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Shawn’s Staturday: Five things to watch for during both Conference Championship matchups

With only four teams left vying for Super Bowl LV, there are very interesting statistics that can reveal a team’s weak spots and keys to victory for every matchup.

For the past three weeks, this article has been dedicated to helping the average NFL fan look at games from a different angle in order to help analyze and prepare for the winning team if they were to be pitted against the Kansas City Chiefs. This week, there are only two games, so each one will have five things to watch for.

Each game will have its own drama throughout the 60 minutes, but if the teams and the players can identify certain aspects or players to focus on and hit the mark consistently during the game, then any team can win on any given Sunday, especially when the stakes are this high.

  • NFC Championship: #5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ #1 Green Bay Packers (-3.5), Sunday @ 2:05 PM Central Time

*The previous meeting between this team ended with Tampa Bay winning 38-10*

  1. Both defenses doing what they do best:

The Packers’ defense has been exceptional at pass defense all season, ranking in the top 10 of all defenses in passing yards allowed (3,539), passing completions allowed (346), and passing TDs allowed (23), which means that Tom Brady is going to have his work cut out for him more than he did when they met in Week 6.

Meanwhile, the Bucs defense is not excelling at pass defense but is rather showing they are the toughest team to rush against in the NFL. In fact, they rank 1st overall in rushing yards allowed (1,289), rushing TDs allowed (10), and average rushing yards allowed (82.2) according to Lineups.

If the Bucs can keep Packers running backs Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, and AJ Dillon under wraps then they may be able to force Aaron Rodgers to have to be Aaron Rodgers from more 3rd & longs instead of 3rd & short.

On the flip side if the Green Bay defense can intimidate Brady and the Bucs wide receivers then they will force them to rely on a recently-injured Ronald Jones II, an inconsistent Leonard Fournette, and recent Chief Lesean McCoy.

This is something Tampa Bay apparently needs to do well in order to win this season considering every Bucs loss came when they were kept below 107 total rushing yards this season.

2. Sack the quarterback!

Both teams rank in the top-10 in sacks (TB is T-4th, GB is T-10th) this season and, after the Rams exit last week, they are the two best sacking teams left in the playoffs.

While sacks are an obvious detriment to a QB’s performance it shows more in Brady than it does Rodgers this season, what do I mean? Well, when Brady is sacked more than three times in a game his QBR is 84.0, he has a 7-5 TD/INT ratio, and the Bucs are 2-3.

Compared to Rodgers, who has only been sacked 3+ times in two games this season (one of them being the loss against TB), Brady has let the multiple sacks affect his performance much more during the course of the game than Rodgers has.

The Bucs allowed the 4th-fewest sacks in the regular season (22) but when they allowed Brady to be put on the ground it hindered the entire team, especially in the win-loss column.

3. Points off Turnovers can win this game for either team

Rodgers and Green Bay have done a great job not turning the ball over, leading the league with only 11 turnovers this season, while Tampa Bay has forced 29 turnovers including the playoffs (T-1st), so who will win the turnover competition Sunday?

Considering Tampa Bay was one of the most turnover-prone teams last season (-0.8 turnover margin) it’s obvious that they have completely flipped the switch with the addition of Tom Brady and a stronger run game.

Now Tampa holds the top spot in turnover margin (+7) this season and after their huge defensive presence last week against the Saints (4 INTs), the Packers should be worried about just how well they can hold on to the ball this time around.

After watching their most previous matchup it’s clear that if Aaron Rodgers gets backed into a corner he is vulnerable, the Bucs should try their very hardest to get him as far back into that corner as they did in Week 6, if they can then they can easily pull off this upset.

4. Spread the wealth

Even with the report that Antonio Brown will be OUT during this game, Brady has one of the best-receiving cores and backfields to ever grace an NFL field so he’ll have plenty of weapons to choose from for his first time in an NFC Championship game.

There’s WR Mike Evans who is 4th in rec. TDs (13), WR Chris Godwin who–even after missing four games–is having one of his most productive seasons (catching a career-high 77.4% of his targets), and Brady’s long-time favorite, TE Rob Gronkowski, who has 7 TDs this season after coming out of retirement.

