sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Conference championship Sunday in the NFL had a little bit of everything: Controversial fourth-down calls! The Chiefs down by two possessions to start a game! Josh Allen throwing a ball at a defender’s head!
In the end, we’re left with our two Super Bowl contenders: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs, featuring the GOAT and the baby GOAT at quarterback. Let’s dissect the matchups that got us here and then look ahead to Super Bowl LV, in all its glory.
We start with the first game, the Bucs and Packers at a cold Lambeau Field. Before another word is said about that matchup, let’s get this out of the way: Should Green Bay have gone for it on fourth down down 8 points with 2:09 left?
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I know the models say it was a toss-up, basically. I think they should have gone. But I think Aaron Rodgers should have tried to run it in (instead of passing) on the two previous plays anyway.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I think you go, even if the “analytics” say it’s close or even disagree. The numbers are just a guide, and being aggressive there is the winning call. If you kick the field goal, you still need to score again, and there is just absolutely no guarantee that you ever get the ball back.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think the math on win probability is probably a toss-up. Fact is, their goose was cooked by going for 2 at the end of the third quarter to turn down 5 into down 3. That is what messed up the entire end game for the Packers.
I said at the time that I hated that 2-point attempt.
neil: Well, and the Packers’ problems started even before that, with that BRUTAL sequence at the end of the first half (and the start of the second).
sara.ziegler: Yeah, that was the real problem.
neil: Was Gregg Williams calling their defense on that last play of the second quarter?
sara.ziegler: The Bucs were on the Packers’ 39-yard-line with eight seconds left … and Tom Brady threw a 39-yard touchdown to Scotty Miller. It seemed like Green Bay was playing to prevent the Bucs from getting enough yards for a field goal try instead of, you know, preventing a touchdown.
joshua.hermsmeyer: An incredible stat: Brady had an average depth of target of 11 yards. He had almost 400 air yards in that game. At 43.
neil: So much for that “Brady doesn’t throw deep” narrative from early in the season.
Although some of those deep throws in the second half should not have been allowed to see the light of day.
Salfino: He also threw three picks. But for the most part he threw the ball well, and you could argue that not all the picks were his fault. Brady throws three picks and scores 3 points in the second half and still wins. (OK, 3 points after the 13:54 mark of the third quarter, basically a half.)
neil: Here’s a fun stat: I looked at Total QBR in each championship game by half since 2006.
Brady’s first half: 94.8 (seventh-best in a conference title game)
Second half: 7.2 (tied for second-WORST)
At the beginning of the third quarter, I was sure it was over. And it was, basically. But the Bucs and Brady did their best to let Green Bay back in the game.
neil: Maybe that played into Matt LaFleur’s field-goal decision some, too? That he was hoping Brady would do what he’d been doing and gift-wrap them the ball back?
sara.ziegler: And … he basically did!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Perhaps. But watching him complain on the sidelines during their last defensive series about the calls and the bad breaks that the world was foisting on him — as if it wasn’t completely in his control NOT to have that be the situation — was maddening.
Salfino: Rodgers should have run.
sara.ziegler: If not for the pass interference on that third-down play, Green Bay’s plan would have worked — they would have gotten the ball back with about a minute left.
neil: And that throw was never going to be completed — PI or not.
Salfino: It was maybe holding. But it really was incidental. The refs basically called the foul on the flop, not the hold. Horrible, IMO.
neil: Agreed, Mike. Still, I feel so bad for Rodgers. Brady was bailed out by his defense in that second half time and again. Rodgers totally outplayed Brady by passer rating (101.6 versus 73.8).
joshua.hermsmeyer: Not by QBR, though! (75.4 to 66.8)
neil: I struggle to understand that, Josh. Brady had the better QBR? How is that possible?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I believe QBR relatively discounts interceptions when the score is not close, which may be part of it.
neil: Ah, Brady was Jack Morris. He was “pitching to the score.”
Salfino: Rodgers had only 5.9 net yards per pass play with all those sacks. The Bucs had 7.4. That’s obviously enough to counteract the minus-1 in the turnover department. Again, teams that win net yards per pass play by any margin win 74 percent of NFL games.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Also, Brady had 0.27 unadjusted EPA per pass attempt to Rodgers’s 0.10.
neil: I stand corrected (and surprised).
