NFL

NFL Conference Championship Matchup Previews And Predictions

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (right) greets Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (left) after a NFL game at Raymond James Stadium.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After three weeks of riveting playoff matchups, just four teams remain in the quest for Super Bowl 55. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Buffalo Bills are undoubtedly the top four teams in the league. Now it is time to see who is the top dog. The two remaining games contain exciting storylines and highly anticipated matchups. Here are the previews and predictions for the NFL conference championship games.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Green Bay Packers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones (27) is tackled by Green Bay Packers cornerback Josh Jackson (37) and inside linebacker Oren Burks (42) during the fourth quarter of a NFL game at Raymond James Stadium.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

NFL fans are all too familiar with this story. Tom Brady has made yet another conference championship game. However, after quarterbacking the Patriots in the AFC for the last eleven postseasons, he will now be playing in the opposite conference. The Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face off against The Green Bay Packers, led by Aaron Rodgers.

The Buccaneers defeated the Saints in the divisional round by a score of 30-20. By knocking out the Saints, this meant the end of a legendary career for Saints quarterback Drew Brees. The Buccaneers started slow, failing to put any points on the board through the first quarter. The first two drives resulted in three and outs for Tampa, with a big sack from Saints linebacker Demario Davis on the Bucs second drive forcing a punt.

The tide quickly turned, though, as the Saints could not stay out of their own way. Brees threw an interception, which the Bucs returned to the New Orleans three-yard line and quickly converted for a touchdown. The Saints’ offense stalled out in their final possessions of the game, which ultimately spelled their downfall. The last four drives for the Saints resulted in a punt and three turnovers. The Bucs converted the Saint’s four total turnovers into 21 points. 

Buccaneers’ Defense Stepped Up Big Time

While Brady and the offense will always be the media’s attention, the Buccaneers’ defensive performance was a big part of Tampa’s success. Brees had a combined seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in the first two matchups during the regular season. Brady was quick to give his defense their credit following the win:

“The defense was incredible all game…. the turnovers were huge. [The] Last time we played them, we lost the turnover [margin], minus three. Today was plus-four – you’re not going to lose many games when you’re plus four.”

Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady

During the divisional matchup, the Bucs did a great job of taking away Michael Thomas, Brees’s top target. Thomas had zero receptions on four targets in the loss. According to the NFL Next Gen Stats, his 0.82 average yards of separation against the Tampa secondary was the worst amongst all Saints receivers. The Saints revealed after the game that Thomas was dealing with two significant injuries that he was playing through. Nonetheless, a disappointing performance from the Saints’ top receiver.

Tampa Bay cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis played prominent roles in shutting down Thomas. They will have to have stellar performances once again to compete with Packers star receiver Davante Adams. Tampa’s front seven did a great job of getting pressure in Brady’s face. Tampa defensive coordinator Todd Bowles dialed up a lot of pressure, which forced Brees to get rid of the ball earlier than he may have liked. The Packers offensive line allowed zero sacks against the Rams in their divisional game, so it will be up to Bowles to generate pressure come Sunday.

Tampa Bay has two significant injuries to worry about. Wide receiver Antonio Brown has been ruled out of Sunday’s game due to a knee injury. Rookie receiver Tyler Johnson should be expected to take over a majority of Brown’s snaps. Safety Antoine Winfield is questionable for the game due to an ankle injury. He did not participate in Friday’s practice.

Packers Review and Preview

Green Bay won their game comfortably, defeating the Rams 32-18. In a game where they never trailed, Rodgers and Co. looked very comfortable on offense. Davante Adams evidently was not fazed by the matchup with Rams corner Jalen Ramsey. He finished with nine receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown. 

The Packers defense looked great as well. The defensive line kept Rams quarterback Jared Goff on his toes, sacking him four times and recording seven QB hits. The secondary had a solid performance as well. Packers corner Jaire Alexander had an especially stellar game. According to Pro Football Focus, Alexander is the first corner since 2006 to allow negative yardage in a playoff game. The Rams targeted him just once, and it resulted in a three-yard loss. Alexander will be a huge part of stopping Brady and the stellar passing attack of the Buccaneers.

