NFL championship weekend features a pair of quarterback matchups for all ages.
First, Tampa Bay meets Green Bay in the NFC championship game at 3:05 p.m. ET on Sunday. Aaron Rodgers, 37, is playing in his fifth NFC championship game, but it’s his first one at Lambeau Field. Tom Brady, 43, is in his 14th NFC championship game, but this is his first one in the NFC. It’s also the first postseason matchup between the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Buffalo travels to Kansas City for the AFC championship game at 6:40 p.m. ET. It’s the Chiefs’ third straight AFC championship game at Arrowhead Stadium, and it remains to be seen whether Patrick Mahomes, 25, will clear concussion protocol for the game. If not, the Chiefs will turn to backup quarterback Chad Henne, 35, who sealed the divisional playoff round victory against the Browns. Josh Allen, 24, is trying to get the Bills back in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1993.
Sporting News hit three of four on divisional playoff weekend. Here is a look at our track record this season:
With that as the mind, below are our picks and predictions for the conference championship games:
NFL picks, predictions for championship games
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers (-3.5)
Sunday, 3:05 p.m., FOX
Green Bay looked unstoppable on offense against the Rams with the combination of Rodgers’ efficiency and a three-headed running game led by Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon.
That’s where this matchup starts. The Packers generated just 94 rushing yards in the regular-season meeting, a 38-10 loss at Tampa Bay that was ignited by two Rodgers’ interceptions in the second quarter. The Buccaneers had five sacks, and the combined pressure from defensive linemen Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh flustered Green Bay. Devin White and Lavonte David are speedy linebackers who can stuff the run, too. That is the challenge for a Packers’ offensive line that has improved since, even without starting tackle David Bakthiari.
Rodgers needs those play-action opportunities to work with Davante Adams and Robert Tonyan. Green Bay made it look easy against the Rams. Can they do it again?
Then there’s Brady, who made the Packers pay for those mistakes in the first meeting. He’s working with a loaded group of receivers. Ronald Jones had 113 yards and two TDs in the first meeting, and Green Bay’s defense has been susceptible to the run. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark needs to be more disruptive in this game.
The Packers did not get a sack in that first meeting either. Rashan Gary, Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith need to pressure Brady, or he will sit back and work with a loaded group of receivers. Who wins the red-zone matchups between Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans and Green Bay’s secondary, which features a lock-down cornerback in Jaire Alexander and an emerging safety in Darnell Savage Jr.? That will be the key.
With these two quarterbacks, it comes down to a handful of plays. The Packers will hold on to a one-score lead at halftime, but Tampa Bay ties it early in the fourth quarter with an Antonio Brown touchdown. It really might come down to which quarterback has the ball last – and which defense comes up with the stop. How much of an advantage is Lambeau Field? We think it makes the slight difference in an instant classic.
Pick: Packers 31, Buccaneers 28
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (-3)
Sunday, 6:40 p.m., CBS
It’s difficult to make a pick without knowing whether Mahomes is playing this week, but we’re going to base this prediction on the premise he’s able to go. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, hip) also practiced last week but was inactive for the Browns’ game. Edwards-Helaire had 161 rushing yards in Kansas City’s 26-17 victory against the Bills in Week 6. Darrel Williams started over Le’Veon Bell last week, so he could be the focus if Edwards-Helaire can’t go. The Chiefs also were without Sammy Watkins (calf) last week.
The good news? Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill were still in action. They can hit the chunk plays against Buffalo’s secondary no matter who is at quarterback.
Josh Allen struggled in the regular-season matchup, but he didn’t take a sack in that loss. He also had not established a strong connection with Stefon Diggs, who has emerged as one of the best – if not the best – receiver in the league this season. Allen will target Diggs frequently, and Cole Beasley and John Brown to need to take advantage of their 1-on-1 opportunities. The Bills need to generate a running game with Devin Singletary early, and Allen will make more plays this time.
Again, this pick still comes down to Mahomes. If he’s cleared, then we’ll assume he’s healthy enough to lead the Chiefs to another Super Bowl appearance.
Buffalo takes the early lead on a Diggs’ TD, and the Bills cling to a third-quarter lead before the Mahomes magic act begins. Second-half TDs to Kelce and Hill re-take the lead, and Kansas City closes the door behind the running game in the fourth quarter. If last week taught us anything, then it’s Andy Reid won’t hold back in crunch time.
It’s tight again, but Kansas City repeats as AFC champions. We will re-evaluate this pick if he can’t go.
Pick: Chiefs 28, Bills 26
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