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NFL Conference Championship Picks

January 23rd, 2021

Tampa Bay (+3.5) at Green Bay
Tampa’s biggest obstacle in this game isn’t their opponent — the Bucs are a more complete football team than the Packers — or the cold (Tampa’s most important player has been in some big cold weather games and done just fine). It’s that this is their third straight road game. That’s never easy in the NFL. And it’s one of the reasons wild card teams only very rarely make it to the Super Bowl. But the Bucs aren’t afraid of playing in Green Bay. And they have the advantage of facing a pass D that has been inconsistent this season. The Packers’ pass D looks OK on paper, but only in aggregate. If you take a close look at the stats or watch the games, what you see is a unit that runs hot and cold depending on the quality of the opposition and whether their O is able to build a big lead and get the opponent to abandon the run. And that’s the thing all around. I think this game goes to the team that takes the run away from the others. For the Bucs, taking away the run means clamping down on D. If they can make the Packers’ offense one-dimensional, they’ll get Aaron Rodgers to make mistakes the way they got Drew Brees to make mistakes. For the Packers, taking away the run probably requires building a two-score lead. If they do that, Tom Brady loses play-action and has to try to buy time for his receivers to get open in the flat or downfield. That’s when the Buccaneers’ questionable offensive line becomes a problem. But if the Bucs can keep it close — and I expect they will — I’m confident Brady will find a way to get them to the Super Bowl. Tampa by three.

Buffalo (+3) at Kansas City
We all know (right?) that there isn’t really a question about whether Patrick Mahomes will make a miraculous recovery from his concussion and be cleared to play in this game. That’s happening. But whether Mahomes will play is less important than whether he should play. I think that’s the factor that makes the difference here, and we won’t really know what’s up until we see what happens on the field. The reality of this game is that the Bills have been playing better football than the Chiefs down the stretch — but not better by enough that we should expect Buffalo to be able to top a healthy Kansas City team in Arrowhead. But what if the Chiefs are playing with QB who isn’t as sharp as he ought to be. What makes Mahomes dangerous is that if he has the ball in his hands and he’s behind the line of scrimmage, all possibilities remain open. He can pivot on the head of a pin. The guy throws blind passes across his body and finds his receivers. That means you can chase him all the way to the right sideline and he still has two thirds of the field open to him. But if he’s out there in a fog trying to play like that, Mahomes is going to make critical mistakes. And that’s not about him. It’s about every player at his level. When a guy who thinks he’s a god is forced to play as a human, bad things can happen. I think the Bills D will keep this game close no matter what. And if Mahomes is operating at 75 or 80 percent, the Buffalo defense might find a way to win this game. If Mahomes is in better shape than that, the Bills offense is going to show that it can function in a big away game. I won’t be surprised at any outcome that isn’t a blowout one way or the other. But since I have to pick, I’ll look for Kansas City to find a way to come out on top. Chiefs by a point.

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