Jason Keidel's NFL Picks for 2021 Conference Championship Weekend


The NFL so dominates our attention that even an average final four weekend would draw epic ratings. But if there are football gods, graybeards in the clouds with wands, they have sprinkled some serious faerie dust on this weekend. The NFL's penultimate showcase before the Super Bowl, Sunday's conference title games, are the closest this sport can come to perfection. It's hard to think of two games that feature more talent or temerity, that add more layers to legacy, especially at the sport's most prominent position: quarterback.

You don't have to be a football fan to watch, but you can't claim to be one and have no interest in these games, as good a semifinal as the league has produced in years. Let's break it down with some numbers, precedents, and instincts.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5) at Green Bay Packers (14-3)
3:05 p.m. EST
Line: Packers - 3.5

This is a game for anyone: homers, haters, or historians. It's a tribute to two quarterbacks' longevity, toughness, and singular greatness, and it stretches a debate on who did more versus who had more to help him. We have the GOAT named Brady, and the brooding savant named Rodgers. Brady has smiled his way through two decades and nine Super Bowls, winning six. Rodgers has scowled and barked his brand of greatness on football's Field of Dreams, named after a team architect (Curly Lambeau), and blessed by the patron saint of the sport (Vince Lombardi). Brady has dedicated at least one life (if not his family’s lives) to the sport of football. Rodgers is a bit more mysterious and moody, like the true athletic artist he's become.

If Brady were to win on Sunday, he would lead the Bucs into Super Bowl LV as the first team to play the NFL’s finale in their home stadium, and grab his 10th conference title. Brady is 43 and playing for a new team, while Rodgers is 37 and hosting just his first NFC title game at Lambeau Field. Considering Brady's age, you must wonder when this magic gridiron ride will end; we know where it will end all is said and done (Canton), but given Rodgers seems to be a master in full grasp of his powers, more devoted to achievement than recognition, we wonder if this chapter for TB12 ends in Wisconsin.

Both quarterbacks have ample weapons. Brady has two bruising tailbacks, two Pro Bowl wideouts in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, and his former Patriots wingman Rob Gronkowski at tight end. Rodgers, meanwhile, has Aaron Jones and a three-headed monster behind him ready to run the rock, and arguably the best receiver in the NFL in Davante Adams. Also, in his second year in Matt LaFleur's offense, Rodgers is having arguably the best year of his career, with 51 total touchdowns (48 passing) and 5 interceptions. He's putting up video game numbers all around, completing 70.7 percent of his throws for a 121.7 passer rating and 84.3 QBR, all of which lead the league.

Rodgers is the closest thing the world has come to a perfect quarterback, and yet he's somehow gotten better. Maybe Brady will be more fondly remembered, and maybe that's proper, but just a few of us will add that at his absolute best, Aaron Rodgers played quarterback the way Michael Jordan played basketball, the way Muhammad Ali threw a jab, or the way Pablo Picasso handled a brush. Rodgers also has home field, the mojo of football's Mecca, on his side, and as he was embarrassed in Tampa the one time the two teams played this year, Sunday will be time for some payback.

Prediction: Packers, 27-17

Buffalo Bills (15-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (15-2)
6:40 p.m. EST
Line: Chiefs -3

This might be the only time in recent NFL history when teams of this gravitas don't top the marquee, one the defending champion and the other lauded by many as the best in the game.

This is just the second time since the 1970 merger that the conference title game features the top two offenses. Reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes has been cleared to play after passing concussion protocol, but the Chiefs haven't been vaporizing foes the way they had the last two seasons, surely the residue of riches and rapid success. Still, it seems the Chiefs have too much talent throwing, catching, and blocking, and arguably the best play-caller in the sport - head coach Andy Reid - to suffer some letdown this close to the Super Bowl.

The Bills, meanwhile, have simply smashed through the sport to get here. Two major events have beefed them up into title contenders: they traded for all-world wideout Stefon Diggs, who has amassed over 100 receiving yards ten times this season, and saw QB Josh Allen explode from exciting prospect to undeniable superstar. Allen has been so dominant this year, he enters Sunday's game as the Bills' best passer and rusher, particularly since injuries ended running back Zack Moss’ season. While the Chiefs have studs at WR (Tyreek Hill), TE (Travis Kelce), and RB (Clyde Edwards-Helaire, when healthy), the Bills are buoyed by Allen first, second, and third.

To give you an idea of a QB's importance, consider that the Chiefs have a 62 percent chance to win with Mahomes under center, compared to the 31 percent chance they were given if they didn’t have their mutant passer. The Chiefs just have too many weapons and ways to score for Buffalo to stop them.

Prediction: Chiefs, 30-24

Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel

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