Conference championship weekend is complete, and the Bucs and Chiefs are heading to the Super Bowl. Both are looking to make history, but in order for Kansas City to repeat, they'll have to do it in Tampa's stadium. Here's a look back at the weekend's events.
Buccaneers 31, Packers 26
Tom Brady is going to his 10th Super Bowl, and that's probably about 10th on the list of takeaways from one of the strangest conference titles games in recent memory.
Where to start with this one? How about the end. There were at least five elements during the final two and a half minutes of the game that are worthy of a separate column. The Packers trailed 31-23 and had a first-and-goal at the Tampa 8 with under three minutes to go. Green Bay had the top red zone offense in football all season, converting 77 percent of their trips into touchdowns. Not on Sunday, however.
After failing in a similar spot early in the game, the Packers once again failed to move the ball on three tries from the 8. This led to Matt LaFleur strangely opting for a field goal rather than taking one more shot at a potential game-tying touchdown. That decision led to further second-guessing of the play-calling, which didn't seem consistent with the conservative approach.
On first down Aaron Rodgers went with a quick slant off an RPO look and the pass was incomplete. On both second and third down Rodgers appeared to have opportunities to run and at least inch the ball closer to the goal line, but he chose to throw each time instead.
The first down call in particular seemed strange, and Rodgers' choice to throw into double coverage rather than tucking it to run was even more curious. Regardless, Rodgers seemed stunned when LaFleur called for the field goal, leaving just 2:05 on the clock.
LaFleur explained that the need for the 2-point conversion entered into his thought process, but it was a very strange call. And the Pack needed to 2 at that stage because they strangely went 2 in the third quarter trailing by 5 – a play that ultimately failed when Equamineous St. Brown dropped a pass that hit him in the hands.
Either way the Packers needed a stop, so what's the difference if Green Bay failed on fourth-and-goal and Tampa took over at the 8? Actually that would have been preferable given the field position and perhaps saving a few seconds off the clock that disappeared on the ensuing kickoff (more on that later).
Predictably Green Bay would not see the ball again, but not without controversy. Green Bay kicked off with 2:05 left but caught a break when Jaydon Mickens inexplicably took a knee just after fielding the kick at the 17 instead of making sure to eat up five seconds to get to the two-minute warning. The miscue allowed Green Bay in essence to have four timeouts as the defense desperately tried for the stop.
Brady hit Mike Evans for 9 yards to get to the two-minute warning, and the Packers made a wise move to intentionally jump offside to give up the first down without any more time coming off the clock. The Bucs could have declined it, making it second-and-1 and potentially eating up more time, but Bruce Arians accepted the penalty and the first down.
Three plays later the Pack was down to its last timeout and had the Bucs facing a third-and-4 from the 37. Brady tried to hit rookie Ty Johnson on a shallow crossing route but Green Bay's Kevin King grabbed a handful of Johnson's jersey. The ball sailed well over Johnson's head, but after a lengthy delay the flag went flying and gave the Bucs the first down needed to ice the game.
The call on King was without question valid. However, it stood in stark contrast to the way the rest of the game had been officiated. Sean Murphy-Bunting similarly grabbed Allen Lazard's jersey late in the first half and came away with an interception. A few plays and a disastrous defensive breakdown later, the Bucs had a touchdown and a 21-10 halftime lead.
It wasn't the only example of clutching and grabbing in the secondary that had been let go during the game, and honestly it wasn't the only example of it being let go throughout the playoffs. But when the game was on the line, the flag came and Brady, despite throwing three horrendous second half picks, was off to the Super Bowl yet again, this time playing in his home stadium in Tampa.
What Brady has done in Tampa has been remarkable, even if his personal play in the postseason hasn't necessarily been. He's led a woebegone franchise to the Super Bowl at the age of 43, and he's done so by winning three straight road games to get there.
It will be interesting to see where the fallout takes LaFleur, Rodgers and the Packers. After the game the soon-to-be NFL MVP struck an ominous tone when he discussed a lot of uncertain futures, "including my own." The best guess is it was message from an aging quarterback to his team's brass to spend the offseason trying to get help rather than preparing for the future, as Green Bay did by drafting quarterback Jordan Love in the first round in 2020.
