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Welcome to the Championship games
High-stakes games in the NFL are frequent given the nature of the short season, but the calibre of the athletes involved ensures that Sundays are occasions to look forward to, not cower from.
Well, the Conference Championship games take on a slightly different slant, you know.
Consider the age-old adage that losing a semi-final is worse than losing a final - because at least you got to experience the day out.
Then with a Super Bowl, multiply the allure of it by a thousand.
Given the spectacular build-up that the Super Bowl receives world-wide, and the fact that it’s the only tangible prize on offer at the highest level of the sport - unlike, say, soccer where you can win a cup if you don’t win the league - and that only adds to the intensity.
You are ultimately remembered forever merely for your participation. It’s a bit like WrestleMania, just with more dramatics.
The Kansas City Chiefs host their third straight AFC title game, and so far they’re 1-1. The spectre of being without Patrick Mahomes, or playing with a lesser version thereof, should terrify the Chiefs - but at least they’re numb to the intensity and pressure of the occasion.
Particularly as they face a Buffalo unit that hasn’t tasted anything resembling post-season success in decades - the last time the Bills won the AFC was 1993, the last of a four-year AFC title winning streak that failed to result in a single Vince Lombardi trophy.
The NFC title game is a totally different affair - with Tom Brady competing for the first time in the NFC counterpart of the AFC title game that he’s played in 13 times.
But he’s up against who must be the Super Bowl favourites in the Green Bay Packers - a unit revitalised by Matt LeFleur and the sure-to-be league MVP in Aaron Rodgers. The current odds support this view, although there’s only a thread between Green Bay at 2.99 and Kansas at 3.01.
This game is down to experience and schematics in play rather than how well the teams respond to nerves and unfamiliar personnel.
In many ways, we’ve got the perfect blend for the melting pot. How will it unfold?
Let us guide you through it.
AFC: Buffalo Bills @ Kansas City Chiefs
This entire preview hinges on whether or not Patrick Mahomes - who didn’t have a concussion - is suffering the after-effects of a concussion.
Mahomes is the most talented quarterback in the NFL at the moment (at least until Justin Herbert has a couple more seasons under his belt), and without him the Chiefs have multiple deficiencies - but only one that they really can’t overcome or scheme in place of.
And that’s the way in which they move the ball when plays break down.
Chad Henne proved his worth against the Browns, and can carry out instructions in his ear, but he certainly does not possess the nous, speed, arm power or touch, to complete passes when he’s outside the pocket.
If the pocket collapses around him, he’s in trouble. Think back to the definitive play in last year’s Super Bowl and you’ll know just what we’re saying here.
The Chiefs had a late-down, long-yardage conversion attempt (3rd & 15) with the 49ers pass rush clearly becoming a problem. Mahomes took a 15-yard drop so the Niners would have further to go before they sacked him.
They ran a tackle-over-end stunt and got to Mahomes just a second too late - a second in which he completed a 44-yard bomb to Tyreek Hill on a play they now infamously call ‘wasp’ - and when it works, it stings.
Simply because of Mahomes’ foot speed, mechanics and arm strengths were the Chiefs even in a position to attempt a comeback.
It’s not about how Andy Reid schemes up the Bills - we’re sure he’ll have a sensational blueprint either way. It’s about the execution that follows when things don’t go according to plan.
For Buffalo, we expect offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to run the ball frequently enough between the tackles to soften up a weak interior in the Chiefs’ defense. It’s how you get their linebackers to take two yards worth of leverage closer to the line of scrimmage, eat them alive with in routes, out routes and glaring gaps in the would-be Tampa 2 hole when Steve Spagnuolo, the Kansas defensive coordinator, decides to run two-deep looks.
Considering Dabol did absolutely none of that last week was half by design, but also half ensuring that they’d be able to run the ball early in this game. It’s genius, and it’s tougher to contend with as a defense.
They’ll end up having to bring slot pressures and extra edge-setters to get to Josh Allen on third down once the Chiefs front is neutralised, and Sean McDermott would much rather contend with Tyrann Matthieu as a rusher than as a slot corner, we promise.