Not to mention Brady’s RBs Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette who can both control the sticks (especially against a GB defense that has allowed 120 rushing yds/game the past three games) on top of an aged LeSean McCoy who has been used very sparingly this season.

If Brady wants any chance at being the first QB to host a Super Bowl in their team’s stadium he’s going to have to spread the defense around by spreading the wealth, Rodgers on the other hand…

Rodgers’ threats are easily identifiable: Aaron Jones & Davante Adams. If Tampa Bay can contain these two, much like the Rams tried to do last week and failed, then Rodgers will have to spread the ball around to players like Allen Lazard (if he plays) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (52.4% catch rate), who are less reliable.

Look for Robert Tonyan to be a key bailout player for Rodgers to lean on if Jones or Adams are covered, he’s got the second-most receiving TDs on the team (11), he hasn’t dropped a pass in his last 77 targets, and he averages over 11 yds/reception. If Rodgers can’t get the ball to his normal two play-makers then watch for Tonyan to possibly have a monster game.

5. The weather will play a factor

Currently, the weather at kickoff in Green Bay is predicted to be below freezing, with a strong possibility of precipitation–which will likely be snow or freezing rain–this means the ball will be tougher to catch and tougher to hold onto the ball if you’re not accustomed to how the weather affects it.

Now we all know Tom Brady, and Rob Gronkowski for that matter, are both used to cold, snowy games and how they affect the ball, the gloves, the field, and the crowd, but not everyone on Tampa’s team has much experience. Especially since many of Brady’s teammates (i.e. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Ronald Jones, and Leonard Fournette) have all been accustomed to Florida weather for the bulk of their collegiate and professional careers.

With that being said, Green Bay is a very homegrown team and most of their players are willing and ready to show what they can do when the weather is not 72 degrees and sunny, mainly because they’ve done it so often before, so if there is snow on the ground look for Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay to look more composed than “Tompa” Bay.

  • AFC Championship: #2 Buffalo Bills @ #1 Kansas City Chiefs (-3), Sunday @ 5:40 PM Central Time

*The previous meeting between these two teams ended with Kansas City winning 26-17*

  1. Mahomes health needs to be monitored

With Mahomes exiting in scary fashion during last week’s Divisional Round matchup against the Browns a lot of people believed him to be unable to come back to 100% by the time this game came around.

Low and behold Mahomes cleared the concussion protocol Friday afternoon and is apparently “good to go” for Sunday (below), which is great news for all Chiefs fans worldwide, but that does not mean that Coach Andy Reid and the Chiefs should not be extremely careful moving forward.

If the Chiefs’ offensive line is allowing pressure to come through early in the game and give Mahomes fits then Coach Reid’s game plan may have to change to a run-heavy offense to try and establish the run and keep Mahomes off his head, neck and every other area of the $500 million man’s body.

2. Expose the secondary

Both teams have had explosive games in the secondary, like Kansas City’s 4-turnover game against Denver in Week 7 or Buffalo’s 101-yard pick-six last week against Baltimore, but both teams actually rank very close to the middle when it comes to the pass defense statistics.

According to Lineups, Buffalo has allowed the 13th-fewest yards through the air (3,726), while Kansas City is right behind them at 14th-fewest (3,779). Not only that, the Bills and Chiefs both rank between 9th-20th in every major passing category.

If either team is going to win this game they are going to have to expose certain holes in the secondary, the Bills’ secondary is strong in certain spots (i.e. Tre’Davious White) but surprisingly the secondary is weakest wherever 33-year old Josh Norman lines up–could Mahomes target him with a mismatch like Mecole’s speed or Kelce’s size?

On the other side of the ball Chiefs, S Tyrann Mathieu is the shining star on the defensive side of the ball, picking the ball off seven times this year–one being last week against Cleveland–and only allowing a 54.6 passer rating (2nd-best among CBs) when targeting him (according to PlayerProfile).

While Mathieu and rookie CB L’Jarius Sneed are both tough to throw against they will ultimately be challenged by the speed and strength of some of the best receivers left in the playoffs; look for Josh Allen to target younger players on the Chiefs secondary like CB Charvarius Ward (allowing a 107.6 passer rating) or CB Rashad Fenton (allowing an 88.5 passer rating) in order to methodically poke holes in the Chiefs secondary.

