2020 NFL playoffs picks: Chiefs blast Titans in AFC title game, 49ers thump Packers in NFC Championship Game
CBS Sports NFL writer Sean Wagner-McGough makes his picks for the conference championship round
The first two weekends of the NFL playoffs featured five one-score games, three big upsets, and one historic come-from-behind win, but I can't shake the feeling that we could be in store for a far more normal conference championship weekend.
That's not to say the football will be bad. It will, after all, feature the likes of Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the Chiefs' high-flying offense, one-man wrecking crew Derrick Henry, a dominant 49ers' defense, and a first ballot Hall of Famer in Aaron Rodgers. That's an attractive group of headliners. The 49ers and Packers went a combined 26-6 in the regular season with both teams contributing equally to those totals. The Chiefs won three more games than the Titans in the regular season, but one of their four losses came against the same Titans team they'll face on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.
But both the AFC and NFC Championship Games feature two big home favorites. I happen to think both home favorites, the Chiefs and the 49ers, will have their way with lesser foes, the Titans and the Packers. I'll explain why in more detail below, but I will say that if the Chiefs and 49ers both do win, I think it's for the best. I think a 49ers-Chiefs Super Bowl would be the best possible matchup remaining. It'd feature the sport's two best play-callers in Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan, the world's best quarterback in Mahomes, and the best remaining defense in the 49ers.
It's the matchup I'm rooting for, but that's not the reason why I'm taking both the 49ers and the Chiefs to win and cover this weekend. I'm taking them because I believe they're both that much better than their opposition. Below, I explain why.
Last week: 2-2
Playoff record: 4-4
Regular-season best-bets record: 43-41-1
Chiefs -7 vs. Titans
I know the Titans beat the Chiefs 35-32 when they met in Nashville back in Week 10, but in order for that to have happened, everything needed to go wrong for the Chiefs and everything needed to go right for the Titans. I'm not so certain that'll happen again. I don't think we can count on the Chiefs to be as sloppy as they were 10 weeks ago.
In that game, the Chiefs kicked field goals on:
- Fourth-and-2 from the 12
- Fourth-and-3 from the 23
- Fourth-and-2 from the 25
The Titans also scored a defensive touchdown on a 53-yard fumble return.
In the final 90 seconds, the Chiefs squandered a five-point lead when they botched a field goal attempt, with Dustin Colquitt unable to salvage a low snap, which the Titans turned into a game-winning touchdown drive. But Mahomes calmly led the Chiefs into field-goal range, only to see Harrison Butker -- who already missed an extra point earlier in the game -- get his game-tying field goal blocked. The Chiefs' special teams finished the regular season second in DVOA and Butker went 34 of 38 on field goals and 45 of 48 on extra points. The Titans cannot expect the Chiefs to botch their kicking game nearly as badly as they did back in Week 10.
The Chiefs were also penalized nine times for 80 yards. In other words, this was an extraordinarily sloppy performance by a team that normally isn't sloppy. That's why they lost to the Titans despite outgaining them 530 to 371 and holding the ball for nearly 38 minutes. While it's also true the Chiefs were sloppy in the early going of their win over the Texans on Sunday, which resulted in a 24-0 deficit, it's also true that the Chiefs played a near-flawless game after that point, scoring touchdowns on seven straight drives to win the game by 20 points. As Andy Reid said after the game, their sloppy start, featuring dropped passes and two huge special teams miscues, was very uncharacteristic of any otherwise disciplined team.
What's concerning, though, is how dominant Derrick Henry has been over the past eight games.
That eight-game stretch actually began against the Chiefs in Week 10, when Henry exploded for 188 yards and two scores on only 23 carries for an average of 8.2 yards per carry. While it's true that the Chiefs defense is significantly worse against the run (29th by DVOA) than the pass (sixth by DVOA), which should give Henry an opportunity to inflict damage in their rematch, the Chiefs' defense has also improved against the run since that game. In their seven games since, they're allowing 4.5 yards per carry. In their first 10 games, they allowed 5.1 yards per carry.
Still, Henry should get his. At this point, he's pretty much unstoppable. What the Chiefs have, though, is an offense that is explosive enough to force the Titans to abandon the run as they try to keep pace with Mahomes. We just watched Mahomes turn a 24-0 deficit into a 28-24 lead in the span of a single quarter. We just saw him lead the Chiefs to touchdowns on seven straight series. He should be able to exploit a Titans defense that ranks 16th in DVOA, but only 21st against the pass.
I don't want to take anything away from the Titans and what they've done the past couple weeks, upsetting the Patriots and the Ravens on the road. But the Titans aren't facing the Patriots' zombie-paced offense in this game. They're probably not going to generate three takeaways like they did against the Ravens considering Mahomes threw an interception on only one percent of his passes in the regular season. They're probably going to give up a ton of points to the Chiefs, because nearly every team in football gives up a ton of points to the Chiefs.
