Sports

NFL Conference Championships Preview

Mike O’Brien ‘23

Chief Sports Editor

And then there were four. On this weekend’s Championship Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will square off against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field for the NFC crown, while the reigning Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs will play host to the Buffalo Bills at Arrowhead Stadium for the AFC title. 

Each team’s road to the Conference Championship has been quite the remarkable one. With a first round bye in hand, the Packers hosted the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round, in a game that was billed to see the league’s top offense against the league’s top defense, and more specifically the matchup between arguably the league’s best at their respective positions; Green Bay receiver DaVante Adams vs. Los Angeles cornerback Jalen Ramsey. While the old adage is that “defense wins championships,” the Packers offense proved too hot to handle; DaVante Adams seemingly got the best of Ramsey with nine catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Aaron Rodgers played exceptionally well in a season where he is the presumed MVP winner, and Green Bay sent Los Angeles packing by a final score of 32-18. 

The AFC’s top team, the Kansas City Chiefs, didn’t have such an easy time against their Divisional Round opponent in a game that was chock full of drama. With a lead of just 19-10 in the third quarter against the heavy underdog Cleveland Browns, who had just won their first playoff game in 25 years, star quarterback Patrick Mahomes went down with a scary injury, in what was speculated to be a possible concussion. Enter Chad Henne, the Chiefs’ veteran backup quarterback who was drafted when Patrick Mahomes was just 13 years old. After the Browns started a comeback effort, trimming the Chiefs’ lead down to just 22-17, Kansas City faced a long 3rd and 14 with two minutes left while the Browns had no timeouts. A conversion wins the game. With the risk of giving the ball back to the Browns for a game winning drive if they didn’t convert, Henne escaped the pocket and rushed for 12 and a half yards. The safe play would be to run the clock down, call a timeout, punt the ball, and live with the decision if the Browns could march 80 yards for the game winning touchdown with no timeouts of their own. But Chiefs head coach Andy Reid doesn’t compromise. 

Reid sent the offense back on the field for a massive 4th and inches call; in the shotgun formation. Which practically showed the offenses’s hand that there would be no power run to get those crucial inches. Henne snapped the ball, rolled out to his right, and found Tyreek Hill on an out route for the game winning conversion. The Browns quite literally gave the Chiefs everything they could handle, but better coaching proved to be superior yet again. No matter how far the Chiefs go from this point forward, Chad Henne made himself a household name in Kansas City with this game. As of now, Mahomes is expected to play on Sunday, but if not, it’s possible we may see some more Henne magic.

Back in the NFC, one veteran quarterback who has slightly more career accolades than Chad Henne that led his team to the Conference Championship goes by the name of Tom Brady. Before the season kicked off, many wondered how the new-look Buccaneers would gel together and if Father Time would catch up to Tom Brady; and here we are. After a formidable challenge from the Washington Football Team in the Wild Card round by a score of 31-23, the Bucs were set to play the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees at the Superdome in Louisiana. The past was a huge theme heading into this game.. The Saints had the Buccaneers’ number in the regular season, beating them twice by scores of 34-23 and a 38-3 pummeling. Additionally, it was largely believed that these playoffs would be Brees’ final stint with the Saints, so this would be the last ever matchup between these two Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The New Orleans offense had the Tampa defense on the ropes in both regular season games; but in their Divisional Round matchup, this was not the case. 

In what proved to be Drew Brees’ final game ever, he certainly did not go out the way he wanted. Tampa’s defense was all over the Saints’ offensive scheme, holding Brees to just 134 passing yards and intercepting him three times. The cherry on top was that Drew Brees’ final pass as an NFL player was one of those interceptions. Although he was playing through injury, the Bucs’ defense held star wide receiver Michael Thomas to zero catches for zero yards. Generating four total turnovers, the Tampa defense learned from their failures in their first two games against New Orleans, giving the Buccaneers offense great field position on multiple occasions to score points. With all the respect in the world to Drew Brees, it seems that Father Time was the one to claim his play, rather than Brady’s.

Lastly, we head to Orchard Park in Buffalo, where somebody has probably broken another folding table by the time I’m finishing up writing this sentence. After a very tightly contested 27-24 Wild Card game win over the Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo hosted the red hot Baltimore Ravens, whose rushing offense was putting up historic numbers. After struggling with Indy in the Wild Card, I thought the Ravens would ride on their momentum and be able to pull off the road upset. But I was sorely mistaken. Although the Buffalo offense only scored 10 points, their defense was outstanding, holding the Ravens to just three points, including returning a Lamar Jackson interception back 101 yards for a touchdown. Although just one Bills offensive player scored a touchdown (that player being wide receiver Steffon Diggs,) he was certainly the man for the occasion. After leading the NFL in receiving yards during the regular season, Diggs was the best player on the Bills offense yet again, torching the Ravens defense for 106 receiving yards and a touchdown. The combination of Diggs’ play along with the rock solid defense sent the Bills to their first Conference Championship appearance since 1993. 

Photo courtesy of Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports

Packers vs. Buccaneers

Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers. How is this the first time these legends are meeting in the playoffs? Granted, each quarterback played in opposite conferences for their entire careers before this season, but it’s still strange to think we never got a Super Bowl matchup between these two generational talents. When they met earlier in the season, the Buccaneers trounced the Packers by a score of 38-10. But, this may have been a case of a “fluke” game in the NFL, as Green Bay never looked that weak again for the rest of the season, finishing with a 13-3 record and earning the NFC’s #1 seed for the playoffs. The difference of skill between these two teams is marginal. Both offenses are absolutely loaded with perennial quarterback talents at the helm, and the defenses have proven to be clutch when it matters. At the end of the day, I’m buying into the fact that the Packers are “due” for another Super Bowl appearance. Tom Brady already has six rings compared to Rogers’ one; along with Rodgers’ inevitable MVP coming, he wants another Super Bowl appearance to add to his resume. Although I can see the Buccaneers winning this game, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have gone without a Super Bowl bid longer than Brady. After getting blown out in the NFC Championship game last year, the Packers, this time at home, should come out firing on all cylinders behind their explosive offense. The Packers win this game by a razor thin score of 30-28. 

Chiefs vs. Bills

Simply, the name of this game comes down to whether Patrick Mahomes plays or not. The Bills defense absolutely stifled a former unanimous MVP in Lamar Jackson and will make quick work of Chad Henne if Mahomes stays on the sideline. But, with injury reports leaning towards Mahomes playing, let’s assume he suits up for Sunday. Therefore, advantage Chiefs. After finishing the season at a phenomenal 14-2 (with a possibility for 15-1 if they didn’t rest starters in the final game of the regular season,) Mahomes and the Chiefs have proven to be one of the most clutch teams in the league. They won down 24-0 vs. the Texans in the Divisional Round in last year’s playoffs. They won down 10-0 vs. the Titans in last year’s AFC Championship. They won down 20-10 vs. the 49ers in last year’s Super Bowl. Whatever it is, with Mahomes under center, the Chiefs have a knack for late drama. If Mahomes comes out looking shaky, which he may be coming off of the hit he suffered against the Browns, the Bills may punch them in the mouth early; but it will be far from over. Patrick Mahomes looks like he is on the cusp of becoming the face of the NFL, if he isn’t already, and another come from behind victory to win the AFC for the Chiefs would seal that. If Mahomes plays, watch for Kansas City to be down early, but they will fight through adversity and beat Buffalo by a final score of 31-27. However, if Mahomes does not play, Buffalo will trounce the Chiefs and head to the Super Bowl.

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