Keys to Success in the Conference Championship

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Chris Allen
·6 min read
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We’re just one set of games away from the Super Bowl and the league has made one thing clear. Offense wins championships. All four teams playing this weekend were in the Top 5 for EPA per Play during the regular season and in the Top 10 for yards per drive. Their defense and special teams have shown up at times, but our focus has primarily been on their playmakers. The Conference Championships will showcase the league’s best offenses in must-win situations to get to the final game. To help set the stage, I laid out how each team can find success against their opponent plus recapping the injury news coming out of Wednesday.

Keys to Success

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers

Tampa Bay needs to attack Green Bay’s weak links in their coverage. Jaire Alexander’s ascension into the ranks of elite corners is noteworthy but the Buccaneers have the personnel to shift production elsewhere. They’ve done it before and teams have found similar paths to success.

Deep

0.82

-0.1

0.2

Intermediate

0.43

0.08

-0.37

Short

0.16

0.05

-0.52

Left

Middle

Right

The Packers need to involve their running backs in the passing game. New Orleans had the same option, but the game environment forced them into sub-optimal passing situations. Expected Points Added (EPA) per Play for opposing quarterbacks since Week 10 improves away from Alexander’s typical coverage area. Tampa was able to win their Week 6 matchup against the Packers exploiting their deficiency. A similar approach seems optimal.

The two crossing routes from the weak side of the formation cleared out the two corners leaving Alvin Kamara with a linebacker to beat. Brees had the route, but forced the attempt to Jared Cook on first down ultimately ending the game. Kamara and Aaron Jones have similar physical profiles which Green Bay should use to their advantage against the Buccaneers’ pass rush.

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs

The Bills need to come out swinging. Anything Brian Daboll had been saving for a rainy day should be on full display in their first few drives on Sunday. Most attempts to slow down the Chiefs and play a normal game haven’t worked anyway.

Throughout the playoffs, Josh Allen ranks fourth in EPA per Play and first in Completion Percent over Expected (CPOE) on early downs amongst the remaining quarterbacks. Their neutral pace (29.8 seconds per play) and offensive yards per drive (40.3) stats nearly match Kansas City’s. Any deviation from their previous game plan would be a mistake when facing the Chiefs’ potent offense.

The Chiefs need to take advantage of their ancillary pass-catchers. Eric Bieniemy was already in his bag this past weekend.

Prior to the divisional round, Mecole Hardman had averaged just 21.3 routes run per game during the regular season according to Pro Football Focus. He had seen more than a 60% snap share in just four games prior to season finale with just one meaningful performance back in Week 8. Last week was significant shift as his snap share jumped to 69% with a rushing attempt and a pop pass to showcase his speed. The Bills already had issues containing Marquise Brown in the Divisional Round. An increase in usage for Hardman to pair with Tyreek Hill would be disastrous for Buffalo.

Bounce-Back Candidate for 2021

D.J. Chark, Jaguars

Our expectations for the Jaguars’ season were simple. Their lack of defensive talent would force negative game scripts. Those game scripts would favor a pass-heavy approach and D.J. Chark would be a direct beneficiary. Jacksonville generally met those expectations but Chark wasn’t as impactful as we had hoped.

Chark’s 2019 season was the result of a perfect storm. Gardner Minshew was dead last in CPOE (-3.8%) and 25th in EPA per Play (0.02), but he was 13th in deep-ball completions. His inconsistency dashed any chances of him being the long-term solution for the Jaguars, but the splash plays to Chark were a regular occurrence throughout the season. Nearly half of Chark’s 2019 production came on targets of 15 air yards or more (46.1%). His 20.1% target share didn’t make him an elite receiver by comparison, but his situation projected to be similar in 2020. However, Jacksonville drafted Laviska Shenault to add to their receiving corps which siphoned targets away from Chark. The team was forced to start three different quarterbacks due to either injury or poor play. The Jaguars deep-ball rate fell to 19.0% in 2020 taking away much of Chark’s fantasy value. James Robinson was the only player in the offense we could confidently start, but now we’re looking to 2021.

Jacksonville has a new coach. They’re expected to select Trevor Lawrence. The situation appears to be improving for Chark and the rest of the passing game. He still maintained the primary role in the intermediate and deep areas of the field and no additional rumors have been made about more receivers coming to the Jaguars in free agency. However, he’s already slipped in value according to an early best-ball draft conducted by some of the well-known high-stakes drafters in the industry. There’s little doubt regarding Chark’s talent. With an uptick in production from the offense as a whole, Chark is a prime bounce-back candidate for the 2021 season.

Conference Round Injury Slants

Kansas City Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes’ status for Sunday remains unclear and somewhat confusing.

The positive takeaway is that he was able to practice as Reid and Bieniemy install their game plan for the Bills. Mahomes’ inclusion in contact drills would be a sure sign he’s on track to play, but it’s still early in the week. As long as he doesn’t suffer a setback, he’s on the right track to play this weekend. Plus, he may get some additional support.

Sammy Watkins (calf) returned to practice for the first time since Week 16. He was limited on Wednesday, but it was his first team activity in nearly a month. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle/hip) was also limited after being inactive for the divisional round. The Chiefs’ rookie started off last week’s practice cycle in limited fashion, but was unable to participate in practice for the rest of the week. Any sustained work for Kansas City’s starting running back would be a positive trend ahead of Sunday.

Buffalo Bills

Gabriel Davis is said to have hurt his ankle on this play during the divisional round.

He was able to return to the game, but appeared hobbled for the remainder of the contest. It’s not surprising he missed practice early in the week, but any continued absence will be a detriment to the Bills’ passing game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Antonio Brown (knee) didn’t practice on Wednesday is considered day-to-day according to Bruce Arians. But Tampa does have other options.

Neither Tyler Johnson nor Scotty Miller have seen a 50.0% snap share since Brown joined the squad in Week 9. However, both were productive in the earlier parts of the season. Like the Chiefs, the Buccaneers’ practice was considered more of a walkthrough, but Brown’s absence will be something to monitor.