NFL Conference Championship Preview: The Battle of Quarterbacks

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 18, 2021

NFL Conference Championship Preview: The Battle of Quarterbacks

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    The final four is set, leaving the NFL three games shy of pulling off a complete season amid a global pandemic. It's been a strange, trying campaign, but it's hard to argue that the best four teams aren't alive entering the conference championship games. 

    The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs were a league-best 14-2 during the regular season, the AFC East champ Buffalo Bills have lost just once since the middle of October, the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers had the league's highest-scoring offense this year, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are riding a six-game winning streak after back-to-back road playoff victories. 

    All four are led by quarterbacks who are MVP contenders and/or Pro Football Hall of Fame locks. In fact, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen might be the top three MVP candidates, leaving Tom Brady as the only starting quarterback in the final four who isn't in the MVP conversation. 

    But the 43-year-old will undoubtedly be a focal point. He's the most decorated player in the history of professional football, and now he's just four quarters away from playing in his 10th Super Bowl. Pretty incredible considering that no other NFL player has played in more than six. 

    Starting there, here's your initial breakdown of the two games that will determine the matchup for Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida. 

NFC: (5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at (1) Green Bay Packers

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Date/time: Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox

    Location: Lambeau Field (Green Bay, Wisconsin)

    Fans in attendance: 6,500

    Early line: Green Bay -4.5

    Early total: 51.5

    In a nutshell: It's a matchup between the NFC's two highest-scoring offenses and two of the most accomplished quarterbacks in NFL history. The Bucs crushed the Packers 38-10 in Green Bay's worst performance of the year in Week 6, but now the Packers have won seven in a row by an average margin of 33-18. Meanwhile, Tampa has won six straight by an average margin of 35-20. 

    Buccaneers injuries to watch: Star wide receivers Mike Evans (knee) and Chris Godwin (hip, quadricep), top corner Carlton Davis (groin) and running back Ronald Jones II (quad) were all limited on the practice field last week but all were on the field Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. 

    Packers injuries to watch: Edge defender Za'Darius Smith (ankle, thumb), cornerback Kevin King (Achilles), wide receiver Allen Lazard (core, wrist), receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (knee, ankle) and offensive tackle Rick Wagner (knee) are all banged up, but all of them suited up in the divisional round.

Buccaneers-Packers: Keys to the Game

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    Buccaneers

    1. Fire up the running game: Brady and the passing game get more attention, but Jones and Leonard Fournette carried the Tampa Bay offense with 169 scrimmage yards on 35 touches in New Orleans. That came against the league's second-ranked run D in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders. The Green Bay pass defense is strong, but the Packers rank below the league median in DVOA against the run. 

    2. Bend but don't break defensively: The Packers scored on a league-high 80 percent of their red-zone possessions this season and topped the NFC with a third-down success rate of 49.4 percent. Rodgers, Aaron Jones and Davante Adams will get theirs, but the key for the Bucs will be to make plays on third down and keep the Packers out of the end zone. Otherwise, it might be hard for Brady and Co. to keep up on the road. The Los Angeles Rams defense couldn't get off the field this past weekend against Green Bay, 

    3. No turnovers: The Bucs have committed just two turnovers over the course of their six-game winning streak, but the Green Bay offense has turned it over just once in its last seven outings and just four times in its last 14 home games. To win the all-important turnover battle, Tampa Bay probably can't afford an interception or a fumble on Sunday. 

         

    Packers

    1. Get to Brady with a four-man rush: It's become a cliche, but that's always been the key to beating Brady in the playoffs. A vulnerable Green Bay run D can't afford to lose resources to the pass rush, and Brady is too smart and too well-supported to fall victim to frequent blitzes. If the Packers feel the need to sacrifice more players to chase after Brady, Jones and Fournette could have a field day. 

    2. Find a way to get Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon rolling: Against the highly rated Rams run defense Saturday, those three backs rushed for 191 yards on 32 carries. Now, though, they have to deal with the league's No. 1 run defense—a unit that generally bottled up Alvin Kamara in the divisional round. In the first quarter of games that resulted in wins this season, Jones averaged 5.7 yards per carry. In the first quarter of Green Bay's three losses, his yards-per-attempt average was just 3.0. 

    3. More regular-season Rodgers: He's likely to win MVP after posting the second-best single-season passer rating in NFL history this year, but Rodgers wasn't quite as crisp and the passing game was off for much of Saturday's victory over L.A. If Rodgers can get back to where he was when he threw 35 touchdown passes to three interceptions over the course of the final 11 games of the regular season, Green Bay will stand little chance of losing. 

Buccaneers-Packers: Top Matchups

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Ronald Jones/Fournette vs. Green Bay's run defense

    Cam Akers of the Rams averaged a solid 5.0 yards per carry against that unit last week, and Jones, Dalvin Cook, James Robinson and David Montgomery all had 100-yard performances against the Packers during the regular season. However, all of those performances came before December. The Pack actually held Derrick Henry and Montgomery in check in Weeks 16 and 17. If they can shut down Jones and Fournette, this could be a relatively easy W. 

         

    Aaron Jones/Dillon/Williams vs. Tampa Bay's run defense

    Again, that trio lit up a great Rams run defense but will have another huge challenge against Lavonte David, Antoine Winfield Jr., Devin White, Ndamukong Suh and Co. That group limited Kamara on Sunday and allowed just two backs to gain 60 rushing yards against it during the regular season. In the October matchup between these teams, Jones had one of the worst games of his career with just 15 yards on 10 attempts. 

