We’re just a couple days away from the last normal-feeling football Sunday of the season. The Super Bowl is its own thing — all the pomp and circumstance, all the social festivities (okay, maybe not this year), all the spectacle. The conference championship games are just another Sunday full of football, albeit with enormously high stakes.
First, the Bills travel to Kansas City, and then the warm-weather Bucs make their way to Lambeau. We’ve spent an entire season chasing some of these guys’ rookie cards. Now that we’re down to the final four, let’s spotlight one rookie from each team who has a chance to make the biggest impact on the conference championship games. (Spoiler alert: They’re largely not the guys whose cards you’re over the moon about pulling.)
Buffalo Bills — Tyler Bass, K
Buffalo doesn’t really have any high-profile rookies contributing to their offense, so I wanted to put Bills defensive end AJ Epenesa in this spot. The Bills need to establish a pass rush to keep Patrick Mahomes under pressure — hopefully forcing him to get rid of the ball before routes fully develop.
But, Epenesa has seen his playing time cut in the playoffs, and he’s only on the field for approximately one-third of defensive snaps. He could still have an impact, but it’s not all that likely.
Instead, we have to go with the un-sexy pick and take a kicker. Rookie kicker Tyler Bass will need to show up if Buffalo has any chance of making it to the Super Bowl. Bass was pretty bad last Sunday against the Ravens, going 1-for-3 on field goal attempts with misses coming from 43 and 44 yards. Kicking conditions at Arrowhead in January won’t be any better. Buffalo is already a three-point underdog in the AFC Championship game; it can’t afford for Bass to leave any points on the table.
Kansas City Chiefs — RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (maybe)
This one is an absolute no-brainer if all goes according to plan. Rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been at the top of Kansas City’s running back depth chart all season, taking the majority of the carries (especially early in the year). However, he hurt his ankle and hip in Week 15 and hasn’t been on the field ever since.
There’s good news… kind of. CEH returned to practice on Wednesday in a limited capacity. If he’s able to go, he’ll undoubtedly be the Chiefs’ high impact rookie.
But, we need a contingency plan. If CEH can’t go, we probably have to look to cornerback L’Jarius Sneed to have a big day. Sneed is one of Kansas City’s two rookies to make the NFL All-Rookie Team, and he could play a key role in helping shut down Josh Allen’s high-octane passing game. That will be exponentially more important in the event that Patrick Mahomes isn’t cleared to play, which is still up in the air.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — OT Tristan Wirfs
Tristan Wirfs has been one of the best rookies all season long, and he’ll likely need to continue that trend for Tampa to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Wirfs has played every single offensive snap this year, and he has quickly become a key contributor on the offensive line.
With old man Tom Brady in the pocket, the Bucs know it’s important to give him a clean pocket. Brady is still one of the best QBs in the game, but his numbers decrease dramatically when he’s under pressure. Green Bay’s front seven has greatly improved over the second half of the season. Wirfs needs to do his part keeping the Packers run defense and pass defense in check so that Tampa’s offense can find its groove.
Green Bay — ILB Krys Barnes
One of Green Bay’s most promising rookies in 2020 wasn’t a first-round draft pick. He wasn’t a second-round draft pick either. Or third. Actually, he went undrafted.
With the likes of Jordan Love marinating on the bench, inside linebacker Krys Barnes has quite possibly been the most important first-year player for the Packers. He shot up the depth chart and has wound up a a key piece on the Green Bay defense.
How crucial is he? Barnes led the team in tackles in Green Bay’s divisional round win over the Rams — a stat that he finished the regular season second on the team in. Unfortunately, he also fractured his thumb last week. He’ll play with a cast on, but the Packers need Barnes at his best. This will be an offensive shootout. Anything anyone on defense can do to slow down the other team will prove to be a crucial contribution.