Two weeks and 10 games into this year’s playoffs, there hasn’t been that one "instant classic" game. Sure, Andy Reid’s fourth-down gamble with Chad Henne at quarterback was fun and Tom Brady and Tampa Bay’s defense finally picking off Drew Brees provided some drama, but nothing we’ll be talking about years from now. With four teams remaining – and four of the game’s best quarterbacks – that could change this Sunday.
Interestingly, both games are rematches from Week 6 (won by Tampa Bay and Kansas City). That feels like forever ago, though. Championship Sunday is a whole new ballgame. No matter the results, the NFL is guaranteed an exciting Super Bowl matchup.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
TAMPA BAY AT GREEN BAY
TV: Ch. 5, 3:05 p.m.
Green Bay by 3.5; O/U: 51.5
Before the postseason, Tampa Bay had beaten only one playoff team. Yep, Green Bay. A 10-0 Packers lead was quickly erased as the host Bucs scored 38 unanswered points, jump-started by a pick-6 of Aaron Rodgers. Todd Bowles’ defense frustrated the MVP frontrunner, picking him off twice in an uncharacteristic 16-for-35, 160-yard, no-TD afternoon. In 15 other regular-season games, Rodgers threw 48 TD passes and just three INTs. The Packers lost only two other games all season, one in overtime. Long story long: That was one game. Everyone has a bad day, even the all-time greats. With the rematch being at Lambeau Field, do you really think Rodgers and the Pack are going to lay another dud? Hard to believe.
Rodgers will make the necessary adjustments. Green Bay’s approach to its 32-18 win over the Rams in the divisional round was the most impressive of the weekend, as Rodgers took a backseat and the running game churned out 188 yards on 36 carries.
This is Rodgers’ first start in an NFC title game at home (he was Brett Favre’s backup against the Giants for the 2008 freeze fest), so expect him to be fired up with this being his best shot to get back to the Super Bowl since his only appearance in 2011.
Brady leading Tampa Bay to the NFL’s first "home team in host stadium Super Bowl" in his first season post-Patriots would be a great story, but we’ll have to wait till next year . . . when the Rams AND Chargers have the rare double-host possibility.
The pick: Green Bay
The score: Green Bay 30, Tampa Bay 23
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
BUFFALO AT KANSAS CITY
TV: Ch. 2, 6:40 p.m.
Kansas City by 3; O/U: 54
When you make Super Bowl predictions before the playoffs start, and then select each playoff game against the spread each week after that, you’re often met with a decision: Do I stick with my original pick or did something change my mind? While backing Kansas City is usually the safe play, I’m staying with my "Bills are going to win the Super Bowl" not-as-hot-as-it-used-to-be take.
The biggest storyline surrounding this game is obviously the health of Patrick Mahomes. He's practicing, and you’d have to think he will play. We all know about Kansas City’s fast-strike offense, and how you could never count them out (see last year’s title run, when the champs overcame deficits of 24-0 in the divisional round, 17-7 in the AFC title game and 20-10 in the Super Bowl).
But Buffalo, with Josh Allen making a major leap this season and a true No. 1 WR in Stefon Diggs, can continually keep the pressure on. Since a 26-17 loss to Kansas City in Week 6, Buffalo has won 11 of 12 games, the lone loss on the last-second "Hail Murray" pass in Arizona. This team is hot. The fact that Buffalo, the 2 seed, had to play a first-round game this year instead of having a bye is a huge factor to me. A sweat-it-out 27-24 win over the Colts, then last week’s surprisingly low-scoring 17-3 win over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, had to have helped the Bills get ready for the biggest game of most of their lives.
Yes, Kansas City ran all over Buffalo in the first meeting (245 yards on 46 carries), but I trust Sean McDermott – one of the most underrated coaches in the game – to correct those issues. Kansas City is a super team, but the champs are not unbeatable. Buffalo should follow Las Vegas’ blueprint on how to beat KC. The only question is: Can Buffalo finish the job if it has an early lead? I think it can. Break out the tables, Bills fans! Next stop: Tampa Bay.
The pick: Buffalo
The score: Buffalo 37, Kansas City 34
STAFF PICKS AND STANDINGS
Green Bay Buffalo
Playoffs: 5-5 (3-1 last week)
Regular Season: 122-125-9
Green Bay Kansas City
Playoffs: 3-7 (1-3 last week)
Regular Season: 128-119-9
Green Bay Buffalo
Playoffs: 4-6 (2-2 last week)
Regular Season: 127-120-9
Green Bay Kansas City
Playoffs 5-5 (3-1 last week)
Regular Season: 123-124-9