The AFC championship game features a much younger set of passers in the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen and, if he is cleared under the NFL concussion protocol, defending Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. But what these four passers have in common is that they ranked among the best in the NFL this season. In fact, all four conference finalists ranked in the top six in total offense, all averaging more than 30 points.
What will determine which teams advance to the Super Bowl? Here are four big questions:
What can the Chiefs expect out of Mahomes?
Mahomes is the key to the Chiefs’ hopes of advancing. Chad Henne did a great job of replacing Mahomes in Sunday’s 22-17 win over the Cleveland Browns, but it’s a lot to ask any backup quarterback to win a shootout against Allen and the Bills.
But even if Mahomes, who tweeted he will be fine but must go through league’s protocol, is cleared to play, it’s unclear whether he will be at full strength. Before the hit that forced him to leave the game, Mahomes had been hobbled by a toe injury he suffered earlier when a defender twisted his body as he released a pass.
Mahomes proved last year how resilient he is in overcoming injury; he missed just two games after hurting his knee. But it’s likely the Chiefs would need to provide a little more support for him than usual if he’s in the lineup. The availability of rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has been out with ankle and hip injuries, could prove pivotal against a Buffalo defense that isn’t great at stopping the run.
It was interesting that Coach Andy Reid started Darrel Williams over Le’Veon Bell in Edwards-Helaire’s absence against Cleveland. Williams, who had never started an NFL game, rushed for 78 yards on 13 carries.
Can the Bills’ pass-heavy attack produce enough points?
Buffalo passed the ball 60 percent of the time during the regular season and has leaned on its air attack even more during its two playoff games, including rushing just 16 times for 32 yards in Saturday’s win over Baltimore.
There’s a good reason for that: Allen has developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in his third pro season. But in some ways that could be a favorable approach for the Chiefs, who have struggled against the run, and the weather forecast could make throwing the ball downfield more difficult.
Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will spend the week trying to find a solution for covering Bills star Stefon Diggs, who has been targeted 20 times and totaled 14 catches for 234 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason. But the biggest key could be whether the Chiefs’ pass rush, which hasn’t been great this season, can cause Allen trouble. The Chiefs need big games from defensive end Frank Clark (just six sacks this season) and interior lineman Chris Jones (team-leading 7.5 sacks).
Will Tampa Bay’s man-to-man defense work against Rodgers?
Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles kept his unit in man-to-man defense the entire game Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. It worked. Drew Brees completed only 19 of 34 passes for 134 yards and three interceptions. The only big gain allowed was a trick play in which Jameis Winston threw a 56-yard touchdown pass. They held Michael Thomas to zero catches on four targets.
Can it work against Rodgers? The key will be covering Davante Adams, who might have been the NFL’s best wide receiver this season. The Los Angeles Rams did a decent job in Saturday’s matchup, but Adams still managed nine catches for 66 yards and a touchdown — while secondary target Allen Lazard added four catches for 96 yards and another score. The Bucs have done a remarkable job of developing their cornerbacks — Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis — who combined to shut down Thomas. But shutting down Adams is a different level of challenge.
The man-to-man defense gives Bowles a chance to blitz, but that can be dangerous against Rodgers, too. It will be telling if Rodgers has enough early success to force the Bucs to play some zone coverage.
Will the Bucs or Packers have the edge on the ground?
This game is a matchup of two all-time great quarterbacks, but the running game could play a vital role. For starters, early weather forecasts project below-freezing temperature with a chance of snow — meaning the passing games could be disrupted. Additionally, defending the run is one of Green Bay’s weaknesses, which was on full display in last year’s NFC title game, when the San Francisco 49ers gashed the Packers’ defense during a lopsided win. The problem for Tampa Bay is it hasn’t been a run-heavy team all season, posting the third-lowest run percentage at 36.3, but it might be forced to lean more on its rushing attack.
On the other side of the ball, the Packers have remained committed to running the ball and were the seventh-most-active running team at 44.7 percent. During Saturday’s win over the Rams, the Packers were completely balanced, with 36 runs and 36 passes. Rodgers wasn’t sacked, and the Packers controlled the game for four quarters.
Coach Matt LaFleur’s commitment to the run was part of Green Bay’s success this year, and the team might have to stick with that patience to outlast the Bucs.
Around the NFL
Jared Goff’s days with the Los Angeles Rams could be numbered. Even though Goff gutted out two playoff games with a broken thumb, Rams Coach Sean McVay isn’t in his corner. He said Goff is the quarterback for now but indicated the Rams are going to look for someone to compete against him. It’s not out of the question they could let Goff go.
He’s not the only NFC West starting quarterback under review. The 49ers could move on from Jimmy Garoppolo. What’s remarkable is that Goff and Garoppolo led their teams to the past two Super Bowls.
The Los Angeles Chargers passed on Brian Daboll and instead hired Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as their new coach. Staley was clearly one of the best assistant coaches in the NFL this year, turning the Rams into the No. 1 defense in football. His hiring of an offensive coordinator will be important, however, given the development of 2020 first-round pick Justin Herbert at quarterback.
There was a belief around the league that General Manager Tom Telesco would hire Daboll, the Bills’ offensive coordinator who played on the same high school football team as Telesco.
It’s pretty easy to see that Brees will be retiring. Age has finally caught up to him, and it was obvious in the loss to the Bucs, when he could only concentrate on short passes and the Tampa Bay defense punished him for it. He took this team as far as he could over the past four years, but as Brees departs and salary cap issues finally catch up to them, the Saints will be breaking up. What’s unclear is whether Coach Sean Payton wants Winston back to challenge for the starting job.
The Ravens are clearly going to have to adjust their offense. They have a great running attack and a talented quarterback in Lamar Jackson, but they won’t go to the Super Bowl with their current plan. They need another wide receiver. They need to get more complex with their pass routes. The Ravens ranked first in running the football but were 32nd in passing. That formula only gets you so far.
Doug Pederson appears to be the leading candidate for the Seattle Seahawks’ offensive coordinator job. He grew up in Ferndale, Wash., and he would be a great play caller for Russell Wilson. The question is whether he would want to sit out a year after being fired by the Philadelphia Eagles.
It’s also notable that Seahawks passing game coordinator Dave Canales turned down the offensive coordinator job at Vanderbilt. He’s on Seattle’s radar, too.