The NFL playoffs conference championship games are here, and both start on Sunday. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the fifth seed will play against the Green Bay Packers with the highest seed in the NFC Championship game, and the Buffalo Bills with the second seed will play the Kansas City Chiefs with the first seed in the AFC Championship Game. The winners will join the Super Bowl LV on February 7th.
We watch both title games. Our NFL Nation reporters bring us the keys to the games, a bold prediction for each matchup, and the final results.
In addition, ESPN Stats & Information provides statistics that are known for each game, and the Football Power Index (FPI) includes a matchup rating (on a scale from 1 to 100) and a game projection. ESPN Chalk’s Dave Bearman hands out helpful nuggets, and NFL analyst Matt Bowen points out an important matchup that will also be featured. It’s all here to prepare you for an exciting weekend of NFL playoff football.
Jump to a matchup:
TB-GB | BUF-KC
3:05 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 96.3 | Spread:: GB -3 (51.5)
What to look out for: If there was something to complain about in Matt LaFleur’s hugely successful two-year run as a Packers trainer, it may be a slow step to adjust. When these teams met in Week 6, Bucs was playing zone coverage on 61% of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ dropbacks, and Rodgers had his only multi-interception game that season. And in general, the more teams have played Rodgers in the past two years, the better off they’ve done. LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett know what is coming in terms of coverage and how they plan it will determine their success against a tough defense in Tampa Bay. – Rob Demovsky
Courageous prediction: The game-winning touchdown pass from Buccaneer’s quarterback Tom Brady will not be awarded to recipients Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown (out) or Scotty Miller, Rob Gronkowski or Cameron Brate or Ronald Jones II or Leonard Fournette. No, it will go to recipient Tyler Johnson. The Minnesota round five rookie only had one catch against the Saints last week, but that 15-yard spinning grab on the perimeter was masterful. The only reason we don’t talk about Johnson anymore is because of the depth map he’s buried on. He has a knack for difficult catches in high pressure situations and will do it again on Sunday. – Jenna Laine
Stat of knowing: The two biggest factors in Brady’s performance throughout the season were pressure and vertical play. With 13 wins during the season (including playoffs), he averaged 1.1 bags per game, saw pressure on 14% of his dropbacks, and posted a QBR of 82. With five losses, the bags rose to 2.2 per game, his pressure rate rose to 27% and his QBR almost split in half (44). As for the deep ball, consider the following: on passes thrown more than 20 yards down in that 18-game period, it scored 45% for 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions on wins, but only 21% for one single score and five picks in the losses.
Bowen’s Matchup Keys: How will Tampa Bay keep Packers wide receiver Davante Adams at bay? It will begin at the Frontier in Cover 1, where Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis tries to use his length and physical characteristics to disrupt Adams’ release. If he can’t, Davis ‘lack of recovery speed compared to Adams’ sudden ability to part ways will mean trouble for the Bucs. Continue reading.
What is at stake: A win for the Buccaneers would be the first non-division champion to make the Super Bowl since the Packers 2010. It would also make Brady’s 10th Super Bowl appearance, which spanned three decades. Rodgers only played in one Super Bowl, however. And after losing his last three NFC Championship Game appearances and finishing his career 3-1 in that game, Rodgers tries to avoid becoming just the third QB who has less than two wins and more than three losses on conference titles- Matchups (Ken Stabler) and Donovan McNabb are both 1-4).
Injuries: Privateer | packer
Betting nugget: Brady is 9-4 straight and 6-7 against the spread in conference championship games. The under is 8-5 in these matchups, including 7-2 in his last nine. Continue reading.
Domonique Foxworth predicts who will have a bigger day in the NFC Championship game between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
Laine’s choice: Buccaneer 26, Packer 24
Demovsky’s choice: Packer 31, privateer 17
FPI prediction: GB, 53.2% (average 1.1 points)
Home audience: Last week’s playoff game at Lambeau Field drew 8,456 spectators. With potentially more guests from both teams’ players and coaches to the stadium this week, stadium attendance is expected to range from 8,500 to 9,000. That’s roughly 10-11% of the 81,441 capacity at Lambeau.
