April 11, 2021

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The NFL Conference Championship Matchup Guide – The Ringer

10 min read

“Legendary” can be an overused word in sportswriting, but it applies when Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are going head-to-head for a spot in the Super Bowl. If the Packers win this weekend, Rodgers will play in his second NFL championship game exactly 10 years and one day after his last (and only) appearance, a 31-25 Green Bay victory over Pittsburgh. If the Buccaneers win, they will be the first team in league history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Brady would be competing for his seventh ring, which would put him one championship ahead of Michael Jordan. Imagine if Jordan brought the Washington Wizards to the NBA Finals. That’s what Brady is trying to do this weekend.

While Brady has been omnipresent in the playoffs for the past two decades, the Buffalo Bills have been almost completely absent. The last time Buffalo made it to an AFC championship game, more than half of the players on the current roster had not been born.

Last week, the Bills players made men twice their age weep. But while Buffalo fans were experiencing pure joy, Chiefs fans were going through mixed emotions. Kansas City beat the Browns 22-17 in the divisional round, but quarterback Patrick Mahomes suffered a concussion in the third quarter and his status for this weekend is a bit uncertain. Fox’s Jay Glazer reported after Sunday’s game that Mahomes was likely going to clear concussion protocol, and the QB participated in practice this week.

A strange quirk of Sunday’s games is that all four teams will need to trash the defensive game plans they used to win last week.

  • The Bucs beat the Saints because they dared Drew Brees to throw downfield and he couldn’t. Now they have to play Aaron Rodgers, whose arm is a little stronger than Brees’s.
  • The Bills won by ignoring Baltimore’s passing game and focusing on stopping the run. They might use the exact opposite strategy against Kansas City.
  • The Chiefs beat the Browns by slowing Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Now they’re going up against the Bills, who last week did not hand the ball off until almost the two-minute warning of the first half.
  • And the Packers played strong defense against Jared Goff, who is not good at dissecting coverages, but this week they face Brady, who can dissect defenses like he’s doing an autopsy.

Another quirk: Both games are rematches from Week 6. That week, the Buccaneers throttled the Packers 38-10 in the worst performance of Green Bay’s season, and the Chiefs ran ragged over the Bills with 46 carries for 245 yards in a 26-17 victory. Now we get two rematches, and the winners will go to the Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) @ Green Bay Packers (13-3)

Time: 3:05 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Packers -3.5
Over/under: 52
Key to the game: Pressuring/protecting Aaron Rodgers

The Packers got shellacked when these teams played in Week 6. And I mean shellacked. Varnished. Tossed, trounced, and torched. Rodgers was hit so much you’d think he was Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes. He had the third-lowest passer rating of his career (35.4) and threw two interceptions in the second quarter. In the other 63 quarters Rodgers played this regular season, he threw just three interceptions. Despite the Packers jumping out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, they lost the game 38-10. How did that happen?

Rodgers was pressured. A lot. He was sacked four times, and the offense had rampant communication issues. (Who among us hasn’t had communication issues over the past few months?) The offense was often late getting to the line of scrimmage, so Rodgers didn’t have time to adjust the protection before the play clock ran down. And Green Bay’s running backs missed multiple blocking assignments. It was a mess. (Again, who among us?) But how relevant is a mid-October mess in late January?

“You throw [that game] right out in my opinion,” says former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.

The Packers offense was not fully baked at that point in the season, and Schwartz says those protection issues are unlikely to happen again—even with star left tackle David Bakhtiari out with a torn ACL. In that Week 6 contest, the Packers failed to handle Tampa Bay’s blitzes. Schwartz points out that when the Bucs blitzed Rodgers, he completed six of 17 passes for 3.7 yards per attempt. But that’s just about the only game in which he struggled under pressure. In Rodgers’s other 16 contests this season (including the playoffs), he completed 67 percent of his passes for 8.1 yards per attempt against the blitz. Schwartz says Green Bay’s line is blocking much better now than it was in October, and they proved that last week, shredding the Rams’ no. 1 ranked defense and allowing Rodgers to get hit only one time. And though the team’s lone outlier game happened against the Bucs, that shouldn’t outweigh the rest of the offensive line’s sterling season.

“Sometimes you just have a shitty game,” Schwartz says.

Tampa Bay’s defensive mentality is to attack offenses and force quarterbacks to make fast decisions. But to do that, they’ll have to get pressure on Rodgers. If the Buccaneers send extra rushers this week that don’t get to the QB, the Packers will tear them apart.

Tampa Bay’s offense, meanwhile, is playing much better since they made adjustments to make Brady more comfortable. The team is using more pre-snap motion now than it was early in the season, which gives Brady more information about the coverages that defenses are using. The Bucs are also using better run fakes. Early on, Tampa Bay often deployed run fakes out of shotgun formation, which didn’t fool defenses as easily. Now they’re doing it more with Brady under center. The Bucs are also more effective when they use two tight end sets, and Brady can decide whether to run or throw based on what the defense is doing. Running back Ronald Jones II has been limited recently with a quad injury, leaving the bulk of Tampa Bay’s rushing attempts to Leonard Fournette. But Brady is the key to everything the Bucs do on offense.

Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety and current ESPN analyst, is amazed by what Brady is doing this season. “His arm talent has improved over the course of the season,” Bowen says. “I don’t know how to explain that, but it has.”

Bowen says the Buccaneers aren’t throwing downfield as often as they were in the beginning of the season, and are instead using more short throws which cater to Brady’s style. “Brady sees [a thing] before it happens,” Bowen says. “He drops back, he can read the coverage immediately, he knows where the window is. He anticipates as well as anyone in the NFL. And when he [steps into his throws], he can put it where he wants to.”

