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NFL Recap: Previewing the Conference Championship teams

Mike Tanier previews the four teams who will be competing for an appearance in this year’s Super Bowl.

No “pretender” ever reaches the NFL’s Conference Championship Games. The final four of the Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all offer stacked offenses, opportunistic defenses, and two generations worth of outstanding quarterbacks. NFL Recap kicks the upcoming games off with a Championship Week tale of the tape.

The defending Super Bowl champions. The perennial bridesmaids who were once brides long ago. The new kids on the block. And the living legend hoping to go out a winner, if he ever goes out. But which team really has the best of the best? The best receivers? Offensive line? PUNTER???? Who is best equipped to move on to Super Bowl LV?

Note: You can view the PFN team talking about the Conference Championship Round in the video above. Don’t forget to visit and subscribe to the PFN YouTube Channel for more videos like this.

NFL Championship Week, the best offensive players

Best Running Backs: Green Bay Packers

This was a fine postseason for the “Running Backs Don’t Matter” crowd — there’s no Derrick Henry, rookie sensation Jonathan Taylor, or even a do-it-all Alvin Kamara among the final four. Aaron Jones may be third fiddle to Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, but he finished fourth in the NFL with 1,104 rushing yards, averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and is clearly the best running back still standing.

Packers backup running back Jamaal Williams is experienced and dependable, and rookie battering ram A.J. Dillon has flashed potential. Neither is anything special, but frankly, Le’Veon Bell and Leonard Fournette are not all that special, either.

Best Wide Receivers: Kansas City Chiefs

Tom Brady’s Howling Commandos have the big names and the depth. Davante Adams and Stefon Diggs are the two best all-around wide receivers.

Yet, Tyreek Hill forces opponent’s safeties to play 20 yards deep, while tight end Travis Kelce commands (and often schools) cornerbacks in coverage. Throw in Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, and Demarcus Robinson, and the Chiefs receivers force opponents to rewrite their defensive game plans, scrap many of their favorite coverages, and basically play a glorified version of prevent for 60 minutes per game.

Best Offensive Line: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The best ability is availability, and when mid-January arrives, the best offensive line is the healthiest offensive line. The Packers might have taken this prize with left tackle David Bakhtiari in the lineup, but he’s not. The Buccaneers’ opening-day starters Donovan Smith, Tristan Wirfs, Ryan Jensen, and Ali Marpet are still in the lineup and playing well, which is one low-key reason why Tom Brady is still in the playoffs.

NFL Championship Week, the best defensive players

Best Pass Rush: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Per Sports Info Solutions, the Buccaneers finished second to the Pittsburgh Steelers with 311 pressures in the 2020 regular season, second to the Steelers again with 173 hits on opposing quarterbacks, and second to the Chiefs (who have far fewer sacks) with 193 hurries.

Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, blitz-happy linebacker Devin White, secret weapon William Gholston, and others give the Buccaneers a pass rush that is every bit as star-studded as their receiving corps. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles keeps the heat turned up with constant blitzes.

Best Secondary: Buffalo Bills

Tre’Davious White is the shutdown corner. Micah Hyde is the Swiss Army knife. Jordan Poyer is the unsung hero. Taron Johnson is the easy-to-overlook big-play machine. Josh Norman is the veteran who is not as washed up as you think he is. If these guys cannot stop the Chiefs receivers, no one can. Which is a nice way of saying that no one can stop the Chiefs receivers. However, the Buffalo secondary could slow them down a little.

Special Teams Superstars

Best Kicker: Mason Crosby, Green Bay Packers

Crosby was 16 of 16 on field goals this season (4 of 4 from 50-plus yards) and has more playoff experience than the other three kickers combined.

Best Punter: Corey Bojorquez, Buffalo Bills

Bojorquez led the NFL with 50.8 gross yards per punt, tied for the fourth-highest figure in NFL history.

Best Returner: Andre Roberts, Buffalo Bills

Yes, the Chiefs’ Mecole Hardman is dangerous, and Tyreek Hill could sneak onto the field to return a punt if the Chiefs really need a big play. However, Roberts is a three-time Pro Bowl returner who led the league with 30.0 yards per kickoff return in 2020 and has returned five kickoffs or punts for touchdowns in his career. He’s the most dangerous return man for NFL Championship Week.

