By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
Two games are left to decide the winners of the NFC and AFC conferences, aka, the Super Bowl representatives. These games will start the climax of a playoff season that has been punctuated with hard fought, close games.
That trend could very well continue Sunday, whether it does or not its assured two fan bases are going to be crushed after the day’s results.
Nothing in professional sports rises to the level of the high risk/high reward components that exist in the NFL. Going from worst to first or even first to worst is common place in this league because no team’s rosters are ever the same year to year — that regular season quality allows for each postseason to stand as its own entity, capable of almost randomly generating a team of the moment, each year the NFL playoffs auditions teams for immortality and the moments where cuts are made provide amazing theater for our football-obsessed nation.
Coming this close and not getting the ring is the toughest thing for an NFL fan, player, coach and front office. Such is life, as they say, the sun can only shine on one of the 32 teams each year. This year’s fighters for the spotlight has come down to four teams: on the NFC side there’s a match-up of storied franchises each used to making it this long in January, the Green Bay Packers at the San Francisco 49ers.
Flip over to the AFC and you see two teams with detailed playoff histories as well, but each have mostly produced heart break in the most important games — the Tennessee Titans and the Kansas City Chiefs. These two teams stand as an ideal confrontation between an old-school, run-first offense verses a new-school, high octane passing bombardment.
High drama and high stakes set the stage for what will be one of the best Sundays of the entire year, here’s a look at 2020’s Championship Sunday.
Lamar Hunt Trophy
The AFC Championship is named after the former Chiefs owner and AFL pioneer, Lamar Hunt. Sorta poetic in the NFL’s 100th year anniversary the Chiefs will compete for the trophy named after their founding owner and are favorites to obtain the trophy for the first time ever.
KC are obvious favorites over a No. 6-seed Titans, but it would be foolish to count them out completely, being underdogs didn’t hurt them in travels to New England and Baltimore. So what’s been the Titans’ secret sauce in this playoffs? Not much more than a sound old school approach with new school twists.
Head coach Mike Vrabel has been terrific with this Titans team, lead by running back Derrick Henry who is in the middle of an historic run. Henry has been a monster, rushing for 182 and 195 yards in his two playoff games this year. Perhaps the ultimate compliment for Henry is that the Patriots couldn’t stop him as their coach, Bill Belichick, is renowned in taking a teams best offensive threat and he had no answers for the freak of nature running back. So rest assured that its likely Henry won’t be stopped by the Chiefs, its more likely that the Titans themselves stop him in the face of a big deficit where they feel more inclined to throw than steadily hand off the ball.
Where Vrabel and his staff have to find an answer to stopping the Chiefs offense. Time of possession is a great way to neutralize a great offense by keeping them on the sideline where they can’t do any damage.
Certainly the Titans will want to win time of possession Sunday, but the Chiefs lost time of possession by nearly 10 minutes to the Texans last week, (34:35 to 25:25) and still scored 51 points. Will the old school Titans run the football, play good all three phases beat the greatest show on grass offense with a decent defense and special teams? They pretty much have to. Tennessee’s ability to stick to its philosophical guns will underscore a fascinating case study and add to the eternal debate of what kind of attack best wins in the postseason.
One more key to keep in mind: the magic number is 30 in this game for the Titans if they are going to win. Somehow, someway the Titans have to keep the Chiefs to no more than 30 points and on offense they have to be determined to score 30 or more. Expect a fabulous conclusion to the AFC side of the bracket as two polar opposites go at it.
George Halas Trophy
As the founder of the Chicago Bears and a co-founder of the NFL, George Halas suitably has the NFC Championship named after him. Sadly, Papa Bear’s team is once again nowhere near his trophy, a lot of poetry can be written about their ineptitude over time.
But if anyone is looking for more inspirational poetry or signature, how fitting would it be in the league’s 100th year anniversary for the Packers to compete for the Lombardi trophy? Packers coach Vince Lombardi won the first ever Super Bowl and was renowned for his legendary techniques and motivational speeches — the present-day Packers could use some of the coach’s unique candor right about now.
Armed with arguably the best quarterback in football, Aaron Rodgers, and one of the best running backs in Aaron Jones the Packers have a chance on the road against the NFC’s top seed. Aaron having a big day is the most expected component Green Bay could have in a winning effort Sunday but the Packers will also need the Smith “brothers,” Za’Darius and Preston, on defense to have a big day too. Not actual brothers, the Smiths have still bonded quite a bit this season while each making efforts to tee off on opposing QBs. More than ever at this moment Za’Darius and Preston Smith need to come through for Green Bay.
This Packers team is dangerous when Rodgers is getting protection and can use play action off a successful run game. The 49ers are similarly dependent on its offensive line to keep clean the somewhat-shaky developing QB Jimmy Garoppolo and power its deep and diverse run attack.
These 49ers are a top seed for a reason and possess the right mix to beat this Packers team. Everything starts with the insanely talented 49ers defensive line, a group lead by rookie phenom Nick Bosa but a lot of talent lies on San Francisco’s depth chart. Rarely do the 49ers even blitz because their front four is enough to get pressure on the opposition.
If the 49ers get pressure consistently with their front four then Rodgers and Jones have a rough day in store for them. Assuming the Packers offense is getting off to a slow start like their regular season meeting when the Packers lost 37-8, then it will be up to the defense to stand tall. Problem is that the Packers defense is kind of bad stopping the run — in the regular season the Packers were ranked 23rd in that category and gave up 110 yards rushing to the Seahawks last week, a team that was mostly relying on a nearly washed Marshawn Lynch to keep the ball moving. Green Bay should want to do better going up against the best rushing team in the NFC.
Perhaps the key for both teams is quarterback Garoppolo, who comes in as the big unknown considering its likely that this game won’t be a blowout like the previous match-up and in fact might come down to the wire. Winning or losing, at some point in the second half Garoppolo will have to make some big throws. If he is up to the task then its likely the 49ers will overwhelm the Packers, but a few big mistakes could spell doom for the Niners.
No one can deny how dangerous the Packers are when they are firing on all cylinders. Even if they aren’t, Rodgers always seems to have a game-changing drive in him. Expect a lot of fireworks in both games, it seems we’re coming to close out one of those NFL seasons where the madness isn’t close to being over.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR