2020-21 NFL Playoffs preview: Conference Championship games

Despite COVID-19 having a massive impact on the 2020-21 NFL season, we have arrived at Conference Championship Sunday. To quote former NFL films president, Steve Sabol, “it all comes down to four teams playing two games for that one chance to become a champion.” Three division winners are left with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers being the lone wild card team trying to get to Super Bowl LV in two weeks. Here is a breakdown of both games this Sunday.

1/24/2021: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers @ 3:05 p.m. EST on FOX

The Buccaneers are attempting to become the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium while the Packers are looking to make it back to the Super Bowl for the first time since beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 10 years ago. These two franchises met once before in the playoffs with the Packers defeating the Bucs 21-7 in 1997. They also met back in Week 6, where the Bucs throttled the Packers 38-10, handing the Packers their worst loss of the season by far.

The Bucs once again hit the road for their third-straight game away from Tampa Bay. Quarterback Tom Brady, who is playing in his 14th Conference Championship game, led the Bucs over Washington 31-23 as he threw for 381 yards and two touchdown passes. Last week at New Orleans, it was the defense that shined and led the Bucs to a win as they forced four turnovers in the 30-20 win, getting revenge for the two losses at the hands of the Saints in the regular season. Brady, despite missing wide receiver Antonio Brown, will still have a plethora of targets to throw to, including Mike Evans and their reliable tight end in Cameron Brate, who has 130 receiving yards this postseason. The Bucs will also be without star rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. on Sunday, but they still boast the NFL’s top-rushing defense, and will have defensive tackle Vita Vea back for this game after missing most of the season with an ankle injury.

The Packers have been the heavy favorites to win the NFC and for good reason. Their offense has been unstoppable since the aforementioned 38-10 loss to the Bucs, averaging 32 points per game since then. Last week, the Packers took on the NFL’s number one total and pass defense in the Los Angeles Rams and made them look like an average unit. Aaron Rodgers threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns. While all the attention goes to superstar WR Davante Adams, the NFL’s leader in receiving touchdowns, Allen Lazard stepped up with 96 yards on four receptions and a game-sealing 58-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to give the Packers the 32-18 win. The Packers’ pass rush was another weapon at their disposal as they sacked Rams’ QB Jared Goff four times last week and finished the regular season with the 10th-most sacks.

If the Bucs are going to pull off the upset, there are three aspects of the game they must be better than over the Packers: the turnover battle, time of possession and running the football. The Bucs’ top-ranked rush defense must slow down the running game of the Packers and sustain long drives of their own to neutralize the Packers’ pass rush. While the Bucs can win in the trenches at times, Rodgers and Adams will pick apart a short-handed Bucs’ secondary, forcing Brady to press and abandon their running game. I see the Bucs keeping it close but in the fourth quarter, the Packers will force a key turnover or two to pull away and reach Super Bowl LV.

Prediction: Packers 31 Bucs 21

1/24/2021: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs @ 6:40 p.m. EST on CBS

The NFC Championship game features a battle of older QBs while the AFC Championship game is a matchup of the two-best young QBs in the NFL. The Bills and Chiefs will square off in the conference title game for the third time with each meeting 27 years apart. The Chiefs beat the Bills in 1966 to get to Super Bowl I and the Bills defeated the Chiefs to get to their fourth-straight Super Bowl in 1993. The Bills also defeated the Chiefs in 1991 in the divisional playoff round. Like the other game on Sunday, this is a rematch of a Week 6 meeting that saw the Chiefs defeat the Bills 26-17 on a cold and damp Monday evening.

The Bills have reached their first conference title game for the first time since 1993, and have done so with two tough wins to begin their postseason run. They were outplayed for most of their wild card matchup against the Indianapolis Colts, but held on to win 27-24 after 324 yards from QB Josh Allen and holding the Colts in the redzone on several occasions. Last week, the Bills grinded out a 17-3 win over the Baltimore Ravens on a windy Saturday night, sealing the game with a pick-six from corner Taron Johnson. While they allowed 340 total yards, they shut the Ravens out of the endzone and halted many of their drives in opposing territory. WR Stefon Diggs has had a strong start to this postseason with 234 yards and two touchdowns, building off his league-leading regular season performance.

The Chiefs are hosting the conference title game for the third-straight season; the last team to do that was the Andy Reid-coached Philadelphia Eagles from 2002-04. However, their path to Sunday was the rockiest of the four teams as QB Patrick Mahomes was knocked out of last week’s game against the Cleveland Browns in the third quarter, forcing 35-year-old QB Chad Henne to hold off the Browns. After a 19-3 halftime lead, the Browns cut the deficit 22-17 and with five minutes to go and the Browns got the ball back after a Henne interception. However, star defensive tackle Chris Jones disrupted the Browns’ offensive drive, forcing them to punt. Henne then ran for 13 yards on 3rd-and-14 and converted the following fourth down on an out-rout to Tyreek Hill to seal the game. Mahomes cleared concussion protocol and will play on Sunday against the Bills and rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire will return after missing last week’s game.