Things you want on your side in the NFL Championship Games

Best Weird Little Intangible: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Buccaneers’ receivers were the beneficiaries of 24 pass interference penalties, which appears to be an all-time record based on the data at NFL Penalties and Football Outsiders. Is Tom Brady getting “legend calls?” Are Mike Evans and company that hard to cover? Does the Atlanta Falcons defense have anything to do with this? Whatever the case, it’s one more little factor lurking in the background of the Buccaneers’ success.

Best Coach: Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs

Kevin Stefanski of the Cleveland Browns is a popular choice for 2020 NFL Coach of the Year, yet Reid taught him some valuable life lessons on Sunday. While Stefanski played it safe, Andy Reid showed staggering confidence in backup quarterback Chad Henne, ordering bold plays in what most coaches would consider an obvious kill-the-clock-and-punt situation.

Reid stresses opponents for four quarters the way no other coach in history has — not even Bill Belichick at Tom Brady’s peak. Reid’s daring ideas don’t always work, but they always put him in position to dictate terms to his opponents. And, of course, Reid knows his aggressiveness works in big games because he has been in far more of them as a head coach than any of the others still standing. He’ll use his wily wisdom to his team’s advantage for NFL Championship Week.

Best player at the most important position

Best Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Even if Patrick Mahomes didn’t leave Sunday’s Kansas City Chiefs victory over the Cleveland Browns with a concussion, Rodgers is the better quarterback at this moment. Rodgers led the NFL in touchdowns (48), completion rate (70.7%), interception rate (1.0%), quarterback rating (121.5), and Football Outsiders DVOA (33.7%) in 2020. Rodgers has thrown 21 touchdowns and just 1 interception in his last seven games.

Aaron Rodgers may be enjoying a Tom Brady-like late stage in his career. Brady went through a great-but-not-outstanding stretch in the early 2010s. He then kicked back into hyperdrive around 2015, leading the Patriots on another Super Bowl spree.

Brady is the greatest quarterback of all-time, Mahomes may be destined to be the greatest quarterback of the current generation, and Josh Allen is the best quarterback you ever thought was hot garbage six months ago. Rodgers is the best-equipped quarterback among the final four to take his team to Super Bowl LV.

AFC Championship Preview: Kansas City Chiefs

NFL Champoinship Week Games Preview: The Best of the Best

The Kansas City Chiefs will host the AFC Championship Game for the third consecutive year. Before we preview their AFC Championship bout against the Buffalo Bills, it’s important to note what happened on Sunday. That’s because the Chiefs’ 22-17 victory on Sunday over the Cleveland Browns in the Divisional Round of the playoffs was costly.

Patrick Mahomes, already gimpy from an early-game foot injury, was knocked out in the third quarter with a concussion. Mahomes will likely play on Sunday — it is the AFC Championship Game, after all — but he may be limited. And the Chiefs have little margin for error. The Buffalo Bills team they face next week is much better, and much more self-assured, than the team they defeated 26-17 in Week 6 of the regular season.

Here’s the NFL Recap breakdown and preview of the Kansas City Chiefs as they prepare to host Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, January 24th at 6:40 PM.

AFC Championship Preview: Kansas City Chiefs

How the Kansas City Chiefs got here

The Chiefs courted disaster throughout the first half against the Browns in this Divisional Round playoff. They settled for field goals, missed field goals, and received a huge break when Rashard Higgins fumbled a long reception into the end zone for a touchback. Disaster then struck when Mahomes’ head was driven to the turf on a designed option run.

The Browns came back as Chad Henne struggled to move the offense, but the Chiefs forced the Browns to punt with 4:09 to play. Two gutsy plays in the final moments — a 13-yard scramble by Henne on 3rd-and-14 and a shocking short pass to Tyreek Hill when conventional wisdom dictated that Andy Reid would merely run down the clock and punt — iced the game for the Chiefs, keeping their playoff hopes alive.

We expect Patrick Mahomes to play, but will he?

Mahomes began Sunday’s game his usual unstoppable self. Then he was shaky after the foot injury (he didn’t look comfortable stepping into his throws, resulting in some low sliders), and then he was out due to the concussion.

