Conference Championships

Conference Championship, NFL, NFL Playoffs

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.

Mahomes to Kelce is unguardable, especially in the Red Zone

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?

Exquisite call and execution

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.

This drop in the bucket sealed the win last week. Can Rodgers do this consistently on Sunday?

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.

This 4 man pass rush is overwhelming

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

 

NFL Divisional Round

Divisional Round, NFL, NFL Playoffs

Who wins this weekend, and how do they get it done? As always, the pressure falls on the quarterbacks.

Minnesota @ San Francisco

Kirk Cousins won the biggest game of his life last Sunday, throwing two beautiful passes during the game winning drive. His 43 yarder, dropped in a bucket to Adam Thielen, and the touchdown fade to Kyle Rudolph showed the talent all knew Cousins possessed. Don’t slough at those who questioned whether he could win a big game, however. Cousins’ record against winning teams before Sunday was 6-30; his record on Monday Night is 0-9. The win in New Orleans was big and Cousins played brilliantly. The questions were legit, however.

Which quarterback do you trust? The forecast calls for 15-25 MPH winds, so two teams who want to run the ball will be more inclined to do so. Both teams rank in the top five in rushing yards per game, and both defenses are middling at stopping the run. Getting the lead will be paramount. Neither coach wants the game in their QB’s hands. This is especially true of Mike Zimmer and the Vikings. San Fran’s defense is the best in the league against the pass and third in the NFL in sack percentage. If they can force him to throw, don’t look for Cousins to repeat the successes of last week. Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams can lock up Adam Thielen and Stephon Diggs long enough to allow the 49ers’ front four of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner to put Cousins on his back. Dalvin Cook has to break multiple long runs for Minnesota to score.

Pay attention when either team gets into the red zone. Minnesota has an advantage on both sides of the ball deep in scoring territory. The Vikings score touchdowns on 62% of their red zone drives (10th in the league) and allow touchdowns on only 44% of their opponents’ red zone opportunities (2nd). San Francisco, meanwhile, is 21st offensively (53%) and 23rd defensively (60%) inside the 20s. If Minnesota pulls the upset, it’ll stem from their offense’s ability to score touchdowns while the D holds the 49ers to field goals.

How will Jimmy Garoppolo react to the playoff stage? He prepared as a backup in New England, but the step up will test his nerve. Garoppolo was awful in the Niners first loss of the season in overtime against Seattle, but made big throws late in victories in New Orleans and against the Rams. Jimmy G’s 13 picks on the season will be on Kyle Shanahan’s mind, though. The Vikings intercepted 17 passes on the season. If San Francisco has to throw, Danielle Hunter will force Garoppolo to throw quicker than he’s comfortable with.

San Francisco’s defense has been outstanding all year; their front four is the best in football. They’ll pressure Kirk Cousins into mistakes while their running back trio of Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida wear out Minny’s defense.

San Francisco, 23-14

Tennessee @ Baltimore

Any doubt attached to this Ravens bunch disappeared long ago, but Tennessee must be John Harbaugh’s worst nightmare. The Titans revel in the physical style Baltimore wants to play. Tennessee will pound Derrick Henry and attempt to hit A.J. Brown deep after the defense has fallen asleep. Ryan Tannehill doesn’t turn it over, only throwing 6 picks on the season. These teams mimic the other’s style, but only one has Lamar Jackson.

Both teams want to run. Who can stop the other? The Ravens struggle to defend the run, giving up 4.4 yards per rush, 21st in the league, while the Titans fare better, allowing 4.1 (7th). Lamar Jackson is a different animal, however. The Ravens pounce on teams early while defenses are adjusting to his speed. A few designed runs gash opponents, causing them to inch toward the line of scrimmage. Jackson then throws it over their heads. Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards are coming for you too. Tennessee must stop them first.

Discipline from the Titans is paramount. Though it can lead to other problems, they must spy Jackson with Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown and Kenny Vaccaro. Mix it up; give Lamar different looks; just don’t leave him unattended. Corners Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson, along with safety Kevin Byard, must shut down Baltimore’s tight ends and wide receivers in one-on-one man match-ups to have any chance. All others on defense must focus on stopping the lethal run game.

Tennessee has to take advantage of Baltimore’s so-so run defense. Pound Derrick Henry. Mix in Dion Lewis’ speed for a change of pace. They’ll need at least one deep ball connection between Tannehill and A.J. Brown to put the Ravens on their heels. Baltimore has been stingy against the pass, allowing opposing QBs to complete only 58% of their passes and just 6 yards per attempt (6th lowest). Tannehill has had success taking the top off defenses, but Henry will need to cook to unlock this option for his offense.

Baltimore has been a juggernaut since losing to the Browns in Week 4. Lamar Jackson is the unquestioned league MVP. They have the highest scoring offense and 3rd stingiest defense in the NFL and are playing at home in front of one of the best crowds in football. Tennessee gained an enormous boost going to New England and knocking off the champs last week, however. The Titans aren’t afraid to take a punch and will dish out a few themselves. This one feels closer than expected.

Baltimore, 19-15

Houston @ Kansas City

This one looks ugly for Houston. Ten point dogs, the Texans struggled at home to beat a Buffalo team not ready for the playoffs. The Bills led until 4:37 left in the 4th quarter, and, though he tried, Josh Allen couldn’t get the Houston defense to take the ball from him. The Texans dropped 4-5 would be interceptions and couldn’t recover an insane lateral by Allen on Buffalo’s final drive that sent the game into overtime. Coaching blunders and clock mismanagement littered a poorly played game by each side. Now Houston must travel to Arrowhead to face a Chiefs team more prepared than ever to reach the Super Bowl.