But the fact remains that Rodgers is now 1-4 in conference title games, and Brady has left him further and further back in his rearview mirror.
Chiefs 38, Bills 24
Boy it's fun to watch these two teams play offense. Unfortunately for the Bills, only one of the teams had a defense that was worth watching at all, and it wasn't Buffalo's.
The Bills mounted a solid drive and opened with a field goal, then forced a three-and-out on Kansas City's first possession. Then Buffalo had some real momentum when Mecole Hardman mishandled a punt, allowing the Bills to take over at the 3 before Josh Allen threw a touchdown to give them a 9-0 lead.
It was all Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce from there. The Chiefs scored on their next six possessions – five touchdowns and a field goal. Both Hill and Kelce went over the 100-yard mark for the second straight week, and Mahomes showed no ill effects from a toe injury or the concussion (or whatever it was) that knocked him out of the divisional round win over Cleveland.
It was too much offense for Buffalo to keep up with, especially with the Bills one-dimensional style leading to some problems in pass protection. The Chiefs didn't have to worry about playing the run and they teed off on Allen. Allen stood up to the pressure well, and showed plenty of toughness while throwing for 287 yards and two touchdowns to go with 88 more yards on the ground. But he also was guilty of trying to do too much, losing an astounding 53 yards on four sacks that saw him trying to extend plays when there weren't any to be made. His lone interception glanced off John Brown's hands and wasn't necessarily on him, but that miscue ultimately ended the game as the Chiefs posted a final touchdown to take a commanding 38-15 lead.
Overall Buffalo lost to a better team and actually acquitted themselves reasonably well. The Bills didn't appear to be overwhelmed by the moment but rather collapsed under an avalanche of Chiefs weaponry that tends to make opponents look that way. One exception to this was the play of Tre'Davious White. As the best player in the secondary White was expected to be a strength, but he really struggled for much of the day, especially with his tackling and angles. The Bills will need better from White the next time they're in that position.
However, there were a couple of decisions by Sean McDermott that deserve addressing. Both came on fourth downs before short Tyler Bass field goals. The first came in the waning seconds of the first half with Kansas City leading 21-9. Buffalo faced fourth-and-goal from the 2 and McDermott called on Bass with 14 ticks left. The second came midway through the third with the Chiefs lead now at 24-12. Facing fourth-and-3 from the 8, McDermott again took the chip shot from Bass.
Playing against Kansas City almost automatically means points will be needed at all costs. At the time the Chiefs were red hot, having scored three straight touchdowns before the first field goal and added another scoring drive with a field goal before Bass' second. McDermott had to know he wasn't beating Mahomes by kicking field goals, but he went conservative anyway and relied on his defense.
It wouldn't likely have mattered, but had Buffalo managed to convert both, first making it 21-16 at half and then slicing the margin to 24-23 in the third, the game would have played out much differently. Instead, the Chiefs rode Mahomes and now have a chance to repeat.
Incidentally, hats off to Andy Reid, one of the league's most underrated coaches. After going to four straight NFC title games with Philly, he's now taken the Chiefs to three straight and is looking for his second straight Super Bowl title. Not too bad.
With just two teams remaining there's no sense of limiting the power rankings to just those who are still alive so we'll offer a top 10 as we await Super Bowl LV.
- Kansas City – The Chiefs offense was in high gear against Buffalo and two weeks of rest should have Patrick Mahomes feeling great heading into the Super Bowl.
- Tampa Bay – Brady is getting most of the credit for the Bucs amazing turnaround but it's been the defense that has made the difference the last two weeks. This should make for a great title game.
- Buffalo – The Bills weren't quite ready for the big stage but they have all the makings of a contender heading into 2021.
- Green Bay – A disappointing offensive showing for Aaron Rodgers and the Pack at home. Now it's time to figure out the future.
- Baltimore – The Ravens also disappointed in 2020, and Lamar Jackson will need to progress as a passer if Baltimore is to progress as a true contender.
- New Orleans – Drew Brees' bevy of injuries ultimately derailed the Saints, who certainly had enough defensively to still be playing.
- Seattle – It's hard to figure out what happened to the Seahawks offense down the stretch but it's not wise to bet against Russell Wilson figuring it out.