NFL conference championship picks: Brady v Rodgers, and a Chiefs shock
Two decorated veterans face off at Lambeau Field, while the best of the next generation play in Kansas City. Who makes the Super Bowl? Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers met earlier this season and the Buccaneers emerged as victors. Photograph: Mark LoMoglio/AP Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay PackersSunday, 3.05pm ET/8.05pm GMT What the Buccaneers need to do to win: Surprisingly for two quarterbacks who have ruled the NFL for much of the century, there isn’t a lot of history to go on between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers – this will be only their fourth meeting as starters. Brady won their previous game, a 38-10 beatdown in Week 6 of this season, when the defense harried Rodgers all day, sacking him five times. Rodgers, who has been mostly flawless since, is unlikely to be bullied again though. So Tampa Bay may have to beat the Packers in a shootout, hoping their formidable offensive weapons all click at once. That will put pressure on backup Bucs guard Aaron Stinnie, who made his first ever NFL start against the Saints last week (and did pretty well). What the Packers needs to do to win: Like the Buccaneers, the Packers have a weakened offensive line. It held up well enough against the best defense in the league, the Rams, last week but Los Angeles’ biggest threat, Aaron Donald, was hampered by a rib injury. Rodgers has been so good this year that it’s hard to see him being outscored by the Buccaneers if he gets enough protection. Some have argued that the frigid Lambeau Field will hand the Packers a big advantage over a warm-weather team like Tampa Bay. But Tom Brady played plenty of games in the New England winter and that seemed to work out fine for him. Key player: Rob Gronkowski, tight end, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Gronk’s best days are behind him and he is no longer the unstoppable force he was a few years ago. So his importance in this game lies not so much in his abilities but who he matches up against. If the Packers have one obvious weakness, it’s their linebackers. Look for Brady to go back to a familiar safety blanket and find Gronk in the middle of the field as this game goes on. Prediction: Packers. The Buccaneers struggled to shake off 7-9 Washington in the wildcard round and were helped by a series of Drew Brees turnovers against the Saints last week. Brady and his new teammates gel much more than they did at the start of the season, but are still not the threat they should be, given their talent. I don’t think they’re at the level where they can beat Rodgers and Davante Adams this time around. Buffalo Bills at Kansas City ChiefsSunday, 6.40pm ET/11.40pm GMT Patrick Mahomes is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Photograph: Jason Behnken/AP What the Bills need to do to win: The Chiefs can do so much damage, so quickly, through the air with the likes of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill that encouraging them to go to the run game, perhaps by not packing the box, is one option. Josh Allen has evolved beyond recognition in a short space of time, partly because of the array of weapons he has, from the almost impossible to cover Stefon Diggs to Cole Beasley to tight end Dawson Knox. The Bills will need to keep that chemistry going on Sunday. What the Chiefs need to do to win: As mentioned above, Allen’s progress this season has been extraordinary and he is no longer the turnover machine he was. But he still makes mistakes and the Chiefs’ standout defensive talents, whether it is Tyrann Matthieu or Chris Jones, are capable of forcing him into making errors. If the Bills do manage to make the Chiefs turn to the run game, the fitness of Clyde Edwards-Helaire, returning from injury, could be telling. Key player: Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs. Mahomes is the best player in the NFL, so he is the most important player in any game he plays. But his impact on Sunday feels particularly telling. Mahomes was forced out of last week’s win over the Browns due to concussion – and he has been limited in practice – but he will almost certainly start. The question is what version of Mahomes plays. The concussion doesn’t appear to have been too damaging (at least in the short-term) but more worrying for the Chiefs is the fact that Mahomes is also suffering from turf toe. Mahomes is no Lamar Jackson, he won’t scorch you for 50 yards, but his mobility and ability to beat the rush is an important part of his game. Prediction: Bills. A fully fit Mahomes beats Allen 90% of the time. But a limited Mahomes, who has been very good rather than great in his recent games, is a different proposition. The lingering effects of the concussion and his reduced mobility will hand this one to the Bills … just.