NFL Preview: Conference Championship
Who is this Thomas Brady and why is he here?
Last week: 1-3
Playoffs overall: 1-7-1
If you missed the Divisional Round Graveyard, check it out here. Another lousy week of picks from me. I am in a major slump down the stretch here. Obviously the Chiefs pick was ruined by the Mahomes injury, but both times in the NFC I took the worse QB to cover and it didn’t pan out. If you didn’t believe me last week when I said that almost all that matters is having a great QB, here is proof. The best QB went 4-0 last week (although the Chiefs didn’t cover because of the injury). Let’s keep that in the back of our minds this week. The Chiefs and Bills games both went as expected. Facing a real defense the Ravens offense fell back into its shell. The Bills offense, however, struggled against a very good Ravens unit. The Chiefs defense played well against a tough Browns group, and the offense would have been fine with Mahomes. In the NFC, I was off-base. Aaron Donald’s injury turned out to be very significant as he was held out for several big plays and was ineffective when in. Without him, the Rams defense crumbled. If you weren’t sure whether Mahomes and Donald were the cores to their teams, you saw it last weekend. In the other key game, the Saints choked and Drew Brees turned out to be totally washed. So, while my picks were bad, all of the bad offenses disappeared like a magician makes an elephant disappear.
This is good news for us, as the remaining two games are awesome. We finally get that Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady playoff game. We also get to watch the two best young stars with huge arms go head to head in Mahomes and Allen. Merry… oh wait, we can’t say that now with Biden I was told, Happy Holidays.
Best Call: It’s basically always the Bills, who are a covering machine. While the rest of the media and casual fans continue to underestimate them, I have been a believer. They have a strong mix of defense and a strong passing game. It’s worth noting, though, that the offense struggled against a rugged Ravens unit in this one.
Worst Call: I should have sniffed around that Aaron Donald injury more. It’s clear that this was basically the determining factor. It was like watching the Chiefs without Mahomes. They simply aren’t great with him gone. Surprisingly, the very green DC who is leaving for San Diego couldn’t rustle up a decent defense without the premier defensive player of our time. But sure, hire him over established candidates like Eric Bieniemy. Also, Aaron Rodgers is looking good. Real good.
Bad Beat: Obviously the Mahomes injury ruined the spread in the Chiefs game. It was worth noting, however, that the Chiefs are a good team without him. The defense held enough, and Andy Reid somehow got enough out of former Dolphins anti-legend Chad Henne (which was surprising with Andy’s giant brass balls blocking out his vision).
On we go to the Conference Championships. These matchups are NFL fan crack cocaine. Once you pop, you won’t want to stop. These are also going to be gritty, cold outdoor games, the kind I watched as a kid. All the dome teams are gone. This is going to be real football. The kind of icy, hard hitting spectacle that you dream about when you think about what you grew up watching, before every other team had a dome. All of these teams can throw. Most of them can run too *looks questionably at Buffalo*. Weaknesses will be few and far between, so we need to look hard. That’s why we will be examining each team’s weaknesses to see what we can learn. We will rate them on a five part scale. 1: Michael Cera 2: Ben Affleck 3: Keanu Reeves 4: Samuel L. Jackson and 5: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What they have going for them: Josh Allen has a cannon for an arm, which really helps on those cold windy days. He was able to move the ball a little last week, but overall, he has been brutally efficient mixing his runs and passes to keep the Bills offense going. Their defense has a very good linebacker and secondary group, and their front four can get some pressure. They have had mixed results on the season, but they are generally good.
But what about… The Bills have two very significant weaknesses that the Chiefs will look to exploit this week. One, they have no running back attack. This offseason, the Bills will need to find a more effective running back. For now, the mix of Devin Singletary and Zach Moss will try to find yards. It’s surprising they can’t move the ball with their running backs, because Josh Allen offers a very significant threat on RPOs and designed rushes. Still, they can’t seem to do it. They opened the game against the Ravens with 19 straight pass plays. This was not particularly effective as they only managed 10 points in the game. The reason this is so significant is that the Chiefs are very good at stopping the pass. They have been one of the best teams this season at limiting wide receivers, where the bulk of the Bills offense goes. The second significant problem is with stopping tight ends. The Bills have been bottom 3 in stopping tight ends this year. This is a massive problem, because the Chiefs have the best tight end in the NFL by a mile in Travis Kelce. Kelce tears apart regular and good defenses consistently. The Bills will have to commit extra resources here to combat Kelce, presumably opening them up in other areas (this might be why the Chiefs crushed them on the ground in their one matchup, when the Chiefs rarely do that).
Weakness ranking: Ben Affleck. These are significant weaknesses that play right into the Chiefs hands, like two delicious Dunkin donuts at 2 AM while you are filming Paycheck (an autobiographical story about why Affleck filmed the movie itself. META).
