The NFL’s final four is set, and by Sunday night, we’ll have our Super Bowl LIV matchup squared away.
Championship weekend is here, and we’ve got some new blood playing for trips to Miami. Get this: Sunday will mark the first AFC Championship Game in 17 years that doesn’t feature Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or Peyton Manning. Pretty wild.
Of course, this weekend’s slate will focus on who actually is playing, and there’s no shortage of great storylines among those four teams. Is this the year Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs break through, giving Andy Reid another crack at a Super Bowl ring? Can the Tennessee Titans ride Derrick Henry all the way to South Beach, pulling off one of the more improbable Super Bowl runs we’ve ever seen?
Kyle Shanahan has his own unfinished Super Bowl business, and can he and the 49ers cement themselves as the next great NFL power? And finally, can Aaron Rodgers — with a young head coach and even younger teammates — turn back time and rewrite his legacy with another title?
Lots of questions, and we’ll start to get those answers Sunday. Before that, NESN.com’s Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian will weigh in with their against-the-spread picks.
Here’s how they did last week.
Mike Cole: 2-2 (3-5 playoffs overall)
Ricky Doyle: 3-1 (5-3)
Andre Khatchaturian: 3-1 (4-4)
Here are their conference championship picks.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 15
Tennessee Titans at (-7.5) Kansas City Chiefs, 3:05 p.m.
Mike: Titans. Tennessee’s best defense is to continue running Derrick Henry into the ground and try to slow down the game. I think they can do it. The Chiefs’ run defense finished the regular season ranked 29th in DVOA, and they’ll have a much tougher test this week against the Titans, of course. In two games against the Chiefs — including a playoff win two years ago — Henry is averaging 7.7 yards per carry, the highest rate in his career against any team. It figures to be running weather Sunday in Kansas City, too, with temps barely getting into the 20s. In other words, not fun tackling weather. Defensively, the Titans are up against it, but we thought that would be the case last week (and to a lesser extent vs. New England), but they have been armed with incredible game plans and seem to be taking on head coach Mike Vrabel’s I-don’t-give-a-you-know-what attitude. The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, who is the best player left in the field and that should be enough to get them by Tennessee, but I think it will be a close one.
Ricky: Chiefs. This is the week the Titans’ magic runs out. Tennessee’s defense has been relatively impressive, holding New England and Baltimore to 13 and 12 points, respectively. But neither of those teams can throw the ball like Kansas City, which will have its way versus Tennessee’s vulnerable secondary — the Titans rank 21st against the pass, per Football Outsiders, as opposed to 10th against the run. It’ll be an especially long day for the Titans’ defense, which ranks 28th in pass rush, per Pro Football Focus’ grades, if it doesn’t create pressure on Mahomes. The Titans, to their credit, took advantage of the Ravens’ sloppiness on offense — perhaps due to Baltimore’s long layoff? — but don’t bank on lightning striking two weeks in a row. Only the Saints and Packers turned the ball over less frequently than the Chiefs this season, and relying on your opponent to make mistakes just doesn’t seem sustainable. It’s also fair to wonder whether Henry’s workload (96 carries over his last three games) finally will catch up to him. Kansas City’s run defense has improved significantly since the beginning of the season.
Andre: Titans. I’m going to keep it simple with both of my picks. The Titans’ biggest strength obviously is their rushing attack. Henry has 1,273 rushing yards in his last eight games. That number alone would be fifth-highest on the 2019 regular-season rushing yards leader list. Kansas City’s biggest weakness? Its rush defense, which allowed 4.91 yards per carry this season, the fifth-worst mark in the league. All four of the Chiefs’ losses came when teams ran for more than 100 yards against them, and the Titans collectively rushed for 225 yards during the teams’ Week 10 matchup. Ryan Tannehill isn’t a clown, either. He led the league in yards per pass attempt, and the Titans ranked second in explosive play rate in 2019 (the Chiefs ranked 21st). The Titans’ formula for success has worked against significantly better rush defenses. Expect them to stick to it, eat clock, keep the ball away from Mahomes’ hands and win straight up.
Green Bay Packers at (-7.5) San Francisco 49ers, 6:40 p.m.
Mike: 49ers. A lot of things went poorly for the Packers when these teams met in Week 12, with Aaron Rodgers fumbling inside his own 10-yard line on the first drive, to Bryan Bulaga playing just nine snaps, and on and on and on. So the Packers probably won’t get pantsed again this weekend. But it’s a bad matchup, and there’s not really a weakness Green Bay can expose. The 49ers, as we saw in late November, can give the Packers some problems up front with their pass rush. San Francisco is one of those elite defenses that can get home with just four rushers (the Niners had the NFL’s fourth-lowest blitz rate), which obviously allows them to give more help in pass coverage against Aaron Rodgers and Co. Also, don’t discount that of Rodgers’ 16 completions last week, eight went to Davante Adams. The star receiver might see his share of Richard Sherman this week after Adams pulled in just one 7-yard catch on two targets on 16 routes facing Sherman in Week 12. If Adams is erased, the Packers’ receiving depth — or lack thereof — might be exposed.
Ricky: Packers. The 49ers’ defense has gotten healthier, and it reminded everyone last week against the Vikings that it’s one of the best units in football. San Francisco should roll. But Green Bay’s offensive line (No. 4 in pass blocking, per Pro Football Focus) will hold up better than Minnesota’s (No. 27 in pass blocking) against San Francisco’s overpowering pass rush, and it actually might be a strength as the Packers look to establish the run against a 49ers defense that’s been gashed on the ground at times this season. The Packers’ defense also deserves a bit more recognition heading into this contest. Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith have the potential to fluster Jimmy Garoppolo if the 49ers’ offensive line (No. 19 in pass blocking) doesn’t stand its ground. Niners win, but Packers cover.
Andre: Packers. Both of these teams have solid rushing attacks offensively and weak rush defenses. Green Bay had the eighth-worst rush defense, according to Pro Football Focus, and San Francisco has allowed 100-plus rushing yards in 11 of its last 14 games — the Niners have won most of those games, as well, which means they’ve had leads and opponents have been throwing more frequently yet still managing over 100 yards rushing. Expect low-scoring games with both teams trying to utilize their rushing attack. The difference will be in quarterback play. Rodgers simply doesn’t throw interceptions. Garoppolo had more than three times as many picks this season. Green Bay’s pass defense is pretty solid — it ranked seventh in coverage, per Pro Football Focus. For what it’s worth, the Packers also are 6-2-1 ATS when underdogs in the playoffs with Rodgers.
Thumbnail photo via Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports Images