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How the Conference Title Matchups Reveal What Matters Most in Today’s NFL

Bills vs. Chiefs. Bucs vs. Packers. The NFL’s final four promise thrilling conference championship games—and offer five key lessons about what separated the class of the league this season from everyone else.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The conference championship matchups are set. The Chiefs will host the Bills in the AFC, while the Packers will host the Buccaneers in the NFC. This field features the most decorated quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, playing his 14th conference title game in the past 20 years. It also features Josh Allen, whose Buffalo franchise hasn’t advanced this deep into the playoffs since he was born. The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs become the second team ever to host three consecutive conference championship games. (The other was Andy Reid’s Eagles, from 2002 to 2004.) The Packers, meanwhile, will play their first NFC title game at Lambeau Field in Aaron Rodgers’s storied career.

How did we get here? And what do the four remaining teams teach us about the state of football this season? Five lessons stand out.

Offense Wins Championships

“It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban told ESPN in October. “That’s not the way it used to be. It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game. I’m telling you. It ain’t that way anymore.”

When Nick Saban is saying this, you know that football across levels has changed. The NFL is no exception. Teams no longer need a great defense to win it all. They merely need a defense that is good enough.

This was the highest-scoring season in NFL history by far—there was almost a full field goal more per game in 2020 (teams combined to average 49.6 points) than in the second-highest-scoring season ever (46.8 in 2013). And in this high-scoring season, the highest-scoring teams keep winning. The Packers, Bills, and Bucs scored the most points in the league. The fourth team left standing is the Chiefs, whose offense might be the best of the bunch. The Packers, Chiefs, Bucs, and Bills rank first, second, third, and fifth, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA.

Kansas City, Green Bay, and Buffalo all have classic bend-but-don’t-break defenses. Having an elite offense and fine defense these days is better than having an elite defense and an offense that settles for field goals. When unstoppable forces have met immovable objects throughout NFL history, the immovable objects have usually won out. But now football has caught up to physics, where the unstoppable force wins. When the Packers played the Rams on Saturday in a matchup between the offense that scored the most points and the defense that allowed the fewest, Green Bay rolled. It gained 484 total yards while averaging 6.7 yards per play.

The exception among this group is Tampa Bay. The Bucs defense is great, and its excellent performance Sunday against the Saints was the decisive factor in the divisional round. But this is still a team that has Tom Brady. By and large, offense is winning—in large part because quarterbacks are in better positions than ever to succeed.


Quarterbacks Need Systems—and That’s OK

The term “system quarterback” is often used dismissively. But all people exist within systems. They are an inescapable part of our social structure, like laws and taxes and that Weeknd song you can’t get out of your head (oooooo buh buh buh buh buh buhhhh). Everyone, including quarterbacks, needs systems to achieve goals. So if we’re going to have systems, they might as well be good.

Take Green Bay, for example. Aaron Rodgers emerged as this season’s MVP favorite largely because he embraced head coach Matt LaFleur’s system—lots of play-action, lots of rollouts, and lots of setting up play combinations like a magician sets up a reveal with sleight of hand. In the mid-2010s, under Mike McCarthy, Rodgers always seemed to need to pull a horseshoe from his ass to get something done. Moving the ball looked hard. This season, under LaFleur, everything looks effortless, like Roger Federer on the tennis court. Putting the NFC’s best player in the right system created the league’s best offense.

Tom Brady’s job also got easier this season. Brady threw almost the exact same number of passes in 2020 as he did in 2019—613 to 610. But in his first season with the Bucs, he had 16 more passing touchdowns and almost 600 more passing yards than he did in his final season with the Patriots. Part of this comes down to talent. Brady’s leading receivers last season were Julian Edelman, James White, Phillip Dorsett, and Jakobi Meyers; this season he had Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown at his disposal. But talent alone doesn’t solve everything. The Bucs were inconsistent early this season, as evidenced both through the eye test and advanced metrics like Football Outsiders’ variance. Over the first half of the season, head coach Bruce Arians stuck rigidly to his scheme. But then the Bucs began incorporating more of what Brady wanted, like new play-action concepts and pre-snap motion. The team flourished.

“We’ve got things now to where we don’t have to answer those questions: ‘Is it Tom’s offense or is it my offense?’” Arians said in December. “It’s the Bucs offense. It’s pretty damn good.”

The Chiefs have been pretty damn good the past few years in large part because Mahomes is in the perfect system for his talents. Andy Reid’s offense uses spacing to get the most from every inch of the field. Kansas City has fast receivers like Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman who challenge defenses vertically; it also has versatile targets like Travis Kelce who shred opponents horizontally and over the middle. Mahomes can deliver the ball to every part of the field at any given time.

Then there’s Josh Allen, the case study for developing a quarterback by building around him. Buffalo laid the foundation for its system by drafting Allen in 2018: It had a decent offensive line, and brought in a new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll. It then put up scaffolding by signing receiver John Brown in 2019. While a lot of teams leave scaffolding up for so long that you start to wonder whether the construction will ever finish, the Bills didn’t do that. They completed the job. In 2019, Pro Football Focus had Allen as its highest-graded quarterback on throws under 20 yards but its lowest-graded quarterback on throws over 20 yards. So the Bills went out and traded for Stefon Diggs, the league’s best receiver at tracking deep passes. Allen also worked on his throwing motion in the offseason, and voilà: He went from last in completion percentage in his first two years in the league to fourth in that stat in 2020. Allen’s improvement from completing 52.8 percent of his passes as a rookie to 69.2 percent now is the largest two-year rise in NFL history.