This feels like a case of the first score determining how the game goes - and that isn’t something you can normally say with Kansas City. Just look at last year’s title game to see why.
But with a limited Mahomes at best, Kansas won’t have those moments Buffalo can’t prepare for - and given the Buffalo D embarrassed Greg Roman last week, it’s a bad time to test them.
For this alone, taking Buffalo to cover here is the safe pick.
Selection: Take the Buffalo Bills at the main line of +3.
NFC: Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Green Bay Packers
Let’s begin here by advising you to savour every second of this while you can.
There’s every reason to believe Tom Brady could retire here. There’s also every reason to believe that this could be Aaron Rodgers’ last chance at a Super Bowl because of the Pack’s cap situation - so drink it in.
What this match boils down to is not which of these two quarterbacks can execute their offense to the best of their ability. They both can - they’ve been doing it for years. It’s more down to which team is best placed to actually disrupt the flows.
Last week, we saw Tampa Bay eliminate Michael Thomas. What they did was play a Cover 2 with inverted clouds on snaps where Thomas was lined up at the X receiver spot.
The logic for this was that #13 can’t run vertically, or at least tends not to. He’s their third down conversion machine, but generally only runs underneath routes to his right. By bringing the cloud in from the touchline and placing it in the area that usually sees slants, crossers and sit routes land, they took his route tree out of the game.
It was an incredible piece of scheming that shouldn’t go unrecognised.
But the Bucs can’t do that with Davante Adams. They also need to bring sufficient edge pressure - something they haven’t been able to do all year - as their rush comes from internal disrupters like Ndamukong Suh, and the now-reactivated Vita Vea.
The Packers will have to roll-out, utilise play-action and run the ball to the outside. It’s a lot to ask when the Tampa Bay linebackers are the fastest in the league and frequently succeed in ensuring cutbacks need to be taken by opposing running backs.
For Tampa Bay, they’ll need to run the ball efficiently, but not on first down. If they start that early on, they’re done for. Brady needs to motion players to maximise his advantages like he did in the Patriots offense.
Bruce Arians’ scheme is one of the more complicated to run in the NFL. Obviously he has the IQ to do it, but they would absolutely benefit from pulling some plays from his time in New England to confuse the Packers.
Both offensive lines have been solid all year, which seems an obvious thing to say given the dollar investment both have put into the quarterback position - but the Packers’ line has shown increasing athleticism as the year has progressed, and they do have the edge when it comes to making plays down the field, either in the run game or via screens.
The one thing Rodgers can’t afford to do is throw his crossing routes like he tends to in order to set up deep shots to Valdez-Scantling and Lazard. Those balls will be tipped at the line and the Bucs’ linebacking corps in nickel is too quick to be beaten in zone looks.
The schematics point towards both teams moving the ball, but in totally different fashions. Green Bay should get their yards piece by piece through Tonyan, Jones and quick strikes against zone coverage initially, but they’ll eventually have to rely on taking deep shots to keep the adjustments from removing easy completions.
Brady will have to do the opposite - take deep shots early on to open up the run games for his backs and quick completions against the Green Bay Cover 2 shell.
It could honestly come down to time management, and these two are the best quarterbacks of all time when it comes to two-minute drills.
In this writer’s opinion, we’re watching the greatest signal-caller of all time go up against the best signal-caller of all time.
Only in the NFL can those two titles be awarded to different players, but if you know, you know. Who comes out on top? We’re siding with TB12.
Selection: Take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the main line of +3.5.
Super Bowl odds
Ahead of the Divisional playoff round, Cloudbet was offering Super Bowl LV winner odds on the Chiefs as favourites at 2.86/+186, with Green Bay behind them at 5.07/+407. Earlier in the week, with Mahomes put under the NFL's strict concussion protocol, those odds switched, with the Packers favoured at 2.94 ahead of Kansas at 3.06.
The positive news so far on Mahomes' fitness and availability has shifted the odds a little - at the time of writing Green Bay are still narrow favourites at 2.99, with the Chiefs at 3.01. The Bills sit at 4.41 and the Bucs are the outsiders at 4.94.
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