American Football Expert & Columnist
Sky Sports’ Neil Reynolds has the final word on the Conference Championships in the NFL playoffs, picking out his five major takeaways, his player of the week, and what is on his radar heading into Super Bowl LV…
Last Updated: 26/01/21 1:34pm
In this most challenging of seasons, the NFL has to be applauded for staying the course and when Super Bowl LV is played in Tampa on Sunday, February 7, the league will have navigated its way to an on-time conclusion. What a Super Bowl it promises to be!
Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on home turf against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. That matchup came about after another entertaining round of action with the AFC and NFC Championship games…
Five major takeaways from Conference Championships
1) Brady the history maker
It is really hard to know where to start when it comes to the history that Tom Brady is writing as an NFL quarterback. He will play in a record 10th Super Bowl a week on Sunday – double the next-best quarterback in NFL history with five in John Elway.
Think about that for a second. This is the 55th Super Bowl in NFL history and Brady is playing in his 10th. He will have played in almost a fifth of all title games. In 19 full seasons of action, he has reached the big game more than half of the time. He has instilled belief in a Buccaneers team that had endured three-straight losing seasons and nine losing campaigns in the previous 11!
That winning desire might be Brady’s greatest skill. He is as determined to win in this his 10th Super Bowl as he was his first. No athlete hits reset quite as quickly and as effectively as Brady.
Here is one quick snapshot of how Brady has instilled belief and steel into a long-suffering team. The Bucs had recorded just one road playoff win in their 45-year history before this season and Brady has now delivered three in a row (at Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay) in the space of 16 days. It will not matter if the Bucs are underdogs in the Super Bowl – Brady has been defying the odds his entire career.
2) Team effort for Tampa
Brady was brilliant in the first half against Green Bay but, in the end, it took a total team effort to get over the line against the Packers at Lambeau Field. After ‘Tom Terrific’ threw three touchdown passes to establish a 28-10 third-quarter lead, he promptly threw three interceptions that allowed their hosts back into the game.
But Tampa have more in their arsenal than just Brady and an impressive receiving corps. Their defence is emerging with some talented difference-makers. Shaq Barrett (three) and Jason Pierre-Paul (two) combined for five sacks of Aaron Rodgers and they could be factors in the Super Bowl against a banged-up and depleted Chiefs offensive line.
Devin White has also become a star at linebacker. He – along with the man-mountain duo of Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea – was responsible for holding the Packers to just 67 rushing yards. In two playoff appearances since coming off the Covid-19 list, White has recorded 26 tackles and recovered two fumbles.
3) Magical Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes is 25 years old. He has not done too bad in his first quarter of a century on this planet. He already has a $500m contract signed and locked away in a safe, he has been named Most Valuable Player of the NFL in 2018 and in last year’s Super Bowl. Now he has a chance to become the youngest quarterback in league history to win a second title.
Mahomes threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the 38-24 win over the Buffalo Bills. Even though Buffalo jumped out to a 9-0 lead, it felt like this result was never in doubt. The Chiefs dominated the proceedings from start to finish and could not be stopped on offence. They only punted twice in the entire game.
Mahomes, of course, benefits from the skill position players around him and from excellent coaching from Andy Reid; but do not be fooled into thinking they are carrying him. Mahomes is on course to reinvent the quarterback position and to take play at that level to an all-time high.
Given his prolific start to life in the NFL, he is likely the only one with a shot at coming anywhere close to Brady’s achievements. Do not bet against him taking said achievements even higher into the stratosphere. He is that good.
4) Conservative teams bow out
Fortune so often favours the brave in the NFL playoffs and Green Bay and Buffalo both might just rue a few conservative decisions here and there when they are watching Super Bowl LV from their sofas.
