Okay, last week was a return-to-earth moment for me, going just 1-3 and evening out at 4-4 for the postseason after a solid-if-not-spectacular regular season. Now, we are left with just four teams, and none of them are the Patriots, Steelers, or Peyton Mannings for the first time since 2002, when the Titans also last appeared in this spot. Things are set up nicely for the Chiefs with their dirty work done for them (all by the Titans) and the Packers and 49ers renew acquaintances in one of the NFC’s best rivalries. Let’s dive deeper into Championship Sunday:
Last week: 1-3
Postseason: 4-4 (50%)
Reg. Season: 25-20 (55.6%)
(6) Tennessee Titans at (2) Kansas City Chiefs (-7)
This isn’t exactly the AFC Championship Game we envisioned even just a couple of weeks ago. But here we are, with the Cinderella Titans hoping the slipper fits for one more week to reach the big game. Derrick Henry has been unstoppable of late, and Ryan Tannehill has played virtually mistake-free football. The difference this week is the defense will need to be even better than it has been the last three weeks, when, including a season-finale win in Houston to get into the dance, it has permitted a mere 13 points per game.
What’s kind of sad is that even if the Titans lose, their playoff run will have been more impressive to date than that of the Chiefs, who will have beaten the 10-6 Texans and 9-7 Titans at home to reach the Super Bowl. Tennessee has knocked off Tom Brady’s Patriots and Lamar Jackson’s Ravens on the road to get here, so forgive them if they can’t finish this epic journey.
The good news for Tennessee is that it knows it can beat the Chiefs, having done so in Week 10, and more importantly can win a shootout game (35-32). This team keeps figuring out ways to win despite giving up a lot of yards and getting minimal output from its passing game. It reminds me a little of, dare I say, what the Patriots do when they don’t have the on-field talent to match up with their opponent. Mike Vrabel has crafted excellent gameplans and his team has executed them flawlessly, staying disciplined and showing no fear throughout this run. And Vrabel knows a thing or two about breaking Andy Reid’s heart in the postseason, having caught a touchdown pass against Reid’s Eagles while with the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX (it’s worth noting that Vrabel was a linebacker).
I do believe the Chiefs are the superior team in terms of talent, that much is pretty obvious. But the whole world is on the Chiefs here. Andy Reid, coaching in his seventh conference title game (the other remaining three coaches have a combined six seasons of experience and four playoff games coached), going 1-5 in those previous six ventures. The Chiefs have not appeared in a Super Bowl in 50 years and have not won consecutive playoff games in 26 years. Something tells me that this won’t be easy.
A week after going on a ridiculous 51-7 run against Houston, you’d think the Chiefs would be unstoppable. But playoff football is littered with teams who have been unable to follow up perfect playoff performances with an encore. The Jaguars put up 62 points on Miami in 1999, only to lose to — who else? — the Titans by 19 points the next week. The Rams put up 49 in that same round on Minnesota and were held to 11 the following week by Tampa Bay. The Patriots have put up 45, 41, 45, and 35 points in divisional round wins before and failed to cover the spread following all of those wins (including two straight-up losses). It’s never as easy as it looks.
With all that said, this is the Chiefs’ best chance to get to the promised land. It’s been far too long, and way too much failure by their otherwise-remarkable head coach, to waste another golden opportunity with their superstar QB. The defense has also played much better of late and wants to prove that it is no longer this team’s weak link. I love what the Titans have done to this point, and have no doubt they will fight hard until the end, but with the Ravens and Patriots out of the Chiefs’ way, it’s hard to envision KC squandering this chance a year after coming oh-so-close against the Patriots. Prediction: Chiefs 24, Titans 20.
(2) Green Bay Packers at (1) San Francisco 49ers (-7.5)
This game is so much tougher to read than the first game. Will Aaron Rodgers be vintage Aaron Rodgers? What version of Jimmy Garoppolo shows up? Will the 49ers defense dominated the Packers’ offensive line as much as it did in late November? Are the Packers still underrated? Are the 49ers overrated?
All of these unanswered questions make this one brutally tough to pick. I could see it going either way, because I am a firm believer that no matter how much people think the Pack have just been “getting by,” this team is still really, really good. San Francisco’s secondary didn’t get exposed last week because of the outstanding efforts of the front four. That was also the case in these teams’ Week 12 meeting, won in runaway fashion by San Francisco, 37-8. That will not happen again this week.
As crazy as it sounds, I think the 49ers have much more pressure on them than Green Bay, even with all the talk about Aaron Rodgers maybe needing a second Super Bowl ring to kind of cement his legacy, if you will. This Packers team has been counted out all year and by the same token, it feels like the 49ers are ahead of schedule in 2019 and know deep down they will have several more cracks at this.
I’m bucking conventional wisdom here, which says that Kyle Shanahan’s team is much more talented than Matt LaFleur’s unheralded group, and thinking that the veteran presence of Aaron Rodgers trumps Jimmy G and Co.’s relative inexperience. I also think we should be talking more about Green Bay’s stellar pass rush. Neutralizing Nick Bosa will be a massive challenge, but I always feel like the team that lost (or in this case got manhandled) has a slight advantage the second time around.
In the 100th year of the NFL, give me a rematch of the first-ever Super Bowl as the 49ers lose a second straight home championship game while the Pack snap a mini two-game skid in this round. Prediction: Packers 24, 49ers 21.