Legacies were on the line this past Sunday in a pair of heavily anticipated conference championship games which were promoted largely in association with the notoriety of the four remaining quarterbacks left at the helm for each squad.
The battle at Lambeau Field between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers provided football fanatics with their first (and most likely last) glimpse of playoff competition between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers as each looked to further cement their Hall of Fame resumes.
While the veterans duked it out in the cold, the matchup at Arrowhead Stadium between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs showcased young upstarts Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes. The matchup could prove to be the first episode of a long winding saga of postseason contests between two of the most exciting quarterbacks under twenty-five in the league.
Buccaneers: 31, Packers: 26
Brady’s afternoon could not have gotten off to a better start, as he promptly took his team down the field on his first possession of the day before linking up with his favorite vertical threat, Mike Evans, for a 15-yard touchdown in the corner of the endzone. After a defensive stand dictated by frequent backfield pressure, and ultimately a sack of Rodgers on third down, the underdog Bucs had quickly re-established the same blueprint that led to their 38-10 drubbing of the Packers back in Week 6 of the regular season. Rodgers proceeded to seamlessly move the chains in the ensuing drive, with the drive culminating in a 50-yard strike to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
On the brink of halftime, with the Buccaneers up 14-10, Brady found himself with a critical third-down near midfield. As a result of a head-scratching man coverage scheme from the Packers, Scotty Miller was able to break behind his cornerback for a game-changing touchdown reception, sending Tampa Bay into the locker room up by eleven. This would not be the last back-breaking mistake for Green Bay.
After crawling back from a 17-point deficit and cutting the Bucs’ lead to eight, the Packers faced a critical 1st-and-goal late in the fourth quarter. Three failed plays later, Head Coach Matt LaFleur took the ball out of his superstar quarterback’s hands-on 4th-and-8 and instead elected to kick a field goal to cut the deficit to five. It’s a mistake in its own right to rob Aaron Rodgers of such an opportunity, but an even bigger mistake to give the ball back to six-time champion Tom Brady.
Rodgers was never able to touch the ball again. Now, Tom Brady gears up to play in his record tenth Super Bowl, and his Bucs will be the first in NFL history to play it in their home stadium.
Bills: 24, Chiefs: 38
After the first of two contests, attention turned to Kansas City, where Bills Mafia quickly found themselves with a 9-0 advantage after capitalizing on a crucial special team’s fumble at the Chiefs’ goal line. However, Patrick Mahomes didn’t flinch. He fearlessly reeled off 24 straight points and seamlessly dissected the Buffalo defense with a mix of vertical throws to speedsters Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, and bullet passes to tight end Travis Kelce.
After a shaky Josh Allen regained control of his team’s offensive scheme to begin the second half, Sean McDermott took a page out of Matt LaFleur’s book and conservatively elected to kick a field goal. With the score creeping as close as 24-15, Mahomes responded with two straight touchdown drives.
Following what proved to be a masterful performance from Mahomes (325 yds, 3 TD) in his third straight AFC Championship Game, the stage was set for a Super Bowl matchup straight from the pages of a Hollywood script. All Brady does is win, but at age 43, can he find a way to do it on a new team and against the best of the next generation of quarterbacks? Come Feb. 7, two stars will have the opportunity to compete on the grandest stage in sports, proving that even in a COVID-19 riddled season, a storybook ending awaits at the finish line after all.