Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Conference Championship Picks & Predictions
For what it's worth, on each of the last four NFL Conference Championship Sundays, both favorites have either covered with impressive wins together or fallen short of expectations with close wins or losses together.
It happened most recently when the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers easily disposed of the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers, respectively, last January. The year before that, the New Orleans Saints were upset by the Los Angeles Rams and the Chiefs lost in overtime to the New England Patriots as a three-point fave.
Will that trend continue this year? Bleacher Report NFL correspondents Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski had better hope so, because their consensus picks are aligned this weekend as the Packers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chiefs host the Buffalo Bills.
The gang is 5-4-1 against the spread these playoffs. Here's their attempt to pad that ahead of Super Bowl LV, along with some predictions regarding the top performers of the title round.
No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5) at No. 1 Green Bay Packers (14-3)
When: Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET
Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay
Referee: Clete Blakeman
Line: Green Bay -3.5
Fans in attendance: Approximately 6,500
Buccaneers injuries to watch: Wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) has yet to practice this week. Meanwhile, receivers Mike Evans (knee) and Chris Godwin (quadricep), running back Ronald Jones II (quadricep, finger) and defensive backs Sean Murphy-Bunting (quadricep, ankle) and Jordan Whitehead (knee) have been limited, but there's no concern about Evans and Godwin. Meanwhile, outstanding defensive tackle Vita Vea (leg) has come off injured reserve and has a chance of returning.
Packers injuries to watch: Only tight end Marcedes Lewis (knee) has been out of practice. However, running back AJ Dillon (quadricep), receiver Allen Lazard (wrist, back), edge defender Za'Darius Smith (thumb), wideout Equanimeous St. Brown (knee, ankle), guard Rick Wagner (knee) and back Jamaal Williams (ankle) are all banged up.
Key stat: The Bucs have won their last six games by an average margin of 15 points. The Packers have won their last seven games by an average margin of 15 points.
Key Buccaneers stat: According to Chris Curtis of WEEI, Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady has won eight consecutive games against Mike Pettine-coached defenses, with 15 touchdowns to three interceptions in those outings.
Key Packers stat: Green Bay's offense has committed one turnover in its last seven games (all wins).
The Pick: Green Bay -3.5
Davenport: One game does not a season make, but in the divisional round, at least, the Packers looked like the best team in the NFL. The offense was lethally efficient on the ground and through the air. The defense won consistently at the point of attack and consistently pressured the quarterback. It was an impressive effort all the way around. The Buccaneers admittedly pasted the Packers 38-10 in Tampa in Week 6, but that's just more fuel for the fire for Aaron Rodgers, who is 78-19-1 at Lambeau Field with 218 touchdowns and just 37 interceptions for his regular-season career. Pack your bags, Green Bay—you're going to Tampa.
Packers 33, Buccaneers 20
Gagnon: This is just a good matchup for the Bucs, who have the talent in the backfield to set the tone against a beatable running game and are playing well enough against the pass to limit Rodgers to an extent. The hook is also on Tampa Bay's side for a game that could very well come down to a field goal either way. I'll take that, even if I'm leaning toward the Packers straight-up because they're the better all-around team and their hot streak has come against much stiffer competition.
Packers 33, Buccaneers 30
Sobleski: The Buccaneers are on a roll, but the Packers are the best team in football. The biggest difference between the two is that Green Bay's offensive front can control the Buccaneers' excellent front seven. Even without David Bakhtiari, the Packers continue to dominate in the trenches.
Packers 28, Buccaneers 24
Consensus ATS pick: Green Bay -3.5
Consensus score prediction: Packers 30, Buccaneers 24
No. 2 Buffalo Bills (15-3) at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs (15-2)
When: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET
Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City
Referee: Bill Vinovich
Line: Kansas City -3
Fans in attendance: Approximately 17,000
Bills injuries to watch: Defensive lineman Vernon Butler (quadricep) and wide receiver Gabriel Davis (ankle) are the only Bills out of practice, although receivers Cole Beasley (knee) and Stefon Diggs (oblique) have been limited. Those two have both been dealing with those injuries for a while, though, and they both played last weekend.
Chiefs injuries to watch: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been in concussion protocol and is also hampered by a toe injury, but he's at least been able to practice in limited fashion. Running back Le'Veon Bell (knee) and linebacker Willie Gay (ankle) both missed practice Thursday, while receiver Sammy Watkins (calf), running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, hip), cornerback Bashaud Breeland (concussion, shoulder) and corner Rashad Fenton (foot) remain limited. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (back) looks as though he'll remain out.
Key stat: The Chiefs and Bills met on a weird weekday afternoon in Week 6. Buffalo's only loss since then came on a Hail Mary, and Kansas City's only loss since then came when Andy Reid sat most of his key players in Week 17.
Key Bills stat: During the Bills' eight-game winning streak, they've won by an average of 17 points per game.
Keys Chiefs stat: The Chiefs have failed to outscore an opponent by more than six points in nine consecutive games.
The Pick: Kansas City -3
Davenport: Sunday's AFC title tilt could be the first big chapter in the next great rivalry under center—two MVP candidates at the helm of red-hot teams that were the conference's top two offenses battling with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. This is old hat for the Chiefs, who are playing at home in the conference championship game for the third straight year. But the Chiefs also have a banged-up quarterback and haven't won a game by more than six points since November 1. This game should be a nail-biter and could easily be shootout-city, but a big play by the Bills defense late is going to help engineer an upset, delay Kansas City's dynasty status at least one more year and send Bills Mafia into a frenzy of table-dives.