Salfino: The Packers were minus-4 in sacks. That’s the loss right there for Green Bay, which had the best offensive line play in football but got whipped. Sacks, in my opinion, are basically mini-turnovers because they end drives.
neil: That is a good point about the Green Bay O-line. They didn’t protect well at all.
sara.ziegler: This was the same O-line that didn’t give up a sack last week to the Rams!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, Mike, the Bucs were outstanding in pass rush. Their pass rush win rate was 50 percent, which is outstanding. They got pressure on half their plays!
Salfino: The loss of David Bakhtiari finally had a major impact.
sara.ziegler: Accordingly, the Packers’ pass block win rate of 50 percent was their lowest of the season.
Salfino: The Bucs won even with more turnovers and fewer total yards. Brady really has the leprechauns in the postseason.
neil: The Packers got only 6 points off those many Brady turnovers — which in turn speaks back to the Bucs’ defensive performance.
Salfino: Is Aaron Rodgers, gulp, the new Drew Brees? (How many Hall-of-Fame QBs can a man slander in eight words?)
sara.ziegler: We blamed Mike McCarthy for wasting Rodgers’s best years. Good to have someone new to blame, though.
neil: Rodgers sounded in postgame like he’d had enough of it all.
Salfino: Now LaFleur is the first coach since Rex Ryan to lose in the championship round his first two seasons as head coach.
neil: Just to pile on some more, the Packers have also now lost four NFC title games in the past seven seasons.
joshua.hermsmeyer: On the other hand, I’m happy for Brady. I think he was the main reason for the success in New England, and this year he has done a lot to confirm that position. Great QBs make the difference.
neil: Brady has lost only two more playoff games than Rodgers in his career (11 vs. 9), but he’s won three times as many of them! (33 vs. 11)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Ten Super Bowl appearances in one career is absurd.
Salfino: Has to be done:
sara.ziegler: On that note, let’s move over to the AFC championship game. The Chiefs spotted Buffalo 9 points in the first quarter, but Patrick Mahomes and Co. poured it on in the second quarter and never looked back. What made the difference in that game?
neil: The Chiefs playing like … the Chiefs?
Salfino: The Bills couldn’t figure out how to stop Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, so they decided to stop neither and see what happens.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Josh Allen did old Josh Allen things, basically.
The Bills had the second highest pass block win rate of out of the four teams that played this weekend, but Allen was the only QB with a negative expected points added per pass attempt (-0.13)
He was great rushing, though (0.39 EPA/play)!
neil: Big credit to the K.C. defense. They stopped one of the best scoring offenses in the league in its tracks.
Salfino: Were we worried at all for the Chiefs when they were down two scores? I wasn’t. The stat about Mahomes trailing by two and winning by two in the postseason is pretty incredible.
neil: Allen was sacked or under duress 27 times! That was the most of any QB in a playoff game since at least 2009.
Salfino: Good for mentioning the Chiefs defense, which gets no love. They were second in the league (behind the Rams) at shutting down wide receivers by yardage allowed to the position. Nothing was easy for Buffalo, and nothing is easy for most teams playing K.C. This defense has sort of snuck up on everyone. And Steve Spagnuolo has some experience vexing Brady in Super Bowls.
neil: What’s interesting is that the K.C. defense hadn’t really been notably good for much of the second half of the season. By schedule-adjusted EPA, this was their best performance since October!
(Meanwhile, the Bills defense played terribly. Even after adjusting for how good K.C.’s offense is, this was an awful performance.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: The other wild thing — and I need to look into this more — is that K.C. played Cover 0 10 times (17.5 percent of plays!) against the Bills. The total for the other three championship round teams was zero.
sara.ziegler: It’s kind of surprising that Stefon Diggs couldn’t exploit those Cover 0 looks, isn’t it?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Diggs made some incredible catches, though, Sara. I remember one over the middle where he leapt up and brought it down. Of course, I remember another where he did the same and took a really hard shot to the ribs and lost the ball on the way down.
But the common denominator for me was errant passes from Allen: 15.9 percent of his passes were off target, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
sara.ziegler: And yet, the Bills supposedly had the edge at quarterback going into that game!
neil: I will say that, statistically, Allen and Mahomes were close this season.
But maybe that’s an indictment of stats!
Salfino: Reminding me of this, Sara.
neil: Cue Earl Weaver: “Team speed, for chrissakes?”
joshua.hermsmeyer: That was some clean set design.
Salfino: Hey, that was my first analytics. Be gentle.
Salfino: But thinking Allen is better than Mahomes is crazier than the players saying Lamar Jackson was better than Mahomes. I’ll make this easy: No one is better than Mahomes.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Mike Florio has said both of those things in the past two years, Mike. It’s the best way to stir up the hive.
