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NFL AFC and NFC Championship Game previews

Once it was defense which won championships, this year the last four standing are the NFL’s top-scoring teams.

In the AFC, the Chiefs host the Bills. In the NFC, the Packers entertain the Bucs. It’s Josh Allen vs (probably) Patrick Mahomes. And Tom Brady vs Aaron Rodgers.

Kansas City are two wins away from becoming a dynasty. In a normal season, that would be tricky enough, but the health of Mahomes has thrown a spanner in the works. The Chiefs have few worries elsewhere. But if it comes to it, can they rely on 35-year-old journeyman Chad Henne to play a get out of jail free card again?

Kansas City Chiefs will be hoping star quarterback Patrick Mahomes is fit for their AFC Championship Game

If fit, Mahomes will face Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen

If fit, Mahomes will face Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen

Patrick Mahomes (left) and Josh Allen could go head-to-head in the AFC Championship Game

Then there’s Buffalo. A revitalised franchise who are on an eight-game tear. With a wretched history in the Super Bowl (P4, L4 – in successive years to boot), Allen has emerged as a superstar of the present and future. With the NFL’s best receiver, a solid offensive line and an opportunistic and newly healthy defense, the Bills are in their first championship game in 27 years. What happened that day? They beat Kansas City 30-13.

In bitterly cold Green Bay Aaron Rodgers is desperate to win a second Super Bowl, a decade after his first. Then, Green Bay were unfancied No 6 seeds, winning on the road through the playoffs. He’s played in the NFC Championship game three times since and lost them all. Now, for the first time in his career, the conference game is at Lambeau Field.

Visiting is Tampa Bay. No stranger to cold weather playoff wins, Brady continues to rewrite the record books. And his will to win and appetite to claim another Super Bowl – this time away from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots – will be enormous. Strong on the road and with the best defense of the four teams remaining, Tampa Bay are an intriguing prospect.

Both games are repeats of earlier match-ups in week six. The Bucs hammered Green Bay 38-10 in their worst defeat of the season. And the Chiefs saw off the Bills 26-17.

But as Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said, it’s all about looking forward: ‘You can’t fall into that trap of what happened last time. They’re a much, much better football team and we’re a much better football team.’

Aaron Rodgers will be hoping to have better luck in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday

Aaron Rodgers will be hoping to have better luck in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday

He's facing arguably the game's greatest-ever quarterback on Sunday

He's facing arguably the game's greatest-ever quarterback on Sunday

Aaron Rodgers (left) and Tom Brady will meet in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday

Buffalo Bills

How was their season?

A blissful dream. Bills fans won’t want to wake up. The Nineties powerhouse were dormant and irrelevant but this time there is a feeling that they can finally lay their Super Bowl ghouls to rest. A playoff team for a third straight year, the Bills boast a complete roster, an innovative head coach, a high-octane offense and a defense which is capable of winning games.

Buffalo stormed into the playoffs, wrapping up the AFC East for the first time since 1995 with a 13-3 season. In both games since, Buffalo leaned on a playmaking defense. First to squeak past the Indianapolis Colts 27-24 on wild card weekend, then a 17-3 annihilation of the Baltimore Ravens followed. Buffalo are built to win when things are going for them and against them, and this could well be their year.

Key players

Josh Allen has proved all the doubters wrong, emerging as a dual-threat quarterback. With an enormous arm, he is not afraid to carry the team on his back – frequently displaying little regard for his body. The addition of Stefon Diggs in free agency gave Allen a deep threat target, a route-running genius and someone who embraces the role of superstar. The main beneficiary of the Bills’ aerial offense, Diggs posted 127 receptions and 1,535 yards in the regular season (both league highs), plus eight touchdowns. He’s put up over 100 yards and a touchdown in both playoff outings.

On the other side of the ball, defensive co-ordinator Leslie Frazier has assembled a strong unit. Improving against the run and in the red zone they are a bend-but-don’t break defense, which boasts a strong secondary – Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer at safety with corners Tre’Davious White and Josh Norman. Plus Taron Johnson, whose 101-yard pick six turned the game against Baltimore.

Stefon Diggs has been excellent addition at Buffalo Bills since joining them in free agency

Stefon Diggs has been excellent addition at Buffalo Bills since joining them in free agency

Stefon Diggs has been excellent addition at Buffalo Bills since joining them in free agency

Head coach: Sean McDermott, 46

Consider the Bills before McDermott. No playoff seasons between 2000-16. Fifteen were losing seasons and they finished bottom of the AFC East eight times. In 2017, McDermott – and general manager Brandon Beane – was hired after six years as defensive co-ordinator in Carolina. He took the Bills to the playoffs in his first season. A calm presence, he has filled the roster and his staff with hard-working pros with chips on their shoulders.

Andy Reid – who gave McDermott his break in the NFL in Philadelphia and fired him a decade ago (there is no bad blood, however) – says he should be coach of the year. ‘It’s tremendous. He deserves to be coach of the year. He’s really done a nice job with that whole program,’ he said.

