NFL Conference Championship Picks

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NFL Conference Championship Games

All times Eastern

Divisional: Rick: 3-1; Coin: 0-4
Playoffs Totals: Rick: 5-3; Coin: 4-4
Cumulative: Rick: 127-130-7; Coin: 120-137-7

Sunday, January 19

AFC Conference Championship
3:05 pm Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs (-7 1/2, 53) - When the Chiefs came back from a 24-0 deficit to upend the Texans last week, 51-31, most NFL viewers were in awe of Kansas City's offense, led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his merry band of speedy receivers.

What happened in that game showed incredible resiliency and determination on the part of the Chiefs, who never panicked, never agreed amongst themselves and eventually turned out pretty much a blowout, outscoring Houston, 51-7, over the final 34 minutes of the game. They didn't have a lot of help, though Houston's fumble on a kickoff return shortly before half time certainly didn't hurt, but that was the only turnover the Texans would commit the entire afternoon. Kansas City's defense deserves credit for completely stifling the Houston offense and their quite capable QB, Deshaun Watson.

The magnificent performance by the Chiefs helps to partially obscure two salient points: 1) A day earlier, the Tennessee Titans dusted the Ravens and the league's top offense, 28-12, and 2) Tennessee defeated the Chiefs, 35-32, back on November 10, in a game in which Mahomes threw for a season high 446 yards. As much as the Chiefs looked unstoppable and possibly unbeatable, the Titans can make a case that they're the team with the most considerable momentum heading into championship Sunday.

After all, it was Tennessee that ended New England's reign of AFC terror, ousting the Patriots with a 20-13 win, at New England, in the wild card round. So far this post-season, all the Titans have accomplished is taking down a perennial AFC championship participant and the best defense in the league by whipping the Patriots, and decapitating the league's highest-scoring offense by overrunning Baltimore. And, they did all of this on the road. They should not be taken lightly and have a golden opportunity to pull off another stunning upset.

While Tennessee's burly running back, NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry, is getting much of the praise, the Titan defense has shown up in bag ways. They held Tom Brady and the Patriots scoreless throughout the second half in the wild card round and held Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to just two field goals through the first three quarters last week in their divisional triumph.

Second year head coach Mike Vrable deserves credit for pulling the Titans together and keeping them focused. His bold move to switch quarterbacks after a 16-0 loss at Denver turned the team around from a 2-4 mark and propelled them into the playoffs when he replaced Marcus Mariota with Ryan Tannehill. The Titans went 7-3 the rest of the regular season.

Vrable, an all-american defensive end at Ohio State, won three Super Bowls as a linebacker and often gimmick receiver with the New England Patriots and comes out of the Bill Belichick defensive coaching mode. His defensive pedigree has been apparent in this post-season and his leadership extends through his players.

Vrable, who looks like he could still play at 44, has the Tennessee defense firing on all cylinders and the offense, behind Henry's crushing rushing attack and Tannehill's passing and frequent run game, has not been slowed. In that November win over the Chiefs, Henry broke out for 188 yards rushing, his second-best day of the regular season. He was unstoppable against the Pats and Ravens, rushing for 182 and 195 yards, respectively.

While Kansas City holds a statistical advantage on both offense and defense, the differences are not great. KC went through the regular season the fifth-highest scoring team in the league, putting up 28.2 points per game. Tennessee finished 10th, at 25.1, but it must be remembered that with Mariota as quarterback they averaged only 16.3 over six games.

On defense, the Chiefs gave up 19.3 points per outing during the regular season; the Titans averaged allowing 20.7. There isn't much separating the run-and-pass stoppers on these two foes.

There are a number of "ifs" that will no doubt be the talk before this game. What if the Titans can't contain the Chiefs early and fall behind? What if the Chiefs can't stop Derrick Henry? What if the Chiefs are ahead late in the fourth quarter?

Those foregoing hypothetical scenarios can be answered with a smattering of confidence. The Titans have been behind before and didn't give up on Henry. That's their game plan and they stick to it. The offense is designed to open holes and his huge frame gobbles up 8, 12, 20 yards on a routine basis. The Titans won't panic, and no, the Chiefs won't be able to stop Henry, either. Nobody has. And, if the Chiefs have a lead late in the fourth quarter, expect the Titans to score, making the game close, or even to win it. Tennessee's receivers are talented and well-schooled.

But, but, Patrick Mahomes? He was unstoppable against Houston. Well, he sure was, but this is Tennessee. They stopped Tom Brady. They stopped Lamar Jackson. Thinking they won't be able to at least contain Mahomes is a perception issue caused by their romp against the Texans.

This game is likely to come down to whichever team has the ball last, wins.

