The NFL playoffs have reached the Championship Weekend and just four teams remain - Buffalo and Kansas City in the AFC, and Green Bay and Tampa Bay representing the NFC. Title-winning pennants and a journey to the Super Bowl on February 7 are at stake this coming Sunday, so what might unfold across the two matches in question?
Buffalo Bills (2, 15-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (1, 15-2)
This is a reprise fixture from as long ago as the 1993 season when Marv Levy’s Bills beat Kansas City in this very game and as recently as Week 6, when KC rolled into Buffalo and returned with a 26-17 win.
The Buffalo Bills are one of the few sides who can keep pace with the rate of scoring from a Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs team.
Buffalo are playing their third postseason match under the expanded format, despite earning a number two seeding. Having edged past Indianapolis 27-24, they then hosted and beat Baltimore in a low-scoring 17-3 game played in testing conditions. They now go on the road for Sunday’s showdown.
Kansas City opened their postseason a day later than Buffalo by defeating the surprise participants Cleveland Browns 22-17, albeit at some cost.
A slightly less than full strength KC team had eased their way to top seeding in the second half of the regular season, but were back firing as Patrick Mahomes picked up yardage and found his receivers and the end zone on the way to a comfortable 19-3 half-time lead.
Mahomes then left the game with a concussion, having also picked up a toe injury, and 35-year-old replacement Chad Henne, whose last regular NFL participation was in the 2013 season, just about managed to keep the Browns at bay.
Henne turned in a mixed performance, with his gutsy long third down run and fourth down pass to seal the win being offset by wayward interceptions. Mahomes is expected to play on Sunday, but the downgrade to his backup would swing the line by at least a touchdown. Buffalo provide the sternest possible task for their opponents. They are easily the second best team in the AFC behind KC, and possess an equally exciting MVP candidate in Josh Allen at quarterback (although both Allen and Mahomes are likely to miss out to the NFC’s Aaron Rodgers).
Allen throws as efficiently as Mahomes, gaining nearly a yard per attempt more than the defences he’s faced allow on average, and is also a threat with his feet, taking off for at least one double-digit yardage rush in 10 regular season games.
The Bills are also one of the few sides who can keep pace with the rate of scoring from a Mahomes-led KC. Defensively, each side does better against the pass than the run, but KC are marginally better at keeping points off the board.
Mahomes’ health is an obvious factor and he did also appear to be hampered by his toe injury. However, Allen suffered his poorest performance in the week six defeat to KC, managing a mere 51% pass completion rate that included his lowest yard average per attempt and tossing an interception. The fact that this will be KC’s third Championship game in three seasons could also provide a psychological boost.
Offensive and defensive matchups suggest a game dominated by the hosts. Each side should be able to move the ball both through the air and on the ground, and assuming Mahomes takes the field, KC are favoured by four points in a match featuring a total of 56.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5, 13-5) at Green Bay Packers (1, 14-3)
This is another repeat fixture from the regular season. In their last meeting, Tampa hosted and trounced a Green Bay team coming off their bye week 38-10 to inflict a rare blot on the Packers’ top seed winning schedule.
Opponents who have rushed for an average of 4.4 yards per carry manage only 3.5 against Tampa.
Aaron Rodgers was left without a touchdown, passing for just 4.5 yards per attempt and enduring a 45% completion rate, while being intercepted twice and sacked four times. It was the quarterback’s worst performance since a Week 15 trip to Buffalo in 2014.
That was an exception to a season where MVP candidate Rodgers has rolled back the years. He’s passed for over 8 yards per attempt, turned in a 71% completion rate, found the end zone in every game bar the Tampa defeat, and has been intercepted just five times in total. He also adds a couple of useful runs per game and almost half of the 20 sacks he has taken have come in the two games against Tampa and the Carolina Panthers.
In keeping with all the remaining Super Bowl contenders, Green Bay possess a productive and balanced offence.
Rodgers doesn’t quite match the efficiency of his younger AFC rivals, but he still passes for half a yard per attempt further than the average for the defences he’s faced. An NFL-leading running offence provides a potent offensive mix, and the Pack generate half a yard per rushing attempt above par. Overall, their scoring rate comes close to that achieved by their three Super Bowl rivals.
Defensively, they are better against the pass than the run and scoring against them is difficult. In half of their regular season games, the opposition has scored 20 points or fewer and Green Bay are becoming more difficult to score against down the stretch.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady has reached the NFC Championship game at his first attempt, having dominated the AFC during his time at New England.
The showdown against fellow veteran Drew Brees in the Divisional round failed to live up to the hype. Brady was merely functional, as the number two seeds New Orleans Saints gifted Tampa three short fields from interceptions and a fumble that Brady converted into 21 of Tampa’s 30 points.
Outside of short fields, Tampa had to exist on a diet of field goals and punts, and winning the turnover contest isn’t a reliably sustainable route to emerging victorious from this game. Brady is now 43, and his yards per attempt and completion, interception and touchdown rates are each a level below those achieved by Rodgers, a deficiency that has continued into the postseason.
Defensively, Tampa’s run defence is the jewel of the remaining sides. Opponents who have rushed for an average of 4.4 yards per carry manage only 3.5 against Tampa, and they’ll hope this matchup can push Rodgers into longer yardage passing plays.
Both teams should be able to pass the ball with above average efficiency, but will struggle on the ground. Green Bay’s home advantage could prove pivotal, especially as this match also represents Tampa’s third road trip in three weeks.
Green Bay are favoured by five points in a match predicted to witness a total of 54.