Tennessee @ Kansas City
Hard to say which of these squads’ victories was more impressive last weekend, but for very different reasons. The Titans dominated the presumptive MVP and the best team in the league by beating the Ravens up in the trenches, grabbing the lead, and forcing Lamar Jackson to beat them with throws outside the hash marks. The Chiefs spotted Houston 24 points with shoddy, careless play before going scorched earth, outscoring a shook Texans team 51-7 over the last 40 minutes of the game. While both defenses are adequate, neither is special. The AFC title game matches the best passer versus the best runner in the league. For one day at least, they’ll settle the argument: pass or run?
These teams met Week 10 in Tennessee, a Titan 35-32 victory. Neither defense had much success; Mahomes threw for 446 yards and 3 TDs in his return from injury, while Derrick Henry rushed for 188 and 2 touchdowns. Expect more of the same this weekend. The Titans will fight to hold unto the ball, running Henry into the ground to keep the Kansas City buzz saw on the sideline. Their plan should work. The Chief defense gives up 4.8 yards per rush, 28th in the league. They must score as they did in Week 10, however. Patrick Mahomes and his assortment of weapons is too good; the best defenses struggle to keep up. Tennessee’s D struggles to defend the pass (21st completion percentage, 15th yards per attempt, 15th QB passer rating). Average defenses do not slow down Mahomes, and the Chiefs offense will work on their home turf. Add the confidence boost this crew received from their jaw-dropping performance last Sunday, and it’s likely this gets out of hand.
The Titans have to hope for more loose play with the football from Kansas City. Turnovers could swing things their direction, and they’re more equipped to sit on a lead than Houston. Make no mistake. Henry must be otherworldly. He’s gained at least 180 on the ground in 3 straight, an NFL record. He’ll need at least that much again for the Titans to score and drain clock. Arthur Smith, Tennessee’s offensive coordinator, needs to dust off the back pages of his play book as well. The Henry touchdown pass last week was a perfect example of the creativity needed to pull off another upset. Realizing Baltimore’s D keyed on stopping the brutish running back, they executed the jump pass to a wide open Corey Davis to perfection. The Titans will have to take chances; going for it on 4th downs, 2 point conversions, and blitzes. If they send multiple rushers at Mahomes, it will most likely lead to Tyreek Hill torching defenders deep. It’s a chance they must take, however. The Titans don’t get to the quarterback, and Mahomes had the fifth lowest sack rate in the league. Mahomes with time will pick you apart. Any better ideas?
The Titans must throw when the Chiefs stack the box, and Ryan Tannehill has proved capable of beating teams with his arm. His deep ball to Kalif Raymond in the 2nd quarter last week was a beauty and punctuated his team’s belief they could spring an upset. He must hit more than one, however, and 88 yards, his total last week, won’t do. The plan must be to run at the K.C. defense, but the Titans will have to throw more than last week to stay attached. A good strategy for the Tennessee offense will be to throw often on their first drive, heavy on play action. They don’t want forced into passing every down. While Tannehill was efficient all year (his 9.6 yards per attempt and 117.5 passer rating led the league), the Titans have to throw when the Chiefs aren’t expecting it. The Titan offensive line allowed sacks on 10.94% of drop backs, 32nd in the league. The Chiefs defense sacked the opposition at a 7.18% rate, 11th in the NFL. If the Chiefs D knows Tannehill is throwing, he will end up on his back.
The Titans upset last week shines hope that this could be close, but the Ravens are a different team. Baltimore dominated by overpowering teams early, building a lead, and forcing them into mistakes. They lack the ability to come back from large deficits; for all of Lamar Jackson’s exceptional talents, picking defenses apart with his arm isn’t one of them. His strength in the passing game was determinant on defense’s fear of his legs. Take that away and he becomes manageable. Pat Mahomes has no such weakness. He can move if he has to, but will slice opponents with his arm. Derrick Henry is a force and will make plays, maybe even keep it close for a time. The Patrick Mahomes Era is upon us, however, and the Chiefs reign in the AFC begins on Sunday.
Kansas City, 38-24
Green Bay-San Francisco
Another rematch from the regular season, this one a 37-8 49er beat down. Did Green Bay learn anything from the Week 12 throttling that could change this outcome?
The Niners sacked Aaron Rodgers 5 times in the earlier meeting and he threw for only 104 yards. This cannot happen again. Rodgers is one of the ten best quarterbacks of all time, and, while his numbers were just good last week (243 yards, 2 touchdowns), he must be great against this San Francisco defense. The Niners have been weak against the run (4.5 per carry, 23rd in the league) and Aaron Jones will need a big game to slow the S.F. pass rush. This comes down to Rodgers, however. To cement his legacy, he must show big against an oppressive defense.
The problem for the Packer offense is the lack of holes in the 49er defense. Every level is exceptional. Davante Adams is one of the best receivers in the game, but the rest of their wideouts are average. Richard Sherman will take away the left side of the field against whoever Green Bay sends over there. Assuming they’ll try to keep Adams away from Sherman, it forces Rodgers into looks on one side of the field, making it tough to move the ball through the air. He’ll need to find Jimmy Graham and Aaron Jones over the middle in the passing game.
This assumes Rodgers will have time to throw. The San Fran defensive front is unstoppable. They can pressure any team in the league with four rushers, allowing their corners, safeties, and linebackers to blanket the secondary. Along with the five sacks in Week 12, they hit Rodgers 10 other times, and he lost a fumble. He won’t have time to throw deep. Aaron Jones must have a monster game both rushing and receiving for the Packers to score. Rodgers must be at his best as well. He needs to read the defense quickly and get rid of the football swiftly on dump offs and quick timing routes. Sustained drives picking at S.F. for 4-6 yards a pop may be the only avenue available to the QB.
The Green Bay offense has been run-of-the-mill all season. They sit in the middle of the pack by all metrics and rank in the bottom 25% in 3rd down conversions (just 36% on the season). A team that does nothing well against the best defense in the league has a narrow path to score points.
For the Pack to pull the upset, they must turn Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49er offense over. The unit averaged 1.4 turnovers per game. Jimmy G accounted for 18 of those. Kyle Shanahan will do everything in his power to make his quarterback a non-factor on Sunday. The Packers defense is only average, but can get after the passer with Za’Darius and Preston Smith. Shanahan won’t take many chances. With a second half lead against the Vikings last week, he called only five passes. Expect more of the same this week. Shanahan knows he can trust his defense and running game. He’ll lean on Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Ryan Mostert to wear down Green Bay’s front. If Garoppolo’s throwing, either Rodgers is scorching or Shanahan has lost his mind.
It’s difficult to envision a path to a Green Bay victory. If the game was in Lambeau, possibly the Pack could awaken some ghosts, get an early turnover, and keep the crowd and pressure on Jimmy G. The Niner defense is too good, however, and Rodgers has been pedestrian all season. Rodgers threw two dimes on third downs last week on Green Bay’s final drive to seal a victory. If San Francisco’s running game controls the clock like I expect, he won’t get that chance in Santa Clara.
San Francisco, 23-7