The Biggest Questions Facing the Bucs, Packers, Bills and Chiefs on NFL’s Championship Weekend
The NFL's Conference Championship games will both be played this Sunday
With the NFL’s Divisional Round finished, the penultimate round of the NFL playoffs will take place on Sunday.
Just four teams remain in the postseason and the league’s Conference Championships will feature Green Bay (14-3) hosting Tampa Bay (13-5) on Sunday afternoon and Kansas City (15-2) welcoming Buffalo (15-3) on Sunday evening.
Here, in no particular order, are the are most-important questions facing each of the four remaining teams in the NFL playoffs. Picks about winners and losers will come in Friday’s edition of Best Bets.
Will Tampa Bay’s defense show up again?
In the aftermath of Tampa Bay’s 30-20 victory over the Saints on Sunday, much of the attention was heaped on quarterback Tom Brady who, at the age of 43, will play in a conference championship game for the 14th time and for the ninth time in the last 10 seasons.
And Brady, who threw two touchdown passes and rushed for a third score in the win without turning the ball over, deserves his accolades. Without Brady under center, the Buccaneers would not have won their first playoff games since they went undefeated in the postseason on the way to winning the Super Bowl in the 2002 season.
But without a stellar performance against New Orleans from a Tampa defensive unit that gave up 38 points to the Saints earlier in the season, Brady would not have been enough. True, Brady did lead a trio touchdown drives in the win over New Orleans. But thanks turnovers forced by his defense — two interceptions and a fumble — those scoring drives came from 3, 20 and 40 yards out of the end zone.
While Brady made no mistakes in taking advantage of the stellar field position his defense, led by rookie linebacker Devin White, was able to give him, the lion’s share of the credit for the upset win over the Saints belongs to Tampa’s defense.
If the Bucs are going to pull off their second upset and third road win in a row, that defense is going to need to play well again against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. There’s reason to think they’ll be able to, as presumptive the MVP had his worst game of the season by far in Week 6 against the Bucs, completing just 45 percent of his passes to go with two interceptions and four sacks in an ugly 38-10 loss.
In that game, Packers tailback Aaron Jones managed just 15 yards on 10 carries against the NFL’s top regular-season rushing defense (80.6 rushing yards per game), forcing the team to rely on Rodgers even though he clearly didn’t have it that day.
Should Tampa be able to shut down the Green Bay running game (which managed 188 rushing yards on Saturday against a similarly stout LA Rams defense) again and make the Packers one-dimensional on offense, Rodgers will have to come through against a secondary that made Drew Brees look foolish and held Pro Bowl wide receiver Michael Thomas without a catch on four targets.
Based on what we know about Brady, he’ll be coming to play. If Tampa’s defense does too, Rodgers and co. will have a tough row to hoe despite playing at home.
Can the Packers avoid mistakes from playoffs past?
Since Aaron Rodgers became their starter, the Green Bay Packers have never lost an NFC Championship game at home. Unfortunately, none of the four NFC Championship games the Packers have played with Rodgers under center — one win and three losses — have been in Green Bay.
This time around, Rodgers and the Packers will be at Lambeau Field and will be looking to exorcise the demons of postseasons past and eliminate the playoff miscues that doomed their Championship games losses in the 2014, ’16 and ’19 seasons. Those demons include mental mistakes, errors on special teams, and poor coaching decisions and clock management from Mike McCarthy, who is now in Dallas running the underachieving Cowboys.
Under second-year coach Matt LaFleur, the Packers have gone 13-3 in the regular season in consecutive seasons, secured a first-round bye and advanced to the NFC Championship game. Last year, Green Bay lost to a 49ers team that went on to lose the Super Bowl. This year, Rodgers and an improved Packers team get a perhaps slightly less formidable challenge in Brady’s Bucs.
For Rodgers, who has completed just 65 percent of his passes to go with six touchdowns and six turnovers in his three Championship game losses, this could be a career-defining contest, as it certainly represents his best chance to date to add a title to a resume that includes two MVP awards — with a third likely on the way — but only a single Super Bowl win.
In the trio of Championship game losses on his watch, Rodgers has averaged just 21 points. Now, with an offense that boasts league-leading wide receiver Davante Adams, red-zone savant Robert Tonyan and a solid running game led by the aforementioned Jones, Rodgers will likely need to put more points on the board vs. the Bucs. And with everything working in his favor, he has little excuse not to.
Though they’ve made it to the Super Bowl twice (winning once) since then, the 1996 season was the last time the Packers won an NFC championship game at home. To reverse that curse, Green Bay probably won’t need to be perfect, but they will need to avoid suffering the sort of brain freezes that have plagued the team and Rodgers at the season’s penultimate hurdle.
