"It's a game of matchups" -- one of the many old football adages we hear on a regular basis from coaches in press conferences. And with the dazzling amount of stars hitting the field Sunday, the AFC and NFC title games will absolutely come down to a variety of one-on-one matchups.
And as a young player analyst here at CBS Sports, I'm here to highlight those prospects drafted in 2018, 2019 or 2020 who'll find themselves in a key individual battle in both conference championships.
With the Packers, Buccaneers, Chiefs and Bills respectively the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams in Football Outsiders' weighted offensive DVOA (weighted = games earlier in the season don't weigh as much as more recent games), it's not surprising most of these matchups feature a young defender tasked with limiting a veteran on offense.
Assignment: Chiefs TE Travis Kelce
Kelce is the best tight end in football and enters this game as a legitimate Offensive Player of the Year candidate. He set the NFL single-season record for most receiving yards for a tight end (1,416) and finished second in the league only to Stefon Diggs in receiving yards among all players in the 2020 regular season. Against the Browns last week, the uber-athletic tight end caught eight passes for 109 yards and a score.
At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds with freaky change-of-direction skills and running back-like capabilities with the ball in his hands, Kelce is incredibly unique, and that rare blend of size and athleticism makes him nearly an impossible cover.
Interestingly, the Bills also boast a uniquely talented defender who will shoulder some of the responsibilities of staying with Kelce on pass plays -- Edmunds is a 6-4 and 1/2-inches tall and weighs 250 pounds at the linebacker spot. He ran 4.54 at the combine in 2018. While not as consistent as his linebacker counterpart Matt Milano, Edmunds has the physique to matchup with Kelce down the seam. He had three pass breakups during the regular season and three total in Buffalo's first two playoff games. I'm not expecting Edmunds to completely put the clamps on Kelce, but this is the one time Kansas City's superstar tight end will face a linebacker nearly as big and athletic as he is. Pay attention to this key one-on-one battle in the AFC Championship Game.
Assignment(s): Buccaneers WRs Mike Evans/Chris Godwin
Alexander rightfully earned a first-team All-Pro distinction after a brilliantly stingy season as primarily a press man cornerback in Mike Pettine's system. And now he'll see a trio of phenomenal Tampa Bay receivers.
Alexander predominantly aligns as Green Bay's left outside cornerback. Evans and Godwin actually run a fair amount of their routes from in the slot and have been left outside receivers more than right outside receivers.
The 5-10, 194-pound Alexander has 4.38 speed, good explosiveness and freaky agility -- as illustrated by his blisteringly fast 6.71 three-cone time at the 2018 combine. Godwin and Evans of course boast a large rebounding threat given their heights. How the Buccaneers' star receivers fare when facing Alexander will go a long way in determining the outcome of the NFC Championship Game.
Assignment: Bills WR Cole Beasley
The fourth-round rookie from Louisiana Tech with 4.37 speed and a 41-inch vertical began his rookie season playing boundary cornerback for the Chiefs. Since he returned from a broken collarbone in late November, he's mostly been utilized in the slot. And in this contest, he's going to see Beasley, arguably the slipperiest, most savvy slot wideout in football.
Per Next Gen Stats, among the 63 pass catchers to get at least 80 targets during the regular season, Beasley had the highest average amount of separation at 3.5 yards per target. Some of that is scheme. Some of it is Beasley's electric twitch and route-running prowess. Buffalo's main slot option had five 100-plus yard games in the regular season and set career highs in catches (82) and receiving yards (967).
Sneed has the linear explosiveness to match Beasley on vertical routes, but this man-to-man battle will be more about how the impressive rookie can change directions once the wily veteran glides off his route stem.
Assignment: Packers EDGE Za'Darius Smith
The praise for Wirfs in his rookie year has been widespread. His blend of athleticism and strength along with 10-year veteran-type hand work has allowed him to erase most of the high-end edge rushers he's squared off against at right tackle this season. Before the playoffs, the Iowa product surrendered just one sack of Tom Brady, and after Week 10, Wirfs allowed just five pressures on 345 pass-blocking snaps. He's been a Kevlar wall.
While Smith, the Packers best outside rusher, splits time getting after the quarterback from the left and right side of the line, we'll get that heavyweight bout on occasion. At 6-4 and 272 pounds with quick hands that don't lack pop upon contact, Smith is one of the more difficult assignments for outside blockers. How Wirfs handles the instances in which he and Smith lock up will be integral to Brady's effectiveness inside the pocket.
This year, counting the playoffs, Brady's passer rating was 55.3 when pressured and 114.6 when not pressured.
Assignment: Chiefs CB Tyreek Hill
Wooo boy, this is as difficult of a matchup as any -- Johnson, Buffalo's sticky slot cornerback, seeing the hyper-explosive, twitched up Hill on a regular basis Sunday night.
Including the playoffs, Johnson has eight pass breakups on the season, and six of them have occurred after Buffalo's Week 11 bye week. The third-year pro and former fourth-round pick has two pick-sixes in critical games for the Bills defense too.
Covering Hill will be more of a team effort than Johnson just playing on an island
Assignment: Packers WR Davante Adams
In the Week 6 matchup against the Packers, Davis covered Adams on 24 snaps. The first-team All-Pro wideout caught two passes.
The 6-1, 209-pound corner with arms that stretch nearly 33-inches long is one of the biggest, most physically intimidating cornerbacks in the NFL. The Buccaneers picked him in the second round in the 2018 draft, and he's been wildly productive since. As a rookie, he broke up four passes. Respectable start to his NFL career. In 2019, that figure jumped to 19. During this regular season, the Auburn product knocked away 18 passes while snagging four interceptions. He already has three pass breakups in the playoffs.
Davis can be a little boom or bust -- five touchdowns were scored in his target area, and remember, Adams has a grand total of 19 receiving scores this season up to this point. He's arguably the most destructive press-man receiver in the league, winning at the line with insane regularity and through his route with convincing head, shoulder and hip fakes to free himself for Aaron Rodgers.