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NFL Championship Betting Preview: "I expect them to close the deal in a thriller"


NFL Championship Betting Preview: "I expect them to close the deal in a thriller"

Nat Coombs returns with his picks for the upcoming NFL Conference Championship games.

PACKERS V BUCCANEERS 

The incredible career of Tom Brady – the most successful quarterback ever to play in the NFL - has been further enhanced this season. Despite the predictable chorus of detractors, often vocal through much of the season, decrying the Bucs chances, suggesting he’d regressed and the offense around him was static and plodding, here he is once again. This will be Brady’s fourteenth conference title game, just two wins away from an extraordinary seventh Super Bowl ring.

Standing in his way is the player that Brady has often unfavourably been compared with through much of his career – Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay Packers quarterback is a more naturally gifted player in terms of mechanics and raw attributes and it’s his finesse, along with the new breed of QB like Patrick Mahomes, than prods those same critics into suggesting Brady is nothing more than a system quarterback, questioning whether he would have had the same level of success away from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

The negative comparison has been sharply renewed this season. Rodgers has been in mesmerising form, a lock for MVP season, but as the Packers close in on Super Bowl 55, we’re constantly being reminded that despite all that talent, he has (just) one Super Bowl ring. To get closer in the greatest of all time debate, he needs more.

Brady has flown the Foxboro nest and proved he can contend in a very different environment, at the age of 43. And here they are, two of the all-time greats, each with so much riding on Sunday’s game in terms of their legacy, as well as their season.

The Packers have been amongst the most consistent teams in the NFL this season with Rodgers mercurial, his main go to guy Davante Adams establishing himself as the best receiver in the league, and a supporting cast of offensive characters, all contributing, including a ground game that’s they led with against the LA Rams in the divisional round to great effect, averaging 5.8 yards per carry against one of the best in the game.

Brady has a different kind supporting cast – household names supposedly out of their prime like Rob “Gronk” Gronkoswki and Antonio Brown - have been increasingly effective over the final third of the season. RB Leonard Fournette – like Brown, an immense talent on tilt that’s found a new lease of life – has stepped up in the playoffs, and WR’s Mike Evans & Chris Godwin are a highly dangerous tandem, though both affected by injury this year.

Younger RB Ronald Jones is a key player to them as well – Brady (and Head Coach Arians) love to utilise the play action – and like the Packers in the previous round, Tampa Bay used their ground game to effect against the Saints in their win, with Jones and Fournette sharing 30 carries. Cameron Brate, the other TE, is factoring more too and Scotty Miller a big play threat. Unlike the latter years in New England, Brady has plenty of options.

Defensively, Tampa Bay shut down the shorter passing game of Brees and the Saints in the divisional round, but Green Bay offer more range with their offense than New Orleans, and should be harder to contain, even if Vita Vea returns for the Bucs. The Packers offensive line protected Rodgers effectively against the vaunted front 7 of the Rams who couldn’t manage a sack all game long, though Aaron Donald was notably banged up.

Conversely, the Packers D will be tested more sternly than in recent games. Over the past six weeks, Green Bay has given up 17.3 points and 299.2 yards per game but their opposition in that time  – including the Lions, the Panthers and the  Bears – are a different proposition to this Bucs offense.

Many are pointing to the Tampa Bay 38-10 win against Green Bay earlier in the season as a positive sign for the Bucs– though this can be taken two ways. On the one hand, they’re the only team to beat the Packers so comprehensively this year. On the other, as Around the NFL’s Gregg Rosenthal was telling me this week on my podcast, they’ve shown their hand defensively and will have to adjust. Rodgers won’t be burned the same way twice.

I expect a high scoring encounter, with the Packers having a slight edge, because Rodgers and the offense is in such clinical, ruthless form. I expect them to close the deal in a thriller.

PICKS – Packers – 3 & Over 51.5 (47/20)

CHIEFS V BILLS

It’s a good time to be a card-carrying member of the Bills Mafia right now ; a win away from the big show a chance to exorcise those ghosts from that remarkable run of 4 successive Super Bowl losses in the early 1990’s.

A lot is riding on whether Patrick Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP is fit for the Chiefs, having suffered a turf toe injury and more concerningly concussion in their win over the Browns. Whilst the vet Chad Henne deputised ably, it’s not even a close comparison should Mahomes not be able to go, though if there’s an offensive schemer capable of making the most of limited talent it’s Andy Reid.

I suspect Mahomes will start, but even confirmation of participation pre game won’t negate concerns until we see him playing, and that adds a large, bold asterix to any pick on this game. Another player to keep an eye on fitness wise is the rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who skinned the Bills for 161 yards (and 6.2 per carry) in the Chiefs win over Buffalo earlier in the season.

He’s been out for a while but could be back Sunday, and it’s possible that the Chiefs will look to exploit the ground game again, particularly if the Bills adopt a similar strategy to the one they applied defensively in that regular season game, playing deep coverage to negate the big play threat of Mahomes to Hill/Watkins/Hardman/all of the above. If they do, the return of LB Matt Milano for the Bills will strengthen their hand here, however.

The Chiefs can be run on as we know – but the trouble is that Buffalo haven’t’ particularly strong ground game, Josh Allen notwithstanding. Perhaps because of that, it wouldn’t surprise me if they really lean on the run early on – through design rushes for Allen but also giving plenty of touches to Devin Singletary & co, the element of surprise factors, as does keeping Mahomes off the field for as long as possible, a key part of the blueprint to beat the Chiefs.

There’s a sense of destiny about Buffalo this year – and the progress of Allen has been remarkable, with credit to Stefon Diggs & Cole Beasley, to Brian Daboll his offensive co-ordinator, and to the front office for taking the risk on him and sticking with him. But the reigning champs are clutch, and I think that big game experience could be a major factor. If Mahomes plays, my heart says Buffalo, but my head says Kansas City. If he’s out – Buffalo all the way.

PICK – Chiefs – 3* (if Mahomes starts) (17/20)

 

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