Here’s a sense of what a slightly gimpy Patrick Mahomes looks like. He played hurt through October of the 2019 season with a left ankle injury (not to be confused with the dislocated right knee that forced him to miss time). In that time, he averaged just 223.3 yards per game, a 60.0% completion rate, 7.9 yards per attempt, and just five touchdowns with one interception (plus five sacks) in three games. Two of those games were Kansas City losses.

The Chiefs need a better Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game than the one we saw last October.

Kansas City Chiefs’ weapons

You know these guys.

Tyreek Hill is the Cheetah. He’s essentially a glitch, etc. Travis Kelce is the best route-running tight end in the NFL and would probably rank among the top five route runners at wide receiver. He was last seen knotting Browns cornerback Denzel Ward’s ankles with some sick cuts on Sunday. Mecole Hardman is nearly as fast as Hill. Sammy Watkins could return from a calf injury next week. He would be the top receiver on many teams but is the third or fourth option in the Chiefs passing game.

Rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who rushed for 161 yards against the Bills in Week 6, should return from hip and ankle injuries next week. The Chiefs’ Darrel Williams rushed for 78 yards in the playoff victory over the Browns on Sunday. Le’Veon Bell is also on the roster in LeSean McCoy’s old role of “well-known veteran running back who doesn’t really do much except foul up people’s DFS stacks.”

Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive line

The Chiefs have been forced to cobble together their offensive line for much of the year due to injuries. Right tackle Mike Remmers, who replaced injured Mitchell Schwartz early in the season, was forced to play through an illness and take on Myles Garrett on Sunday. Remmers performed well against Garrett, who himself played most of the game hurt.

The patchwork line gets a break because opponents are forced to play on their heels and blitz at their own risk against Mahomes. But the Chiefs ranked 32nd in short-yardage rushing success in the regular season, per Football Outsiders. It’s a sign that their line can get pushed around at the point of attack. Those short-yardage struggles also explain why Mahomes was running a speed option on a bad foot on 3rd-and-short on Sunday.

Kansas City Chiefs’ defense

Defensive tackle Chris Jones, defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, and nine guys named Charvarius Ward.

OK, that’s a little snarky. But the Chiefs have an NBA style defense. They’re designed to force sacks and turnovers when the opponent is racing to catch up. Toe-to-toe, down-and-distance defense is not the Chiefs’ strong suit. Although they did come up big in the fourth quarter on Sunday, forcing the Browns to burn clock and timeouts by keeping plays in front of them and making rugged tackles.

Kansas City Chiefs’ special teams

Harrison Butker missed six extra points in the regular season, although he was 25-of-27 on field goals. Butker missed an extra point and a field goal against the Browns. Missed extra points are just one of those little unforced errors the Chiefs commit that allow opponents to linger in games.

The Kansas City Chiefs can beat the Buffalo Bills if…

Mahomes is operating at 75% capacity or better. The Chiefs need to make slightly fewer than their weekly allotment of self-inflicted mistakes as well.

The Kansas City Chiefs will lose to the Buffalo Bills if…

They settle for field goals or miss extra points. The Chiefs cannot allow easy short-yardage conversions or a touchdown on every Buffalo red zone trip.

They simply cannot lose the penalty battle and make all the other little mistakes they get away with when facing inferior opponents like the Denver Broncos, or the Cleveland Browns. Truthfully, it’s a battle they can afford to lose against any opponent except the Bills and whomever the Chiefs will face if they reach the Super Bowl. As good as they are, the Chiefs can ill afford mental mistakes this deep into the playoffs.

Bottom Line

Assuming Mahomes is good to go, this is the rematch we deserve for the AFC Championship. Two great young quarterbacks leading explosive offenses. The Chiefs are the superior team in most areas, but it’s close. Home-field advantage and Super Bowl experience gives them an edge, but not a massive one.

The betting line opened at Chiefs -1 and jumped quickly to Chiefs -2.5 (as of about 7:00 PM on Sunday night at NFL Recap’s favorite sportsbook app). That’s an early sign in this AFC Championship preview that this is no cakewalk for the Chiefs.

In addition, it’s a sign that the house may have a busy week as Mahomes’ health situation evolves. Like the house, Recap favors the Chiefs. Recap, however, is reluctant to over-commit to them against an opponent that might just have what it takes to beat them at their own game.

