CONFERENCE FINALS PREVIEW: Will the top seeds topple?

Just after lunchtime Melbourne/Sydney time on Monday – that is, if you’re consuming a long lunch – the finalists for Super Bowl LV will be decided, after top-seeded teams Green Bay and Kansas City will host the affairs.


For many gridiron followers, the AFC and NFC conference championship games tend to present more drama, intrigue and entertainment over the years than many Super Bowls themselves.


And the cause-and-effect reasons for that are quite simple: At the start of every season, when training camps open in July and August, every team has one goal in mind, as a minimum expectation or a lofty goal, and that is to merely get to the Super Bowl.


Even casual fans are more apt to remember who got to a Super Bowl from a previous year than who fell short in the conference title games.


Case in point, and apologies in advance to fans of the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints in advance: sure, Sean Payton’s Saints have had their share of playoff heartbreaks over the years – on the receiving end of the “Minneapolis Miracle”, or even that pass interference call that was never flagged against the Los Angeles Rams, anyone? – but it doesn’t compare to the pain and anguish of the Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead in a Super Bowl.


In that latter example, that was certainly the low point of Dan Quinn’s time as coach of the Falcons, and one which his tenure never rebounded from.


The Buffalo Bills, one of the teams whose Super Bowl participation hangs in the balance this weekend, know that pain on multiple occasions, having lost four Super Bowls in a row in the early 1990’s – yes, they were the butt of many jokes even by the nation’s elite sportswriters as a result of that string of almighty defeats, but were also able to laugh at themselves in a very humorous Snickers advert.


That string of defeats was seen as monumental at the time, but history has treated the Bills of the Jim Kelly/Thurman Thomas/Bruce Smith era more kindly for actually winning four consecutive AFC championships – winning a conference crown is seen as a great achievement at the end of a season of four months and change; doing it four times remains a monumental feat, let alone consecutively.



So what looms in this year’s conference championship tilts? Glory, heartbreak, and/or afterthoughts?


Starting with the early game (7 a.m. for the AEDT time zone punters, with money lines, odds and point spreads courtesy of PlayUp)…


NFC

Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($2.62) at Green Bay Packers ($1.51, -3.5 points, over/under 52.0 points)

Fun facts: It’s the revival of the “Bay Of Pigs” (read in one’s best Chris Berman voice).


The connected history between these teams with the word “Bay” in their cities’ names goes back to the 1980’s when both teams were so woefully bad. And had to play each other twice each season in the old pre-realignment NFC Central division, so they produced some games of poor quality for the fans more often than not.


This time, thankfully, with a Super Bowl berth on the line – and with two future Hall Of Fame quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers each having thrown for 40 touchdowns or more apiece in 2020 – fans may be in for a classic instead of a stinker.


The case for the Buccaneers: The Brady-led Buccaneers actually pinned one of the three losses on the Packers this season, a 38-10 conquest in Tampa, so there’s no chance of Bruce Arians’ team being over-awed by the occasion. In that Week 6 game, although Brady only threw for 166 yards and two touchdowns, it was Todd Bowles’ defence which stepped up, limiting Rodgers to 160 yards on 16-of-35 passing and intercepted him twice, including a pick-six from Jamel Dean.


Dean’s touchdown return paved a pathway for the Buccaneers to peg back an early 10-0 deficit and roll off another 31 points. In that spirit, it’s going to be up to the defence again, especially if Brady’s attack with his deep receiving esprit-de-corps remains a given.


But if Arians and Brady want to chuck a spanner at the Packers’ defence, then running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones will be relied upon to pick up the yards and chew up the clock.


The case for the Packers: The Rodgers-Davante Adams connection will keep the Buccaneers’ defence honest all game long, and if they are to control time of possession, other weapons such as Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the receiving end of some of Rodgers’ short- and medium-range passes and Aaron Jones leading the ground assault will need to be utilised.


The forecaster at the local weather bureau in Wisconsin may turn out to be the Packers’ best “12th man”. Snow is on the cards, with maybe a few inches of it falling at around gametime at Lambeau Field, with below-zero (Celsius) temperatures likely to remain throughout the game.


Who will win: Packers 27, Buccaneers 17.


AFC

Buffalo Bills ($2.44) at Kansas City Chiefs ($1.58, -3, 54.5)


Fun facts: These two teams possess a playoff history dating back to their American Football League origins of the 1960’s, with the Chiefs winning two of the three meetings, but they haven’t played each other in the postseason since the 1994 AFC Championship game, won by the Bills 30-13.


The Bills and Chiefs met earlier in the season, in Week 6, with Kansas City winning 26-17.


And expect an all-out offensive showcase, with the Bills and Chiefs sporting two of the AFC’s top three passing attacks in terms of yardage.



The case for the Bills: Josh Allen’s metamorphosis into an elite NFL quarterback has been a delight to behold, as the third-year man from Wyoming has thrown for over 300 yards in a game eight times this season, including playoffs. If the Bills are to win, Allen will have to out-perform counterpart Patrick Mahomes, and spread the ball around widely to receivers Stefon Diggs (he of the aforementioned miracle of Minneapolis), Cole Beasley on the flanks and Devin Singletary coming out of the backfield.


The case for the Chiefs: Head coach Andy Reid got the best news possible when Mahomes was cleared by team doctors out of concussion protocol midweek. As last year’s Super Bowl MVP trained with the team for three full sessions ahead of the AFC title game showdown against the Bills, “Showtime” Mahomes will have his full bag of tricks ready – all of the arm strength, throwing at any arm angle, his mobility, and his senses of improvisation, and elite teammates such as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce at his disposal, with Sammy Watkins and Le-Veon Bell being the team’s x-factors.


Who will win: Chiefs 41, Bills 35.



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