         

    Za'Darius Smith vs. Donovan Smith/Tristan Wirfs

    The Packers' top edge-rusher has three sacks in as many playoff games in Green Bay and 29 in 35 total games with the team. He'll lead the charge in trying to get to Brady, but he'll have to win some one-on-one matchups with Donovan Smith and/or Wirfs at left and right tackle, respectively. Both had strong seasons before holding the Saints sack-less in the divisional round.

         

    Evans vs. Jaire Alexander

    The second-team All-Pro corner shut down the three-time Pro Bowl receiver when the Bucs shocked the Packers this season, and now Evans is coming off a game in which he caught just one three-yard pass. He's battling a knee injury, too, which doesn't bode well for a matchup with a cornerback who allowed just 4.7 yards per target this season (the lowest mark in the league among corners who started more than 10 games).

AFC: (2) Buffalo Bills at (1) Kansas City Chiefs

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Date/time: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET

    TV: CBS

    Location: Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City)

    Fans in attendance: Limited

    Early line: Kansas City -2.5

    Early total: 54.0

    In a nutshell: Kansas City beat Buffalo in a weird Monday afternoon game back in Week 6. Since then, the Bills' only loss came on a Hail Mary, and the Chiefs' only loss came when they rested most of their key players in a meaningless Week 17 game. The Chiefs are the clear-cut favorite at home, but with superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes' status up in the air, nothing is guaranteed for a team that hasn't won by more than six points since Week 8. 

    Bill injuries to watch: Wide receivers Cole Beasley (knee) and Stefon Diggs (oblique) haven't been able to consistently practice fully this month, but they continue to suit up on game days. Buffalo doesn't appear to have any fresh injuries of significance. 

    Chiefs injuries to watch: All eyes are, of course, on Mahomes, who suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter of Kansas City's divisional-round victory over the Cleveland Browns. For what it's worth, head coach Andy Reid initially expressed optimism about Mahomes' status. Beyond that, the Chiefs will be hoping to get wide receiver Sammy Watkins (calf), running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, hip), cornerback Rashad Fenton (foot, ankle), linebacker Willie Gay Jr. (ankle) and offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz (back) into the lineup. 

Bills-Chiefs: Keys to the Game

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Bills

    1. Josh Allen must deal: Baker Mayfield made several awesome throws against the Kansas City defense on Sunday, but a lot of them came against tight coverage. It also helped that Browns running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt dominated Kansas City's vulnerable run defense in the second half. The Bills don't have a star in the backfield, so the margin for error could be minuscule for their breakout quarterback. 

    2. Keep Mahomes and Co. off the field: But it can't just be about quick strikes. Allen will need support from lead back Devin Singletary, who wasn't a huge factor this season but will now go up against the league's 31st-ranked run defense in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders. The Bills need a balanced attack in order to control the game and give a so-so defense some breathers against one of the league's most dangerous offenses. 

    3. Make them use Harrison Butker: Both defenses ranked in the bottom five in the red zone this season, but the Browns stuck around Sunday by bending and not consistently breaking. Butker attempted four field goals, and he looked shaky with a short miss and a missed extra point. The Chiefs are going to get their yards and points, but Buffalo has to tighten up on third downs and on its side of the field.

         

    Chiefs

    1. Andy Reid at his best: Whether he's operating with a backup quarterback or one coming off a scary concussion, Reid will need a versatile and extremely effective game plan for a Buffalo defense that surrendered just three points against the formerly red-hot Baltimore Ravens offense in the divisional round. Kansas City won an NFL-best 14 games this season thanks to a league-high 79 plays of 20-plus yards, but it might have to become more creative if Mahomes is absent or off his game Sunday.

    2. Keep Allen under control: Kansas City held Allen to just 14 completions and 122 passing yards on 27 attempts in their regular-season meeting, but he was struggling a bit at that point. Buffalo had just three fewer 20-plus-yard plays than Kansas City this season, and Allen could also do damage with his legs against a porous run D. The Chiefs can't let him hijack this game. 

    3. Finish: The Chiefs scored touchdowns on just two of their five red-zone possessions against the Browns, which is a big reason Cleveland hung around. Against Buffalo's 28th-ranked red-zone D, they have to finish drives and give Butker a break. 

Bills-Chiefs: Top Matchups

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Tyreek Hill vs. Tre'Davious White/Taron Johnson

    Beyond scoring on a game-changing 101-yard pick-six, Johnson performed well in slot coverage for Buffalo on Saturday night. He'll likely be frequently responsible for the speedy Hill, while White should have his hands full in a battle of Pro Bowlers when the wide receiver is lined up outside. Both are among the best players in the sport. 

         

    Josh Allen vs. Chris Jones

    The superstar defensive lineman was somewhat quiet against the Browns, but he's a big-game performer who had a shot at Super Bowl MVP last year. He'll attempt to chase Allen down all evening. Buffalo occasionally had trouble with inside pressure this season, and Jones can bring it. He ranked fourth in the NFL with 28 quarterback hits during the regular season.

         

    Darrel Williams/Clyde Edwards-Helaire vs. Micah Hyde/Jordan Poyer

    Buffalo's strong veteran safety duo excels against the run, and the Chiefs might rely heavily on Williams in the offensive backfield if there's any concern about Mahomes (or if he's unable to play at all). Buffalo's pass defense is solid, but Andy Reid could get creative with Williams, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry against Cleveland, or Edwards-Helaire, who compiled 1,100 scrimmage yards this season but has been sidelined by an ankle sprain. Hyde, Poyer and veteran linebacker Matt Milano will need to be prepared. 

         

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