Being a great quarterback alone isn’t enough to succeed—just ask Deshaun Watson. Football is a team game, and great teams make everything easier for their quarterbacks, not harder.

Nobody Knows Anything About the Draft

Speaking of quarterbacks, perhaps we should stop jumping to conclusions about them during the draft process. In 2018, everyone and their mom seemed to think Josh Allen was an awful prospect (besides ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., who had Allen as the top quarterback on his board). We at The Ringer thought he was hot trash. Whoops. Turns out Allen could be an MVP candidate for years. This season he became the first quarterback to throw for 4,500 yards and 35 touchdowns while also rushing for five scores. The Bills are on the verge of playing in their first Super Bowl since 1994.

As if the draft media industrial complex couldn’t take a big enough loss on that one, there was an even louder chorus preaching to the Packers last April. Green Bay’s decision to trade up in the first round to select Jordan Love was almost universally panned. Why would the Packers undercut Rodgers? Was he really almost done? Would Rodgers even finish his career in Green Bay? Why on earth didn’t they draft a receiver?

Turns out they didn’t need one, and drafting Love arguably made Rodgers more driven than ever before. The Packers led the NFL in scoring, Rodgers became the probable MVP, and Davante Adams racked up the third-most touchdown catches (18) in a single season in NFL history. As the 2021 draft approaches, let’s all take a step back and give teams the benefit of the doubt. Well, except for the Texans.

Turnovers Are Exactly As Important As You Think

“You’ve got to win the turnover battle,” you likely said while watching Drew Brees and the Saints blow Sunday’s matchup against the Bucs. “Gotta protect the football.” Then you may have realized you could be the star of the next Progressive commercial about becoming your parents. Congratulations, you’re old now.

But the adage is true. Teams do have to protect the ball. The Packers turned the ball over less than any other team in the NFL this year, with Rodgers throwing one more interception in the entire regular season (five) than Ben Roethlisberger threw in the Steelers’ wild-card-round loss to the Browns (four). Rodgers threw a pick on just 1.0 percent of his throws, tied for the lowest in the league with Patrick Mahomes. Relatedly, Green Bay and Kansas City are the no. 1 seeds in their conferences.

Cutting down on turnovers matters. Allen reduced his combined number of interceptions and fumbles from 23 last season to 19 this season despite dropping back 100 more times. Brady threw for 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for Tampa Bay one year after Jameis Winston threw for 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. Not only did Brady throw 18 fewer picks than Winston, but he also fumbled eight fewer times. The Bucs promptly jumped from 7-9 to 11-5.

Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson threw nine interceptions this season after throwing six in 2019. Saturday’s Ravens-Bills game swung on Jackson’s first career interception in the red zone, a 101-yard pick-six. The Saints had four turnovers against the Bucs on Sunday, the first time they’ve had more than two in a game since December 2017. That New Orleans lost by only 10 points in a game in which it lost the turnover battle 4-0 speaks to how differently things could’ve gone if it had protected the ball.

Yes, you’re becoming your parents if you preach about the importance of turnovers—but in this case, your parents were right.

Culture Change Matters, for Good and for Bad

Four years ago, the Bills hired Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to replace Rex Ryan as their head coach. McDermott quickly went about transforming the team culture. The Bills were losers, and now they are not. In the 2017 season, McDermott led Buffalo to the playoffs for the first time in the 21st century. At the time, it set off a celebration. This year, it’s business. The Bills coaches do 360 feedback reviews, encourage players to get plenty of sleep, and sit through lessons on how to connect with millennials and Gen Zers. The franchise built around Allen, traded for Diggs, and constructed one of the league’s best secondaries. It worked. Not only are the Bills playing great, but they are having fun. “Those past failures, not many of us were here,” McDermott said in December 2019. “We certainly respect the past, but our eyes are set on the future.”

Tampa Bay also managed to revamp its culture, though it had the benefit of adding the greatest and most respected player in the history of the sport as a mentor for a young roster. That doesn’t happen often. But what unfolded in Cleveland this season generally followed the Buffalo blueprint: The Browns brought in the right coach, put the right infrastructure around their quarterback, and created a culture that no longer is defined by sadness. Though Cleveland fell just short against the Chiefs on Sunday, it showed that results come when an organization figures out what matters. Heading into the 2021 season, it has reason to dream big.

Meanwhile, nobody is dreaming big at bad organizations like Houston. On divisional weekend last season, the Texans raced out to 24-0 lead on the Chiefs. They immediately blew that advantage, and since then they have traded away DeAndre Hopkins, fired head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien, and seen Sports Illustrated publish an exposé that compared front office executive Jack Easterby to Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. Now, franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson seems to be forcing a trade out of town. This is a football catastrophe. Houston not only finished 4-12 and wasted a year of Watson’s prime (J.J. Watt’s words, not mine). It also infuriated Watson with its decision-making so consistently that on Sunday ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported “there is a growing sense from people in and around the Texans’ organization that Deshaun Watson has played his last snap for the team.”

To trade away Watson would be beyond failure—it’d be a cautionary tale. If the Bills and Bucs are proof that a culture change can bring a team to a conference title game, the Texans are proof that it can destroy a team from within too.