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Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday 20:05 GMT)
The Tennessee Titans ensured it would not be Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson in the AFC Championship Game as they sensationally dumped Baltimore out of the playoffs a week ago. The number one seeded Ravens had been expected to win a close battle between the two teams, but the Titans had other ideas and left M&T Bank Stadium stunned as they made the most of their opportunities to cruise to victory. Jackson got his yards in that one, both on the ground and through the air, but the Titans did an outstanding job of preventing the superstar QB from making game-changing plays and they simply have to do the same thing when they come up against Mahomes on Sunday night. Just ask Houston.
Last week the Texans rolled into Arrowhead and gave themselves an outstanding shot at springing an upset as they pounced on the Chiefs early. By the end of the first quarter they led shell-shocked Kansas City 21-0 and early in the second they extended that lead to 24 with a Ka’imi Fairbairn field goal. However, it was difficult to shake the feeling that Texans head coach Bill O’Brien should have gone for the throat on fourth down inside the red zone, and that feeling grew and grew as the Chiefs came storming back. Mahomes threw four touchdown passes, including three to Travis Kelce, as Kansas City came storming back to take an improbable lead into half-time, and there would prove to be no way back for Houston as the Chiefs kept their foot on the gas to storm to a 51-31 victory.
Not only had KC showcased their talent, they had also showcased their mental strength in coming back from such a huge deficit, but they can ill-afford a similar start here. Why? One name… Derrick Henry. The Titans running back is the most dominant player in his position in the National Football League – he has rushed for 100 yards or more in seven of his last eight games and if you average his rushing stats out over those eight games he is averaging 159.1 yards and at least one touchdown per game. That is a sensational run of form from the 26-year-old running back and it does not bode well for a Kansas City defense that ranked 26th in yards allowed and 18th in touchdowns allowed on the ground during the regular season. And if those statistics are not enough, how about what happened when Henry and the Titans came up against the Chiefs in Week 10? The Tennessee RB ran over the Chiefs for 188 yards and two touchdowns as the Titans pulled off a surprise 35-32 home win over Sunday’s hosts, so we know that they are more than capable of denying Mahomes & Co. a trip to the Super Bowl.
However, on the back of last weekend’s performance I simply cannot go against the Chiefs. When they turned it on, they really turned it on and Houston had no answer. I expect the Titans to make this a much closer game over four quarters than the Texans did, mainly thanks to Henry’s efforts in chewing up the clock, but ultimately Ryan Tannehill & Co. will not be able to keep pace with that explosive Kansas City offense. The Chiefs should win a game that sees both sides put plenty of points on the board once again, and I am backing Damian Williams to play a starring role. The Chiefs running back is a dual threat out of the backfield and he has really come to the fore over the past several weeks. Having closed out the regular season with three touchdowns in the last two games, Williams managed to match that in once single outing as he rushed for two scores and caught a touchdown pass in last weekend’s win over Houston. Therefore he has to be a leading contender to find paydirt on Sunday and I expect him to do just that as Kansas City secure a trip to Miami for the Super Bowl.
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (Sunday 23:40 GMT)
The San Francisco 49ers’ route to the Super Bowl is running through the NFC North it would seem. Having ruthlessly dispatched the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round they are now just one win away from the big game, with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers standing between them and a trip to Miami in two weeks’ time. If this matchup looks familiar it should do because these two teams have already met this season, and it was ugly viewing for fans of the Packers. Green Bay visited Levi’s Stadium in Week 12 and were pretty much embarrassed as they fell to a 37-8 victory. The Packers trailed 23-0 at half-time, gave up a touchdown in every quarter and managed just one scoring drive themselves in the entire game. Rodgers was held to 104 yards passing as Green Bay managed only 198 in total – of which 138 yards came in ‘garbage time’ when the game was as good as over – so what has possibly changed since then to give them any shot at denying the number one-seeded Niners a trip to the Super Bowl?
Well, the Packers have not lost a game since that miserable night, reeling off six straight victories to secure the NFC North title, a first-round bye and this spot in the Championship Game. While much of that run came against poor opposition, they did produce a strong performance against Minnesota in Week 16 to wrap up the division title and in the Divisional Round they were able to fend off a second-half fightback from a Seattle team that went within inches of completing the season-sweep over San Francisco. This Packers team has been finding ways to win since being humbled in Santa Clara, but when I look at the 49ers they have the answer to every possible question that the Packers can pose. These two teams may have both finished with identical 13-3 records, but there is a visible gulf in quality between them that is not showcased by their regular season marks.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is very quick at getting the ball out of his hands and that should stifle the Green Bay pass rush, and in Deebo Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders and, of course, George Kittle he has passing targets who are great at racking up yards after the catch – Kittle ranked third in the entire league during the regular season and Samuel 13th. Sanders would have ranked higher too had he not spent the first part of the season playing in a poor Denver offense. And of course, how can we not highlight that run game? San Francisco do not boast the services of an elite runner, but that does not matter because in Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida they have a three-headed monster that has been almost impossible for teams to stop. They have helped the Niners chew up game clock and defend leads all season long, and they should do more of the same on Sunday against a Packers defense that has really toiled against the run this season. The talent does not stop there though – this San Francisco defense is outstanding. They have what could be the best defensive line in the entire league and that pass rush is going to cause problems all day long for Rogers, and in the secondary the presence of Richard Sherman will help them contain Green Bay’s leading receiver, Davante Samuel. So as you can see, this 49ers team is loaded with talent and is ready to return to the big dance.
Unlike last time, Rodgers will have his moments here, but ultimately San Francisco will be too good and they should win this by more than a touchdown. And speaking of touchdown, I like the chances of Mostert playing a scoring role for the home team. While he was kept out of the endzone a week ago, the fifth year running back had scored eight TDs in his previous six games – that level of productivity cannot be ignored, especially against a defense that has toiled against the run here. Mostert can find the endzone and the Niners can go marching on to South Beach.