Early Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs defeat Buffalo Bills

The AFC Championship Game Preview: Buffalo Bills

AFC Championship Game Preview: Buffalo Bills

The last time the Buffalo Bills reached the AFC Championship Game of the playoffs was after the 1993 season. Jim Kelly was their quarterback that year, Thurman Thomas the running back, Andre Reed the top wide receiver, and Marv Levy the head coach. The team was on its way to a fourth straight Super Bowl loss.

27 years later, Josh Allen is the quarterback. Stefon Diggs is his top weapon, and Sean McDermott’s 2020 Bills are in position to become perennial contenders like their early-90s counterparts. Of course, McDermott would also like to win a Super Bowl or two, unlike those Bills teams of yesteryear.

The first step will be getting there, and the defending NFL champions stand in their way. Here’s the NFL Recap breakdown of the Buffalo Bills as they prepare to face Patrick Mahomes (?) and the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, January 24th at 6:40 PM.

AFC Championship Game Preview: Buffalo Bills

How the Buffalo Bills got here

The Bills survived a gritty, blustery, somewhat messy 17-3 defensive duel with the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Thanks in large part to Taron Johnson’s 101-yard return of a third-quarter Lamar Jackson goal-line interception. The Bills are now on an eight-game winning streak. Even more impressively, they’ve won all but one of those games (last week’s 27-24 Wild Card round victory over the Indianapolis Colts) by 10 or more points.

Josh Allen toughens through windy conditions

Every week brings a new test for Allen as he climbs into the ranks of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.

On Saturday night, he overcame both a tight Baltimore defense and a stiff wind that briefly brought back the old Captain Overthrow version of Allen in the first quarter. Allen was just 23 of 37 passing, but he didn’t turn the ball over (despite one mishandled snap). He moved the offense just well enough to lead one crisp touchdown drive and give the Bills a field position edge throughout the game.

Sometimes, you learn more about a quarterback when everything isn’t going his way than when he’s lighting up the stat sheets and highlight reels.

Buffalo Bills’ weapons

Stefon Diggs is the NFL’s best route runner. He led the league in receptions (127) and yards (1,535) and has 14 catches for 234 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Bills’ two playoff games.

Cole Beasley is one of the league’s most reliable targets over the short middle of the field. John Brown, who was injured for much of the second half of the season, is a speedy boundary threat. He did his part on Saturday night by catching eight receptions against the Ravens. Isaiah McKenzie is a slot jitterbug who can cause real problems when matched up against the opponent’s fourth-best cover corner.

Devin Singletary and Zack Moss form a standard-issue running back committee. Tight end Dawson Knox is more of a blocker than a receiving threat.

Buffalo Bills’ offensive line

The Bills’ offensive line allowed just seven sacks in their final seven regular season games before allowing a (still solid) two sacks each against the Colts and Ravens in the playoffs. Tackles Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams played nearly every snap this season, as did center Mitch Morse.

Buffalo Bills’ defense

The Bills’ defense was leaky early in the season, particularly against the run. Young players like defensive tackles Vernon Butler and Ed Oliver, along with linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, have improved as the season wore on, however. There are still plenty of soft spots in the Bills’ defensive front. Buffalo ranked sixth in the NFL with 127 missed tackles and 27th with just a 7.9% hurry rate, per Pro Football Reference.

Cornerback Tre’Davious White leads one of the NFL’s best secondaries. He’s supported by all-purpose safety Micah Hyde, slot cornerback/Saturday’s hero Taron Johnson, and veteran Josh Norman. Norman has had a better season than the Derrick Henry meme would lead you to believe.

Buffalo Bills’ special teams

Andre Roberts led the NFL with 30.0 yards per kickoff return. He sparked the lone Buffalo touchdown drive on Saturday by returning a kickoff to the 34-yard line. Rookie kicker Tyler Bass had not missed a field goal since Week 9 before missing a pair against the Ravens. In his defense, it came on a night so windy that even Justin Tucker looked like Blair Walsh.

The Buffalo Bills can beat the Kansas City Chiefs if…

Their defense limits big plays, and their offense makes the most of any unforced errors by the Chiefs. Allen can win a shootout with a wobbly, gimpy Patrick Mahomes if the Chiefs have one of those games where they lose two touchdowns to holding penalties and fail to convert on 4th-and-inches because they tried to run the Statue of Liberty play.

