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Our Guide To The NFL’s Conference Championships

The NFL’s divisional round is complete, and we’re looking forward to a really talented and interesting final four — one that features the defending champs, a feel-good upstart and two of the greatest QBs of all time playing for teams that feel both familiar and unfamiliar. For each matchup, we’ll be breaking things down using our Elo ratings — which track how well each team is currently playing, with adjustments for the quality of each starting quarterback — and also identifying the facets of the game in which each team was best (and worst) according to ESPN’s expected points added1 (EPA) this season. Here is our guide to the good, the bad and the must-see for each matchup in the weekend’s pair of games:

Tale of the tape: No. 1 Green Bay vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay

3:05 p.m. ET Sunday

Green Bay Category Tampa Bay
14-3 Record 13-5
27th Schedule strength 7th
1721 Elo with top QB 1682
3rd League rank 5th
Aaron Rodgers Starting QB Tom Brady
1st QB Elo rank 6th
6th QB’s supporting cast 4th
17th Avg. QB Elo defense* 9th
Pass offense Biggest EPA strength Pass offense
Special teams Biggest EPA weakness Special teams
62.9% 538 forecast 37.1%

*Measures the team’s average ability to suppress opposing QBs’ Elo performance this season.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The quarterback matchup here stands out as one of the most decorated in championship-game history — Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have won a combined five MVPs, with a sixth likely on the way (for Rodgers) — as well as the oldest, at a combined 80 years and 227 days.2 And make no mistake, both the Packers and Bucs rely on passing to power their chances: It has been each team’s top EPA category this season. For Rodgers, a winning performance here probably means a lot of play-action, like the fake that freed up Allen Lazard for a 58-yard TD against the Rams; no passer had a better Total QBR off play-fakes than Rodgers’s 94.2 mark this season. For Brady, it means good protection (his QBR was 74.6 points higher when he wasn’t pressured this season, the second-largest split of any QB),3 a steady diet of his improving deep passes (his average air yards per attempt is up 13 percent in the second half of the schedule) and spreading the ball around (seven different Bucs targets had double-digit receiving yards against New Orleans, the fourth time that’s happened in the last five games — all wins). Tampa Bay does own the superior defense, No. 3 in EPA to Green Bay’s 12th-place ranking, and it showed up big in the Bucs’ 38-10 rout of the Pack in Week 6. But Rodgers will be at home this time, and no QB in the game is playing better right now. Our model sets the Packers as favorites with a 63 percent chance of sending Rodgers to his second career Super Bowl. Elo’s spread: Green Bay -3½

Tale of the tape: No. 1 Kansas City vs. No. 2 Buffalo

6:40 p.m. ET Sunday

Kansas City Category Buffalo
15-2 Record 15-3
12th Schedule strength 3rd
1727 Elo with top QB 1743
2nd League rank 1st
Patrick Mahomes† Starting QB Josh Allen
3rd QB Elo rank 2nd
5th QB’s supporting cast 2nd
22nd Avg. QB Elo defense* 14th
Pass offense Biggest EPA strength Pass offense
Run defense Biggest EPA weakness Run offense
50.6% 538 forecast 49.4%

†Starter is currently injured and may not play.

*Measures the team’s average ability to suppress opposing QBs’ Elo performance this season.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

At the moment, this matchup carries the possibilities of a couple games inside of it: If Patrick Mahomes is somehow unable to clear concussion protocols and suit up for the Chiefs, the Bills will be big favorites — 74 percent to win, according to our model. But although it’s “too early to say that he definitely will play,” Vegas at least thinks that he will4 — which would give us the version of this matchup that we all want to see. Both teams have tremendous, high-powered passing offenses and decent-but-not-great pass defenses, and there isn’t a clear tactical edge to exploit on either side — K.C.’s biggest vulnerability (run defense) happens to correspond to Buffalo’s greatest weakness (run offense), for instance. For those thinking this will be a romp based on the Chiefs’ reputation — or perhaps K.C.’s 26-17 win at Buffalo in Week 6 — the Bills have the better point differential this season (+7.9 per game versus +6.8) and did it against a tougher schedule. Josh Allen is also playing every bit as well as the great Mahomes right now, with an 81.5 QBR in the back half of the 2020-21 schedule (versus Mahomes’s 80.6). So at full strength, this is a surprisingly even matchup, though one our model gives a 54 percent nod to the Chiefs if Mahomes can play. Weighted out across the two scenarios,5 Kansas City is an extremely slim 51 percent favorite in the model — essentially too close to call, for now. Elo’s spread: Pick-’em

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Adjusted for strength of schedule by comparing an opponent’s EPA performance against the team in question with how it played against every other team on its schedule.

  2. The previous record belonged to Brady and Peyton Manning in the AFC title game after the 2015 season, at 78 years and 115 days.

  3. Behind just Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow.

  4. The betting lines still list Kansas City as 3-point favorites, which is relatively close to the line with a healthy Mahomes (rather than flipping to Buffalo as they would in Mahomes’s absence).

  5. Reading the tea leaves, I’m currently ballparking Mahomes’ odds of starting at 90 percent.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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