Shapiro's NFL Championship Weekend picks
After a Divisional Round that saw a pair of surprisingly low-scoring contests in the AFC and two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play advance in the NFC, Championship Weekend in the NFL is set.
A pair of regular-season rematches are on the horizon, featuring four of the best quarterbacks in the world. It should be fantastic.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers
Sun, January 24 2021, 8:05 PM
These teams met in Week 6, a lopsided game won by the Buccaneers, 38-10. It is always worthwhile to look back at what went right and wrong in an earlier matchup, but it is also important to remember that it has been more than three months. A lot has changed.
In the blowout along the Florida Gulf Coast, it was almost the perfect storm for Tampa, which kept Tom Brady clean and got regular pressure on Aaron Rodgers, including four sacks. That led to the only game all season where the likely MVP threw multiple interceptions without a touchdown pass.
Bruce Arians' squad was also able to run the ball with effectively (158 yards), while Green Bay was held to less than 100 on the ground.
Is that effort repeatable at Lambeau Field, or was more of an outlier?
There is little doubt the Packers are a better team than what we saw at Raymond James Stadium in October.
Since the 28-point defeat, Rodgers has thrown for 37 touchdowns and just three interceptions, including an outstanding performance against the one of the league’s best defenses in Green Bay’s 32-18 Divisional Round victory against the Rams.
Like Los Angeles, Tampa has a lot of talent on defense, but there is little reason to believe Rodgers will perform like he did in Week 6.
On the other hand, the Packers running game may struggle again against a Tampa defense that allowed a league-low 3.6 yards per carry during the regular season. However, the Bucs have not been quite the same against the run since they lost defensive lineman Vita Vea to a broken leg. Vea reportedly could be back for the NFC title game, but how effective he might be is in question.
Tampa will likely need to play as well as it did in Week 6 to prevent Green Bay from getting back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2010-2011 season. Brady and the Bucs offense should have some successm both through the air and on the ground, but getting consistent heat on Rodgers and forcing multiple turnovers seems unlikely.
Look for the Packers pass rush, led by Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, to get to Brady more often and help get head coach Matt LaFleur to his first Super Bowl.
Rodgers will dazzle on the frozen tundra and prevent Brady from reaching his 10th Super Bowl.
Pick: Green Bay (-3)
Buffalo Bills vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Sun, January 24 2021, 11:40 PM
The two best teams in the AFC also met in Week 6. The game was scheduled to be a Thursday-night affair, but it was part of a COVID-19 chain reaction that pushed it back to Monday night.
An expected shootout between Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen never materialized and instead featured the most productive game of the season from Chiefs rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
The first-round pick from LSU ran the ball 26 times for 161 yards against a Bills defense that dared Kansas City to keep it on the ground, instead of allowing the Chiefs' high-octane passing attack to make plays deep down the field. The Buffalo coaching staff is too sharp to employ the exact same strategy, but once again expect it to do all it can to prevent Tyreek Hill and the rest of the Kansas City receiving corps from beating the Bills over the top.
The Bills offense was basically unstoppable during the second half of the regular season, but it has not been nearly as dominant in the postseason.
In the first encounter against Kansas City, Allen was not at his best. He completed just 14 of his 27 attempts for 122 yards. Expect him to be more productive, but the once much-maligned Chiefs defense has played pretty well down the stretch and is also likely to do all it can to prevent big plays through the air.
The big story leading up to this clash of AFC titans has been the health of Mahomes. The 2018 MVP was forced to leave last weekend’s game against the Browns, but took all snaps in practice Wednesday. He is all but certain to play, but not at 100%, because of an injury to his toe, which he suffered before the fall that forced him to leave the game under the NFL's concussion protocol.
Doubting the former Texas Tech star has been futile since he took over starting role in Kansas City, but if his toe limits his mobility like it did last week, he is not as likely to make the magical plays we've come to expect. Combine that with the expected “bend but don’t break” defensive strategies from both teams, and a lower-scoring game is a distinct possibility.
Kansas City has not scored more than 22 points in a home game since Week 9, and Buffalo’s offense has not been as efficient in the playoffs. Their Week 6 matchup stayed way under the total. This one will, as well.