We’ve reached the time in the football season where I start to use my self-guided theories to pick games, because I’ve failed for too long with conventional logic. I will try and delve into it here, weaving my thoughts on the divisional round with my insight on the two conference championship games. These are, admittedly, flawed theories, and yet they’ve served me well more often than not. I believe that sports runs in cycles, and the best experts are the ones who can combine conventional wisdom with what is simply “due,” a blend of trends and whatever the eye test produces in terms of a team’s confidence and momentum.
I am rather ashamed with myself because for years, I’ve been so astute at picking Tom Brady games based on my theory that Brady is, in fact, an immortal god that is not only destined to win quite often, but that his stats and records often produce very symbolic and symmetrical results. I should have known that Brady would, in fact, finally win two road games in a postseason to put to rest the notion that he only won so often as a Patriot because they were always playing at home (Brady was 4-4 on the road in his career prior to this season). I should have also known that, even though Drew Brees, who has had pretty good success against Brady teams in his career, became the first QB to sweep a Brady team in the regular season, there was no way Lord Brady would lose thrice to the same foe in a season. Especially in the first, long-overdue playoff encounter between these two greats.
By that same notion, there was no way on earth that the Chiefs would lose to the Browns. That became even more evident when Kansas City still won with Chad Henne under center. Andy Reid has had a lot of playoff disappointment in his career, but now he has a QB comparable to Brady in greatness who will be winning significantly more playoff games than he loses. This is Reid’s well-deserved reward, I suppose, for being a “quarterback whisperer” who never actually had the great signal-caller he needed to reign a dynasty in Philadelphia or in his early years in KC. Now, with Brady out of the AFC and the Steelers reeling back to the pack and the Chiefs’ path now clear in terms of traditional blue-bloods, Reid possesses the bravado to throw on fourth-and-inches to ice a game after being maligned for years for his poor clock management and conservative play-calling.
This produces a fitting segue to this week’s AFC title game matchup with another newcomer on the block, the Bills. It will be Reid and the Chiefs’ third straight championship game at Arrowhead, and you can’t help but think that after going 1-4 in home championship games (just as Bill Cowher was in his Steelers career), Reid is due to flip the switch and win a couple. But we’ll get into that more just as soon as we rip on the Browns a little. Likely Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski turned into the Reid of old, punting away the Browns’ last chance to possess the football after blowing two timeouts that his team could not afford. Looks like the perennial choker Reid has in fact become the choke-ee (let’s pretend that’s a word).
In other games, the Packers put up 32 points against the league’s top-ranked defense, which is impressive even given Aaron Donald’s limitations. There is hope that the NFL still has one remaining team with a shot to put up enough points to counter the Chiefs’ attack and prevent KC from repeating as champions.
I don’t believe the Bills’ defense is nearly as good as it looked against the Ravens. For one thing, Baltimore lacks an actual passing attack, and the cold weather and crowd noise (say what?! Crowd noise in 2021?!) hindered Baltimore much more than anything Buffalo did. One poor decision followed by a concussion was all she wrote for the Ravens, who I suppose were a little spent from their emotional win at Tennessee the week before. We can’t expect the Ravens to keep adding to their road postseason records, can we?
And then there are the Bucs. What can you say about a city that has given its citizens a glimmer of hope in the doldrums of 2020-21 with stellar play from its sports teams? If the Bucs fail to advance to the Super Bowl in their home stadium (the Vikings can relate to being oh-so-close three years ago), they’ll follow a step-back pattern as the Lightning won it all, the Rays got to the World Series and lost, and the Bucs will have reached the league semifinals, if you will. Who could’ve thought Tom Brady would be the one to take the city’s proverbial bronze medal?
Still, you can’t help but think the Saints also had a hand in the Bucs win just as the Ravens did with the Bills. Three picks thrown by a clearly-not-back-to-full-strength Drew Brees (not to mention only 134 yards passing)? A fumble by the ever-reliable Jared Cook? Jameis Winston being responsible for half of the Saints touchdown passes?! The Saints were not up to snuff and it seemed like the dam was ready to break at any moment for Brees in likely his final game ever. That’s not the way we envisioned Brees exiting the NFL, but hey, at least he didn’t lose 62-7 like Dan Marino did in his final game in the 1999 divisional round, right?