Matchup must be read: Finally Rodgers vs. Brady: Within the playoff matchup for 13 years … “Too much information” never enough for Packers’ dominant offense … Crowning achievement: Packers recipients prove once and for all worthy … Bucs have beaten Rodgers before but does the formula change? … Rodgers, feeling no extra pressure, says his future is a “nice secret” … Bucs enters the NFC title game without WR Brown
6:40 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 92.3 | Spread:: KC-3 (53.5)
What to look out for: Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes says he has cleared the concussion protocol and will play on Sunday, a huge boost to the Kansas City offense. But the Chiefs’ running game will also be something to watch out for. Kansas City rushed to a season high of 245 yards against Buffalo in Week 6 when the Bills jeopardized their securities on many snapshots and were determined not to let Tyreek Hill and other receivers hit them deep. This time they will certainly change their strategies, but at what cost? The Chiefs only had one more than 22 yards passing game against the Bills last time. Can the bills effectively slow down the Chiefs’ ongoing game while limiting the number of big-pass games? – Adam Teicher
Courageous prediction: Bill’s quarterback Josh Allen will cross 350 yards and wide receiver Stefon Diggs will spin 100 yards with a touchdown for his third straight game. And a little more courageously, the Bills will not only win, but also clearly outperform the Chiefs in their own backyard and beat Buffalo’s first ticket to the Super Bowl since the 1993 season. – Marcel Louis-Jacques
Stat of knowing: Bills have dropped 73% of the time this postseason, and only one team has ever hit a conference title game that goes by more frequently – the 2015 Patriots (83%), who lost in the AFC Championship Game this season. Buffalo won last week with just 32 rushing yards – the fourth-smallest in a playoff win according to the Elias Sports Bureau – and Allen is currently leading the team with 57 yards in two postseason games on site. The bills averaged 64.0 rushing yards per game this season, less than all but one team to ever make the Super Bowl. The 1999 rams averaged 41.0.
Bowen’s Matchup Keys: Make sure the Chiefs defense shows pressure and turns late to play cover 2 “Robbers”, certainly tyrant Mathieu as defender of the center hole. This allows the Chiefs to get Allen to work with late moves after snapping, but it also allows Kansas City to play zone coverage with Mathieu, who is in the weed as a presence in the middle of the field to steal a burglar . Continue reading.
What is at stake: The Chiefs aim to become the first repeat Super Bowl champions since the 2003-04 Patriots, ending the longest stretch in NFL history without a repeat champion. You’re the 12th defending Super Bowl champion to host a conference championship, and the previous 11 teams went 10-1 (only the 1990 49ers lost). The Bills, meanwhile, are attempting to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since their defeat in the 1990-93 seasons. They haven’t won a title since the 1965 AFL Championship and their 4-0 record in Super Bowls is linked to the Vikings for most non-win appearances.
Injuries: Invoices | Bosses | Mahomes broke free to play
Betting nugget: The Chiefs are 1-8 against the spread in their last nine games (8-1 straight) and they are 0-5 against the spread in their last five at home. Continue reading.
Louis-Jacques’ choice: Bills 31, bosses 28
Teicher’s choice: Bosses 27, bills 22
FPI prediction: KC, 58.3% (average 2.7 points)
Rob Ninkovich says putting pressure on Patrick Mahomes is key to the bills.
Home audience: The Chiefs have kept their attendance at Arrowhead Stadium (76,416 total capacity) at or below 22% this season, with the largest crowd going against the Browns (16,730) last week. Expect a similar number in the AFC Championship Game.
Matchup must be read: Bills can justify trading Mahome’s pick by making it to the Super Bowl … For Chiefs’ Reid ‘every relegation is a blow, even the fourth and first … How bad is Davis’ ankle injury? Biggest questions in AFC title game … Mahomes says he cleared the concussion log and cleared Sunday’s game