The NFL is better with Tom Brady in the NFC. He gave life to an organization dormant for nearly two decades and set up twisty plot points in a season that needed it. It doesn’t get much better than Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady for the right to go to Super Bowl LV, unless you prefer Josh Allen vs. Patrick Mahomes (hopefully) in the AFC.
It almost felt cruel to watch what likely was the end of Drew Brees’ career come at the hands of Brady, who, at 43 years old, just helped his team win two straight playoff games, a feat that Brees only accomplished once in his NFL tenure. But it also was remarkable to see Brady making just enough great throws in the Superdome, the place where his legend truly began 19 years ago. The Bucs’ upset of the Saints on Sunday wasn’t nearly as surprising as Super Bowl XXXVI against the Greatest Show on Turf, but it shared a similar vibe of Brady finishing what his defense started.
The Bucs first made it clear they were Super Bowl contenders back in Week 6, when they stomped the Packers and changed the expectations for their season. They were title contenders all along, despite undertaking a circuitous route to the NFL’s Final Four that was aided by a helpful schedule. Like so many of Brady’s teams, they have adjusted well within games and late in the season. The Saints were a matchup problem to overcome, and Tampa pulled it off, even if it wasn’t pretty.
Despite all the familiar names (Reid! Rodgers! Mahomes! Brady!) still onscreen in late January, Brady playing in Pewter makes this Championship Sunday feel fresher. The Bills’ chance to ease Scott Norwood’s pain is another beautiful diversion. All four potential Super Bowl matchups look fantastic, and there are no heavy favorites left, because all the teams still standing are simply too good.
With that in mind, here’s a first look at 16 things to watch on Championship Sunday:
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET (FOX) | Lambeau Field
1) Aaron Rodgers will not have the same limitations as Brees when he faces the Bucs’ defense next week. Tampa’s secondary has been boom-or-bust all year, like so many Todd Bowles groups. They can give up big plays or they can pick off four passes. Rodgers made poor decisions against the blitz last time against Tampa, when he completed less than half his passes and threw zero TDs, but that is unlikely to happen again. He’s going to test them vertically far more than Brees or Taylor Heinicke could.
2) The Packers have to be thrilled with the development of pass-rusher Rashan Gary late in the year. He adds more juice on the edge than veteran Preston Smith and allows the team to be creative in how it deploys Za’Darius Smith. Gary had seven pressures against the Rams and combined with Kenny Clark for three sacks. The Packers need to bother Brady more than they did the first time the teams played.
3) Against the Packers in October, Carlton Davis did as good a job as any cornerback all season on Davante Adams. That will be tough to repeat, but Davis should be ultra confident coming off a game in which he shut down Michael Thomas.
4) Packers coach Matt LaFleur has quietly kept a run-heavy approach going all season. That shouldn’t change against Tampa. Despite the Bucs’ impressive numbers overall against the run, they have looked vulnerable against the Vikings, the Falcons and in both playoff games. LaFleur stays balanced with his play-calling, and it’s worked.
5) A lot went wrong for the Bucs’ offense on Sunday in New Orleans, where they had their worst performance since before their Week 13 bye. But Brady’s underrated offensive line mostly held up, with the Saints’ strong defensive line getting only one quarterback hit. If Brady stays that clean, he should put up more yards against a Packers secondary that is not as deep as New Orleans in the back seven.
6) The Bucs’ running game is quietly improving by the week. I thought Sunday’s tilt changed when Tampa started picking up chunks with Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette on the final drive of the first half, a trend that continued after halftime against a great Saints run defense. The Packers’ run defense is far from great, and Jones, who ran with great aggression in his return from injury Sunday, picked up 113 yards last time against the Packers.
7) When it comes to offensive play-calling, I trust the Packers more than the Bucs. Tampa’s predictable tendency to run on first down and throw deep on third-and-short could have cost them against the Saints if the Bucs defense hadn’t forced four turnovers. The Packers, meanwhile, rarely seem to hit third down these days. The mind meld between Rodgers and LaFleur grows stronger each week, with more open receivers than I remember in any season during the Mike McCarthy era.
