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What We Learned From the N.F.L.’s Conference Championships

The Super Bowl matchup is set. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who came into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the N.F.C., will host the defending …

The Super Bowl matchup is set. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who came into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the N.F.C., will host the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. For Tom Brady, it is a chance at a seventh Super Bowl win. For Patrick Mahomes, it is an opportunity to be the first quarterback to win back-to-back titles — since Brady.

The Buccaneers came into Sunday’s N.F.C. championship game as underdogs on the road, but beat the Green Bay Packers, 31-26. The Chiefs, playing in their third consecutive A.F.C. championship game, beat the Buffalo Bills, 38-24. The game did not feel that close.

Here’s what we learned:

The Winner’s Bracket

Tom Brady was a question mark coming into this season. Now he is headed to the 10th Super Bowl of his career.Credit…Benny Sieu/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

  • Tom Brady’s faith in himself has been rewarded. At the end of last season, Brady, who was 42 at the time, seemed to be in physical decline as his New England Patriots lost a wild-card playoff game at home to the Tennessee Titans. Speculation was rampant that he might walk away from the game, but Brady, a six-time Super Bowl winner, bet on himself, signing with a promising young Tampa Bay team that could support him with talented wide receivers. That move paid off. Brady had a throwback regular season, tossing 40 touchdown passes. He is heading to his 10th Super Bowl, a record. And with Saints quarterback Drew Brees likely to retire, it appears safe that Brady, regardless of when he retires, will go out as the career leader in passing touchdowns.

    New England, meanwhile, fell apart without him. The Patriots were 7-9 and did not make the playoffs.

Before Tampa Bay, no team came closer to playing a Super Bowl at home than the 1979 Los Angeles Rams, who traveled around 14 miles to play at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Jack Lambert, middle, and the Pittsburgh Steelers spoiled the Rams’ fun. Credit…Associated Press
  • A team will finally play a Super Bowl at home. For the first 54 Super Bowls, the game was played at a neutral site. The closest a team had come to playing the game at home was at the end of the 1979 season, when the Los Angeles Rams lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-19, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., roughly 14 miles from the Rams’ home stadium, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. In two weeks, that streak will come to an end, as the Buccaneers, who had to win three road games to reach the Super Bowl, will be rewarded with a game on their home field at Raymond James Stadium. It is uncommon for a team to play the Super Bowl even in its home state: Teams are 2-2 in that situation.

    This will hardly be a typical Super Bowl. Only 22,000 people will be permitted to attend the game, many of them health care workers who will be given the tickets as a nod to their heroism during the pandemic. A raucous home crowd for a Super Bowl will have to wait for another year — hopefully it won’t take another 55 tries.

  • Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce don’t care about your Cinderella story. The Bills were the feel-good story of the season, and they took a quick 9-0 lead on Sunday. But the combination of Hill and Kelce was simply relentless, with them combining to catch 22 passes for 290 yards, and two touchdowns by Kelce. With 13 catches, Kelce tied the N.F.L. record for receptions by a tight end in a playoff game, but the most demoralizing play of the game came from Hill who caught a 6-yard pass that the N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats database said should have resulted in 10 yards after the catch, or a 16-yard play. Using his speed and his ability to shed tacklers, Hill gained 71. Only three plays all season exceeded their expected yardage by a wider margin.

    The question for the Super Bowl is how much time Patrick Mahomes will have to throw to either player, as Tampa Bay’s pass rush can make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.

Travis Kelce was absolutely dominant for Kansas City on Sunday, scoring two touchdowns and tying the record for receptions by a tight end in a playoff game.Credit…Denny Medley/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
  • It is time to wonder what qualifies as a dynasty. Kansas City has played in the A.F.C. championship game three seasons in a row, winning it twice, and has a chance to be the first team to repeat as Super Bowl champions since the Patriots did it after the 2003 and 2004 seasons. While sports teams are typically only considered a dynasty after three championships, the N.F.L.’s lack of repeat winners in recent decades in the salary cap era makes it worth considering if two titles would constitute a dynasty.

The Loser’s Bracket

Rather than let Aaron Rodgers try to tie the game with a touchdown on a fourth-and-goal play late in the game, Green Bay kicked a field goal. Rodgers watched from the sidelines as Tampa Bay ran out the clock.Credit…Morry Gash/Associated Press
  • If your season is on the line, the ball should be in Aaron Rodgers’s hands. The Packers, trailing by 8, faced a fourth-and-goal at Tampa Bay’s 8-yard line with just over two minutes remaining. Rather than going for it, Green Bay kicked a field goal to narrow the deficit to 5 points. As a result, Aaron Rodgers never saw the ball again. Tampa Bay was able to secure a few first downs — with help from a few penalties — and ran out the clock to ice the victory. While there was no guarantee Rodgers would have found someone in the end zone on that fourth-down play, taking the team’s fate out of Rodgers’s hands is probably something that will haunt the Packers in the off-season.

  • If you can pressure Rodgers, you can beat him. An aggressive young defense was the Buccaneers’ calling card last season, and while the unit was inconsistent in 2020, it showed what it was capable of on Sunday. A week after Rodgers wasn’t sacked a single time and was hit only once, he was harassed all game by Tampa Bay’s front seven. Officially, the Buccaneers had five sacks and eight quarterback hits, but in reality they forced Rodgers into getting rid of the ball quickly on nearly every play. They put so much pressure on him that he made a rare mistake on a free play, not seeing that Davante Adams was wide open on the sideline on a play in which Green Bay had drawn a Tampa Bay defender offsides.

Stefon Diggs of the Bills struggled for much of the game, with Kansas City utilizing far more press coverage against him than teams did during the regular season.Credit…Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press
  • The Chiefs had a plan for Stefon Diggs. All season, Diggs was the key for Buffalo. Diggs, the star wide receiver, not only set career highs in receptions and yards receiving during the regular season, but he opened up the entire field for the rest of the Bills’ offense because of the respect opposing defenses showed him. The Chiefs attacked him with press coverage throughout the first half — far more press than he saw during the regular season — all but eliminating him from the game. Diggs finished the day with six catches for 77 yards, but 34 of that came late in the game when the Chiefs had a large lead and switched into a prevent defense.

  • Buffalo needs more from its running game. Josh Allen can feel like a one-man show, throwing touchdown passes and reeling off huge runs at will. But it was abundantly clear in Sunday’s game that the Bills simply can’t run the ball beyond Allen’s scrambles. Devin Singletary, T.J. Yeldon and Isaiah McKenzie combined to carry the ball 11 times for 41 yards. Buffalo can get by with its passing game and Allen’s wild runs against a lot of teams, but if the Bills want to compete with a team like the Chiefs in future seasons, finding some balance on offense is key.

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