Key Matchup: Buccaneers Pass Rush vs. Packers Offensive Line

When the Buccaneers demolished the Packers in Week 6, the game plan was very evident. At every opportunity, Bowles was sending 5 or 6 rushers to disrupt Aaron Rodgers’ rhythm. The Buccaneers had five sacks and an insane 13 quarterback hits on that day. Tampa did a great job of scheming the blitzes so that the best rushers would match up one of the Green Bay running backs. Bucs linebackers Devin White and LaVonte David finished with a combined 2.5 sacks as a result. 

The deciding factor of the game will be this battle. The Packers offensive line has been stellar so far these playoffs, conceding no sacks to the Rams last week. While the Rams did have Aaron Donald, the Buccaneers have a plethora of dangerous players coming off the edge for Rodgers to worry about. If Tampa can replicate pressure similar to the Week 6 matchup, the Packers Super Bowl quest may be cut short.

Prediction: Tampa Bay wins, 35-24

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) outruns Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton (98) and defensive tackle Chris Jones (95) in the fourth quarter at Bills Stadium.
 Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The great thing about the remaining two games is that there is a genuine feeling the four remaining teams are the best in the NFL. On the AFC side, we will see a faceoff between two great quarterbacks, and, for the first time in a while, one of them will not be named Tom Brady.

After a first-round bye, the Chiefs squeezed past the Browns in the divisional round by a score of 22-17. The Chiefs looked comfortable on both sides of the ball, with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes passing for 255 yards and a touchdown on the day. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce each had over 100 yards receiving. 

Defensively, critical plays from Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen were crucial in changing the course of the game. Mathieu picked off Baker Mayfield on the Brown’s first drive of the 3rd quarter. Sorenson had a controversial forced fumble on Browns receiver Rashard Higgins. The battle between Bills quarterback Josh Allen and the Chiefs secondary is something to keep an eye on.

The game was not perfect for the Chiefs, however. Mahomes picked up a concussion late in their win over the Browns. He has been cleared to play Sunday after some initial doubt. Mahomes play is something to watch as he appeared pretty disoriented following an awkward hit versus the Browns.

The Chiefs also have a multitude of other injuries to worry about. Receiver Sammy Watkins, running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Le’Veon Bell, and cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Rashad Fenton were all limited participants at practice on Friday. All five are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Keep an eye out for their status come Sunday as each player plays a significant role for the Chiefs.

Bills Review and Preview

The Bills enjoyed an efficient game in their 17-3 win over the Ravens in the divisional round. For a top-10 scoring offense during the regular season, Lamar Jackson and Co. struggled to convert yards into points versus Buffalo. The Ravens dominated the ball in this game, running 18 more offensive plays than the Bills as well as a +9 minute differential in time of possession. 

However, the Ravens were 0-3 on red-zone trips and failed to convert drives into touchdowns. One of those drives resulted in a 101-yard interception return touchdown by Buffalo corner Taron Johnson. That was a ten-point swing right at the end of the third quarter and ultimately would be the end of the Ravens playoff run. 

Kansas City and Buffalo have already faced off once before this season. The Chiefs won in Week 6 by a score of 26-17. Kansas City had impressive ball control, running 23 more plays than Buffalo and amassing over 200 yards more of total offense. However, it should be noted that Bills linebacker Matt Milano was absent for that game due to injury. Milano, the team’s outside linebacker, is one of the key cogs on the defensive side of the ball for Buffalo. The Bill’s performance without him this season has been subpar.

Will one player’s presence be able to stop the high-powered offense that is Kansas City? In short, no. However, people are quick to write off the Bills after seeing their performance against the Chiefs earlier this season. Having Milano’s veteran leadership on defense may cause Mahomes more trouble than people think.

Key Matchup: Matt Milano vs. Travis Kelce

If you want to find out what Milano means to this defense, watch Travis Kelce versus the Bills in Week 6. He had just five receptions for 65 yards but also had two touchdowns. The Bills primarily had either A.J Klein or Tremaine Edmunds lined up against Kelce. While both are phenomenal players, they were exposed in coverage by Mahomes’ top target. There was also a fair amount of miscommunications between the safeties and linebackers as Kelce found pockets of space between the two lines of coverage on multiple occasions. 

Top front office executives regard Milano as one of the top coverage linebackers in the game. He will line up on Kelce for most passing downs and will be responsible for limiting Kelce’s production. If Milano can disrupt the Mahomes to Kelce connection, the Kansas City passing game will sputter.

Prediction: Bills win, 28-24

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