss to the Chargers where they rested a lot of key starters (including Mahomes), the Chiefs have now won their past 8 games by 6 points or less.

I thought they’d go back to their normal ways against the Browns and finally start blowing teams out again, and it looked like they were about to, but Patrick Mahomes went down when the Chiefs were up 19-10 and they had to hold for dear life to win 22-17.

So will the AFC Championship be another Chiefs nail-biter? That’s the way it seems given recent history.

Just as the NFC Championship will be a rematch of a regular season matchup, the Bills and Chiefs played once before this season (also in week 6, funny enough). The Chiefs won that one 26-17 back on October 19. It was actually a pretty close game: Buffalo scored a TD with 6:34 to play that made the game 23-17, but Kansas City then went on a 12 play, 75 yard drive that lasted 4:38 to kick a field goal and stretch their lead to two scores. The stats for that game were interesting: Josh Allen only threw for 122 yards on 14/27 passing with 2 TDs and an INT, while Mahomes was 21/26 for 225 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs.

Now, I will point out that that was rescheduled due to Covid. It was originally supposed to be the Thursday night game but was pushed back to Monday afternoon. I don’t know what effect this had on the game, but I would assume the Bills were a bit preoccupied with Covid prior to the game and it probably altered their practice schedule. I’m not going to say this is why the Bills lost, but it is worth noting.

The big difference in that game was that the Bills simply couldn’t stop the Chiefs’ running game. They gave up 245 yards on the ground on 46 attempts, or 5.3 YPC, including 161 by CEH alone. Because Buffalo couldn’t stop the run, Kansas City won time of possession by a whopping 38-22. They ran 73 plays to Buffalo’s 50. It’s not like the Bills were getting stifled on offense, they still managed to be 4/9 on third down which is pretty respectable. Kansas City just dominated time of possession, which I’ve noticed is actually a running theme with them this year. Most people expect them to be the quick-drive, big-play offense, but they actually have shown a clear and consistent trend of dominating time of possession in most of their games this year.

When they can’t, they run in to trouble. They still usually win, but it’s much closer when they can’t dominate time of possession. As I mentioned, CEH ran for 161 yards in that game, but he’s been hampered by injury (hasn’t played since week 15) and has been limited in practice all week. He missed the Cleveland game in the Divisional round, and I think the Chiefs are expecting him to play this weekend, but it’s no guarantee.

Even without CEH, the Chiefs were still able to run for 123 yards against the Browns’ defense, which was actually pretty decent against the run in the regular season. So you’d figure the Chiefs will be able to run all over the Bills again. But the Bills’ defense is improving quite a bit here in the playoffs. Sure Baltimore ran for 150 yards and 4.7 YPC against them in the Divisional Round, but that was actually 42 yards below Baltimore’s regular season, league-leading per-game rushing yard average of 192 and well below Baltimore’s 5.5 YPC average from the regular season. The Bills did, however, allow the Colts to rush for 163 yards and 5.3 YPC in the Wild Card round.

What I’m getting at here is that the Bills should fare better against the run in this game than they did back in the week 6 matchup. If CEH is unable to go or is limited, that’s a big plus for Buffalo.

But because the news has just broken that Patrick Mahomes has been cleared to play, I’ve got to lean Chiefs in this game. Even though they’ve been in a bunch of close games, they’ve been able to consistently win them. They have been the masters of clutch football, making the plays they need to make when they need to make them. It’s the third and longs, the 4-minute offenses to run out the clock, the 1 minute offensive drives to retake the lead late in games–they always seem to find a way to get it done in the biggest moments. They’re the best 4th quarter team in the league, flat out.

Until the Chiefs lose, I can’t pick against them. I also think Buffalo has gotten pretty lucky in their two playoff games. That’s not going to work against the Chiefs. The Ravens and Colts might have beaten themselves, but the Chiefs will not.

I’m assuming Mahomes will be fully healthy and totally back to normal now that he’s cleared protocol. My pick is going to be Chiefs 34, Bills 30.


Header image credit: Clutchpoints.com

Austin Frank

Sports blogger

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