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur should feel the most guilt. With 2.09 remaining and with a fourth-and-goal from Tampa’s eight-yard line, LaFleur opted for a short Mason Crosby field goal that reduced the arrears to 31-26. On the previous play, a huge swathe of green grass opened up for Aaron Rodgers but instead of running – he would have either scored or definitely got down to the one or two-yard line – he threw into triple coverage and the ball fell incomplete. If LaFleur had indicated to Rodgers that they were in four-down territory, his quarterback may have run the ball on third down? Either way, the Packers never saw the football again and a fuming Rodgers said of the call after the game: “It wasn’t my decision.”
While the Chiefs would likely have won anyway, Buffalo were too conservative either side of the half. With 11 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Sean McDermott called for a 20-yard field goal from Tyler Bass. That made the score 21-12 to Kansas City when a touchdown would have made it 21-16. With 5:49 left in the third, Buffalo’s coach sent Bass on for a 27-yard field goal. That made the score 24-15 when a touchdown could have made it 24-19. You cannot take threes instead of sevens when Mahomes is on the other sideline.
5) Chiefs defence defies the numbers
As was the case at this time last year, Kansas City’s defence is playing its best football at the business end of the season. This unit which ranked 16th in the NFL this year looked much better than that during Sunday’s win over Buffalo.
Sacked four times, intercepted once and harried into several poor throws, Bills quarterback Josh Allen looked a shadow of his usual self. The credit for that has to go to a Kansas City defence that played especially well against the pass.
That is good news for the Chiefs as they prepare for a Super Bowl against a Bucs team loaded with passing game talent in Brady, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and quite a few more who would normally deserve a mention.
Player(s) of the Week: Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce
I mentioned some of the weapons at Mahomes’ disposal in Kansas City and they were on full display on Sunday night. For the second week in a row, these two dominant forces from the regular season went over 100 yards in the playoffs. Hill caught nine passes for 172 yards while Kelce added 13 for 118 and two scores.
I am not sure how you can defend this pair, but I know the task becomes something close to impossible once they are into their routes and downfield. You need to take chances at the line of scrimmage with Kelce and Hill, disrupting their timing with a physicality. Even then, they are still likely to get their yards and make big plays.
Play of the Week
Remember what I said earlier about fortune favouring the brave? With eight seconds left in the first half at Lambeau Field, Tampa Bay had the ball at Green Bay’s 39-yard line having just intercepted Rodgers. Rather than throw a quick, short pass and then kick a field goal for a 17-10 lead; Bruce Arians chose to be aggressive and it paid off. Brady launched a long pass down the left sideline and Scotty Miller reeled the ball in for a 39-yard score. That gave the Bucs a 21-10 advantage at the break and was a huge play, giving Tampa an extra four points in a game decided by five.
Coach of the Week: Steve Spagnuolo, Kansas City Chiefs, DC
Remember this name because it was Spagnuolo who derailed Tom Brady’s shot at a perfect season when he was defensive coordinator of the New York Giants in 2007. The Giants beat Brady’s Patriots in the Super Bowl that year and he could play a role again on Super Sunday.
Spags was definitely a factor against Buffalo. His well-timed blitzes never allowed Allen to get into a rhythm and it was the design of them that was so perfect. They came off the edges and, primarily, from defensive backs. That meant Allen was boxed in and could not run and, if he did run, he needed to out-sprint quicker safeties and corners.
On my Radar
Late in Sunday’s win against Buffalo, the Chiefs lost left tackle Eric Fisher – a Pro Bowl player in 2020 – to an Achilles injury, which means he will miss the Super Bowl. All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has been missing since Week Six with a back injury and Andy Reid said on Monday that he is not optimistic about his return for the Super Bowl.
That likely leaves the Chiefs with a reliable veteran who has been exposed in Super Bowls before at right tackle in Mike Remmers (see Von Miller in Super Bowl 50) and Martinas Rankin at left tackle. With Pierre-Paul and Barrett in such good form, that could be a huge advantage for the Bucs as they look to disrupt the timing of Mahomes in Super Bowl LV.
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