Championship Weekend Preview: What Will Be The Deciding Factors In Sunday's Games?

And then there were four. As the season careens towards a thrilling climax, Owen Ravenna looks at the matchups in Sunday’s championship games that could determine who heads to The Superbowl:

AFC: Buffalo Bills @ Kansas City Chiefs

Championship Weekend Preview
Credit: Jay Biggerstaff (USA Today Sports)

After surviving against their AFC North foes in the Divisional Round, the top two seeds of the AFC face off for their chance at a Super Bowl. While both have dominated opponents through their offensive firepower this season, it was their defenses that produced crucial stops and were central to victory.

While this game looks to be a shootout on the surface, a defensive showing by either team will swing the battle heavily in their favour. Buffalo possess the better playmakers on defense, but face the best offense they’ve come up against since the Chiefs in Week 6, when the former were outmatched 26-17. While the Bills showed they can blitz successfully against the Ravens, the Chiefs will thrive with quick passes if the Bills leave themselves exposed, especially with the Chiefs’ OL better in pass protection than Baltimore. Instead, Buffalo will use a four man rush and contain QB Patrick Mahomes, who appears to be on track to play, relying on their secondary holding their own against the Chiefs’ receivers.

While the speed of WRs Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle could test the Bills’ CBs, playing one Safety downfield and the other in deeper Cover 1 will potentially reduce Hill being open on slant and underneath in routes, where his RAC skills pose problems. The deeper Safety will be to prevent broken coverages, as well as provide a last line of defense for any receivers that get behind the CBs. While CB Tre’Davious White will be able to handle the WR2, the Bills lack a DB that can play man successfully against Hill. Further compounding their issues is TE Travis Kelce, as the Bills have been susceptible against TEs this season. While LBs Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano will be able to cover him over the middle on shorter routes, once Kelce is used to attack the outside and moves to the sideline, Buffalo will be compromised. If they shift to double coverage with two DBs, Hill will be in single coverage, and able to attack more vertically. So that they aren’t picked apart all game, Buffalo may line up in 4-3 more than usual, with the extra LB playing zone coverage in the flat, or used on blitz packages so that Mahomes doesn’t have time to throw or find receivers.

Their DL will get chances, but The Chiefs will also seek to exploit the Bills’ mediocre run defense with their zone run scheme, hoping the nickel formations they see will leave holes up the middle. Additionally, fake handoffs to the RBs up the middle and end arounds to the speedy WRs will catch the Bills out, and the Safety coming off the edge will need to be wary of pre-snap motions and WRs in the backfield. The Chiefs will seek to attack through the air mostly, but may find more successful running the ball, and with plays that build on the run game, including TE and RB screens, jet sweeps and end arounds. Buffalo’s own rushing attack was neglected last week, likely after they saw how the Ravens shut down the Titans in the wildcard round.

However, the Bills will use a more balanced approach in this game, as they look to explore the average run defense of the Chiefs, which was gashed for 5.3 yards per carry by the Browns’ RBs in the Divisional Round. Buffalo will use more inside zone and at times increase their 2 TE sets, so that they can create extra holes, and will favour their RBs chances against the Chiefs’ LBs. Kansas City will need to hit the A, B and C gaps with their DL and LBs, using the extra Safety they typically have on the weak side. Buffalo’s rushing offense is far from what Cleveland’s is, but they should be able tp pick up sufficient yards on the ground to move the chains and give themselves favourable 3rd and short situations. However, the bulk of the Bills’ offense will come through the air, as they have a matchup advantage of their own with their WRs against the Chiefs’ DBs.

While TE Dawson Knox will provide a target at times on out routes and intermediate hitch and curl routes, he will mostly be negated by one of the Safeties, most likely Daniel Sorenson. However, taking one of the Safeties out of the equation will create more space for the WRs to operate. Cole Beasley will predominantly be used on short crossing routes, with the other 2 WRs on a vertical outside route and an intermediate or deeper in route. Typically Stefon Diggs is the latter, and the Chiefs will double cover him for the majority of the game, with Safety Juan Thornhill over the top and one of the CBs trying to stay underneath and/or inside to restrict the passing lanes.

The Chiefs’ key defensive piece in this game is Safety Tyrann Mathieu, who will be used all over the field. Mathieu will be used in coverage at times, when blitzing, and partially to spy QB Josh Allen so that he doesn’t have large plays on the ground. The Bills will aim to get him moving on rollouts and bootlegs, which is where Mathieu can be used to prevent some of the easier completions. While the defenses are similarly positioned, the Chiefs have a slight edge in their offensive firepower. The Bills might be able to go blow for blow at first, but in a prolonged shootout, look to fall short when it’s all said and done.