Bills 34, Chiefs 33
Gagnon: This will be a close game, especially with the Chiefs dealing with a lot of injuries and the Bills relatively healthy. Kansas City also has less of a home-field advantage as usual with a limited capacity at Arrowhead, and it hasn't been able to pull away from anybody lately. Still, I don't think the Bills have the backfield talent to take advantage of K.C.'s problems in run defense, and I'm not betting against Andy Reid at this point. There's a good chance this will be a three-point Chiefs victory, so I'll take my predicted winner with that line. Buy half a point to get to -2.5 if you can!
Chiefs 24, Bills 20
Sobleski: A hobbled Patrick Mahomes—speaking of his foot injury and not the concussion protocol—certainly doesn't help matters. However, the matchup problems Kansas City's offensive weapons create across the board are undeniable. The Bills have an explosive offense in their own right, but it's not quite to KC's level.
Chiefs 31, Bills 27
Consensus ATS pick: Kansas City -3
Consensus score Prediction: Chiefs 30, Bills 26
Best Passing Performance of the Day
Given what I wrote about the AFC title game, one might think I'd pick Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes here. But youth is going to give way to experience for at least one more week Sunday. No team allowed fewer rushing yards per game than the Buccaneers in 2020, but Tampa's pass defense ranked outside the top 20. Look for No. 12 to get payback for that Week 6 beatdown in Florida in a big way—300-plus passing yards and at least three scores.
I do think we'll see some heroics from Mahomes, but Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league right now and should have plenty of opportunities to pick on a defense that has been known to over-commit from time to time.
The Buccaneers are capable of slowing the Packers' rushing attack. As such, a bigger emphasis will fall on this year's leading MVP candidate. A young Buccaneers secondary should have trouble matching up against Davante Adams, tight end Robert Tonyan and multiple other Green Bay receivers.
Best Rushing Performance of the Day
Davenport: Aaron Jones
The Buccaneers are a tough draw for Aaron Jones—Tampa allowed a league-low 80.6 yards per game on the ground in 2020, and the first time these teams met this season, Jones tallied all of 15 yards on 10 carries. But Green Bay's offensive line was absolutely dominant last week against the Rams, and while the fourth-year pro may start out slow, the Packers are going to use the pass to set up the run and get out to a lead before Jones busts a big one late to blow the game open.
Gagnon: Ronald Jones II
It's either him or Leonard Fournette. The Bucs run D is too good for it to be a Packer, I don't trust the Bills' backs, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire's injury clouds things for Kansas City. Jones is also hurting for the Bucs, but it looks like he'll be good to return, and fresh legs could come in handy for a guy who has averaged 5.5 yards per carry in his last four games.
Sobleski: Leonard Fournette
This one is interesting in that Green Bay's Aaron Jones is the best back still in the playoffs. However, the Buccaneers were the league's top rushing defense this season. Fournette can be a physical force for the Buccaneers to batter the Packers defense and then let Tom Brady go to work.
Best Receiving Performance of the Day
Davenport: Stefon Diggs
It's tempting to go with Green Bay's Davante Adams here, but I have already talked up a couple Packers and we all know what happens if you take in too much cheese. The reasoning for picking Diggs as the biggest performer at wide receiver (much like the person making the call) is simple: I picked the Bills to pull off the upset Sunday in Kansas City, and there's no way Buffalo can pull that off unless the league's receiving king has a big day. Kansas City's pass defense was good but not great this season, so the opportunities should be there. Diggs will take advantage of those opportunities to the tune of eight catches for 125 yards and a score.
Gagnon: Davante Adams
Diggs led the league in receptions and receiving yards, but Adams caught an NFL-high 18 touchdown passes during the regular season. He and Rodgers have a decent matchup with a beatable secondary, so he gets the edge. The Chiefs have a wider variety of targets and have to deal with a great group of corners, and the Bucs are in the same situation going up against a secondary featuring second-team All-Pro Jaire Alexander. Adams it is.
Sobleski: Travis Kelce
The Bills are one of the league's worst units when it comes to defending opposing tight ends. Kelce is the best tight end in the game. This isn't difficult.
Best Defensive Performance of the Day
Davenport: Za'Darius Smith
And we're back to Green Bay, because cheese is delicious. Smith doesn't get the run he deserves as one of the NFL's elite edge-rushers. The 28-year-old has piled up 26 sacks over two seasons with the Packers. Not surprisingly, the four remaining teams in the playoffs all pass-protected well this year, but of the quarterbacks taking the field Sunday Tom Brady is easily the least mobile. Getting after the Golden Boy will be a defensive priority for Green Bay, which sets up Smith well to emerge from the weekend as the defensive MVP of the conference title games.
Gagnon: Chris Jones
If there was such thing as defensive MVP of the Super Bowl, Jones would have won it for the Chiefs last year. The guy is a game-wrecker, and the Bills have been susceptible to inside pressure at times this season. I'm looking for the two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman to make a big play in a key spot for Kansas City.
Sobleski: Jaire Alexander
Alexander has grown into a premier cover corner. In fact, he allowed negative receiving yardage when targeted by the Rams last weekend, per Pro Football Focus. His battles with the Bucs' Mike Evans should be epic.
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