Unsung hero: Cole Beasley WR

It may sound odd for a receiver who almost posted 1,000 yards to fly under the radar, but sharing an offense with Diggs will do that to you. Cole Beasley had a career-year with 82 catches for 967 yards and four touchdowns. He has been troubled by a knee injury of late but is as reliable a slot receiver as there is. And he may have a career as a songwriter after he hangs up his cleats…

Betfair odds to win on Sunday: 11/8

Super Bowl odds: 7/2

Sean McDermott has transformed the Bills since his arrival as head coach there in 2017

Sean McDermott has transformed the Bills since his arrival as head coach there in 2017

Sean McDermott has transformed the Bills since his arrival as head coach there in 2017

Kansas City Chiefs

How was their season?

Coasting. The Chiefs went 14-2, largely in second gear. They only lost to the Raiders (an off day) and in week 17 to the Chargers (rested starters, Henne at quarterback). When Mahomes left the field against the Browns, they looked vulnerable for the first time in about three years. And while Henne came in and did the job, it is unlikely the Bills will let them off the hook. Mahomes is in the concussion protocol, but is expected to play. He wants to and the Chiefs need him to.

If Mahomes isn't fit, the Chiefs may have to rely on 35-year-old quarterback Chad Henne

If Mahomes isn't fit, the Chiefs may have to rely on 35-year-old quarterback Chad Henne

If Mahomes isn’t fit, the Chiefs may have to rely on 35-year-old quarterback Chad Henne

Head coach: Andy Reid, 62

Fearless. Avuncular. The best coach never to win a Super Bowl until he won a Super Bowl. And now he might win back-to-back Super Bowls.

An offensive genius, Reid’s Chiefs became the first team to make it to three conference championship games since the Philadelphia Eagles from 2002-04. They were coached by Reid too.

Since joining the Chiefs in 2013, Reid has overcome fears about clock management and an aversion to the run. After becoming one of seven coaches to take two different teams to the Super Bowl last year, his players openly said that they wanted to win it for ‘Big Red’.

A Hawaiian shirt aficionado and fan of cheeseburgers, Reid is an enabler of talent and a proud family man. And he is always good for a quote. ‘I didn’t spend the night with the trophy, he said the morning after winning the Super Bowl. ‘I spent the night with my trophy wife.’

Key players

Where to start? Mahomes, the man who led the Chiefs to 21 unanswered points and a Super Bowl in Miami, should play despite his worrying wobble last week. Travis Kelce is a phenomenon and on course to usurp Rob Gronkowski as the best tight end ever. Tyreek Hill – known as the Cheetah – is a livewire jack in the box receiver. Mecole Hardman… Clyde Edwards-Helaire… It’s all too much. In defense, few are as influential as safety Tyrann Mathieu, while Chris Jones, Mike Pennel and Frank Clark anchor a stout defensive line.

Unsung hero: Dave Toub, Special Teams coordinator

No-one cares about special teams until they go wrong. But if you look at Bill Belichick’s Super Bowl winning teams, they all had faultless special teams units, like the Chiefs. With a fine kicker in Harrison Butker – albeit one who missed a field goal and an extra point against the Browns- plus Mecole Hardman as a returner, the Chiefs rarely have to worry about poor field position because of a stellar offense and Toub’s finely tuned unit.

Odds on Sunday: 8/13

Super Bowl odds: 2/1

Travis Kelce is a phenomenon and on course to become the best tight end ever in the NFL

Travis Kelce is a phenomenon and on course to become the best tight end ever in the NFL

Travis Kelce is a phenomenon and on course to become the best tight end ever in the NFL

Green Bay Packers

Head coach: Matt LaFleur, 41

Great mates with Sean McVay, after spending a year as his offensive coordinator, LaFleur left the LA Rams to join the Titans in 2018. Reportedly on the brink of being fired, LaFleur interviewed for the vacant Green Bay job and beat 15 candidates to become the 15th head coach of the Packers. Cue disbelief and shaking of heads. Without any head coaching experience in the NFL, working harmoniously with a personality like Rodgers may appear daunting to some, by LaFleur has taken it in his stride. He has more wins in his first two seasons than Vince Lombardi.

How’s their season been?

Jordan who? The Packers were supposedly one of the worst 13-3 teams in LaFleur’s first season, and now they’re one of the best 13-3 teams. Scoring an NFL-leading 31.8 points per game during the regular season, the Packers have committed a league-low 11 turnovers this season. Rodgers, who threw 26 touchdowns last season, has lobbed 48 this season. ‘We’re just a better, much more efficient team,’ Rodgers said last week. The only time their offense failed to fire was in week six during that 38-10 defeat by Tampa Bay. Since then they have scored over 22 points a game.

Matt LaFleur has proved his doubters wrong since becoming Green Bay Packers head coach

Matt LaFleur has proved his doubters wrong since becoming Green Bay Packers head coach

Matt LaFleur has proved his doubters wrong since becoming Green Bay Packers head coach

Key players

Aaron Rodgers has one Super Bowl compared to Brady’s six, but Davante Adams is in no doubt as to who is the GOAT. ‘In my mind, he’s the GOAT, regardless of how many Super Bowls are won,’ the Packers receiver said.

