NFL Conference Championships Preview
And then there were four.
In the words of a certain retired Scottish football manager, we've well and truly reached the "squeaky bum time" of the NFL's 101st season. From the 32 teams that began the season back in September, 28 have been whittled away to leave the cream of the crop. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Green Bay Packers, the Buffalo Bills, and the Kansas City Chiefs all now stand just one win away from Super Bowl XV.
Fans, players, staff, and media are abuzz with excitement as we see two of the best young quarterbacks in the game going head-to-head in one conference championship, and two of the greatest to ever play the game locking horns in the other. Naturally, the overarching question that remains on everyone's lips is... who wins? Come 7th February, who stands on the field at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa (more on the significance of the venue in a moment) and lifts the Lombardi Trophy?
Well, it would be remiss of me not to wade into that debate! This week's post will take you through the four remaining teams, one-by-one, to preview the conference championships and offer up some of my predictions for the upcoming games.
Are we ready? Let's kick off.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2019: 7-9, 3rd in NFC South, missed playoffs
2020 regular season record: 11-5, 2nd in NFC South
It was a given, wasn't it? As soon as Tom Brady, owner of six Super Bowl rings, joined Bruce Arians' Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we should have foreseen that the team would not only end their 13-year playoff drought, but also go on a deep run to the latter stages of the postseason.
It sounds improbable, but should the Buccaneers make it through to the Super Bowl, they will become the first team to play in the big game in their home stadium. They are also only the second team to make it to this stage of the playoffs when hosting the showpiece too, after *SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT* my Minnesota Vikings became the first in 2017.
The Bucs defeated the Washington Football Team 31-23 in the Wild Card round, with Brady throwing for 381 yards and two touchdowns, and Leonard Fournette running in another. They then went on to impressively overcome the New Orleans Saints in their own backyard in the Divisional Round, where Brady again threw for two touchdowns.
Naturally, as you might expect from a team featuring probably the greatest quarterback of all time, the Bucs have adopted a pass-heavy offense in 2020, ranking second in the league for passing yards per game. That suits them well against their opponents in the NFC Championship game, the Green Bay Packers, who have the seventh-worst passing defense in the league. Brady and his receiving corps of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin will be licking their lips.
However (and it's a big however), the reason I'm predicting a Packers win (I know, I'm debasing myself. I type this with my fingers crossed) is the offense the Bucs will come up against. The Packers are the most productive team in the entire NFL for points scored this season, bar none, and the Bucs' defense will struggle to keep a lid on that.
I'm predicting a high-scoring game, but the Packers edge it.
Green Bay Packers
2019: 13-3, 1st in NFC North, lost in NFC Championship
2020 regular season record: 13-3, 1st in NFC North
We've been here before. An identical regular season record led the Green Bay Packers to this same stage last season, where they were defeated by eventual Super Bowl runners-up the San Francisco 49ers. However, there's one thing different this year that may just see them into the Super Bowl, and that's the fact they will play this year's conference championship at home.
I've never been to Lambeau Field - I hardly think I'd be welcome, let's be honest - but I suspect you've never experienced true cold until you have. The average January temperature in Green Bay is minus eight degrees Celsius, with the wind chill usually dropping the temperature even further. Not the sort of welcome you'd expect the sun-dwelling Buccaneers from Florida (average January temperature of 17 degrees) to find particularly pleasant.
After posting the best record in the NFC, the Pack were granted both home field advantage and a bye through the first round of playoff games. They took on the Los Angeles Rams in front of fans at Lambeau for the first time this season, and comfortably triumphed 32-18, never once falling behind. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns, as well as rushing in another, as Green Bay's league-best offense toppled the Rams' fearsome defense.
Should they reach the Super Bowl, the Packers will be making their first appearance in the showpiece in a decade, and only their second this century. It's a surprisingly poor record for a team that's had Rodgers under centre for the best part of two decades, but they do have the opportunity to partially rectify that now. I'm saying they will, and after they've sent the Buccaneers, ahem, packing, Rodgers' men will be on the flight to Florida right behind them.
Can't say I want them to win the big game, though, so I've tipped the AFC champion for the win...
2019: 10-6, 2nd in AFC East, lost in Wild Card round
2020 regular season record: 13-3, 1st in AFC East
Oh, hi, Buffalo! Where did you come from? After not having won a playoff game since 1995, suddenly the Bills won two on the bounce to find themselves in the AFC championship game. The last time they were at this stage was 1994, when they defeated the Kansas City Chiefs. If only the hands of fate had come up with a scenario where they were again playing... oh!