8) Some potential playoff shootouts on paper this season haven’t worked out that way in reality, including Ravens-Bills, Ravens-Titans and Browns-Chiefs. But both offenses in this NFC title game should hold a distinct advantage over their defensive counterparts. As the Packers showed against the Rams, great offense beats great defense, even in cold weather. Neither of these defenses are great. I expect Brady and Rodgers to put on a show.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET (CBS) | Arrowhead Stadium
1) Patrick Mahomes’ health following a third-quarter concussion suffered Sunday could determine the AFC champion, which would be disappointing. Don’t listen to any armchair doctors on Twitter throughout the week. Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s initially sunny, if vague, comments on Mahomes following the game were encouraging, though on Monday, Reid said Mahomes remains in the concussion protocol.
2) Could the Chiefs win an entire game with Chad Henne at quarterback? Based on Henne’s solid overall play in limited work in Kansas City, along with Reid’s genius and the Chiefs’ mental toughness, I would give them a chance. But not much of one! Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
3) The Chiefs’ injury report is one to watch outside of Mahomes. Wideout Sammy Watkins, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and linebacker Willie Gay are all key players who missed Sunday’s Divisional Round win over the Browns. It’s probably safe to assume tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who hasn’t played since Week 6, isn’t coming back for this game, either, but the trio above should have a chance. The Chiefs could use as much offensive depth as they can muster next week after Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce carried them with over 100 yards each against Cleveland.
4) Kansas City’s running game was decisive in the Chiefs’ steamrolling of the Bills back in October. Will Andy Reid trust it again?
After that Week 6 win, in which Kansas City racked up 245 yards on the ground, the running game went into hiding for the second half of the season, with huge troubles in short-yardage situations. On Sunday, however, sudden Chiefs starter Darrel Williams was vital to the victory effort. Reid still chose not to run the ball in obvious run situations late in the game despite Mahomes’ absence, but Williams was highly effective, logging 78 yards on 13 carries. Mahomes was also limping because of a toe injury on Sunday, so any threat on the ground would be vital against a light, fast Bills defense that will likely be geared up to stop the pass.
5) The Bills survived a playoff game against the Colts where their defense gave up 472 yards, then one against the Ravens where their boffo offense managed only 220 yards and 10 points. The Bills will likely need both sides of the ball to play well to beat the Chiefs, but I consider the ability to win games in different ways to be the mark of a strong team. That’s been the story of the Chiefs winning close games all season, and it was the story of the Patriots’ two-decade reign in the AFC. (The Chiefs remember well losing 37-31 to Brady in Arrowhead in the 2018 playoffs before watching the Patriots scrape out a 13-3 win in Super Bowl LIII.)
Consider it a good sign that the Bills are in the AFC title match without having played a complete playoff game yet.
6) The Chiefs’ defense stepped up on Sunday, with their stars Tyrann Mathieu and Chris Jones leading the way. But I can’t envision them slowing down Josh Allen for four quarters like the Ravens did, or even like the Chiefs themselves did back in Week 6. The Ravens provided one blueprint to follow, refraining from blitzing, dropping back into coverage and making Allen be patient. But the Bills adjusted in the second half, and the Chiefs don’t have the same personnel in the secondary to make the strategy as effective as it was for Baltimore.
7) This Bills’ offense, which was dominant down the stretch, still needs all its key pieces to play well on Sunday. The offensive line is on a roll. I’m not worried about Allen or Stefon Diggs, the AFC’s answer to Rodgers and Adams. But Cole Beasley, who has been dealing with a knee injury, hasn’t looked 100 percent; he and Gabriel Davis had zero catches on six combined targets against the Ravens. The backfield is also thinner without backup running back Zack Moss, who was lost for the rest of the postseason in the Wild Card Round. It’s going to take the full Bills arsenal firing to keep up in a shootout, assuming Mahomes plays.
8) The coaching matchup in this game is outstanding. Bills coach Sean McDermott, like so many others, once worked under Reid in Philadelphia. After Reid’s show of bravado on Sunday, I want to see what he has in store for an encore. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll also changes his plan dramatically each week, like when the Bills only ran the ball three times in the first half against Baltimore. That’s a game plan Big Red would be proud of, and it hints at a pass-wacky matchup between the two best young quarterbacks in football this season. At least, we hope both quarterbacks are available. A great weekend of games was marred by the injuries to Lamar Jackson and Mahomes, and I’ve seen enough from backup quarterbacks in these playoffs, with all due respect to Henne’s understudy turn as 2001 Drew Bledsoe.
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