3. Don’t abandon the run

With news that Chiefs RBs Le’Veon Bell (knee) and rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle/hip) are questionable to play Sunday, and that Bills RB Zack Moss will be out after having surgery on his ankle this week, the running game may seem like it will take a backseat to the arm power between Mahomes and Allen.

That should not happen though because defending the run is where both these teams have had occasionally-terrible outings throughout the season. For example, the Chiefs huge rushing day (245 rush yds) at Buffalo in week 6 or the 183 rushing yards KC allowed to the Chargers in the Chiefs’ week 2 overtime victory.

Last week’s matchup between Buffalo and Baltimore showed that the Bills don’t want to run the ball when they can let rising star Josh Allen sling it wherever and whenever he wants. In fact, the Bills only gained 32 rushing yards when the game was over and didn’t even attempt a scripted run play until the second quarter, becoming the first team ever to do that in the playoffs.

The Bills and Chiefs both played against run-heavy offenses last week in the Divisional Round and, in doing so, put the recent slander about their respective rush defenses to rest by dominating the line of scrimmage, pushing offensive linemen backwards, and closing holes quickly. This led to the Ravens only scoring 3 points against Buffalo and forced the Browns to rely on Baker Mayfield’s arm.

No matter how bad it may be looking for either team on the ground they shouldn’t go strictly pass-only unless they’re positive about whether the opposing defense is playing man or zone, or unless they’re positive that they will have the mismatch in their favor.

4. Blitz at your own risk

Both these QBs are good on their feet, they can find the holes in the defense with their eyes and their legs, which means that both these defenses need to blitz very carefully and at their own risk.

Even though the Bills got ran up and down the field by the Chiefs’ rushing attack during their previous meeting they continued to play as if Mahomes was going to go over the top of them with his arm, only blitzing him one time during the Week 6 matchup. In the end, the weather was simply too foggy and rainy for the passing game to truly be dominant, which is how the Chiefs came away with the huge rushing game and the W.

The game plan to not blitz Mahomes in week 6 will most likely still be in effect for Sunday’s Conference Championship game, mainly due to the fact that Mahomes has a passer rating of 135.3 (T-1st) when extra defenders are coming at him.

Meanwhile, Josh Allen has become just as dangerous against the blitz, tossing a league-high 19 touchdown passes when the defense applies added pressure, meaning he and Mahomes should both make defensive coordinators weary to blitz.

During this game watch for successful blitzes by both teams, they will likely be rare or end in a throwaway but eventually a sack or two will come from perfect reads and quick attacks from QB spies or designed cornerback blitzes, these could dictate the game or put either QB in long predicaments.

5. The weather could dictate the game plan once again

Although the weather will not be nearly as cold–or as snowy–as Green Bay will appear earlier Sunday afternoon, and it won’t be as wet or as foggy as Week 6’s showdown between these two teams, it will still be somewhat cold (nearing 40 degrees at kickoff) and could have a light drizzle and 5-15 mph gusts throughout the game (according to meteorologist Gary Lezak).

This will mean that throwing could be dangerous, for both the offense and the defense, it was especially evident when the ball got wet during the last matchup between these two when Kansas City fumbled the ball twice and there were multiple instances of players slipping on Buffalo’s wet AstroTurf.

If the game does end up becoming and staying, rainy and wet then look for the Chiefs to try and get the same Darrel Williams performance that he gave Kansas City last week (13 carries, 4 receptions, 94 total yds) even if Edwards-Helaire is back in pads.

If the rain dissipates and the game air becomes dry then one would expect Mahomes and Allen’s passing stats to skyrocket through a slew of deep balls and trick plays, no matter what the weather will be a big deciding factor in the way these two teams attack the other.

No matter what happens, this will be a historic day for the NFL as this truly confusing, sometimes-infuriating, hodgepodge of a season has come down to the final four teams. These games will likely be some of the highest-viewed games of the season, and possibly of the past few seasons, especially considering the multiple storylines on both sides.

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