Here are the matchups we’ll be watching closely in this weekend’s NFL conference championship games:
Much has been made about Tampa Bay having to play in the cold weather at Lambeau. Don’t let that affect your thinking about this game. It might matter a little for some players, but it won’t be as big a factor as it might have been for the Rams. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown are used to playing big games in adverse conditions. Regardless of the weather, I would look for Brady to lean on his veterans in Gronk and AB on Sunday.
A much bigger key for Tampa Bay will be to remain balanced. It was very impressive in last week’s win over New Orleans that they ran the ball 35 times and passed 33 times. They have to stay balanced this week as well.
Green Bay finished in the middle of the pack in run defense – which is actually pretty impressive considering how poor they were against the run early in the season. Cam Akers averaged 5 yards per carry last week against the Packers; the combination of Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette will need to be effective for Tampa Bay.
When the Packers have the ball, Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has to bring pressure – they can’t let Aaron Rodgers beat them with his feet. And they have to tackle very, very well. Unlike last week, when Drew Brees didn’t throw any passes more than 20 yards down field, the Bucs can expect to be challenged early and often by Rodgers. Tampa has to bring pressure – but they need to get there with four. With that defensive line, they should be able to. They need to keep Rodgers in the pocket, double Davante Adams and make someone else beat them. Green Bay will take its shots down the field with Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. How they fare on those shots could be the difference.
Despite the injury concerns this week, I don’t think there’s any question that Patrick Mahomes will play in Sunday. And there’s no question he’ll be throwing the ball all over the lot. The question is: Will he be less aggressive with his feet? On third-and-1, are they going to run the same play they ran that he got hurt on last week? If his injury situation shows up at all, it’s going to be in the running game and not the passing game.
And as far as that passing game goes, it will be up to the Bills to limit the run after the catch. With Tyreek Hill and others, the Chiefs’ receivers are so explosive with the ball in their hands, so tackling will be at a premium in this game. Buffalo is going to have to play a lot of two- and three-deep zone and make Mahomes throw the underneath pass. Tackle well and make them have to work at moving the ball down field.
When Buffalo has the ball, the key will be keeping Josh Allen in the pocket. The Chiefs bring a lot of pressure but don’t get a ton of sacks – and that’s okay. They just need to bring enough pressure to keep Allen in the pocket. Compress the pocket and make it uncomfortable for him. Allen is like a young Ben Roethlisberger – he’s hard to tackle. The key is to contain him.
Cole Beasley will move the sticks for Buffalo in the passing game, but the Bills need Stefon Diggs to make some big plays. If Diggs can match the big-play ability of Tyreek Hill on the other aside, that gives Buffalo the best chance.