This season Adams and Rodgers have been unstoppable, surpassing Brett Favre and Donald Driver as the most productive in Packers history.

‘I’ve said for so long that Charles (Woodson) was the best player that I’ve played with,’ Rodgers said. ‘And Charles could dominate in a way that I’ve never seen a nickel corner dominate before. It’s probably time to start putting Davante in that conversation because he’s that type of player. He’s a special player.’

Add Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and rookie AJ Dillon and Rodgers can rely on a decent ground game, a rarity during his time in Green Bay.

With a strong front seven, featuring Zadarius Smith, Preston Smith, Kenny Clark and Rashan Gary the Packers are capable of generating interior pressure and in the secondary, Jaire Alexander is not as mouthy as Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but is just as effective. Finally, in Mason Crosby they have one of the league’s most clutch kickers.

Unsung hero: Billy Turner, G

Versatile Billy Turner was an ever-present at right guard last season but this year he’s moved all over the offensive line. Turner, a free agent pickup at the start of last season, will play left tackle on Sunday after a season-ending injury to two-time All Pro David Bakhtiari. But that won’t intimidate Turner, who according to Pro Football Focus has played 246 snaps at right guard, 427 snaps at right tackle and 221 snaps at left tackle so far this season. Against the Rams he allowed only one pressure and earned praise from Rodgers in the week. ‘He’s an extremely positive, thoughtful person, and also very, very sharp. All those things combine to allow him to have a calm peace of mind on the field,’ he said.

Odds on Sunday: 8/15

Super Bowl odds: 11/5

Davante Adams (right) has been in sublime form for Green Bay in tandem with Rodgers

Davante Adams (right) has been in sublime form for Green Bay in tandem with Rodgers

Davante Adams (right) has been in sublime form for Green Bay in tandem with Rodgers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Head coach: Bruce Arians, 68

His ‘no risk it, no biscuit’ mentality and love of a deep ball may have been reined in by Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jnr, but Arians is getting results in Tampa Bay.

After coming out of retirement in 2019, he has successfully harnessed the egos in Tampa to give himself a shot at a first Super Bowl as head coach.

Not afraid to speak his mind, Arians has assembled the NFL’s most diverse staff. It features old cohorts Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich from his time in Arizona, plus two female coaches – Lori Locust, assistant defensive line coach, and Maral Javadifar, assistant strength and conditioning coach – and Tom Moore, at 82 the oldest coach in the league.

Asked about the differences between Arians and Bill Belichick, Gronkowski said: ‘They’re both great coaches for sure. I love getting coached up, but one of the biggest things that I would just say is… the freedom. The freedom of just being yourself with the coaches.’

How has this season been?

Impressive. It’s all well and good throwing volatile personalities together and saying they’re going to win the Super Bowl, but altogether different to put yourself in a position to do it. And then to throw Antonio ‘high maintenance’ Brown in for good measure. The Bucs (11-5) reached the postseason for the first time since the 2007 season. A road win in Washington was followed up by another in New Orleans to make it seven straight away wins. But if the Bucs continue that streak, their next game – and biggest since their Super Bowl win in 2003 – will be at Raymond James Stadium.

Bruce Arians (left) has come out of retirement to guide Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a great term

Bruce Arians (left) has come out of retirement to guide Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a great term

Bruce Arians (left) has come out of retirement to guide Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a great term

Key men

Brady, the man who has been there and done it. And the Bucs have surrounded him with a phenomenal supporting cast. Mike Evans, the first receiver to post seven successive 1,000-yard seasons; Chris Godwin, a superb receiver with magnificent hands; Gronkowski, one of the finest-ever tight ends; Cameron Brate, a reliable, trusted target; Ronald Jones, who rushed for 978 yards in the regular season; plus Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy in the backfield.

A young defense has been carefully constructed by Jason Licht through successive drafts. In 2018 came Vita Vea, Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead, Jack Cichy. A year later Devin White, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, Mike Edwards. Then Antoine Winfield Jr last year. Solid free agency additions such as Shaq Barrett, Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul have added veteran presence to add to Lavonte David, the longest-tenured player.

Unsung hero: Scottry Miller, WR

Despite sharing the limelight with Gronkowski, Evans, Godwin and Brown, Scotty Miller has consistently been one of Brady’s favourite targets. Yes, his production was limited by Brown’s arrival in October, but his knee injury may reduce his playing time. Miller proved his reliability with a 29-yard grab on third and five against the Saints, and we all know how much Brady likes a 5ft 9in man in the slot…

Odds on Sunday: 8/15

Super Bowl odds: 4/1

Rob Gronkowski will be hoping his experience can help Tampa Bay to victory come Sunday

Rob Gronkowski will be hoping his experience can help Tampa Bay to victory come Sunday

Rob Gronkowski will be hoping his experience can help Tampa Bay to victory come Sunday

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