Salfino: Yeah. I get it. And we’re going to get a lot of that over the next two weeks with Brady vs. Mahomes. Painful.
neil: It’s an interesting thing.
Mahomes was MVP in 2018. Jackson was 2019 MVP. And Allen has better MVP odds than Mahomes this year (although Rodgers will win).
Was that a case of voters getting tired of Mahomes already? Or did they honestly think Jackson and Allen were better?
Salfino: Mahomes = Mike Trout. His greatness is boring.
neil: And is being better in your system in the regular season different from being better in a must-win playoff game?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Modeling NFL writers and their proclivities is probably the least interesting thing to me. Just tedious.
Salfino: The players also voted Jackson over Mahomes in the summer, IIRC. In the Top 100.
sara.ziegler: I think some of the MVP talk is about performance above the talker’s own personal expectation of the player. If you already think Mahomes is amazing, then he has to be EXTRA amazing to move the needle for you.
neil: True. That’s why LeBron is still mad about Giannis these past few years! He felt taken for granted.
sara.ziegler: It’s a silly way to look at sports, but I think it’s human nature.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s on point.
Salfino: Very true, Sara. Willie Mays won two MVPs. Hank Aaron only won one.
joshua.hermsmeyer: BTW, you all should read Neil’s piece on Hank.
Salfino: I did and it was great.
neil: 🙏 Thank you — and yes, RIP. 😞
neil: Awesome, Mike! Very jealous rn.
sara.ziegler: That’s extremely cool.
So now we have two weeks to listen to the hype about this Super Bowl matchup. But let’s get in on that action early. What are you most excited to see in the game?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Sara, I think betting against Mahomes is insane. The Chiefs are slight favorites right now according to our model, but I simply don’t think Brady has 60 minutes of real all-out gunslinging in him anymore.
neil: I agree, Josh. K.C.’s closing statement in that AFC title game was about as strong as it gets. They took on another top-three team and thoroughly outclassed them.
Salfino: I will lay the points for sure. I do think the loss of tackle Eric Fisher is going to be a problem. But Andy Reid and Co. have a couple of weeks to cover that up.
Will the Bucs be insane enough to play man against Hill? Marquez Valdes-Scantling torched them, for God’s sake. Hill had 200 yards in the first quarter of the teams’ first meeting before Reid basically called off the dogs.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the only hope is to encourage Kansas City to run. But they won’t. Why would they?
Salfino: Josh always wants to trick teams into running. 🙂
neil: That’s how to win!
Salfino: Well, you need them to cooperate.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It still works, though, since you’re better prepared for the pass. But again, that isn’t gonna move the needle against Mahomes. He can make magical throws.
Salfino: True. Josh, I was playing six DBs in Madden in 1993. Revolutionized the game!
neil: Maybe one sign of encouragement for Tampa Bay is that Mahomes did shred them pretty badly in the Week 12 matchup. And yet, they still only lost by 3 at the stadium where the Super Bowl will be played.
Granted, it took a furious comeback attempt by Brady.
Salfino: Yeah, that was back-door BS.
neil: I wouldn’t be surprised if the rematch plays out the same way.
Salfino: Chiefs dominate early with huge plays and then we get a game not as close as the score indicates? I think that’s the best-case for The Tampa Bradys.
neil: The Bucs are a better team now than they were then, though.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I had forgotten that this is kind of a home game for Brady.
sara.ziegler: Which is so strange.
neil: First Super Bowl home game ever!
sara.ziegler: No home games in the playoffs … until the Super Bowl.
neil: (Of course it would happen the one year where home-field is muted.)
sara.ziegler: All right, then, what are your predictions? Is everyone taking the Chiefs? And by how much?
But idk, maybe we’re overvaluing the Chiefs in a fit of Mahomes Mania. The Bucs will be at “home,” and they had the better PPG diff this season (+8.4 vs. +7.2, including playoffs) against a slightly tougher schedule.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d take the Bucs at +3.5, but otherwise it’s the Chiefs for me.
Salfino: By my count, only four Super Bowl winners have failed to cover. I’ll take Kansas City, 34-24. But if the Bucs play a lot of man again, Mahomes could have a day like in Super Bowl XXIV, after which Karl Mecklenberg famously said: “We were worried about their short passing game. They took what we gave them. We gave them the long pass and they took it.”
sara.ziegler: All right! This was our last NFL chat of the season. 😢 Thanks for hanging out and chatting about football all season, guys. And don’t worry, we’ll be back with our bad takes during our live blog of the Super Bowl!
Check out our latest NFL predictions.