Four teams now are one win away from Super Bowl LV.
The field includes the defending champions, the projected MVP, the greatest quarterback in NFL history and a franchise that’s never won a Super Bowl despite four consecutive appearances in the 1990s.
Should be fun. In fact, it’s hard to find a more compelling quartet, from an entertainment perspective, for championship weekend.
Anyway, our resident pigskin prognosticators Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian are back to make their against-the-spread (ATS) picks for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game and AFC Championship Game.
First, here’s how they fared in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs (and the regular season).
Ricky Doyle: 2-2 (129-127-10)
Andre Khatchaturian 2-2 (121-135-10)
Now, here are their picks for the conference title games, with lines via consensus data.
NFC Championship Game
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers (-3.5), 3:05 p.m. ET
The Bucs benefitted last week from four Saints turnovers and Drew Brees’ inability to push the ball downfield. Good luck hoping for similar defensive results this week. The Packers have the fewest giveaways in the NFL, and Aaron Rodgers ranks first in passing yards, third in completion percentage and fourth in passer rating on throws traveling 20-plus yards (among QBs with at least 30 such attempts). Rodgers has 12 touchdowns and only one interception on deep throws, and Tampa Bay’s cornerbacks have proven vulnerable at times.
Two other components to consider: The Packers’ knack for extending drives and finishing drives. Green Bay’s offense ranks first in both third-down conversion percentage and red-zone scoring percentage. Tampa Bay’s defense ranks 18th and 21st, respectively, in those areas.
The quarterback matchup is a wash. Both guys are legends who perform well in the cold. What I’m looking at is Green Bay’s ability to establish a running attack. This season, when the Packers had more than 110 rushing yards in a game, they were 9-0. When they had fewer than that number, they were 5-3.
In the divisional round, the Packers proved me wrong and were able to establish a running attack against the Rams’ stingy rush defense. But this week, they face an even stingier rush defense. Plus, Vita Vea returns this week and should bolster Tampa Bay’s run-stuffing D. The Bucs have allowed more than 110 rushing yards just three times all season.
Finally, for what it’s worth, the Bucs haven’t lost by more than three points to any non-Saints opponent this season — and they exorcised those demons last week.
AFC Championship Game
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (-3), 6:40 p.m. ET
Patrick Mahomes has cleared the concussion protocol and will play. Which is great. Except that wasn’t the only issue that plagued the Chiefs quarterback in Kansas City’s divisional-round win over Cleveland. Mahomes also dealt with a foot injury before getting knocked out of the game, and that could be a problem this week if it hinders his mobility and reduces the number of plays he’s able to make outside the pocket.
Kansas City’s offensive line, which has dealt with injuries, showed some cracks down the stretch that forced Mahomes to improvise way too often. Buffalo ranks second in pass rush win rate, per ESPN Analytics, and creating pressure without blitzing heavily would be huge, especially with the Bills’ talented secondary nearing its potential as the team benefits from good health at the second level.
The Chiefs once were the NFL’s safest bet, looking like the Patriots of old in terms of covering the spread. Now, they’re 0-8-1 ATS in their last nine games. They haven’t covered since beating the Jets 35-9 as 19 1/2-point favorites on Nov. 1, and I’m not expecting that trend to end Sunday against one of the few teams that can keep pace offensively.
Buffalo finally goes up against a legitimate offense for the first time in months. Since Week 12, the Bills played the Chargers (21st in yards per play), 49ers (15th), Steelers (24th), Broncos (26th), Patriots (21st) and Dolphins (23rd) in the regular season. In the playoffs, they played the Colts and Ravens (both top 10 in yards per play), but that Indy game was very close and who knows what happens if Lamar Jackson doesn’t get hurt in the divisional round? The Chiefs had the second-most yards per play and already took apart the Bills once this season.
The Bills allowed the most receptions and the second-most receiving yards to tight ends this season. Sounds like a big day for Travis Kelce.
The Chiefs’ biggest weakness is their rush defense, but the Bills don’t really rely on their running game. Buffalo is a passing team and Kansas City allowed the fifth-lowest completion percentage to QBs this season and has the tools to mitigate Josh Allen.