The Buffalo Bills will lose to the Kansas City Chiefs if…

They attempt to do what they did in their 26-17 loss in Week 6. That is, play so conservatively on both sides of the ball that it nerfs all the things that make Allen special. Andy Reid showed the Cleveland Browns in the fourth quarter on Sunday what the Chiefs do to opponents who get too conservative.

Bottom Line

NFL Recap assumes that Patrick Mahomes (concussion, foot) will play in the AFC Championship Game. Whether Mahomes will be close to 100 percent is anyone’s guess. The Bills have a passing game that’s almost explosive enough to keep pace with a fully armed and operational Mahomes. In addition, they have a secondary almost good enough to slow down Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and the rest.

Two “almosts” rarely equal an upset. Even if Mahomes isn’t at full speed and strength, there’s a slim chance that the Bills can leverage just enough advantages (special teams, a defensive front that could push around the banged-up Chiefs’ offensive line, etc.) to pull off an upset.

Early Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs defeat the Buffalo Bills

NFC Championship Preview: Green Bay Packers

NFL Playoff Picks, Predictions, & Best Bets Against the Spread for the Conference Championship Round

The Green Bay Packers are facing an opposing quarterback who has a wee bit of experience when it comes to playoff success and reaching Super Bowls. Here’s the NFL Recap breakdown of the Packers as they prepare to host Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game, scheduled for Sunday, January 24th at 3:05 PM.

Aaron Rodgers has led the Green Bay Packers to the playoffs nine times and the NFC Championship four times in his career, but he hasn’t led them to the Super Bowl since 2010. Yet the 2020 Packers look different from the teams that came up short repeatedly over the past decade. It’s a more efficient Rodgers, a more creative coaching staff, a more aggressive organizational mindset, maybe even some increased urgency. So perhaps the results will be different, too.

Conference Championship Preview, NFC: Green Bay Packers

How the Green Bay Packers got here

Saturday’s 32-18 victory over the Los Angeles Rams wasn’t quite as close as the score. The Packers took a 16-3 lead midway through the second quarter and then held the Rams at arm’s length for the rest of the game. They have not lost since the Indianapolis Colts defeated them 34-31 in overtime in Week 11.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers

This year’s version of Rodgers is more likely to play within head coach Matt LaFleur’s system and less likely to demand to speak to the manager after a receiver drops a pass than in the past.

Rodgers has become a more willing and effective short passer this season. Yet, he can still do all the things that make him a surefire Hall of Famer, from delivering pinpoint dimes 40 yards down the field to going into hurry-up mode to draw penalties (or assignment errors) when he catches the defense taking its time with substitutions.

Green Bay Packers’ weapons

Running back Aaron Jones had a quiet statistical season (“only” 1,104 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns) but put the Rams defense through the spin cycle on Saturday with 165 scrimmage yards and 2 touchdowns. Jones remains among the NFL’s best — and least heralded — all-purpose backs.

Related | Aaron Jones Free Agency Outlook 2021: Where will he play in 2021?

Davante Adams may be the NFL’s best all-around receiver. He got the better of Rams All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey (after the two were separated for some pregame chirping) with 9 catches for 66 yards and one short touchdown. Adams led the NFL in receiving touchdowns and finished second to Keenan Allen with 26 third-down conversions.

Robert Tonyan is Rodgers’ best weapon at tight end since Jermichael Finley. Tonyan is a fine red zone alternative to Jones and Adams (7 red zone touchdowns). He has big-play capability and provides Rodgers with a much-needed target he has actual confidence in.

The best that can be said about Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, and the rest of the Rodgers Dissatisfaction Brigade is that if Rodgers throws two perfect touchdown passes to any of them, there’s a high probability that at least one will be completed.

Green Bay Packers’ offensive line

All-purpose lineman Billy Turner has held his own at left tackle in relief of injured perennial Pro Bowler David Bakhtiari. That’s despite both the Rams and the Chicago Bears (in Week 17) doing everything they could to attack Turner. LaFleur and his staff have done a great job maintaining continuity despite having to shift linemen among various positions throughout the season. Rodgers’ experience, pocket presence, and mobility have also helped a smidge.

