We’re down to the NFL’s final four, and each one of the teams can win the games they’re playing in, while they could just as easily play their way out of a victory and actually do their part to lose their games.
How? Let’s take a look at the NFC championship game first:
Buccaneers vs. Packers
How Buccaneers win: If Tampa Bay can establish a rushing game to balance Tom Brady’s air attack. Granted, the Buccaneers have won some games when they’ve rushed for less than 100 yards, but they’re 8-1 when they top the 100-yard plateau on the ground. When they don’t, they’re just 5-4. Balance the offense, control the clock, win the game.
How Buccaneers lose: The Buccaneers will lose this game if they start out the way they did against the New Orleans Saints. They managed to head into the locker room tied, but the atmosphere was certainly different inside of a dome.
For the first time since 1994, we’re… pic.twitter.com/9QmONpoT4g
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 17, 2021
Being at Lambeau Field and opening the game sluggish is not going to bode well, knowing the Packers are 13-2-2 in the first half of their games. And of the 13 games they led at the half, they lost once. Tampa Bay cannot afford to start slow.
How Packers win: Green Bay will win as long as its offensive line protects Aaron Rodgers. Everyone immediately thinks of Rodgers when they hear “Packers,” but he would not be able to do a thing without that stellar offensive line — Elgton Jenkins, Lucas Patrick, Rick Wagner, Billy Turner. If Rodgers hoists the Lombardi Trophy, he better get them each a Mercedes.
Rodgers was sacked only 20 times this season, 25th in the league, while his 2.5-second pocket time was the third-best average among seven others who were behind eight at 2.6, and Baker Mayfield at 2.7. Rodgers’ 1,160 yards passing in play action ranked sixth in the league. It’s all due to his line, which needs to step up.
How Packers lose: The Packers will lose this game if their special teams’ units can’t produce effectively. From long snapper Hunter Bradley struggling, to the return game looking bleak, at best, this is one of those small intangibles that could hurt Green Bay’s chances.
Opponents are starting their drives in slightly better position than the Packers, who rank 15th in the league in starting on their own 28.6-yard line. Green Bay ranks second-to-last with 4.8 yards per punt return, and with 18.9 yards per kick return.
This is the NFC Championship, and field position could be vital for both teams. Green Bay ranks 25th with an average punt traveling 44.5 yards per attempt, so Bradley can’t afford one mistake.
Bills vs. Chiefs
How Bills win: Aside from the obvious — getting to face Chad Henne rather than Patrick Mahomes — the Buffalo Bills will win if Josh Allen continues to play the way he played the last few weeks of the regular season. Buffalo cannot assume Mahomes won’t play and has to prepare for a shootout. The Bills must score points, and since they don’t have an overwhelming rushing game, it’ll take Allen to wave his magic wand and play the game of his life – something we barely saw last week.
Buffalo’s offense was near non-existent. The Bills haven’t gone over 100 yards rushing in three straight games. Allen will have to do a good job of spreading the ball around, not just to Stefon Diggs, but also to guys like Cole Beasley, John Brown, and Gabriel Davis. A balanced passing game is the key.
How Bills lose: The Bills will lose if their defense can’t make the big plays. I won’t dare say they need to slow the Chiefs down, because if Mahomes is in the game, that won’t happen. But what they can do is make timely stops or create turnovers in critical situations.
You’d be surprised what hunger can do to a team. The Bills are hungry and are ready to wash years of bad playoff taste out of their mouths. Buffalo is average, at best, with its pass defense, but one area it thrives is blitzing per dropback, pressuring 35.8% of the time — eighth-best in the league. If they can’t apply pressure, even on Henne, and can’t force mistakes, they’ll lose this game.
How Chiefs win: Kansas City is going to win this game because it’s been here and has the experience. Even without Mahomes in the game, the Chiefs have enough personnel to get by one week against a Bills team that was lucky to escape last week with their sub-par offense.
The Chiefs have the balance on both sides of the ball, for the most part, and have improved defensively as the season progressed. Generating offense early on will be important, while making defensive stops deep in Buffalo territory will help tremendously.
Kansas City’s opponents start out at their own 25.8-yard line, on average, fourth-best in the league. So by keeping the Bills deep, it’ll help the offense’s field position when it gets the ball back. It all relies on experience from last year’s championship run.
How Chiefs lose: The Chiefs won’t lose this game if Henne plays, they’ll lose if they allow Buffalo to bully their way into the stadium.
Kansas City has to remember how hungry it was last season, and understand the Bills are starving. The Chiefs also have to remember they went into Buffalo and won 26-17 on Monday, Oct. 19, on national television. It was their best defensive effort, limiting the Bills to 206 yards on offense — the lowest of any Kansas City opponent this season.
Buffalo is much better 13 weeks later, and if the Chiefs overlook that, and take for granted how good Buffalo can be, they’ll lose this game outright.
Buccaneers +3.5 at Packers: I’m rolling with the underdog here, as I believe Brady and Rob Gronkowski’s experience of playing in cold weather will help the frozen tundra become a non-factor. Tampa Bay’s defense stopped Rodgers once. It will be fired up to do it again. BUCCANEERS
Bills +3 at Chiefs: Mahomes or not, Buffalo seems like a team of destiny, and I have to roll with the underdog in this game. Allen has come of age and is now king of the AFC East. Wouldn’t it be fitting for him to meet the former king of the division in the Super Bowl? BILLS
Last week: 1-3