Gregg Rosenthal went 2-2 on his predictions for the Divisional Round, bringing his season record to 167-96-1. How will he fare on Championship Sunday? His picks are below.
SUNDAY, JAN. 19
Kansas City Chiefs 37, Tennessee Titans 27
3:05 p.m. ET (CBS) | Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Mo.)
There are no right answers to the questions that Patrick Mahomes creates. On two of Travis Kelce’s touchdowns last week, the Texans had the perfect play call: six defenders trying to stop two receivers and Mahomes, who finds ways to beat the math.
Derrick Henry currently resides in a similarly elevated plane of existence.His 66-yard soul-stealing scamper against the Ravens came on a play where a 260-pound behemoth Matthew Judon, untouched, had a free shot on Henry. He bounced off him like one of those pour souls in a Henry high school mix tape.
The Chiefs were weak against the run all year, even when Chris Jones was in the lineup, so the expectation will be that Henry rushes over 30 times again. Don’t be so certain. Tennessee’s defense couldn’t get off the field the first time these two teams met in November, and Titans coach Mike Vrabel is unlikely to play to his defense like in the team’s first two playoff matchups because no one plays to their defense against Kansas City. Ryan Tannehill didn’t luck into averaging a league-best 9.6 yards per attempt on the season, and Tennessee’s play-action game could use Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen’s aggressiveness against them like the Titans did to Earl Thomas in Baltimore.
Tennessee, not unlike the 2018 Patriots, can shapeshift depending on the opponent. And just like in last year’s AFC Championship Game, the only route to win in Arrowhead will be via a shootout. The Titans have the weapons capable of winning such a game — just look at their 35-32 victory over the Chiefs in Week 10 — but it’s a hard path to travel because K.C. has so many ways to beat you.
Mecole Hardman, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Damien Williams stretch the field horizontally as much as vertically. They are a track team that could go 50 yards on any play. It usually takes a drop or penalty to stop a Chiefs drive, especially against a team like the Titans that doesn’t have much of a pass rush. Vrabel may play it safe on defense like he did in the first meeting — force the Chiefs to move the ball down the field slowly and hope that Andy Reid botches game management late in the fourth quarter like he did in Nashville.
The problem with that plan is what happens in the first three quarters. Andy Reid is the most influential offensive mind of the last two decades with the greatest collection of talent he’s ever coached, including the quarterback with the most ridiculous skill set in NFL history. The Titans’ mid-level defense played more snaps last week than any defense played in an NFL game all year. It’s the Chiefs’ time.
San Francisco 49ers 30, Green Bay Packers 26
6:40 p.m. ET (FOX) | Levi’s Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)
There are a lot of reasons to believe that the 49ers’ blowout victory over the Packers in Week 12 will not be instructive on Sunday, but let’s start with the most obvious one: Every game in this league of small margins is dramatically different and unpredictable.
To borrow a favorite Mike McCarthy phrase, these Packers are nobody’s underdog. Aaron Rodgers played at a locked-in, accurate level last week that should concern 49ers Faithful. He showed a willingness to take shots when they were available and use his legs when necessary. He gives the Packers a decisive edge at quarterback if he plays that well again. And it’s worth noting the talent gap between these two teams isn’t that large.
While the Packers are stepping way up in class a week after facing the Seahawks’ defense, so is Nick Bosa against Pro Bowl tackle David Bakhtiari. Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who had a terrific rebound season, will be back for this game. Davante Adams lining up against anyone other than Richard Sherman is a mismatch. I’d take Aaron Jones over any of the 49ers’ running backs. Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark is Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 interior lineman since Week 9, trailing only Aaron Donald. Za’Darius Smith is No. 1 among all edge rushers over that span. This isn’t some plucky band of upstarts.
The edge for the 49ers in this week (and most weeks), however, doesn’t just come from their loaded roster. I trust Kyle Shanahan to make Packers inside linebacker Blake Martinez look lost in coverage and the running game. I expect San Francisco to target cornerbacks Kevin King and Tramon Williams. I expect George Kittle to be the best player on the field and Fred Warner to lead the best-tackling team in the NFL because that’s what they’ve done for the last four months.
The Packers can compete if Rodgers plays near his best and they can win if their pass rush forces Jimmy Garoppolo to play too fast, but the odds still aren’t in Green Bay’s favor. While the Packers have proven comfortable in close games, the 49ers have overcome more adversity from injuries and brutal losses all season to get here. They are battle tested, talented and smart.
The best Super Bowl matchup on the board remains Chiefs-49ers and that’s the matchup we’ll get, even if the Levi’s Stadium crowd has to sweat this one out.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.
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