Green Bay Packers’ defense

At their best, Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith apply consistent pressure. Cornerback Jaire Alexander shuts down one side of the field, and everyone else does just enough to prevent big plays and preserve leads. At their worst, coordinator Mike Pettine gets too cute, drops Preston Smith into coverage for inexplicable reasons. He exposes the weaknesses of a linebacker corps that couldn’t cover a pot if you set them loose in a lid factory.

We’ve seen much more of the good Packers defense than the bad one lately. It helps that the Packers were in the lead for an average of 38 minutes and 48 seconds per game during the regular season, the highest figure in the NFL. It’s easy to rush the passer, ignore the run and shrug off a few short completions over the middle when playing with the league.

Green Bay Packers’ special teams

Mason Crosby ranks 5th on the all-time list with 28 postseason field goals. Since you are dying to know the others in this Conference Championship preview — Adam Vinatieri (56), Stephen Gostkowski (41), David Akers (39), and Gary Anderson (32).

Something to watch out for — the Packers allowed two punt return touchdowns this season.

The Green Bay Packers can beat the Buccaneers if …

They can pressure Tom Brady with just the law firm of Smith & Smith. No exotic blitzes, no too-clever-by-half tactics for Brady to sniff out and outsmart. Rodgers also needs to reach into his bag of tricks to lure the over-aggressive Bucs defense to jump offsides or try to jump routes.

The Green Bay Packers will lose to the Bucs if …

Pettine dials up all sorts of three-man pass rushes and overcomplicated coverages for Brady to giggle at and destroy. The Packers offense also cannot suffer one of its periodic mini-strokes, as it did in the second quarter of that 38-10 disaster against the Buccaneers in Week 6. Keep going three-and-out (or getting intercepted) and handing Brady the ball with good field position. He will spend the entire second half in cruise control.

Bottom Line

Everything we saw in the Divisional Round of the playoffs suggests that the Packers will crush the Buccaneers. Yet, everything we saw in Week 6, from the Packers since 2011 and Brady since the dawn of the millennium, suggests that Packers are in for another heartbreak. When it comes to predicting playoff games, it’s best to trust your eyes, trust the numbers, and ignore the storylines and the history. Even recent Packers playoff history. Even Tom Brady postseason history.

Conference Championship Preview, Early Prediction: Green Bay Packers defeat Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

NFC Championship Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFC Championship Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers keep marching on in the playoffs. The Buccaneers didn’t look all that impressive in their 30-20 victory against the Saints on Sunday. Here’s the NFL Recap preview of the Buccaneers as they prepare to face the Packers in the Conference Championship on Sunday, January 24th at 3:05 PM.

They really don’t appear to be a match for the Green Bay Packers right now. Yet, the Buccaneers slaughtered the Packers 38-10 in Week 6, and underestimating Brady in the playoffs has been a bad idea for a generation. Each week, Tampa Bay’s opponents get a little tougher, their wins get a little tighter (despite what the final score might say), and Brady leans a little harder on his defense, offensive line, receivers, or even Leonard Fournette. And each week, they rise to the occasion.

Conference Championship Preview, NFC: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

How the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got here

Brady and the Buccaneers could barely move the football in the first half. However, Drew Brees visibly aged as the game wore on. A second-quarter interception by Sean Murphy-Bunting set up a three-yard Buccaneers touchdown drive, while two fourth-quarter interceptions by Devin White and Mike Edwards crushed any hope of a Saints rally. Brady was just 18 of 33 for 199 yards and 2 touchdowns while executing a game plan built around running the football and slowing the Saints pass rush.

Quarterback Tom Brady

Brady’s 2020 season is really a logical extension of his 2018 and 2019 seasons. His statistics look better than they did in 2018 and 2019 because his Buccaneers weapons are much better than his New England Patriots receivers in recent years. Yet, he still possesses the same strengths (exquisite coverage recognition, touch, and timing) and weaknesses (occasional wobblers, unwillingness to take a hit).

Brady led the Patriots to a Super Bowl in 2018 but hit the wall against a superior opponent in the 2019-2020 Playoffs. Both possibilities are on the table next week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ weapons

Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown combined for 7 catches for 61 yards and 2 touchdowns so the Buccaneers could emphasize Fournette and Cameron Brate (a combined 9-94-1) in a playoff game. Go figure. Should we expect more of the unexpected in this Conference Championship preview?