NFC: Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Green Bay Packers

Championship Weekend Preview
Credit: Mike Ehrmann (Getty Images)

The NFC Conference Championship is predominantly a matter of strength on strength, as the defensive might of the Buccaneers takes on the offensive firepower of the Packers. Tampa Bay was able to force 4 turnovers as they disposed of the Saints, although their secondary will have a much tougher time against Green Bay, who can stretch the field more effectively. The Packers’ passing attack uses a mixture of deep and short throws which will create space on the outside as the game progresses.

WRs Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling will be used as vertical receivers, with Lazard predominantly along the sideline. The Buccaneers lack 2 CBs that can hold their own on these deeper routes, and will be reliant on Safeties Antoine Winfield Jr and Jordan Whitehead being able to provide help over the top. The Buccaneers don’t constantly play Cover 2, but will need to if the Packers are threatening downfield persistently. This will leave their top CB, Carlos Davis, in single coverage against WR Davante Adams over the middle, and the Buccaneers will be vulnerable against his slants and double moves. Tampa Bay need to keep LB Devin White in a zone over the middle so that Adams doesn’t have open space to run behind him, and hope that Davis doesn’t allow too much separation after the snap.

Fellow LB Lavonte David will need to cover the flats on the backside, as Green Bay use TE Robert Tonyan on short out routes and TE release plays, especially on play action and fake handoffs to the RB, with Tonyan open as the play moves to the other side of the field. Guarding against these plays, and limiting Adams’ influence, will give Tampa Bay the chances they need to avoid falling behind. When they played earlier this season, Green Bay managed just 10 points in the first quarter, before being shutout for the remainder of the game. Yet, across the regular season, the Packers scored 219 points in the second quarter, with their next highest less than half of that in the 3rd and 4th quarters. Green Bay succeeded in this way by increasing their run plays as the game went on – partly because they had a lead and were closing out games, but also because their passing attack opened up the ground game after the first quarter.

The Packers will use a combination of RBs, with Aaron Jones on the outside and as a receiver, while AJ Dillon (if healthy) will provide power runs up the middle. Tampa Bay have been one of the best against the run, and their defensive front has been the reason why. With their 3-man DL and OLBs able to close rushing lanes and win one-on-one matchups, the Packers will use TE Marcedes Lewis to help block, but if their passing attack is restricted, their run game will be even more so. Conversely, the Buccaneers have a similar mindset and are a pass-first offense, but will use their rushing attack to pick up small gains, hoping for bigger plays if they occur. With RB Ronald Jones improving and closer to full health, the Buccaneers can again use their rotation of Jones and Leonard Fournette. Jones will see a restricted role, primarily as a receiver, but will get some carries heading either side of the OTs. Fournette will provide a power back up the middle predominantly, but will also have chances as a receiver in the flat. The Packers will use their LBs, especially Rashan Gary, to close up holes through the middle, but are reliant on their DBs contributing if either RB gets to the outside.

The Buccaneers’ passing game, however, needs to be at its best, and not as inconsistent as it has been for much of the season. Tampa Bay has had too many missed connections, incorrect routes, and bad reads overall, and Green Bay’s DBs are a competent matchup for the Tampa receivers. CB Jaire Alexander will be used against Chris Godwin in the slot, with Kevin King tasked with handling Mike Evans. The Safeties will provide extra protection over the middle, which is where QB Tom Brady prefers to attack. The TEs, Cameron Brate and Rob Gronkowski will be used on vertical intermediate routes, with 1-2 WRs also running crossing routes, making for a congested space.

The Packers have an advantage in their top 2 CBs and Safeties, but as they are forced to use their nickel and dime DBs, will be caught out as the Buccaneers’ receiving depth remains strong. Even if WR Antonio Brown remains unable to suit up, fellow WRs Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson will provide the fourth and fifth targets when Tampa Bay uses empty formations. With the Buccaneers using outside vertical routes, as well as ones up the seam, the underneath options will open up, and Brady will attack each area of the field as Green Bay shifts its defensive focus. Tampa Bay have the weapons necessary to move the ball, but cannot allow themselves to have the number of three and outs they have throughout the season. Green Bay have been the superior team in 2020 as a whole, but need to demonstrate that once more and overcome a defense with playmakers at every level.

Owen Ravenna

NFL Analyst