SUNDAY’S GOLD JACKET GAMES
TAMPA BAY (13-5) @ GREEN BAY (14-3), 3:05 p.m. (EST)
The line: Packers by 3-1/2
The weather: AM snow showers, high of 29
The referee: Clete Blakeman
The story: This comes down to a simple question: Whom do you trust more – Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers? Rodgers has been the most productive quarterback this season, throwing a career-best 48 TD passes and locking down the MVP award. Brady is the most productive quarterback in playoff history, with more wins (32) and more TD passes (77) than anyone. He’s one game from his 10th Super Bowl, a path much like the one taken in 1993 by Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana. That was his first season with Kansas City, and he took the Chiefs to the conference championship game before sitting down with a concussion. He retired a year later. At 43, Brady doesn’t look ready to retire. In fact, his 40 TD passes were second only to Rodgers (and tied with Russell Wilson) and the second most of his career. I expect the Bucs to have more success running vs. Green Bay than the Packers will vs. Tampa. The question: How will the Bucs’ secondary hold up vs. Rodgers? It shut him down earlier this year in a 38-10 rout, but that was three month ago. And it was in Tampa. This will be different.
Something to consider: Rodgers has 16 TD passes and one interception in seven career playoff starts at home. That’s the good news. Now the bad: He had his worst game of the season vs. the Bucs earlier this year, throwing for 160 yards, with no TDs, two interceptions and four sacks. His passer rating was a season-low 35.4 – one of only two below 100. The other was 91.6 vs. Carolina.
BUFFALO (15-3) @ KANSAS CITY (15-2), 6:40 p.m. (EST)
The line: Chiefs by 3
The weather: Showers, high of 44
The referee: Bill Vinovich
The story: Patrick Mahomes says he’s been cleared to play, and all together now: Shocking. I mean, was there ever a doubt? The Chiefs had him practicing this week, with Mahomes taking most of the snaps at Thursday’s workout, and, OK, so he still must be cleared by an independent neurologist. But a show of hands by those who think he won’t. Yeah? Me, too. But while the focus has been on concussion protocol, don’t forget that Mahomes also is dealing with turf toe, and that’s a bigger problem than it seems. So let me ask: How much of Mahomes will we be getting? I don’t know, either, but two things I do: 1) He won’t be running any more RPOs, and 2) the Chiefs beat Buffalo earlier this year without him. I know, he started and played. But he didn’t need to throw for 400 yards and four TDs to win. Reason: The Chiefs ran over, around and through the Buffalo defense for 245 yards. Of course, they had Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who gashed Buffalo for a season-high 161 yards rushing. Plus, the Bills didn’t have linebacker Matt Milano. But now? Well, Milano is back, and Edwards-Helaire is not. Not yet. He was limited in this week’s practices (ankle, hip) and hasn’t played in a month. Color him iffy. Buffalo doesn’t want to chase points vs. the Chiefs. It did it once this year and lost by nine. But the Bills don’t have a running game – outside of quarterback Josh Allen, that is. Which means … yep, which means the heat is on Allen, who threw for season-low 122 yards vs. Kansas City in October. I don’t know how one guy can take on the defending Super Bowl champions by himself, but Allen may be asked to try … and good luck. It didn’t work earlier this year. It may not work again.
Something to consider: Stefon Diggs’ 256 yards receiving through the first two playoff rounds are the most by any receiver since 2015. According to Pro Football Focus, Diggs’ 805 yards off play-action are the most since 2011.
OUR BEST BETS
(All picks are made vs. the spread)
CLARK JUDGE – Kansas City (-- 3). If Mahomes is OK, so are the Chiefs (season record: 9-12).
RON BORGES – Tampa Bay (+3-1/2). You can go broke betting against Tom Brady in big games. Sunday is a huge game and would greatly enhance his legacy and free him from his connection with Bill Belichick. So I'll take Tomba Bay in the upset (season record: 15-6).