Evans remains a “Quarterback’s Best Friend,” despite the occasional drop. Few receivers are better at hauling in contested catches, staying in bounds while tiptoeing the sideline, or retrieving slightly off-target passes.

Godwin has dropped a few too many passes this season — and he couldn’t quite stay in bounds in the back of the end zone on a near-touchdown just before halftime against the Saints — but he remains one of the NFL’s best #2 receivers.

Brown has shown flashes of being the old Antonio Brown, while we have not heard a peep from the horrible Antonio Brown lately. Gronk smash. Scottie Miller and Justin Watson take turns being Brady’s “Fake Edelman.” Fifth-round pick Tyler Johnson came off the bench for a clutch sideline catch in the second half on Sunday. The Buccaneers’ depth at wide receiver is almost unfair.

The rise of Leonard Fournette

And yet … Fournette. The bruising Buccaneers running back has played well through two playoff games, though the cool kids of the NFL internet refuse to accept that Fournette can do anything right. (Seriously: when Fournette catches a touchdown pass, Twitter says, “LOL Fournette almost dropped a touchdown pass).

That said, head coach Bruce Arians’ Fournette-heavy game plans have been peculiar. A team with 399 starting-caliber wide receivers and tight ends should not hand off on first down constantly as the Buccaneers do. Arians clearly wants to prevent opponents from rushing Brady on early downs. And maybe that’s the wise choice, at least to a degree. When Brady does drop to throw on first down, he usually has time and often has an open receiver.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive line

Tampa Bay’s offensive line has been incredibly healthy all season. Left tackle Donovan Smith, rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs, guard Alex Cappa, and center Ryan Jensen each played all 16 regular season games. Cappa was placed on injured reserve last week, but Ali Marpet is back, so left guard Aaron Stinnie is the only semi-weak link on the offensive line.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles blitzed on 39.0% of all passing plays during the regular season, the 5th-highest rate in the NFL. Bowles blitzes because his defensive front is flooded with talent — Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Lavonte David, Ndamukong Suh, and Devin White, to name a few — but his secondary is inexperienced and relatively thin. If the Buccaneers don’t apply pressure, they are vulnerable to big plays.

The Buccaneers also allowed just 3.6 yards per rush and have the best run defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. This is a defense that is great at forcing opponents into 3rd-and-long, then knocking the quarterback on his butt.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ special teams

A relative weakness — kicker Ryan Succop is fine, but Tampa Bay’s return game is nothing special. The Buccaneers allowed a punt return touchdown and some long kickoff returns during the regular season, and a penalty negated a would-be Saints punt return touchdown on Sunday.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can beat the Packers if …

They find a way to cover Davante Adams, keep Aaron Rodgers from freelancing many big plays, and force coverage mismatches between the Packers linebackers and pretty much any of their receivers, tight ends, and running backs.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will lose to the Packers if …

They play like they did through the first three quarters against the Saints on Sunday. Last week’s performance against Washington won’t do either.

Bottom Line

The road keeps rising up to meet Tom Brady.

The late-season Tampa Bay Buccaneers schedule was a cakewalk. The Buccaneers faced one of the worst playoff teams in history with their fourth-string quarterback in the lineup in the Wild Card round. They beat a hollowed-out shell of Drew Brees with a depleted supporting cast on Sunday (even Taysom Hill’s most dedicated haters had to cringe at the Saints trying to feature Ty Montgomery in their offense).

The Buccaneers have been one of the NFL’s healthiest teams. Balls sometimes seem to bounce into defenders’ hands.

The Packers are a tougher test than the Buccaneers have faced in months. Yes, they thumped the Packers in Week 6. However, that was a game that started close but then snowballed in a way that’s unlikely to happen again.

The Buccaneers will need to play their best game of the season to beat the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Anything less, and Tampa Bay will look like the team we saw during their November slump — paper contenders who, despite all their big names, remain one notch below Super Bowl-caliber.