Coin Flip: Tennessee

Prediction: Titans 34 Chiefs 32

NFC Conference Championship
6:40 pm Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (-7 1/2, 45) - There's a noticeable difference between these two squads and it's not hard to miss. San Francisco has a much easier manner to move the football up and down the gridiron, whereas Green Bay often struggles to find its offensive sweet spot and also has fewer skilled players upon which to rely. The 49ers outscored the Packers by 103 points over the course of the regular season, 479-376. Over 16 games, that works out to a not-insignificant 6.4 points per game.

Also obvious is the difference on defense. While San Francisco and Green Bay were virtually identical, allowing 310 and 313 points respectively through the 16-game regular season, the 49ers seem more capable of making big plays at critical moments than the Packers. On a per game basis, the 'Niners allowed 19.4, the Packers 19.6 points. Both teams have improved through the year, but the 49ers showed what they are made of by shutting out the Vikings in the second half of their divisional contest last week, securing a 27-10 win.

By contrast, Green Bay went into half time of their divisional game against Seattle with a 21-3 lead at home, but gave up two Seattle touchdowns in the third quarter and another midway through the fourth to put the game perilously close at 28-23 with nine minutes remaining, and that was against a Seahawk offense that was devoid a running game and very predictable. Stopping Seattle's attempted two-point try in the fourth quarter was all that kept Green Bay ahead by more than a field goal. The Packers also failed to score or produce any meaningful drives for nearly half of the third quarter and all of the fourth. The Packers looked like a team just happy to get bye, despite having home field against a damaged opponent.

Looking at San Francisco's effort against the Vikings, after Minnesota tied the score at 7-7 with 5:23 left in the first quarter, they held the Vikings to three points the rest of the way while scoring 17 of their own against a solid defense. Minnesota had closed to within 14-10 at the half, but the 49er defense wasn't having any of it, holding them scoreless the rest of the way. That kind of performance is what championship football is all about and the 49ers have thrown down the gauntlet and look about as good as a defensive unit can at this point in the season.

These two teams both finished with 13-3 records and were the respective champions of their respective divisions. The NFC was a top-heavy conference in 2019. The Saints, 49ers and Packers were all 13-3, and there were nine teams with records of 8-8 or worse. It's something to consider when looking at the Packers last five games - all wins - after the 49ers had trounced them, 37-8 on Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend, November 24.

The Packers scored a total of 118 points in those games, allowing just 71, but the games were against the Giants, Redskins, Bears, Vikings and Lions, of which only the Vikings ended up a playoff team with a winning record (11-5). The combined records of the other four was 18-45, so the Packers should have been expected to win those games, and did, but, taking out the 23-10 Minnesota victory, the combined score of the four other games comes down to 95-61, an average margin of victory of just 8.5 points against a bunch of teams just looking to get the season over.

Green Bay just doesn't appear to be as dominant as a 13-3 record would suggest. The 49ers, on the other hand, do. The 49ers went 4-2 their last six games, including that blowout win over the Packers. Their last five games, in order, were against Baltimore, New Orleans, Atlanta, the LA Rams, and Seattle. Three of those teams went to the playoffs. The Rams missed out with a 9-5 record and Atlanta was 7-9. The combined record of the last six teams San Francisco played was 67-29. The 49ers beat four of them, losing at Baltimore, 20-17 and to Atlanta, 29-22.

All of this goes toward making the case for the 49ers, but nothing really makes more sense for backing them than that 37-8 thumping against the Packers late in November. The game was promoted as a clash of division leaders. The Packers were 8-2 at the time; San Francisco was 9-1 and a favorite of anywhere from 3 to 4 1/2 points, but it didn't take long to see which way this game was going. The Packers scored 10 points in the first quarter, adding another 13 in the second while shutting out Green Bay. The Packers scored their only touchdown late in the third quarter and the 49ers responded with six points of their own less than a minute later to put the game away.

Aaron Rodgers was 20-for-33 for 104 yards and a touchdown, but was sacked five times for 38 yards, lost a fumble, and finished the game with a QBR of 8.5. Jimmy Garoppolo went 14-for-20, 253 yards, two TDs, and was sacked three times for 26 yards. His 18.2 QBR wasn't exactly flattering either, but he threw 13 fewer passes than Rodgers and gained 149 more yards. Rodgers failed to convert on 13 third downs and the time of possession was 10 minutes in San Francisco's favor. The 49ers made big plays on offense. The Packers struggled to move the ball at all.

It's a good thing this championship meeting is the late game because it looks like the 49ers will assure everybody gets to bed nice and early. It very well may be another blowout. Green Bay just doesn't look up to the task at hand. If the Packers score more than one touchdown, it would be a surprise.

Coin Flip: Green Bay

Prediction: 49ers 31 Packers 13

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