RICK GOSSELIN – Green Bay (--3-1/2). Take the best quarterback in each game Sunday, and you’ll have a Packers-Chiefs Super Bowl (season record: 12-9).
FIVE GUYS TO WATCH
Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay. Because he’s Tom Brady. Nobody does it better. He’s 32-11 in the playoffs and 9-4 in conference championship games, including 3-3 on the road. He also has 23 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last nine road starts. Honest.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. With two TD passes he becomes the first quarterback in NFL history to throw two or more in nine consecutive playoff games.
Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay. He has five career TDs in three playoff games.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City. He has 15 touchdowns (12 passes, 3 rushes), no interceptions and a passer rating of 113.6 in five home playoff games..
Stefon Diggs, WR, Buffalo. He has touchdown catches in his last three playoff games and 100 or more yards in catches in his last two.
THE WEEKEND OMG
Aaron Rodgers has appeared in four conference championship playoff games. He’s 1-3, with 6 TDs, 7 interceptions and a rating of 78.0.
THE WEEKEND OMG II
If Patrick Mahomes starts, it will mark the first time in conference championship game history where all four starting quarterbacks won their last six starts. Mahomes won his last 11; Josh Allen his past eight; Aaron Rodgers, 7, and Tom Brady, 6.
THE WEEKEND OMG III
With a win, Tampa Bay becomes the first team in Super Bowl history to play the championship game in its home stadium.
THEY SAID IT
“That game means nothing way back when." -- Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles on Bucs' 38-10 win over Green Bay in October.
“My future is a beautiful mystery.” – Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers.
“I think it’s ridiculous that he hasn’t been hired yet.” – Washington QB Alex Smith on Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
“He deserves Coach of the Year.” Kansas City coach Andy Reid on Buffalo’s Sean McDermott.
“Talking to all the doctors and going through the test, we have the belief that (there) will no longer be effects and I'll be able to go out there and be myself and be who I am every single week." -- Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes.
FIVE NUMBERS THAT MATTER
0 – Tom Brady interceptions in his last nine road starts.
8 – Consecutive Brady defeats of Mike Pettine-coached defenses.
20 – Tyreek Hill receiving yards vs. Bills in October.
46 – Stefon Diggs’ receiving yards vs. Chiefs in October.
2015 -- Last time all four teams in conference championship games won 13 games, regular season and playoffs.
TEN THINGS YOU PROBABLY SHOULD KNOW
1. This is the first time all four teams in conference championship games averaged 29 or more points per game. Green Bay (31.8), Buffalo (31.3) and Tampa Bay (30.8) were the three highest-scoring teams in the league.
2. If the Packers and Bills win, it would mark the first time since 1997 (Broncos and Packers) that the two highest-scoring teams meet in the playoffs.
3. For the first time since 1970, each of the four quarterbacks left has at least 35 passing touchdowns this season.
4. According to the NFL Network, teams that beat an opponent by 20 or more points during the regular season, then played it again in the conference championship game, are 13-3 all-time.
5. Tampa Bay is the first NFC wildcard since the 2013 San Francisco 49ers and the second wildcard, period, to reach the conference championship. Tennessee made it a year ago.
6. Only one of the last four top-seeded teams in conference championship-game play (San Francisco, 2019) advanced to the Super Bowl.
7. According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers’ Davante Adams has the most receiving TDs (30) vs. single coverage since 2017. The Bucs’ Michael Evans (27) is second. Also, according to PFF, Adams had 156 targets this season … and one drop.
8. The Chiefs are the first team to host three consecutive conference championship games since the 2002-04 Philadelphia Eagles. Both clubs were coached by Andy Reid. Reid is 2-5 in conference championship play.
9. With a start Sunday, Mahomes becomes the youngest quarterback since the 1970 merger to start three consecutive conference championship games prior to his 26th birthday. He’s 25.
10. Green Bay tackle Billy Turner has been one of the team’s unsung heroes. Starting in place of the injured David Bakhtiari, he’s part of an offensive line that allowed one sack the past two games and kept Aaron Rodgers clean vs. the L.A. Rams.