NFL Conference Championship Primer: Reasons for Hope and Concern for All Four Teams
If you’re anything like me, and you root for a team who will be competing in an NFL Conference Championship Game, this may well be just about the only thing on your mind right now. This year’s teams are all genuine contenders, unlike in previous years (I’m looking at you, 2019 Packers), and every team has more strengths than weaknesses.
However, if, also like me, you are a massive pessimist, then those weaknesses may be dominating your thought cycle. Here’s causes for hope and concern for each remaining team:
Spoiler alert: I can’t foresee many defensive stops on Sunday.
By Max Saito
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Green Bay Packers Reason to hope: The offense looks unstoppable.
The Packers have the best offense in the league right now, led by the league’s most in-form quarterback. Davante Adams is having a record-breaking season, the team is averaging more than 3 points per possession, and they just dropped almost 500 yards on the league’s #1 rated defense.
Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, and AJ Dillon are a three-headed backfield terror, and Robert Tonyan has been wide open in the end zone all season. The offensive line is dominant. If the Packers keep Rodgers upright and don’t turn the ball over, then they may well be Super Bowl bound.
Might not cope: The Buccaneers have stopped them before.
The Packers’ Conference Championship opponent just so happens to be the team that beat the brakes off them in Week 6. Green Bay raced out to a 10-nothing lead, Rodgers got picked off on back-to-back drives including a pick-six, and the Packers gave up 38 straight. This was the only game that the Packers failed to score more than 21 points in, and Rodgers was held to a passer rating of 35.4. This is the second straight year where the Packers have gone to the Championship game and faced a team who manhandled them in the regular season...
X-factor: The Lambeau Field advantage.
… but that game wasn’t at Lambeau Field. Aaron Rodgers is 5-2 in his postseason career at Lambeau Field, and this is the first Championship game to be held at Lambeau since 2008. Not to mention that the Buccaneers will be travelling to the game from Florida, with the weather on Sunday set to be below freezing and a chance of snow showers. Rodgers has won 87% of the games he has played in below freezing temperature, and if Bruce Arians thinks the weather won’t affect his team, he might want to consider having a chat with Mike Vrabel.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl bound: Tom Brady.
Yes, #QBWinz are not a real stat. No, the game is not going to consist of Rodgers and Brady in one v one hand-to-hand combat. But having Tom Brady has made a real difference to the Bucs, and this is the kind of game where his leadership and experience are likely to show the most.
The Bucs are on their first playoff run since 2008, and the team is likely to face the exact kind of weather conditions that most people move to Florida to escape in the first place. This is Tom Brady’s FOURTEENTH Championship game, most of which he has played in highly seasonal conditions. Nothing is going to fluster Brady, and with him at the helm, the Bucs are guaranteed to be competitive at minimum in this game.
Ship run aground: The defense isn’t what it was in Week 6.
The Bucs are getting Vita Vea back to the active roster, but it will be in a limited fashion if at all, and Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett have combined for exactly 0 sacks since December 13th. If the Bucs are unable to heat up Aaron Rodgers then they have little chance of repeating their performance from Week 6, which was three entire months ago. That was also Davante Adams’ first game back from a multi-week injury, and he was showing some rust. Three months is an eternity in NFL time, and the Tampa Bay defence has been headed in the wrong direction...
X-factor: Devin White.
… apart from Devin White, who can very much stake a claim for the title of NFL’s best middle linebacker. White is explosive and gets to the ball in a hurry, not unlike his counterpart in San Francisco, Fred Warner. Both Warner and White have given Aaron Rodgers nightmares in the last couple of seasons, and White is the kind of impact player who can swing a game single handedly. He forced a fumble and intercepted Drew Brees in the Divisional Round, and if he can repeat that performance at Lambeau Field, then he may be the MVP of his team.
Kansas City Chiefs On cloud nine: It’s the Mahomes/Reid era Chiefs.
I’m not sure there’s anything I can say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over about this Kansas City team. Mahomes has won an astonishing 25 of his last 26 starts, and the Chiefs are holding their third Championship Game in a row. The weapons on offense are myriad, and the defense has a history of making just enough plays to win. If there’s any team that you would bet your house on winning any given game, it would be the Chiefs...
Not a good sign: They might have been showing us who they are.
… despite the fact that they haven’t really been the Chiefs for a long time. They haven’t even won a game by more than six points since beating the moribund Jets in Week 8. That was eighty-three days ago as of writing. Of course, the Chiefs have still won all those games, which is what ultimately counts. But performances matter, and for all the winning this year, the Chiefs have been thoroughly underwhelming for over two and a half months. I want to reiterate that I still think that this team can go up another gear, but the notion that they’re bored, or saving themselves, or only trying hard enough to win every game by less than a touchdown is absurd. At a certain point, you have to believe what your eyes have been showing you for weeks.
X-factor: Sammy Watkins.
Sammy Watkins has averaged 54.2 yards per game in his career. The former 4th overall pick has averaged 92.8 yards per game in his five postseason games in Kansas City, including a key play in last year’s Super Bowl. Watkins is officially limited as questionable for Sunday night, but if he is close to 100%, his ability to contribute meaningful plays could finish off an already overmatched Bills defense.
Buffalo Bills Alright on the night: The Bills match up well in almost every position on offense.
Neither Bashaud Breeland nor, for all the promise he has shown as a rookie, L’Jarius Sneed, has a chance of running with Stefon Diggs in one-on-one coverage. Cole Beasley and John Brown also have favourable matchups against a distinctively average Chiefs secondary. Even Dawson Knox has an opportunity to make hay when lined up across from the Chiefs’ linebacking corps. Josh Allen’s mobility and howitzer arm have been almost unstoppable this year, and the Chiefs have shown little to suggest that they can be any different.
The only real concern for the Bills offense is the run game - with Zach Moss out, Devin Singletary will need to step up to keep the Chiefs honest on defense. This will be easier said than done given the Bills middling offensive line and Chris Jones on the other side.
Losing the fight: They’ve been a different team in the playoffs.
The Bills identity during the regular season was to score lots of points, and for the defense to do enough to keep teams at arm’s length. Through the first two games of the playoffs, the Bills have really only put together one half of great offense, and the Colts and Ravens combined to go 2-8 in touchdowns in the red zone, including the 101-yard dagger of a pick six against Buffalo. If the Chiefs score touchdowns on only 25% of their red zone drives on Sunday, I will eat my hat. Buffalo is only likely to win this game through a shootout, and will need their offense to return to top form in order to keep up.
X-factor: Pass rush.
Jerry Hughes had a very solid game against Baltimore, and Buffalo will need him to anchor a strong pass rush if they are to get any stops against Kansas City. Mahomes has often relied on his ability to scramble to make back-breaking plays in the playoffs, but his toe injury looked to limit him in the brief period of time before he left the game against Cleveland. If his ability to evade the pass rush is limited, then Buffalo can capitalise by applying pressure and limiting big plays.