Having LaFleur calling plays and making decisions instead of McCarthy should help.
Will the Bills play their best game of the postseason?
In their opening-round win over the Colts, the Bills were outgained 472 yards to 372 on offense and possessed the ball for just 25:43 compared to Indy’s 34:17 time with the ball. Despite those numbers tiling in favor of Indianapolis, the Bills were able to make plays and get stops when they needed to while escaping with a 27-24 win.
Last weekend, during a 17-3 win in the Divisional Round over the Ravens, Buffalo was outgained again, this time putting up 220 yards of offense to Baltimore’s 340 and also losing the time-of-possession battle. But, once again, the Bills made the plays they needed to make and were able to capitalize on mistakes by the Ravens, with the most glaring one being a Lamar Jackson interception in the red zone they returned more than 100 yards to the house.
For Buffalo to defeat this weekend’s opponent, the Chiefs, they may not need to amass more yards than Kansas City, but they cannot count on ugly turnovers like the one Jackson committed to help them score points. To win, they’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way: by chucking the ball downfield with quarterback Josh Allen and using their oft-overlooked running game in key situations.
There’s reason for optimism Buffalo will be able to score: the Bills are averaging 34.7 points per game since Week 9 of the regular season and are confident enough in Allen that they asked him to throw a pass on their first 13 offensive plays against Baltimore.
Part of the reason the Bills asked Allen, who has been superb at getting the ball to No. 1 playmaker Stefon Diggs, to throw so much is that their running game has accounted for just 128 rushing yards in their two playoff wins. But that running game may be key against a Kansas City defense that surrenders nearly that many yards on the ground (122) per game on average.
When the teams played a coronavirus-influenced Week 6 game, the Chiefs were able to more than double the Bills up in total yardage and almost did the same in possession time. Yet the Bills did hold Patrick Mahomes to just 225 passing yards (his second-lowest total in a game this season) and only lost by a 26-17 margin. The Chiefs made up for their star QB’s rough day at the office by gashing Buffalo for 245 rushing yards as a team in the win, but the Bills will be prepared to not let that happen again, especially with Mahomes operating at less than 100 percent.
If Buffalo can keep things rolling with Allen and get a little more from their running game while limiting Kansas City’s ground attack as well as stopping Mahomes from hitting chunk plays down the field again, the Bills should be able to keep things close. And if they can do that, the game could come down kicker Tyler Bass, who hit 82.4 percent of his field goals during the regular season and nailed a 54-yarder in the first round against the Colts.
The Chiefs’ last eight wins have been by six points or fewer, an NFL record. Meanwhile, Buffalo has won eight in a row. If the well-rounded Bills can play their best game of the season on Sunday evening, it may be their streak, not KC’s, that extends to nine.
Can KC win if Patrick Mahomes isn’t right?
Even though, as of this writing, Mahomes has yet to make it through the NFL’s concussion protocol and has yet to be cleared to play on Sunday, there’s as good a chance of him not playing in the AFC Championship as there is of the Chiefs asking your humble narrator to serve as his backup against the Bills. But even when he does clear the protocol, the toe issue that briefly forced Mahomes to the sideline during KC’s win over the Browns in the Divisional Round could be a factor.
After missing three games due to a dislocated kneecap last season, Mahomes, while still stellar, was not quite as crisp as he had been before the injury. Of his five interceptions last season, four came after he missed time, and Mahomes was sacked in all but one of the seven games following his injury.
Of course, a hobbled Mahomes is still better than pretty much any other quarterback in the league, but if he is limited by the toe, the concussion or the combination of the two, it could be enough to give Buffalo a little bit of a boost. Even with the boost, Buffalo would still seem like a longshot to win on the road at Arrowhead against a Super Bowl-winning team that returned 20 of its 22 starters and is playing its third straight AFC Championship game at home.
But should the league’s highest-paid player and former MVP be forced from the game, or shock the world by not being cleared to suit up, Kansas City big-play threats like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill just won’t be as threatening.
“We’re one team. We’re one heartbeat. We play for one another and that’s really always the thought,” defensive back Tyrann Mathieu said after Kansas City beat Cleveland on Sunday. “Any time any of our teammates go down we always feel the need to kind of step it up a notch and take care of what we need to take care of.”
If backup Chad Henne is forced into action for an extended period of time, the Bills will likely be the ones taking care of him. Even if, as expected, Mahomes plays, the issues that are plaguing the 25-year-old may be enough to give the Bills the edge they need.
Whether they will be able to take advantage of it is another issue altogether.
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