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

Published by Sean Clark

I am an aspiring sports journalist at Northern Arizona University. I am very passionate about sports such as football, soccer and basketball and I'm excited to use this platform to write about the sports I love.

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