N.F.L. Playoff Predictions: Our Picks for the Conference Championships
Back in Week 1, the Chiefs expected to be playing this weekend, and the Packers were certainly hoping to still be alive. The 49ers, however, did not start to feel like a real contender until they had strung quite a few wins together, and the Titans were still fighting for a playoff spot in Week 17. But regardless of expectations — and a regular season dominated by the Ravens — all four of these teams survived to this weekend, and each is a victory away from playing in Super Bowl LIV.
Here are our predictions for the conference championship games, with each pick made against the spread.
Last weekend’s record against the spread: 3-1
Overall postseason record: 5-2-1
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
3:05 p.m., CBS | Line: Chiefs -7 | Total: 53
To get here, the Titans had to beat the team with the best defense in football (the New England Patriots) and the team with the best offense (the Baltimore Ravens) — with both wins coming on the road. Next up are the Chiefs, a team with a radically improved defense, one of the most intense home crowds in the N.F.L., and an offense led by Patrick Mahomes that on its best day is even more explosive than Lamar Jackson’s Ravens.
Case in point: The Chiefs were down by 24-0 to the Houston Texans in the second quarter of last weekend’s divisional round game, and they still managed to win by 20 points.
It is easy enough to see why Tennessee would find itself an underdog, but at this point there is no denying that Coach Mike Vrabel has found a fairly special formula for success — his unusual offense and his opportunistic defense. And it is entirely possible that the Titans are not done making Las Vegas look foolish for doubting them.
Scoring should not be a problem for Tennessee. As the Chiefs’ defense improved substantially this season, its biggest challenge was against the run, where Football Outsiders ranked the team 29th in efficiency. That should further the hopes of Titans running back Derrick Henry, who will go into the game having already gained 377 yards on the ground in these playoffs, putting on a show that has been must-see TV.
But after two weeks of relying on a largely one-dimensional offense, the Titans may diversify now that they have gotten past New England and Baltimore, which had two of the three most suffocating secondaries in the N.F.L.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has shown a keen ability to take advantage of any opportunity afforded him, and the Chiefs, who are missing their standout rookie safety, Juan Thornhill (A.C.L. tear), and do not yet know the status of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones (calf), may just give him a few — provided he keeps the ball as far away from safety Tyrann Mathieu as possible.
Tennessee used a blend of Henry and Tannehill in Week 10 to beat the Chiefs, 35-32, in Nashville. But Mahomes, in his first game back from a knee injury, passed for 446 yards and three touchdowns in that game. He could be capable of even more against a Titans defense that seemed to wear down as the season chugged along, finishing in the middle of the pack in most rankings. While Tennessee creates some chaos with turnovers, it is also fairly soft against the pass. That should be an extreme liability against Mahomes, who has his choice of Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce on every play.
For Tennessee to pull off its third consecutive upset, it will need to get a few huge plays from Tannehill, grind up the clock with Henry and hope the defense can take advantage of a mistake or two from Mahomes. Each of those things is possible, but getting all three is not very likely. A narrow defeat is a better bet. Pick: Titans +7
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
6:40 p.m., Fox | Line: 49ers -7.5 | Total: 45
The efficiency with which the 49ers demolished the Packers in Week 12 is hard to forget. San Francisco forced a fumble on Green Bay’s opening drive and then scored a touchdown on its first offensive play. The Packers’ seven other drives of the first half ended in six punts and a turnover on downs, while the 49ers built a 23-0 lead.
In the end, a highly touted matchup of N.F.C. heavyweights became a 37-8 drubbing in which the 49ers’ defense limited Aaron Rodgers to 104 passing yards and held running back Aaron Jones to 38 yards on 13 carries. And that was when San Francisco was missing Dee Ford, one of its star defensive ends, because of a hamstring injury.
Ford, however, was not the only key player missing. Green Bay played almost the entire game without Bryan Bulaga, a mainstay at right tackle, and that was painfully obvious as Nick Bosa and the rest of the 49ers defense poured into the backfield on play after play.
Green Bay lost only three games this season, and it is telling that Bulaga missed huge chunks of two of them. He has been limited in practice this week with an illness but is expected to be on the field Sunday — as is Ford — and the game could easily be won or lost based on how Green Bay’s offensive line handles San Francisco’s ferocious pass rush.
The 49ers had one of the best offenses in the N.F.L. this season — they were ruthlessly efficient in the passing game and rushed for more yards than any team other than Baltimore — but even quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo made it clear this week that the primary difference in the team from last season is the defense. Garoppolo went so far as to suggest that his own season-ending knee injury in 2018 helped make the transformation happen, as San Francisco ended up with a record worth the No. 2 pick in the N.F.L. draft.
“I always told myself it was a blessing in disguise, the A.C.L.,” he said. “We got Bosa out of it.”
It would be fairly shocking if Rodgers, Jones and wide receiver Davante Adams did not have at least a little more success against the 49ers this time around. But nothing the Packers have done indicates that they are playing at San Francisco’s level, and their fine first season under Coach Matt LaFleur seems destined to end one step before the Super Bowl. Pick: 49ers -7.5
All times are Eastern.
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