A quick read on items of interest heading into the AFC and NFC championship games…
Who’s hot: Tom Brady. As unusual as the NFL’s season within a pandemic has been, the site of TB12 playing for a trip to the Super Bowl offers some normalcy. Well, sort of. This trip is to the NFC title game — and a potential classic showdown against Aaron Rodgers — in his first season with the Bucs has added yet another layer to the GOAT’s legacy. After throwing for 40 TDs for just the second time in his career (50, in 2007), he’s advanced to his 14th conference championship game (9-4). What a fitting challenge for Rodgers: To win a long-awaited second Super Bowl ring, the Packers star first has to get past Brady — the man with six Super Bowl rings who is again hot at the right time. In six games in December and January, Brady has a 16-1 TD-to-INT ratio. The chemistry and timing issues that plagued the Bucs offense early in the season have been resolved. No, he can’t play defense against hot-in-his-own-right Rodgers in a conventional sense. But he can still try to apply pressure in his own way, which might mean winning a shootout.
Pressure’s on: Josh Allen. The young Bills quarterback will have a hard enough task in trying to beat Patrick Mahomes on his own turf, with a Super Bowl berth in play. Allen’s had a remarkable season, which is why he emerged in the conversation for MVP honors. Yet the added pressure now includes Allen triggering an offense where he is the essential the running game. Buffalo’s running backs ran for just 42 yards during the wild-card round against the Colts, when Zack Moss was lost for the remainder of the playoffs. Then the backs, Devin Singletary and T.J. Yeldon, mustered a total of 29 yards in the divisional round against the Ravens. Allen is rugged and mobile. He can extend plays to throw and bolt on designed runs or improvised escapes. But he could use some help from the backs to avoid having to be the running game himself.
Key matchup: Aaron Rodgers vs. Ndamukong Suh. There’s some definite history here, dating back to Suh’s years with the Lions as an NFC North rival of the Packers quarterback. Suh was initially suspended for one game (a playoff game) after appearing to intentionally step on Rodgers’ calf in the 2014 regular-season finale that settled the division title at Green Bay. The suspension was reduced to a fine after Suh contended during the appeal that he didn’t realize he stepped on Rodgers because his feet were frozen. Then there was a 2011 game at Detroit when Suh drew a suspension for stomping on then-Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith. More recently, Suh drew a roughing-the-passer flag (wiped out by an intentional grounding penalty) during the Bucs win in Week 6 that included another round of what’s become typical trash-talk between the two. Rodgers contended this week that he doesn’t expect much conversation on Sunday. But that remains to be seen. With the high stakes, Suh, a key cog in Tampa Bay’s No. 1-ranked run defense and still plenty capable of collapsing the pocket from the inside, will be hell-bent on trying to get the NFL’s likely MVP off his game.
Next man up: Darrel Williams. Although Clyde Edwards-Helaire is expected to return from hip and ankle injuries on Sunday, there are natural questions about whether the rookie will return to his previous level of effectiveness — if he holds up. Williams, the third-year pro, is ready in the bullpen. He got the nod over Le’Veon Bell last weekend and responded with 94 yards from scrimmage. And in averaging 6 yards per carry (78 yards, 16 carries), he demonstrated that the ground game can still function without the leading rusher. That could be crucial in a matchup against an inconsistent Buffalo run defense.
Rookie watch: Antoine Winfield Jr. The second-round pick from Minnesota has represented his bloodlines well. Remember, for several years his dad (5-9, 199) was arguably the NFL’s best pound-for-pound cornerback. Now the versatile safety (5-9, 203) is starting to make his own NFL name, with part of the buzz being that he carries himself with a maturity that is advanced for a rookie. During the NFC divisional win at New Orleans, Winfield punched out the forced fumble on Jared Cook that changed the game’s momentum. It added that an impressive regular season (91 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles, 1 recovery, 1 interception) that earned him all-rookie honors from the Pro Football Writers of America.
Stomach for an upset: Bills at Chiefs. The quest for Kansas City to become the NFL’s first repeat champion since the 2003-2004 New England Patriots has included one close call after another, including the divisional playoff win against Cleveland that provided intrigue for Sunday with Mahomes coming off a concussion while dealing with a turf toe injury. Each of Kansas City’s past eight wins have been achieved with one-possession margins, averaging 4.1 points per game during that span. The Chiefs (15-2) have proven so capable of closing out victories, but as three-point underdogs on Sunday the Bills (15-3) are next to take their best shot. And Buffalo brings confidence that comes with an eight-game winning streak. If not for a “Hail Murray” at Arizona in Week 10, it would be a 12-game winning streak. In other words, plenty dangerous.
The Road to Super Bowl 55 goes through… Green Bay. The Bucs are one victory away from becoming the first team to host a Super Bowl in their own stadium, with Super Bowl LV set for Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium. It’s worth noting that they wouldn’t be the first to stay in their home market for the bash. The Los Angeles Rams, who played at the L.A. Coliseum in 1979, fell to the Steelers in XIV at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. And the San Francisco 49ers smacked Miami in XIX at Stanford Stadium — which was actually closer than Candlestick Park was to the team’s 1984 training facility a few miles away in Redwood City. But yeah, upset the Packers and Bucs would finish the season with a true home game.
Did you notice? In falling to the Chiefs in Week 6, the Bills defense allowed a season-high 245 rushing yards as Kansas City ran 46 times. The only other time this season that Buffalo yielded 200 yards on the ground came in its only loss since then (courtesy of DeAndre Hopkins’ last-minute snag of Kyler’s “Hail Murray” pass), the Cardinals ran for 217 yards. The Bills topped the Ravens and Colts despite allowing at least 150 rushing yards in their first two playoff games.
Stat’s the fact: Bills receiver Stefon Diggs, who put up a 100-yard game with a touchdown last weekend against Baltimore, is trying to become just the third receiver to advance to a Super Bowl after leading the league in receiving yards. Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, the last to achieve the feat, is the only person to do it twice (1989, 1994). The first: Drew Pearson (1977), who now happens to be the seniors finalist for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021.