What they have going for them: Speed. This is a team that plays fast on both sides of the ball. Patrick Mahomes takes advantage of this by getting the ball out quickly to his talent and letting them succeed. On defense, they have a strong secondary and front 4, which allows them to get pressure on the passer and hold down the wide receivers. Coaching is their biggest strength, as Andy Reid is a master-class play-caller and creator, who knows how to get players open. What was once a weakness, game management, has become a strength in Kansas City. Last week’s play-call on fourth down shows how aggressive and savvy he has become.
But what about: Patrick Mahomes. He suffered a concussion last week, and is currently in the concussion protocol. He may, or may not be playing this weekend. Obviously, if he is playing, that gives the Chiefs a good chance to win. If he doesn’t though? They probably can’t. That’s a big swing. The other problem, which isn’t being mentioned much, is his toe injury. He was clearly hobbled prior to the concussion. Andy Reid says he won’t be out for that, but it is fair to wonder if that, plus his head injury, will limit his movement. He doesn’t scramble a lot, but when he does, he is often effective. Another two weaknesses are running the ball and run defense. Oddly, these weaknesses match up with areas the Bills are also weak in. The Bills have struggled to contain running backs (especially in their earlier matchup with the Chiefs) and can’t run the ball much. These weaknesses matter, but it doesn’t look like the Bills will be in a position to exploit them.
Weakness ranking: Samuel L Jackson (unless Mahomes is out, which turns it into Michael Cera with the flu).
The game: The Chiefs are -3 right now. I assume that baked into this line is the chance Mahomes might not play. Still, I expect him to play. Early reports are he is practicing in a limited capacity, and he was doing well after the game last week. Regardless of who you want to win, I think we all would like to see the Allen/Mahomes matchup. This feels like a bad matchup for the Bills to me. They aren’t in position to take advantage of the Chiefs weaknesses, while the Chiefs are well equipped to take advantage of the Bills weaknesses. It feels as though the Bills offense and defense both play into what the Chiefs want to do. For the first time in months, I am picking against the Bills. Chiefs -3
What they have going for them: The Aaron Rodgers renaissance has been something to behold this year. He has gone scorched earth on the NFL, after the Packers fired his old coach two years ago and drafted his replacement. It sure doesn’t seem like he is ready to retire… or be replaced. He is improved in basically every statistical area this year. His accuracy, depth of target, touchdowns and consistency have been excellent. The ground game has also been very strong for the Packers. That run-pass balance has been critical to their success. Rodgers has never had better pieces on the ground and in the air combined. Their defense hasn’t been great this year, especially against the run, but it has coalesced in recent weeks and cut down on points allowed, and gotten after the quarterback.
But what about… That defense is still a question mark. They have been gashed by teams that run all year. In the air, their young secondary has improved, which is good, but this isn’t the Rams. It’s Tom Brady, and the top passing offense in the NFL. In the regular season, these teams met and the Bucs dominated, forcing Aaron Rodgers’ worst outing of the year. They were physical up front and took away the run (the staple of the Bucs defense). Forcing the Pack to be one dimensional will be key for them again, and the Bucs are up to the task. They have been the top run defense in the NFL over the last 2 years. In the first matchup, they limited the pass as well, despite a number of pieces being banged up. The same was true for the Bucs offense, which was missing several WRs and hadn’t signed Antonio Brown.
Weakness level: Keanu Reeves but more of a Bill and Ted’s Keanu, than a John Wick one.
What they have going for them: Tom F$#^&*($# Brady.
As noted earlier, their defense can be very strong in the right matchups as well. Their ability to stop the run is unmatched. They have talented skill players all over the place in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown (might be limited with knee injury), Gronk and Leonard Fournette. Brady has been doing well getting the ball to those pieces, especially in the air. There running attack has been sporadic, but Fournette certainly has the pedigree to help against this soft run defense.
But what about… We mentioned that first matchup, and the Bucs won easily. These teams are a lot different than they were at that point. Rodgers has made adjustments, the defense of the Packers is better and the Bucs ruined their karma by signing Brown. This game is also being played in Green Bay, not Tampa Bay. Boy are those two bays different right now. Tom Brady is used to battling the cold from his days in New England, but the rest of the squad isn’t as used to it. Game time temps could be below 30, which has been Aaron Rodgers playground. Aaron is also going to be very angry after the earlier demolition, and I am sure he has been champing at the bit to get a revenge game.
Weakness level: Keanu Reeves, but more of a John Wick Keanu than a Bill and Ted’s Keanu
The game: The Packers are favored by 3 points in this one, which puts me in a real predicament. There isn’t much separating these two. I don’t think this game will be even close to the one from week 6. I think the combination of X factors (cold, karma, and revenge) cancels out the separation here. The problem is, I don’t see the Packers as being BETTER than the Bucs as a team. Rodgers is the best QB, but this is Brady time, when he is at his best. I am going to take the Bucs +3 here, simply because I think the points are worth having. I have NO IDEA who will win, but I am sure excited to find out. Either way we will get an excellent NFC team in the Super Bowl. Man, the Super Bowl is going to be LIT. I mean LIV. I mean LV