On one hand, it makes sense that playoff rematches would look similar to the regular-season result. There’s usually a reason one team beats another. That doesn’t magically disappear in the playoffs.
Since 2002, when the NFL started its current divisional format, teams that won a regular-season meeting are 63-44 in the playoff rematch according to the Washington Post. In the championship round, there have been nine rematches from the regular season over the past seven seasons and the team that won in the regular season is 7-2 in the rematch according to CBS.
Both conference championship games this season are rematches from the regular season. Both regular-season meetings weren’t pretty. In Week 6, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Green Bay Packers 38-10. A day later, the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Buffalo Bills 26-17 in a game the defending champs controlled from beginning to end.
But, does one result in mid-October carry that much weight in January?
"When you get to this time of year, it really doesn't matter," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.
"Anytime you get beat 38-10, it's hard to say it's not as bad as it looked. They were more prepared to play than our group was. You're always learning. I think our team has come a long way from that day, but everything's just words at this point.”
The Bills and Packers certainly hope the first meetings don’t matter.
Here are the picks for the conference championship games, with the lines from BetMGM:
Packers (-3.5) over Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are coming off a great defensive performance. But, so were the Los Angeles Rams last week.
The Rams had the top defense in the NFL during the regular season and the Packers torched them. Green Bay had 484 yards and won 32-18. Aaron Rodgers is the hottest quarterback in the NFL right now. It’s hard to go against him, especially since he and the Packers have waited for the opportunity to host an NFC championship game for many years.
But what to make of that lopsided first meeting? Counting last season, when the Packers lost 37-8 to the San Francisco 49ers in the regular season and then lost again in the NFC title game rematch, teams that win by at least 20 in the regular season are 9-1 in the conference championship rematch during the Super Bowl era, according to Football Perspective.
After that 38-10 Bucs win in the regular season, Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White said the Packers "didn't deserve to be on the field with us.” LaFleur had to agree.
“You know, hey, he was right. They whipped us,” LaFleur said this week.
"I think they definitely got to us, got us a little off rhythm. Certainly that is a damn good defense. They've got star-studded players across the board. They play a really fast, aggressive type scheme. They can bring multiple different pressures."
Despite the first meeting and the history, I side with LaFleur’s assessment that the Packers have come a long way. Their offense is a machine right now. It’s going to be in the 20s and likely snowing in Green Bay, which isn’t great for the team from Florida. Rodgers has been a great cold-weather quarterback through his career.
The Packers have been waiting a long time for an opportunity like this, and they’re going to take advantage of it.
Bills (+3) over Chiefs
Make it 2-for-2 for ignoring what happened in the regular-season meeting.
The Chiefs’ 26-17 win wasn’t even that close. Kansas City ran the ball at will and out-gained the Bills 466-206. Patrick Mahomes threw only 26 times, but completed 21 for 225 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bills are much better now. Josh Allen wasn’t fully healthy for the first meeting. He hurt his left shoulder on Oct. 4 and that ended up being his worst month of a great season. He was bad against the Chiefs, and that didn’t follow what happened over the rest of the season. The Bills defense had key linebacker injuries, which allowed Kansas City to control the game on the ground.
Regardless of what happened in that game, the Bills have improved. A lot.
Buffalo was arguably the NFL’s best team in the second half of the season. Most casual analysis will talk about how unbeatable the Chiefs are, but it was the Bills who were dominating opponents over the past couple months. The Bills have won nine of their last 10 including playoffs, and eight of those wins were by double digits. The Chiefs haven’t won by more than 6 points since Nov. 1. They haven’t covered the spread since then either.
And of course, there’s the Patrick Mahomes factor. Mahomes is in the concussion protocol and while all signs are that he’ll play Sunday, there will be some nervousness before he is cleared. It’s very hard to believe the Chiefs can beat a red-hot Bills team if Chad Henne starts at quarterback. Mahomes is also dealing with a foot injury and maybe that affects him just a little bit. Against the Chiefs’ fantastic offense, any edge helps.
It’s fair to look back on the first meeting and think the Chiefs will roll again. They’re defending Super Bowl champions and close wins or not, they’re 15-1 with Mahomes starting this season counting last week’s win. But the Bills have been the more dominant team for a while now. We might see an upset, even if Mahomes does play.