Numerous things stood out after last weekend’s divisional playoffs. Chief among them (pun intended) were the relative ease that the San Francisco 49ers physically whipped the Minnesota Vikings during the second half; and of course, the utter destruction of the Houston Texans defense courtesy of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Entering this weekend, the 49ers are favorites by 7.5 points in the NFC Championship battle against the Green Bay Packers. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are also 7.5 point favorites against the Tennessee Titans.
With those points in mind, is it possible for the next Sunday to end any other way than the 49ers and Chiefs meeting in Super Bowl LIV in Miami in a couple of weeks?
As the AFC and NFC Championship contests loom on Sunday and let’s take a look to see if either Tennessee or Green Bay has what it takes to pull a road upset.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Road teams winning a conference championship game is far from an easy feat. Last season, the Rams and Patriots pulled off incredible overtime road wins to advance to Super Bowl LIII. How odd was that?
Only four times since the 1970 merger have BOTH road teams won conference championship games:
1992 – Dallas beat San Francisco 30-20; Buffalo upset Miami 29-10.
1997 – Denver topped Pittsburgh 24-21; Green Bay got by San Francisco 23-10.
2012 – Baltimore over New England 28-13; San Francisco snuck by Atlanta 28-24.
2018 – LA Rams got some help over the Saints 26-23; New England outlasted Kansas City 37-31.
That’s it. That’s the list. So, the conditions and odds aren’t exactly ripe for a Packers/Titans Super Bowl.
Before we get to Kansas City’s 51-point bonanza last week, a quick word on Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry. There have been plenty of singular great running back performances in the playoffs. However, the two-game run Henry is on has no historical equal.
Through his last three games (which includes a Week 17 effort in Houston), Henry has amassed 588 yards rushing, four touchdowns, and a touchdown pass. During this three-game stretch, Henry is averaging an eye-popping 6.1 yards per carry.
The only legitimate comparison over a similar stretch is below:
That four-game stat line belongs to Super Bowl XVII MVP John Riggins. A strike-shortened 1982 season led to the infamous “Super Bowl Tournament” that forced teams to win four games to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Riggins rumbled for 610 yards and four rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
The only other person in Henry’s neighborhood for short-term output is Denver’s Terrell Davis, who rolled up 581 yards and eight touchdowns during the ’97 postseason.
Henry’s run is problematic for the Chiefs on Sunday potentially. Kansas City’s losses over the last two seasons have happened in normally the same fashion.
Kansas City opponents held the ball for at least 35 minutes in three of their four regular season losses. The odd game out? A loss on Sunday Night Football where the Packers held the ball for just under 34 minutes.
Thus, the formula is simple. Play keep away from the Chiefs offense with hopes of capitalizing on scoring opportunities.
Ah yes, as for last Sunday’s offensive explosion against the Texans. The Chiefs took advantage of plenty of bad football by the Texans. No team should lose a 24-point first half lead in the same quarter (!!!!). Yet, Mahomes and the Chiefs made Houston pay for every mistake to the tune of eight consecutive touchdown drives.
Will that happen again on Sunday? Probably not. Tennessee is a far better coached club than Houston. However, the question remains if Tennessee can’t get Henry going, how will they score?
I mean, this Henry run can’t keep going, right…RIGHT??!?
Ultimately, I think the Chiefs have too much firepower. In their last meeting, Mahomes, who had missed two games with a dislocated kneecap, made his return against the Titans. He threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns. It took a collective meltdown by the Chiefs defense and special teams mixed in with a Ryan Tannehill comeback to steal a victory for Tennessee.
I don’t see it happening again.
CHIEFS 30, TITANS 17
Aaron Rodgers had one of the worst games of his career when the 49ers and Packers last met back on November 24. He threw for a paltry 104 yards and a touchdown. If that happens again on Sunday, Green Bay will get embarrassed again.
Green Bay’s best hope is to turn this game into a blinking contest between Rodgers and Jimmy Garoppolo. As we saw a season ago in the AFC Championship when the new hotshot (Mahomes), went up against a seasoned vet (New England’s Tom Brady), the latter’s clutch plays on third down became too much for Kansas City. Last week, during San Francisco’s convincing win over Minnesota, Garoppolo took a back seat to San Francisco’s rushing attack and defense.
While the 49ers have many ways to beat teams, playing in a tight game with Garoppolo needing to make clutch plays may not be the best option when the quarterback on the other side is Aaron Rodgers.
However, I’m not sure it will ever get to that point. Green Bay’s two worst games of the season have one thing in common: they took place in California. Both trips to California ended in disaster for Green Bay.
Two weeks prior to losing to San Francisco by 29, the Packers laid an egg in LA in a 26-11 loss to the Chargers. Oddly enough, the Packers have lost six games when traveling to the west coast.
That inability to play well on the west coast could lead to a slow start for the Packers, which they can ill-afford in this game.
To me, the key in this game is running back play. Can the Packers slow down the multitude of 49ers running backs like Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman that can hurt teams running and catching the football out of the backfield?
Can the 49ers defense stop Packers standout runner Aaron Jones? The last time out against the 49ers, Jones posted just 38 yards rushing and was held in check. If that happens again and I think it will, the Packers will be in grave danger.
According to the esteemed website Football Outsiders, Green Bay is the worst remaining team left in the field based off DVOA. After this Sunday, the Packers will be on their way to the off-season. In the end, San Francisco will make one play too many for the Packers to deal with.
49ERS 27, PACKERS 17
The road teams provide formidable challenges for the favorites. Yet, when the dust settles on Sunday, I expect Kansas City and San Francisco to be the last two teams standing.