Despite finishing the regular season 13-3, the Chiefs' even better record - as if that was humanly possible - and the recent change to the NFL playoffs meant the second-seeded Bills had to come through the Wild Card round. They did so by edging out the Indianapolis Colts 27-24, with Allen throwing for 324 yards and two touchdowns, and running another in. They then moved on to face the fancied Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round, in a game that entirely flattered to deceive.
Ravens defense v Bills offense. Big scores! Big action! Multiple touchdowns!
Actually, there was none of that. The Bills scored just two touchdowns, and the Ravens managed only a single field goal in the second quarter. A 101-yard pick six by cornerback Taron Johnson resulted in an ultimately comfortable (and far lower-scoring than anyone had predicted) Bills win.
Much of their success this season is down to quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs, the latter of whom joined the Bills from *SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT 2* the Vikings, as one of the best wideouts in the league. Diggs has recorded the highest number of receptions (127), and of passing yards (1,535), in the entire league this season, while fellow Pro Bowler Allen has the second-most passing yards, behind only Brady.
The pair's contributions have seen the Bills steamroll their opponents in the latter stages of the season, winning their last eight games in a row, including all six regular season games following their bye week. They've put up more than 25 points in 13 of their 18 games so far, including the playoffs, and the Chiefs ought to be very wary.
Do I have confidence in them, though? Sorry, Bills. I just don't. The Chiefs are the best side in the league, and despite their recent form, I see the Bills crashing out here. I wouldn't worry too much, though. With Allen and Diggs, they'll be back.
Kansas City Chiefs
2019: 12-4, 1st in AFC West, won Super Bowl LIV
2020 regular season record: 14-2, 1st in AFC West
Two words: Patrick. Mahomes. The Chiefs' soon-to-be-half-a-billion-dollar man is the one they all look towards, and he will be instrumental in deciding whether or not the Chiefs retain their Lombardi Trophy.
Thankfully for Andy Reid and the Chiefs coaching staff, reports are positive that Mahomes took snaps and participated, albeit limitedly, in practice this week after suffering a concussion in their last game. That said, I also read that Mahomes remains in the concussion protocol, so I want to take the opportunity to wish him a swift and full recovery.
The Chiefs will be praying their main man is fit, but their formidable offense means they are very far from down and out if he doesn't quite make it for Sunday. As long as backup Chad Henne can get the ball in the hands of any one of tight end Travis Kelce, wide receivers Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins, or rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire - the latter two of whom are also in a fitness race for Sunday (it's not looking great, but stick with me) - I'd back them to overcome the Bills.
Henne wasn't quite at Mahomes' level in the win over the Cleveland Browns in the divisional round game following the reigning Super Bowl MVP's exit, tossing an interception, but by that point the Chiefs had already done enough to win 22-17. Rookie cornerback L'Jarius Sneed sacked Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in that game as the Chiefs secured their passage to the AFC championship game for the third time running, so his contribution on one side of the ball could be just as important as the offense on the other.
Fun fact one - the Chiefs have never won a Super Bowl held north of Lake Pontchartrain. Fun fact two - Tampa is south of Lake Pontchartrain. Coincidence? No, definitely not. In my eyes, the Chiefs take the AFC crown for the second year running.
There we have it. I've tipped the Super Bowl matchup as Kansas City Chiefs @ Green Bay Packers and... drum roll please... who's my champion?
Here and now, I predict that the Kansas City Chiefs will retain their Super Bowl crown.
Super Bowl Sunday is as big a date on the American national calendar as the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. The most-watched TV broadcast ever in the US was Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, when over 114 million people tuned in to see Brady's New England Patriots defeat Russell Wilson's Seattle Seahawks.
29 of the 30 most watched broadcasts in American TV history have been Super Bowls, with only the ninth entry on the list not being a showing of the big game. That exception was the series finale of M*A*S*H in February 1983, for anyone who's interested.
Do you agree with my predictions? Want to offer your own thoughts on the two Conference Championship games this Sunday? Please do reply on my Twitter (twitter.com/longstorysport), or comment on my Facebook posts (facebook.com/LongStorySport).
I myself watched my first Super Bowl right through to the end last year. Was I tired, and questioning my choices? Yes.
And yet... will I be doing the same this year? Oh yes.