Just the two games to extract out all the talking points from, but there were some to be had. The AFC and NFC title games provide the most magnifying of glasses, with every snap, catch and decision critiqued more than any of the other 263. So what went down? Find out here! Don’t forget to check out the Monday podcast, available on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and all good podcast outlets.
Fortune favours the brave
Even if you haven’t been a highly trained commando or have never watched Only Fools and Horses, I suspect you still know the phrase “he who dares, wins”. That turned out to be the sub-plot of the Packers’ 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game. In short, the Bucs dared and sealed the first-ever home advantage for a Super Bowl. Green Bay didn’t and they’ll be watching the season finale on the telly, along with the rest of us.
Tampa Bay’s Head Coach Bruce Arians has more catchphrases than Del Trotter but one of them – “no risk it, no biscuit” – sums up his philosophy on life, not just his coaching style. Essentially, you won’t achieve much by not taking chances and in the end, that was the difference between the two teams on Sunday night. And it means that Arians still has a chance to add “Super Bowl winner” to his CV.
Contesting his first-ever NFC Championship, Tom Brady faced third downs on several occasions, only to chuck a dime almost every time. Never phased and never looking for an easy out, Arians and Brady dialled up big plays right from the off. Their first drive saw a 27-yard connection with Mike Evans on a 3rd-and-4, and a 14-yard pass to Chris Godwin on a 3rd-and-9. The result: a TD drive and a 7-0 lead. Then at 7-7, facing another 3rd-and-9, Brady went all special forces on us and dialled up a spectacular pass up the middle to Godwin again. The 52-yard gain moved the Bucs from their own 28 to the edge of the Packers’ red zone in one fell swoop. Courageous. Offensive. And, based on Leonard Fournette’s rushing score a play later, ultimately successful.
Then, just before the half, they faced a 4th-and-4 in midfield. A more cautious approach would have seen the punt team emerge but no, a 6-yarder to Fournette kept the drive going. The instant payback was a 39-yard lob by Brady to Scotty Miller in the end zone, bring up a 21-10 lead at the half.
Maybe they forced it a bit too much in the second half, when TB12 killed three successive drives with interceptions (coming from three of his nine attempts of 20+ yards) but only one of those lost possessions gave Green Bay any points. The last two saw the conservative Packers punt on three-and-outs instead of taking a more high-risk, high-reward approach.
They were more cautious throughout the game but the one drive that took the (no-risk-it) biscuit for me was the final Green Bay drive of the game, which ended with the most lily-livered decision by HC Matt LeFleur. After a promising 30-yard kick-off return, further gains of 9, 29, 11 and 9 took them all the way up to the Tampa 8-yard line. They were trailling by eight and with two-and-a-bit minutes remaining, Aaron Rodgers – probably the season MVP-in-waiting – appeared to have four decent shots to seal an unlikely comeback and overtime. They ‘just’ needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion. Here’s how it played out.
– First down: An incomplete pass to Alan Lazard.
– Second down: An incomplete pass to Davante Adams.
– Third down: Rodgers had more than enough time and space to scramble for the line but instead elected to sit back and throw to Adams again. He missed.
– Fourth down: Wait, what now? On trots Mason Crosby for a field goal attempt. Really?! You think the GOAT is going to gift you another possession after the two-minute warning? No chance. Game over. The kick was good but the Packers lost by five.
Afterwards, Rodgers said that he’d expected a fourth attempt at a TD and LeFleur agreed that, with the benefit of hindsight, it wasn’t the right call. Obviously, there were many other factors that swung the result in the Buccaneers’ favour but the key one for me was their overall approach. The brave marched on and the timid went home.
Is there a draft in here?
When comparing the two teams after the fall-out from the NFC title game, one possible cause for the Packers’ exit at this stage for the second year running is the rookie factor.
Looking at the difference in impact each team’s 2020 rookie class had looks to be a pivotal point to call out. Matt LaFleur’s play-calling decisions can be debated until the cows come home but on the other side of the field, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bolstered their squad and it has helped them a lot more than the Packers’ rookies from 2020.