Conference Championship Preview, Early Prediction: Green Bay Packers defeat Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Teams eliminated during the NFL’s Divisional Round face major offseason questions

Teams eliminated during the NFL's Divisional Round face major offseason questions

It’s brutal to lose in the Divisional Round of the 2020-2021 NFL Playoffs — it leaves most of the teams that get eliminated with pressing questions. Questions ranging from easy ones (“How do we take the next step”) to difficult ones (“How do we keep the salary cap from tearing us apart next year?”) to downright existential ones (“Is everything we are trying to accomplish doomed to failure?”). The Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns, and New Orleans Saints are grappling with those questions now that their 2020 seasons have come to a close.

Here’s an NFL Recap look at what lies ahead for the four eliminated teams from Divisional Round action that came so close to the Super Bowl, and yet are still so far away.

The first eliminated team of the NFL Divisional Round: Los Angeles Rams

The Rams enter the offseason $22 million over the salary cap. Their in-house free agent list is led by top defensive backs Troy Hill and Darious Williams, both of whom will be expensive to keep. And the Rams lack a first-round pick because of the Jalen Ramsey trade (which feels like it happened two days after the Herschel Walker trade). Other than that, everything is peachy-keen.

The Rams will have trouble retaining second-tier in-house free agents like center Austin Blythe, receiver Josh Reynolds, or tight end Gerald Everett, let alone someone like Williams unless they perform some serious credit repair. Look for an offseason of restructured contracts, free agent departures, and very little good news as the Rams try to keep their playoff window from slamming shut.

The second eliminated team of the NFL Divisional Round: Baltimore Ravens

Lamar Jackson needs to become a more consistent passer outside the numbers. The Ravens’ offense needs a legitimate Plan B when they fall behind by more than a touchdown or when their option running game is bottled up.

And the whole team needs to find ways to avoid the type of catastrophic big-game failures that get them eliminated in NFL Playoff games. Red zone collapses, silly mistakes, and sudden reversals in which a long drive turns into seven points for the opponent have destroyed them.

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The Ravens must also keep daring to be different. They must avoid the trap of thinking that Jackson or their offense has some special deficiency that will doom them to playoff also-ran status. Jackson and the Ravens are easy targets for lazy skepticism because they are so unique. If Jackson were a pocket passer in a conventional offense, he could go 8-8 for years while facing only moderate criticism while earning dump trucks full of money to almost win Wild Card games.

The Ravens have quantitative problems, not qualitative ones. They are a few tweaks, not an overhaul, away from the Super Bowl. Fortunately, they are also one of the best organizations in the league when it comes to sticking to their long-range plan.

Sights set on next year: Cleveland Browns

Going from 0-16 to 11-5 is easy, especially when it takes three years to do it. Going from 11-5 to the Super Bowl is much harder because the Browns will be swimming against the tides of the salary cap, draft order, and a harder 2021 schedule.

Self-scouting is crucial for an NFL team at the Browns’ stage of development and eliminated in the Divisional Round. They cannot fool themselves into thinking that they are “one player away” or that further improvements will just happen automatically.

The Browns’ salary cap situation is pretty good. It’s about $24 million in on-paper space, much of which will likely be spent on extensions, even if the team takes another year to wait-and-see on Baker Mayfield (guard Wyatt Teller, for example, is in the final year of his rookie contract).

Extra third and fourth-round picks from past trades will help spackle some holes. And Odell Beckham returns next year, which is almost certainly a good thing. The Browns sorely need a receiver who can stretch the field, and Beckham is only about 15-20% as much of a loopy distraction as your father-in-law insists he is.

The Browns should be at least as good in 2021 as they were in 2020. That’s fine, so long as an organization with zero history of sustaining success realizes that any team that doesn’t get ahead in the NFL ends up falling behind.

Sights set on next year: New Orleans Saints

The Saints are an eliminated team, and will be up Schitt’s Creek the moment Drew Brees retires from the NFL. They’re so deep in cap debt ($95 million entering the 2021 offseason) that the whole team will have to live in a motel room in a Canadian countryside town full of quirky characters just to make ends meet.

The Saints face the greatest cap crisis in NFL history, and Recap doesn’t have the bandwidth or word count to dig into the macroeconomics of what they will have to do to field a roster next year. Let’s just say that we will get to see what the Taysom Hill/Alvin Kamara option package looks like when half of the remaining roster is earning the league minimum.

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