Once again, the two teams will face off in a cold and rainy evening. In their last meeting, the Chiefs ran the ball all over the Bills, winning time of possession and disrupting the Bills’ offensive rhythm. However, the Bills were banged up then and without their top run-stopper, Matt Milano. The Bills have only lost once since that Week 6 meeting (The Hail Murray) and their offense looks as good as any in the NFL. However, the Bills’ offense does suffer from a lack of a running game, an aspect which will cost them dearly. The Chiefs’ defense will slow down the Bills’ offense with pressure and soft coverages to take away the deep pass, and the Chiefs’ balanced offensive unit will guide the Chiefs to their second-straight Super Bowl.

Prediction: Chiefs 27 Bills 20

What George Springer brings to the Toronto Blue Jays’ lineup

Photo via Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

For teams vying to discard the rebuild label, or for teams craving to hurdle over the seemingly impossible postseason hump, one remedy is immediately postulated. 

To overcome these obstacles, a specific player, at times, must be brought in from outside the organization. These particular players, while definitely productive from their prowess on the mound or batter’s box, also bring the intangibles to the table, including that of veteran leadership and experience, postseason or otherwise. 

For the Chicago Cubs, it was Jon Lester. For the Los Angeles Dodgers, it was Mookie Betts. 

For the Toronto Blue Jays, it very well might be George Springer. 

The 31-year-old outfielder definitely brings decent hardware to Toronto after his new (and franchise record) six-year, $150 million deal was officially announced by the team on Jan. 23. After all, the University of Connecticut alum is a three-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger Award winner, 2017 World Series champion and World Series MVP. 

2017 asterisk or not, Springer brings the precise pedigree needed for a blooming team, and, more importantly, provides a necessary safeguard to a youthful offense led by the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette.

What Springer specifically brings to the Blue Jays, however, is much more than a couple potential Silver Slugger or Gold Glove Awards. No, this is a statement move, just like the Lester and Betts transactions were. How so, though? 

Well, let’s look into it, shall we? 

To start, Springer is a career .270/.361/.491 hitter with an on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) of .852 and park-adjusted on-base-plus-slugging (OPS+) of 131. When glancing at Springer’s 2020 season numbers, he slashed .265/.359/.540 with a .899 OPS and 140 OPS+ in 51 games played. Both his OPS and OPS+ numbers ranked first among all qualified batters on Houston’s roster. Additionally, his 14 home runs during the shortened season led the team, as did his 37 runs scored and .540 slugging percentage (SLG). 

While these numbers are all fine and dandy when compared to the rest of the roster on Springer’s former team, where would they rank on his new one? 

When looking at the same statistics, Springer’s OPS and OPS+ would both rank second among all qualified 2020 Blue Jays’ batters (Teoscar Hernandez ranked first in both categories with a .919 OPS and 146 OPS+). His home run totals, runs scored and SLG numbers, meanwhile, would rank second, third, and tied for second, respectively. 

So, by the looks of it, Springer’s 2020 numbers (without even taking his track record into account) rank in the upper echelon on his new team. Where he did the majority of the damage from, however, helps him stand out even more, and should make Toronto fans even more excited. 

Springer batted leadoff in 49 games started last season. In those 49 games, he slashed .266/.358/.543 with a .900 OPS. The entirety of Toronto’s roster, meanwhile, collectively slashed .256/.367/.445 with a .813 OPS in the leadoff spot last season. While this is definitely solid, it only gets better with Springer in the fold. 

Springer’s production at the top of the lineup, however, is only emphasized more when looking at his multi-home run games at leadoff. Among all MLB players dating back to 1901, Springer’s 13 multi-home run games in the leadoff spot are tied for fourth all-time (Bobby Bonds), behind only Alfonso Soriano (19), Betts (15) and Brady Anderson (14). 

On the topic of home runs, there are also Springer’s postseason home runs to account for. His 19 playoff home runs are tied for fourth all-time (Albert Pujols). Keep in mind, though, that this production is in only 292 plate appearances – Springer is the only player inside the top five to hit at least 19 home runs in less than 300 plate appearances. Scandal or not, the power has been there. 

While Toronto’s lineup was already formidable to begin with, they decided to double down and not only bring in an upgrade, but an experienced one who has had a knack for hitting explosively atop the lineup. 

While the jury might be out on an expensive signing of this magnitude, the results of the player speak for itself. 2017 controversy or not, there is no doubt about it. 

Maybe, just maybe, those results bring such a positive impact that, similarly to the Cubs and Dodgers before, the Blue Jays take that much coveted next step toward playoff prominence once more.