Patrick Mahomes fought injury most of the season, missing 2 games and a half of another with a dislocated kneecap. While his yards and touchdown passes were down from a year ago, so were his interceptions, cut from 12 to 5. Mahomes’ injury and Lamar Jackson’s ascendance to an MVP level has allowed the Chiefs an unassuming entrance into the playoffs. Baltimore is bludgeoning people in the manner K.C. did a year ago. Will the relative quiet surrounding the Chiefs work to their benefit?

Even without Mahomes for 1/8 of the season, K.C.’s offense purred. Houston’s defense is ill-equipped to handle the myriad of weapons at Mahomes’ disposal. Tyreek Hill, who missed four games himself, and Travis Kelce are two of the best at their positions in the league. Add rookie Mecole Hardman and the fleet Demarcus Robinson to Mahomes’ arsenal and the Texans’ 29th rated pass defense is in trouble.

J. J. Watt played 50 of 81 snaps last week, an absurdity considering the team ruled him out for the season in October with a torn pectoral muscle. A behemoth, Watt must wreck the K.C. offense for the Texans to remain close. A possibility if healthy, the task seems insurmountable now. The Texans rank in the bottom half of the league in every imaginable defensive stat. They’re last in the league in giving up touchdowns in the red zone. They give up 6 yards per play, 30th in the league. Teams convert 3rd downs at a rate of 48% against them, and they allow 7.1 yards per pass, 24th worst in the league. Unless the Chiefs turn it over multiple times, Houston’s defense will get steamrolled.

While K.C.’s defense improved over last year, offenses can still get them in the run game. Chris Jones and Frank Clark are dynamic rushing the passer from the edges, and will force Deshaun Watson out of the pocket against the Texans’ weak offensive line. The Chiefs allow the 4th worst completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks and hold them to the 5th worst passer rating in the league. K.C. gave up 128 yards per game on the ground, however, and the Texans must attack here if they hope to stay close. They must lean on Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde to grind yards and clock. Designed QB runs with Watson could help slow the pass rush.

Houston’s margins are thin. Watson is fantastic, however, and can sway games on his own. The Texans have to push the envelope, going for touchdowns instead of field goals and taking chances on 4th down. Baltimore tried this strategy in week 3 before they began eviscerating the league. The Ravens ran the ball 32 times, were 3-4 on fourth down conversions, and went for 2 on 3 different occasions, including the first touchdown of the game. The Texans must use the same strategy. This won’t be another low scoring playoff game; the Chiefs offense is too good and the Houston defense is poor. This will take a massive effort from Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien. Watson may have a huge game. O’Brien out coaching Andy Reid is less likely.

Kansas City, 30-17

Seattle @ Green Bay

The toughest game of the week to call and a battle of two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Green Bay finished 13-3, but what do they do well? Aaron Jones established himself as a weapon both running and receiving while Aaron Rodgers became more of a game manager in 2019. Seattle wants to run the ball, but their strength offensively is in the passing game. Seattle’s defense is poor in every category, but they force turnovers. Ditto for Green Bay, but the Smith’s, Preston and Za’Darius, haunt opposing quarterbacks. This one may turn into a shootout.

The Seahawk defense is bad at everything. 22nd against the run, 26th against the pass; they don’t sack the quarterback and they give up touchdowns in the red zone. They were fourth in the league in takeaways, but don’t expect Aaron Rodgers to throw picks at Lambeau. Rodgers had only 4 interceptions on the year and hasn’t thrown one at home since week 6. He hasn’t torched defenses like in years’ past, but he also hasn’t had to.

Rodgers put up good numbers by other quarterbacks’ standards, but below average according to his. 4002 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 62% completions are all well under his career averages. Davante Adams failed to reach 1000 yards, and tight end Jimmy Graham again disappointed. Aaron Jones surged, however, the only member of the Green Bay offense to exceed expectations. If the Pack win on Sunday, Jones will have shredded Seattle’s porous run defense.

Green Bay’s defense doesn’t stop the run either, but can defend the opponent’s passing attack because of the Smiths. A combined 25.5 sacks have made opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. Russell Wilson can move, however, and the Packers have faced immobile signal callers all year. Wilson will slow the Packer pass rush on his own and pick up a few first downs with his legs. The likely second-place finisher in the MVP vote, it has taken an otherworldly season from Lamar Jackson to deny Russ the award.

Can Seattle’s offensive line give Wilson time? Injuries have ravaged the unit. Left tackle Duane Brown and guard Mike Iupati both missed Sunday’s game against the Eagles but practiced some on Thursday. They’ll help stabilize things in front of Wilson. Will the Seahawks force the issue in the running game? Marshawn Lynch has been dynamite in short yardage situations in his return to Seattle, and rookie Travis Homer and flashed on a couple of chunk runs against San Francisco the last week of the season, but only gained 12 yards on 11 carries against Philly. Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have made it no secret they prefer to run the ball. Russell Wilson represents their path to victory, however.

The last game of the weekend is a tossup. This one may come down to the QB who has the ball last.

Seattle, 31-30