(Photos courtesy of Marc Serota)
Perhaps the lone remaining football question about Tom Brady is about to be answered, at least for this season: Can he take a team besides the Patriots to a Super Bowl?
What’s remarkable is that the answer will come less than a year after Brady arrived in Tampa Bay, having moved on from New England and Bill Belichick. Brady and Belichick won six Super Bowls together in 20 seasons, the most success of any player-coach duo in NFL history.
Naturally, as years went by a common storyline was to wonder whether either could do it without the other. And the implication always seem to be that Brady, a lightly regarded sixth-round draft choice when he arrived from Michigan, was the beneficiary of Belichick’s coaching genius. Brady being the 199th pick in the 2000 draft was part of what set that narrative. How could he be so great if he was drafted so late?
But Brady is one of those rare finds, a player who matured a little later physically and mentally and really only started to blossom midway through his senior year with the Wolverines. But once he took off, he kept getting better and better, establishing himself as one of the smartest quarterbacks to play the game, with an accurate arm and incredible drive to be the best.
Brady’s life regimen is now legendary, from fitness to diet to training his brain to relentless routines that create success. Preparing to play is a year-round job to him. He’s made sacrifices 99.9 percent of the people in the world simply won’t make, and that’s why he’s able to play at such a high level at 43.
Well, the Patriots didn’t make the playoffs this year. And Brady has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that hasn’t even made the playoffs in more than a decade, one win from a Super Bowl berth. Really, they’re ahead of schedule. Many analysts thought Brady would improve the Bucs in his first year and build on that. The truth is, Tampa and its young defense should be even better next year.
On to the NFL picks:
NFC Championship: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (13-3), Sunday, Jan. 24, 3:05 pm EST, FOX
Line: Green Bay by 3.
Of all the quarterbacks still playing, none are playing as well as Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. He’s going to win his third MVP award and he’s got the Packers in their fourth conference championship game in seven years, though this will be the first time Rodgers has started a title game in his home stadium.
Rodgers numbers this year – 50 touchdowns and only five interceptions – show how unstoppable he’s been. Tampa is coming off a win over New Orleans but really, 42-year-old Drew Brees looked so diminished in his final game – statistically, one of the worst of his career – that it didn’t show us much about the Bucs secondary. Almost all of Brees’ passes were in the air for less than 20 yards. Rodgers has a live arm and will be a true test.
Brady is the X factor for Tampa. He is playing in his 14th conference title game. He definitely elevates the Bucs’ confidence and if he can lead them on long, clock-consuming drives, that keeps Rodgers on the sideline and is Tampa’s best bet to win.
The Bucs offense did not look that strong against New Orleans and it was really the four turnovers Tampa came up with that made the difference. If they win the turnover battle 4-0 against Green Bay, the Bucs will make the Super Bowl, but unlike last week, Rodgers is the best quarterback on the field in this game.
Green Bay’s defense is playing better and better and had little trouble holding the LA Rams to 18 points. In looking at this game, I’ve got the Packers with a slight edge on both sides of the ball, with 1,000-yard receiver Davante Adams a matchup problem for Tampa.
This will be a fierce battle and all credit to Tampa for getting here. But they’re not the best team in the NFC. Rodgers wants a second Super Bowl ring and he’s going to get his chance.
Pick: Packers 35, Bucs 31
AFC Championship: Buffalo Bills (15-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (15-2), Sunday, Jan. 24, 6:40 pm EST, CBS
Line: Kansas City by 3.
It looked a little scary for Kansas City last week when Patrick Mahomes took a hit to his neck and left the game, looking disoriented and headed for the NFL’s concussion protocol. Thanks to a heroic scramble and gutsy pass by veteran backup Chad Henne, the Chiefs held off the Browns and kept alive their hopes of repeating as Super Bowl champs.
Mahomes’ health adds a bit of intrigue to this matchup. Mahomes took most of the snaps in Thursday’s practice as a “limited participant” under protocol rules, so I expect him to start. But if he gets hurt and doesn’t finish the game, things get a lot more interesting, but even with Henne I still like the Chiefs’ chances.
If Mahomes is 100 percent, I expect him to have a big game. Buffalo has a great team but it is keyed by its offense. I don’t see the Bills holding up to the Chiefs offense for four quarters. KC also expects to have running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire available after missing a month with an ankle injury, along with receiver Sammy Watkins.
The Bills beat the Indianapolis Colts to open the playoffs two weeks ago, but the Colts did show that a power running game can work against Buffalo, especially if the passing game is a threat.
Buffalo didn’t have to worry about the pass against Baltimore last week as Lamar Jackson is an adequate passer but not going to beat you with his arm.
Mahomes has it all. He throws on the run better than most quarterbacks do from the pocket. His field vision is remarkable and he turns broken plays into touchdowns.
Buffalo has its own weapons in quarterback Josh Allen and elite receiver Stefon Diggs and they will be able to score against KC’s solid but not spectacular defense. Indeed, this has the makings of a high-scoring game.
I’ve been on the KC bandwagon all year and I’m not hopping off. It’s rare to see a team make it to consecutive Super Bowls — about as rare as quarterbacks with the talent of Patrick Mahomes.
Pick: Chiefs 38, Bills 24
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