That means the game will come down to the Titans' ability to keep pace with Mahomes. I love what Ryan Tannehill has done this season. I ranked him as in the playoffs when the playoffs started and heading into conference championship weekend. But there's a chasm between Tannehill and Mahomes. Again, that's not intended to be a criticism of Tannehill. It's more of a testament to Mahomes' greatness. Furthermore, Tannehill will be going up against a defense that is sixth against the pass by DVOA. It's a far more difficult matchup than Mahomes' matchup against the Titans' defense.
The Chiefs have the best quarterback on the planet, a defense that is nothing like the defense that cost them a spot in last season's Super Bowl, and they're at home. I think they're going to pick up where they left off last weekend and open up a big lead over the Titans, and the Titans won't be able to hang. I'll take the Chiefs to win and cover the seven-point spread.
The Chiefs, by the way, are 11-5-1 against the spread, including 4-2-1 when they're favored by seven points or more.
Who should you back against the spread, on the money line and the total in the AFC Championship Game and the NFC Championship Game? And which strong picks against the spread should you lock in? Visit SportsLine now to see their championship round cheat sheet, all from the model that is up over $7,000 on its top-rated picks.
49ers -7.5 vs. Packers
Kyle Shanahan is right.for the 49ers to waltz into their matchup against the Packers and assume that because they clobbered them 37-8 back in Week 12, they'll do it again on Sunday. The 49ers probably won't beat the Packers by 29 points again. But I do think they'll win by more than seven points.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN), Sunday's game will be the 37th time in the Super Bowl era that there will be a playoff game involving two teams that played each other in the regular season in a game that saw one of those two teams win by 25-plus points. In the rematch, the team that won the first time around is 22-14 -- including 7-2 in the conference championship round.
History aside, the 49ers have the better team. I'm not certain there's that big of a difference between the two quarterbacks right now (obviously, Rodgers is significantly better from a historical perspective). Jimmy Garoppolo has a tendency to turn the ball over more often than Rodgers, but he is also far more efficient than Rodgers.
The advanced metrics indicate that the two quarterbacks aren't that far apart in terms of their value.
But the 49ers are the far better team, even though they both won 13 games in the regular season. The 49ers outscored their opposition by 169 points. The Packers outscored their opposition by 63 points. Only the Ravens and Patriots had better point differentials than the 49ers. The Packers, meanwhile, were sandwiched between the Titans and the Bills. The 49ers were the league's fifth-best team by DVOA. The Packers were 10th. This doesn't make the Packers a bad team. They're 13-3 and in the NFC title game. They're very clearly good. But they're not as good as the 49ers. A season's worth of data tells us that.
The biggest concern for the 49ers is their quarterback after he struggled against the Vikings in his playoff debut, going 11 of 19 for 131 yards, one touchdown, one terrible interception, and a 74.7 passer rating. But Garoppolo has demonstrated an ability to bounce back this season. He followed up a bad performance against the Redskins in Week 7 (not that unlike his performance against the Vikings) by lighting up the Panthers. He followed up a bad performance against the Seahawks in Week 10 with a 424-yard, four-touchdown game against the Cardinals. He followed up a bad performance against the Rams in Week 16 by completing 81.8 percent of his passes and averaging 13 yards per attempt against the Seahawks in the game that decided the fate of the NFC West.
And Garoppolo has an enticing matchup on Sunday against a Packers defense that is 15th by DVOA. Against Green Bay in Week 12, he completed 70 percent of his passes, averaged 12.7 yards per attempt, threw two touchdowns and no interceptions, and posted a 145.8 passer rating. Armed with one of the game's best play-callers, Garoppolo should be able to bounce back again.
I'm not so certain Rodgers, who is coming off a stellar performance against the Seahawks' 18th-ranked defense by DVOA, which snapped a month-long stretch of poor play, will find success against the 49ers' second-ranked defense. Rodgers had one of the best games of his season against the Seahawks. The last time he saw the 49ers, he had one of the worst games of his career, averaging 3.2 yards per attempt.
I don't think Rodgers will submit a disastrous performance again. But I think he's going to struggle to find openings against a defensive front four that can generate pressure without the help of extra rushers, which allows the 49ers to keep seven men back in coverage. One of those men? Richard Sherman, who continues to lock down one side of the field even at the age of 31. Last weekend, Kirk Cousins targeted him only once in the first half. When he did target him early in the third quarter, he got picked off. Rodgers, one of the most risk averse quarterbacks in football, will likely look elsewhere ( . While Rodgers will likely find more success to his left, cutting the field in half is never good for an offense.
I'll take the 49ers to beat the Packers by more than seven points because I think their quarterback has the better matchup, their defense is far superior, and they're playing at home. It won't be a 29-point blowout again, but it also won't be particularly close.
It will, however, set up the best Super Bowl matchup out of the remaining possibilities.
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