Since Brady must step into his throws at this stage of his career, and because he gets the ball out so fast, the key for the Packers defense will be disrupting Brady in the middle of the pocket. Edge rushers won’t have time to get to him, especially with rookie Tristan Wirfs playing at such a high level. So the Packers need to attack Tampa Bay’s guards to rip the pocket open directly in Brady’s face.

“You gotta get people at his feet,” Bowen says. “If I’m [Packers defensive coordinator] Mike Pettine, regardless of what coverage I’m playing, I have to scheme pressure for them with my front four.”

Bucs right guard Alex Cappa is out with a broken ankle. He has been replaced by backup Aaron Stinnie, a former undrafted free agent who made his first career start last week. He is the weak link in Brady’s protection. To get pressure with four rushers, Bowen thinks the Packers should do whatever they can to get their best pass rushers—Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Kenny Clark, and Rashan Gary—in one-on-one situations on the interior, especially against Stinnie. For all the hoopla about Rodgers and Brady, this game could come down to Tampa Bay’s backup right guard.

Buffalo Bills (13-3) @ Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

Time: 6:40 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Chiefs -2.5
Over/under: 56
Key to the game: Whether Patrick Mahomes plays (and how the Bills respond)

The question hanging over this game is whether Patrick Mahomes will play. Mahomes is currently going through concussion protocols after he got injured during the Browns game last week. The median return time for quarterbacks coming back from a concussion is about seven days, according to NFL data reported by The Athletic. But everyone’s recovery time varies. Before Mahomes can return, he must pass a series of neurological tests, and he must also be able to work out and do physical activity without experiencing symptoms. Both a team doctor and an independent neurologist must clear him before he returns. In addition to the concussion, Mahomes is also dealing with a foot injury. He was visibly limping before he left the game last week. Backup quarterback Chad Henne was the hero in the team’s win over the Browns, but he is a massive drop-off from even a limping Mahomes.

“It’s not only [Mahomes’s] arm talent and the accuracy,” former NFL staffer Nate Tice says. “It’s that he reads defenses like it’s nothing. It’s no issue for him. … He’s rarely surprised about what the defense is giving him. And on top of that, he’s a fast processor. So it’s a special combination.”

Despite the quarterback questions, Sunday could be a big day for the Chiefs’ running game. When these teams met in Week 6, Kansas City recorded the most carries (46) and rushing yards (245) ever for the team under Andy Reid. The Chiefs ran for 197 yards before contact. Rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire—who may return from a high ankle sprain this week—ran for a career-high 161 yards and was averaging 7.6 yards per carry before the final drive of the game.

That was the deal Buffalo made with the devil to shut down Mahomes. In that game, the Bills decided to play their linebackers and safeties far from the line of scrimmage. Look at how the Bills aligned on this first-and-10 opportunity in the second quarter:

There’s an old football cliché about taking what the defense gives you, and the Bills were happy to give the Chiefs all the rushing opportunities if it meant Mahomes wouldn’t pass.

“We went into it saying ‘OK, they’re not going to beat us over the top,’” Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told reporters this week. “They were hitting so many explosive [pass plays], and they’re still doing it to teams. We just weren’t going to give up the explosive passes. We said ‘OK, we’re going to dare them to stay with the run game.’ Lo and behold, they stayed with it and had a lot of success running the football.”

Tice says that the Bills were also trying to test Kansas City’s discipline in that game. The Chiefs are gunslingers, and the Bills were hoping Reid’s itchy trigger finger might lead to a misstep. “It’s just like you’re playing a kid in Madden,” Tice says, “And you’re just like, ‘OK, at some point they’re going to make a mistake.’”

But the Chiefs didn’t take the bait. Reid called more runs than he ever had before. “Once we saw how deep their linebackers and safeties and corners were playing, we knew that we had to run,” Mahomes told reporters after the game. “So we really just stayed with it, and if teams are going to play us like this you’re going to see us running the football and we have the guys that can do it.”

The Bills held the Chiefs to 26 points in that game, tied for the second-lowest mark Kansas City hit before Thanksgiving. But Buffalo may switch up its approach this week—especially if Mahomes is diminished or can’t play. “I think we’ll be a little more aggressive,” Bills safety Jordan Poyer told reporters this week. “Be able to show up in the run game, but also get back in their deep passing game.”

Speaking of passing: Allen had just 122 yards in that game against the Chiefs, one of his worst outings all season. Bowen sees similarities in the defenses Allen struggled with: They use zone coverages and late movement to disguise defensive assignments. Allen’s ability to read defenses has improved this season, but he’s still far better against man-to-man coverage than zone. Against man—which is a lot more like recess football—Allen has 25 touchdowns and two interceptions. Against zone, Allen has 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Bowen says the key for the Chiefs will be making sure Allen can’t deduce what look the defense is in before the snap. “You’re showing one thing and giving him something else,” Bowen says. “Make him see [the coverage] post-snap.”

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is an expert at these disguises. Kansas City may hint that it’s dropping a middle linebacker to the middle of the field, but then the defenders switch responsibilities and suddenly safety Tyrann Mathieu is in that spot and hunting for a turnover.

The Bills seem downright uninterested in running this postseason, and it’s unclear whether that will change against a Chiefs team whose run defense is suspect. In all likelihood, this game—like the Bills season—will rest on Allen’s shoulder pads. He has improved a lot this season, but if Buffalo is going to advance, he’ll probably have to get through this week without a turnover.

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