Jordan Love, AJ Dillion, Josiah Deguara, Kamal Martin, Jon Runyan Jr., Jake Hanson, Simon Stepaniak, Vernon Scott and Johnathan Garvin were all selected by Green Bay in the 2020 draft. It’s hard to make a case that any of them played a meaningful role this year.
On the Tampa side, Tristan Wirfs, Antione Winfield (who was absent on Sunday), Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Tyler Johnson have all had their name mentioned for positive reasons this season, especially Wirfs, who was a main factor in why Tom Brady has stayed upright this season and that the O-line gave up just one sack in the game against Green Bay.
It was much maligned at the time but the proof is now all there to see: Matt LaFleur and the front office did not help Aaron Rodgers one bit in the 2020 draft. Tom and Tampa are going back home to play for the Vince Lombardi.
It yet remains to be seen whether this could possibly be one of the worst draft classes that Green Bay has ever taken.
Allen couldn’t find the key to the Super Bowl’s front door
Josh Allen has had a stellar season and his three-year trajectory since entering the league has been one as steep as the tallest mountain.
However, in the AFC Championship game, he and the Bills came a bit unstuck and Buffalo bow out at the penultimate hurdle.
Allen completed under 60% of his passes in the game, with his “go-to” guy Stefon Diggs stifled all evening. Allen also made errors by taking sacks at crucial times and the fourth-quarter interception, while perhaps more John Brown’s fault than his own, was the final nail in the Bills’ season coffin.
He and the Bills Mafia will come again and if Allen learns from this game like he did from 2019’s exit to Houston, who’s to say we don’t see the Bills in the big one in 2022?
He’ll enter year four with a 28-16 record, almost 10,000 yards under his belt, and 100 total TDs (72 passing, 26 rushing and 2 receiving) and 35 interceptions to his name. The sky is still the limit.
Fournette about it
As we head into Super Bowl LV, the leading post-season ball carrier, and second leading rusher is not King Derek Henry, nor is it Ronald Jones, Damien Williams, Alvin Kamara or Nick Chubb. The man with 211 rushing yards and two td’s is none other than Leonard Fournette, one of a number of Tampa Bay reclamation projects that are shining at the exact right time. Fournette, selected 4th overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2017 draft, was arguably selected too early, and expectations from day one were inflated. Two one thousand yard seasons in Florida were not enough for Jags brass to make a serious investment and at the end of August last year they waived Fournette, and within 24 hours he was picked up by the Buccaneers in a move that garnished few headlines. Big Len started three regular season games and had less than 100 carries, so 48 carries to date in the playoffs has been somewhat unexpected. Fournette went Madden button mashing style when he scored against the Packers in the NFC Championship, proving he has moves on moves for a guy who looks like he always had seconds at the dinner table. Fournette can do some major damage in the Super Bowl, and along with Antonio Brown, will be fighting to win the title of ‘most redeemed Buccaneers player’ in front of the world.
Second Super Bowl for underrated secondary
The headlines are dominated by Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, with additional newspaper column inches featuring the likes of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and a few of the defensive stars DT Chris Jones and DE Frank Clark. Aside from the ‘Honey Badger’ S Tyrann Mathieu the Chiefs secondary is a narrative afterthought. This should not be the case, as the likes of Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward, Juan Thornhill and even the hitman Daniel Sorensen (yes Browns fans we know you won’t forget ‘that hit’ in a hurry) have been delivering results week in and week out without being given the respect they deserve. The unit held the Browns Baker Mayfield to under 200 yards, and more impressively restricted the Bills Josh Allen to under 300 yards passing on 48 attempts. Buffalo came to Arrowhead boasting an eight game win streak, courtesy in large part to the relentless connection between Allen and Stefon Diggs. The KC secondary held Diggs to his joint lowest catch rate of the season (54.5%) and more importantly to under 100 yards and zero touchdowns. The matchup against the Buccs supercharged WR corps will be the key to the Chiefs ability to repeat. After all ‘Honey Badger don’t care‘ – just ask the 96 million viewers.