In week 1, the Chiefs expected to play this weekend, and the Packers certainly expected to stay alive. The 49ers, however, did not begin to feel like a real contender until they had several wins together, and the Titans were still fighting for a playoff spot at week 17. But regardless of expectations – and a regular Ravens-dominated season – all four teams survived until this weekend and each is one win away from playing in the Super Bowl LIV.
Here are our predictions for the conference championship games, with each choice made against the spread.
Last weekend's record against the spread: 3-1
Postseason general record: 5-2-1
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
15:05, CBS | Line: Heads -7 | Total: 53
To get here, the Titans had to beat the team with the best defense in football (the New England Patriots) and the team with the best attack (the Baltimore Ravens) – with both wins on the road. Next up are the Chiefs, a team with radically improved defense, one of Florida's most intense home crowds, and an offense led by Patrick Mahomes that on its best day is even more explosive than Lamar Jackson's Ravens.
Case in point: The Chiefs lost 24-0 to the Houston Texans in the second quarter of the division round last weekend and still managed to win by 20 points.
It's easy to see why Tennessee thinks he's an underdog, but right now there's no denying that Coach Mike Vrabel has found a very special formula for success – his unusual attack and his opportunistic defense. And it is entirely possible that the Titans will not finish making Las Vegas look foolish for doubting them.
Punctuation should not be a problem for Tennessee. As the Chiefs’s defense has improved substantially this season, his biggest challenge was against the race, where Football aliens ranked the team 29th in efficiency. That should raise hopes for Titans, who are chasing after Derrick Henry, who will enter the game after having already won 377 yards on the ground in these playoffs, giving a show that should be seen on TV.
But after two weeks of relying on a largely one-dimensional offense, the Titans can now diversify into New England and Baltimore, which had two of New Zealand's three most suffocating sideshows.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has shown a great ability to take advantage of any opportunity offered to him, and the Chiefs, who are losing their rookie safety Juan Thornhill (ACL trait), and do not yet know the status of the Pro Bowl defensive attack. Chris Jones (calf), can give just a few – as long as he keeps the ball as far away from Tyrann Mathieu's safety as possible.
Tennessee used a mix of Henry and Tannehill in week 10 to beat the Chiefs, 35-32, in Nashville. But Mahomes, in his first game due to a knee injury, went through 446 yards and three touchdowns in that game. He could be even more against a Titans defense that seemed to wear out over the course of the season, ending up in the middle of the pack in most rankings. While Tennessee creates chaos with rotation, it is also quite mild against the pass. This must be an extreme responsibility against Mahomes, who has the choice of Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce in every move.
For Tennessee to make its third consecutive turn, it will be necessary to get some huge moves from Tannehill, speed up the clock with Henry and hope that the defense can take advantage of one or two errors from Mahomes. Each of these things is possible, but getting all three is not very likely. A close defeat is a better bet. Choose: Titans +7
Green Bay Packers San Francisco 49ers
18:40, Fox | Line: 49ers -7.5 | Total: 45
It's hard to forget how efficiently the 49ers demolished the Packers in week 12. San Francisco forced a fumble into Green Bay's initial attack and scored a touchdown on their first offensive play. The Packers' other seven attempts in the first half ended in six points and a spin in losses, while the 49ers reached a 23-0 lead.
In the end, a highly praised clash of N.F.C. heavy weights became a 37-8 drubbing where the 49ers defense limited Aaron Rodgers to 104 yards and kept Aaron Jones to 38 yards on 13 loads. And that was when San Francisco lost Dee Ford, one of its main defensive stars, due to a tendon injury.
Ford, however, was not the only missing major player. Green Bay played almost the entire game without Bryan Bulaga, one of the pillars of the right striker, and that was painfully obvious when Nick Bosa and the rest of the 49ers defense entered the backfield in game after game.
Green Bay have lost just three games this season, and are saying that Bulaga has lost huge chunks of two of them. He's limited in training this week with an illness, but is expected to be on the field on Sunday – just like Ford – and the game can easily be won or lost, based on how the Green Bay offensive line deals with the fierce. San Francisco pass.
The 49ers had one of the best offenses in the NF.L. this season – they were ruthlessly efficient in passing and ran for more yards than any other team than Baltimore – but even quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo made it clear this week that the main difference in last season's team is defense. Garoppolo went so far as to suggest that his own knee injury at the end of the season in 2018 helped to make the transformation, as San Francisco ended with a record number two in the NF.L. sketch, design.
"I always told myself it was a blessing in disguise, A.C.L.," he said. "We got Bosa out of this."
It would be quite shocking if Rodgers, Jones and wide receiver Davante Adams were not at least a little more successful against the 49ers this time around. But nothing the Packers have done indicates that they are playing at the San Francisco level, and their beautiful first season under coach Matt LaFleur looks set to end one step before the Super Bowl. Choice: 49ers -7.5
All times are Eastern.