NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: BUCCANEERS (13-5, No. 5 seed) at PACKERS (14-3, No. 1)
Line: GB by 3. Cote’s pick: GB 31-24.
Championship Sunday kicks off with a G.O.A.T. Bowl of an NFC title game. Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers is a quarterback matchup so seismic it almost relegates “Bucs at Packers,” The Battle of the Bays, to the undercard. They meet for only the fourth time — Brady leads 2-1 including 38-10 Bucs rout Oct. 18 in Tampa — and first time in playoffs.
Green Bay is the historic franchise. Tampa Bay, last this deep in playoffs in 2002, would play Cinderella here ... if not for Brady, who proved there’s life after Belichick and aims for a shot at a seventh Super Bowl ring.
Rodgers meanwhile is after his long-elusive second, the smudge on his diamond resume.
Tampa Bay key: Protect Brady, whose efficiency plummets when pressured.
GB key: Get Aaron Jones and run game going, because nobody is deadlier than Rodgers when his play-action is working.
Tampa, by winning, would become first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. But the Gee Bees are home now, and oh that matters. Lambeau in January, even with a pandemic-limited crowd, is a big edge, and Packers have won 15 of past 16 home games vs. Bucs.
This is Rodgers’ fifth NFC title game but first at home, and he has better talent around him than Brady. Rodgers’ favorite target, Davante Adams, figures to dominate Bucs CB Carlton Davis. Key will be GB’s strong O-line protecting Rodgers better than it did in October. Packers are 11-0 this season when they have no turnovers; TB was fifth in takeaways.
Rodgers got the best of an elite Rams defense last week. He will do the same against a lesser D Sunday in outdueling Brady.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: BILLS (15-3, No. 2) at CHIEFS (15-2, No. 1)
Line: KC by 3. Cote’s pick: BUF 33-30.
I expect Patrick Mahomes to play in Sunday’s late game — something still in doubt when I made this pick Thursday afternoon and Chiefs QB hadn’t yet cleared concussion protocol (he has now).
Yes, I’m picking a Bills upset anyway. Either way, Josh Allen and that Bills offense can hang in the shootout I expect, and Buffs’ defense is improved, as Baltimore was reminded last week.
Bills key in: Offensive balance, maybe? Because KC’s weakness is run defense.
Chiefs key: Well, duh. Mahomes playing! It isn’t just the State Farm spokesman who was iffy for KC. So were Chiefs RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, WR Sammy Watkins and CB Brashaud Breeland.
Buffalo being healthier was one reason I smelled an upset. Really, though, this pick is more in the hunch/gut category. This is KC’s third consecutive year hosting AFC finale, but this team for me isn’t nearly as dominant as the one that won the Super Bowl in Miami last year. Eight straight KC wins have been by a single score.
Buffalo, this close to a Super Bowl for first time since Jim Kelly’s 1993, seems on a mission to deliver for its long-suffering fans.
This is first NFL final four in which every team averaged at least 29 points and every starting QB had 35 or more TDs. As if anyone needed reminding, offense rules the modern game?
Chiefs handled Bills 26-17 on Oct. 19 but Buffs coach Sean McDermott is an Andy Reid protege who knows him too well to not adapt from that earlier meeting. With Mahomes likely not 100 percent even if he plays, give us Allen and the road dogs. Upset!