Tuesday, September 26, 2023

NFL playoff picks and predictions: Packers lead Buccaneers, Chiefs hold Bills in league games

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The NFL Championship Weekend features two quarterback games for all ages.

First, Tampa Bay meets Green Bay in the NFC Championship game at 3:05 p.m. ET Sunday. Aaron Rodgers, 37, is in his fifth NFC Championship game, but it is his first at Lambeau Field. Tom Brady, 43, is in his 14th NFC Championship game, but it’s his first game in the NFC. It is also the first playoff game between the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

Buffalo heads to Kansas City for the AFC Championship game at 6:40 p.m. ET. This is the Chiefs’ third consecutive Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium, and it remains to be seen whether 25-year-old Patrick Mahomes clarify concussion protocol for the game. Otherwise, the Chiefs will turn to alternate quarterback Chad Henne, 35, who sealed the divisional playoff victory over the Browns. Josh Allen, 24, is trying to bring the Bills back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1993.

Sporting News hit three of four on the division’s playoff weekend. Here’s a look at our record this season:

  • Last week: 3-1
  • Regular season: 129-75
  • Playoffs: 7-3
  • Global: 136-78

With that in mind, here are our picks and predictions for the conference championship games:

AFC and NFC support | TV program | Super Bowl Choice

(Getty Images)

NFL picks, league game predictions

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers (-3.5)

Sunday, 3:05 p.m., FOX

Green Bay looked unstoppable on offense against the Rams with the combination of Rodgers’ efficiency and a three-headed running game led by Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon.

This is where this game begins. The Packers generated just 94 rushing yards in the regular season game, a 38-10 loss to Tampa Bay that was sparked by two Rodgers interceptions in the second quarter. The Buccaneers had five sacks, and the combined pressure from defensive linemen Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh rocked Green Bay. Devin White and Lavonte David are quick linebackers who can jam the race too. That’s the challenge for a Packers’ offensive line that has since improved, even without starting tackle David Bakthiari.

Rodgers needs these action-game opportunities to work with Davante Adams and Robert Tonyan. Green Bay made it easy against the Rams. Can they start over?

MORE: Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers is it the best NFC title game of all time?

Then there’s Brady, who made the Packers pay for those mistakes in the first meeting. He works with a loaded group of receivers. Ronald Jones had 113 yards and two touchdowns in the opening game, and the Green Bay defense was sensitive to the run. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark must be more disruptive in this game.

The Packers were also not sacked in that first meeting. Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, and Za’Darius Smith have to put pressure on Brady, or he’ll sit down and work with a loaded group of receivers. Who wins the red zone clashes between Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans and the Green Bay secondary, which includes a locked cornerback to Jaire Alexander and emerging safety to Darnell Savage Jr.? This will be the key.

With those two quarterbacks, it comes down to a handful of games. The Packers will maintain a one-point lead at halftime, but Tampa Bay equalized early in the fourth quarter with a touchdown from Antonio Brown. It can really depend on which quarterback has the ball last – and which defense stops. What is the advantage of Lambeau Field? We think it makes the slight difference in an instant classic.

To choose: Packers 31, Buccaneers 28

(SN / Getty)

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (-3)

Sunday, 6:40 p.m., CBS

It’s hard to make a choice without knowing if Mahomes is playing this week, but we’re going to base that prediction on the premise that he’s capable of playing. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, hip) also practiced last week but was inactive for the Browns game. Edwards-Helaire had 161 rushing yards in Kansas City’s 26-17 win over the Bills in Week 6. Darrel Williams started against Le’Veon Bell last week, so he could be the focus if Edwards-Helaire can’t go. The Chiefs were also without Sammy Watkins (calf) last week.

The good news? Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill were still in action. They can hit the piece plays against the Buffalo high school, no matter who is at the quarterback.

MORE: Why Chiefs have an advantage over Bills in the AFC Championship

Josh Allen struggled in the regular season game, but he didn’t take a sack in the loss. He also hadn’t established a solid bond with Stefon Diggs, who has emerged as one of the best – if not the best – wide receiver in the league this season. Allen will frequently target Diggs, and Cole Beasley and John Brown will need to take advantage of their 1-on-1 opportunities. The Bills need to generate a running play with Devin Singletary early on, and Allen will make more plays this time around.

Again, that choice is always up to Mahomes. If he’s cleared, we’ll assume he’s healthy enough to lead the Chiefs to another Super Bowl appearance.

Buffalo quickly takes the lead on a Diggs TD, and the Bills hang on to a third-quarter lead before Mahomes’ magical act begins. Second-half touchdowns to Kelce and Hill regain the lead, and Kansas City closes the door behind the fourth quarter run game. If the last week has taught us anything, it’s that Andy Reid won’t hold back in tough times.

It’s still tight, but Kansas City repeats as the AFC champion. We will re-evaluate that choice if he can’t go.

To choose: Counts 28, Bills 26


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