Okay, let’s fast forward back to the present and look at the two games. Hey, Chad Henne was a great story last week for the Chiefs, but there’s not a prayer that Patrick Mahomes doesn’t return to play this week. Even a 75% healthy Mahomes is probably a tick better than Josh Allen. Will it be enough? As we examine two games that will be rematches of Week 6 affairs, let’s hold off for a second as we tackle the NFC game first:
Last week: 2-2
Overall: 29-27 (51.8%)
Buccaneers at Packers (buying to -3 at -135)
Brady vs. Rodgers. Here we go. The world was deprived of this juicy matchup in Super Bowl XLIX thanks to Brandon Bostick’s horrific botched onside kick recovery in the NFC title game. The real shame is that the Packers had a great shot to beat New England, because as you know if you’ve read this blog, the Pack possessed the one key to beating the Patriots: beating the Patriots. Green Bay had taken away Bill Belichick’s coaching magic and intimidation because it had beat New England earlier that season, 26-21. But it was not meant to be… until now.
Six years later, Brady is still balling at 43, and Rodgers is back in the NFC title game for the fifth time in his career. The problem for Green Bay is, both QBs are trending in opposite directions in terms of recent history in this spot. Brady, 9-4 lifetime in conference championship games (all in the AFC of course), has won his last three. Rodgers, 1-3 lifetime in championship games, has dropped three straight after winning his first in 2010. But none of those have been at Lambeau Field. Green Bay also dropped its last conference title game at home, losing in overtime to the Giants (who went on to beat Brady’s undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl). Can A-Rod buck the trend and also avoid losing two years in a row in this round?
Something tells me he can. Granted, I don’t know exactly what that “something” is, maybe just the law of averages that I sort of alluded to earlier. Will Rodgers lose four straight? Will Brady reach his 10th Super Bowl? If anyone were to finally lead his team to a home Super Bowl game it would be Brady, but it just feels like Green Bay is playing too well to succumb to Brady and his aura. The key will be fixing what went wrong in their first meeting, which, admittedly, was quite a lot. 38 unanswered points? Hopefully for the Packers it was the Florida heat that got to them as much as the Bucs’ defense, but we can’t be sure what happened in that 38-10 walloping in Week 6. (Fun side note: in 2008, the last time the Super Bowl was played in Tampa, the NFC title game featured the Eagles, coached by Andy Reid, at the Cardinals. In the regular season on Thanksgiving night, the Cardinals were annihilated on the road by 28 points, 48-20, but ended up winning the rematch at home, just as the Packers are attempting to do.)
There is so much temptation to pick the Bucs. First team to host a Super Bowl, and who better than Brady to do it? Another Tampa sports title within reach. Seven — SEVEN!! — rings for Brady, perhaps. But I can’t ignore the fact that I just don’t think the Buccaneers are that good. Yes, they dismantled the Packers (their only win over a team with a winning record until last week). Yes, they have a bunch of ex-Patriots stars in Brady, Gronk, and Antonio Brown. And yes their defense is playing very well. But the Packers, at Lambeau, with a superstar quarterback and pretty good defense of their own, are too tough to bet against. Pick: Packers.
Buffalo at Kansas City (-3)
Let Dr. Draft America clear up one thing for anyone wondering — Patrick Mahomes WILL play on Sunday. And he will play well. I cannot see Mahomes sitting in this spot, nor can I see him losing two playoff games at home before he’s even had a chance to lose (or play, for that matter) one on the road. Buffalo has had a magical season, but can it really go to 5-1 in AFC championship games all time? Again, I don’t see it. And again, I can’t see Reid falling to 2-6 in conference title games, the same way I couldn’t see Denver falling to 2-6 all-time in Super Bowls when I picked them to upset Carolina five years ago.
The thing people don’t seem to realize with the Chiefs is that their offense is actually unstoppable. They not only didn’t punt with Mahomes in the game, they didn’t punt at all Sunday, period. The Chiefs had an opportunity to score every single time they had the ball, and that includes the drive that ended when Chad Henne essentially threw a downfield punt for an interception in the end zone. And yet it was Henne at the end who sealed the game with his legs before making a throw to officially ice it with his arm. Buffalo’s defense is a bit better than Cleveland’s, but not enough to make a real impact. And it’s so hard to ignore how good the Chiefs have been in close games this year. Some people point to that and say there’s a lot of luck involved, but winning close games is always a hallmark of a great team. Not to mention, the Chiefs always get out to big leads so they’re able to relax a little or at least operate with some margin for error.
Give the Bills credit for only losing by nine in a Week 6 meeting in which they were outgained 466-206. They simply could not stop Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who may or may not play this time around. But hey, they did force two Chiefs punts! So there’s hope, right? Uhhhh….. Pick: Chiefs.