Super Bowl

NFL Championship Sunday game picks: Buccaneers edge Packers; Chiefs outlast Bills

Gregg Rosenthal went 3-1 on his predictions for the Divisional Round of the 2020 NFL season, bringing his total record to 174-90-1. How will he fare on Championship Sunday? His picks are below.

In addition, the NFL has a spicy new free-to-play game for the playoffs called NFL Pick ‘Em Party. Rosenthal chooses his favorite Pick’ Em questions under each game this week. You can make your own picks for your chance to travel with a friend to next year’s Super Bowl in Los Angeles.

Sunday, Jan. 24

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31, Green Bay Packers 30

3:05 p.m. ET (FOX) | Lambeau Field (Green Bay, Wis.)

It’s not just that we all get to watch Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers in a surreal NFC Championship Game. It’s that we get to watch them playing at this level, with Rodgers trying to cap an MVP season and Brady performing like a top-five quarterback again while younger members of his generation decline or retire.

I expect both quarterbacks to ball out Sunday because they will be well protected. In a league where pass rushers had supposedly gained the upper hand, the Packers and Bucs’ offensive lines should win up front. Perhaps second-year pass rusher Rashan Gary’s emergence outside will allow Za'Darius Smith to get pressure up the middle against backup Bucs guard Aaron Stinnie. Perhaps Shaquil Barrett can turn the clock back to 2019 for a week against backup Packers tackle Rick Wagner. It’s more likely that the quarterbacks will control the pass rush and get rid of the ball like they have all season.

One exception for Rodgers was the 38-10 loss at Tampa in Week 6, when Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles dictated effective blitzes. That strategy is unlikely to work as well again, and the boom-or-bust approach could give Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard chances for big plays, while Davante Adams is presumably double-teamed by Carlton Davis and a safety. I’m not worried about the Packers offense putting up points, but I am worried about Mike Pettine’s defense being the worst unit in this game.

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Both of these quarterbacks are incredible at adjusting. Brady should be able to diagnose the Packers’ plan, which can only cover up Green Bay’s shortcomings at linebacker and in the secondary so much. For all the attention paid to the Packers’ front office not drafting a wide receiver last April, what this team really needs is another cornerback or two. (Yes, Green Bay has spent a lot of draft capital there recently. No, it hasn’t bore enough fruit.) A linebacker like Devin White or Lavonte David wouldn’t hurt, either. The Bucs are deep at the skill positions, and their running game, led by Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, is peaking at the right time. In a game that I believe will be decided by which team has the ball last, I give the slight edge to Brady closing this one out like he has so many times before.

NFL Pick ‘Em Party locks:

  1. There will be more than 13 points scored in the fourth quarter. Be prepared to take a long walk to relax and process after this one.
  2. Aaron Jones will have a play of 15 or more yards from scrimmage before Mike Evans. This one is all about my faith in Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander.

Kansas City Chiefs 31, Buffalo Bills 27

6:40 p.m. ET (CBS) | Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Mo.)

I’m picking this game as if Patrick Mahomes will start. While I have worshipped at the Church of Modern Day Offense since Andy Reid was calling passes to James Thrash and Todd Pinkston late in games with a lead, and while I believe that #HenneThingIsPossible, I will not pick the Chiefs if they are forced to start their backup quarterback. That swings the balance too much in an otherwise-even matchup. (UPDATE: Mahomes told the media Friday he has cleared concussion protocol and will play Sunday.)

The Chiefs need Mahomes against Buffalo because their defense isn’t holding its opponent to 17 points, like the unit did last week against the Browns. Bashaud Breeland, perhaps K.C.’s best cornerback from an overachieving group, may miss a game where the matchups favor the Bills. No one can cover Stefon Diggs, and John Brown is back to normal. A fully healthy Cole Beasley would only add to the challenge, and keep an eye on Bills tight end Dawson Knox, especially when Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen is against him in coverage. Kansas City’s pass rush has been missing in action for most of the season and struggled to pressure Baker Mayfield even when they sent extra defenders. Don’t be surprised if K.C. takes a page out of Baltimore’s effective playbook, drops back into coverage and forces Josh Allen to hold the ball as long as possible. The Chiefs, however, don’t have enough players in the back end to make it work.

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Allen has improved as much in one season as any quarterback in memory, with his decision-making growing sharper. But he’s still behind in his development compared to his quarterbacking counterpart on Sunday. Mahomes’ performance against the Browns — and in the first Chiefs-Bills meeting — showed why he’s different this season. He’s patient. He’s avoiding negative plays, taking the easy throws when presented and saving Full Mahomes for when it’s absolutely necessary. The longest completion he had against Cleveland came on a push pass that was essentially a run. There will be holes in a Bills defense without a difference-making pass rush and with cornerback Tre'Davious White slumping over the last month. The ability of the Chiefs’ rushing attack to get big yards last week was a promising development for Kansas City, especially if Clyde Edwards-Helaire is back on Sunday.

Mahomes’ toe, which appeared to impact a few throws last week, is a concern, considering how often his legs have set up the Chiefs’ biggest playoff moments. But I’m picking Mahomes and Reid until proven otherwise, with the better quarterback and the better coach being the ultimate tiebreaker between two teams ready to win a title.

NFL Pick ‘Em Party locks:

  1. Patrick Mahomes’ longest completion will be 42 yards or fewer. The Bills’ defensive strength is at safety, where Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are experts at preventing big plays.
  2. Josh Allen will achieve two of the following three benchmarks: 305 passing yards, 30 rushing yards, four total touchdowns. The Bills use Allen’s legs more in the playoffs, are allergic to handing the ball off and could be in a rare position of trailing in this game. The yardage benchmarks should be easy.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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