Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, 3.05pm ET/8.05pm GMT
What the Titans need to do to win: Ummm, avoid blowing a 24-0 lead? The Titans should bear in mind that, despite Patrick Mahomes’ heroic performance during last Sunday’s destruction of the Houston Texans, Ryan Tannehill and co are more than capable of beating the Chiefs. In fact, they did so in November, and that was with Mahomes playing at the height of his considerable powers. Back then Tennessee won the day by doing the simple things well: Tannehill was interception-free, special teams chipped in with a blocked field goal in the 35-32 victory and Brett Kern pinned the Chiefs back in their own territory with a 51.0-yard punting average. And then of course there was Derrick Henry, who ran for 188 yards, with the Titans outrushing the Chiefs by 225 yards to 97. Side note: Andy Reid is 1-8 all time against the Titans.
What the Chiefs need to do to win: In short, if Mahomes plays well they’ll probably win. Having said that, the Titans are not a great match-up for the Chiefs: Henry has been brilliant this postseason, Tannehill is a threat with his legs too and the Chiefs had the seventh-worst rushing defense in the league during the regular season. (Having said that, they were good at stopping the Texans on the ground last week.) But even if the Titans do maul them on the ground, Mahomes has the ability, and the weapons, to outscore pretty much any team in the league.
Key player for the Titans: Assuming the Chiefs gameplan for Henry, who wrecked them in that November loss, and that game plan actually manages to deal with a player who looks increasingly unstoppable by the week then the Titans will have to win this one through the air. Rookie receiver AJ Brown was a revelation in the regular season, leading the league in plays of 40-plus yards, but has been below par in the playoffs. If the game does end up resting on the passing game, Brown will need to show some of the explosiveness that terrified opposing defenses earlier this season. An honorable mention goes to Jurrell Casey, who got after Lamar Jackson last weekend sacking the Ravens quarterback twice, one of which was a strip. If he can get similar pressure on Mahomes, an upset could be on the cards.
Prediction: Titans 13-31 Chiefs. Tennessee have had a brilliant, unexpected run, and have built up fantastic momentum over the last few months, but their season ends at the hands of Mahomes coming off one of the best games of his career.
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Sunday, 6.40pm ET/11.40pm GMT
What the Packers need to do to win: As Oliver Connolly pointed out in these pages, Green Bay are no longer in a position in which they need to rely solely on Aaron Rodgers. The future Hall of Famer is still vital though, and if he can pull off the ice-cool third-down throws he made against the Seahawks it could help decide a close game. Green Bay, however, were terrible in those scenarios the last time they played the 49ers, a 37-8 blowout in November. In that game, the Niners limited the Packers to one third-down conversion from 15 attempts. That’s where the Packers offensive line come in: they’ll have to stop the 49ers’ terrifying defensive line – stacked with first-round draft picks – from getting to Rodgers or stymying running back Aaron Jones in short-yardage situations.
What the 49ers need to do to win: Prior to this campaign, San Francisco hadn’t had a winning season since 2013, but their awesome defense, which has been painstakingly and brilliantly constructed over a number of years, have helped turn things around. Much like Mahomes with the Chiefs, if they play to their abilities they should be able to shut the Packers down.
Key player for the Packers: Sure, Rodgers made some great throws in Green Bay’s win over the Seahawks last week, but Davante Adams’ quickness and great hands made his quarterback’s job a lot easier, as has been the case for most of the season. Understandably, he’s Rodgers’ favorite receiver and it’s unlikely that will change on Sunday.
Key player for the 49ers: This week, Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan compared his team to the Golden State Warriors (presumably the version that won titles rather than this season’s chucklefest). “You’ve got an MVP, a defensive MVP, guys who don’t care how it gets done, they just go out there and ball,” said Shanahan, which is a fair assessment of their defense. On offense, there are enough people saying that Jimmy Garoppolo is underrated that we can reasonably conclude he is now rated. So let’s go for George Kittle, who is San Francisco’s contribution to the NFL’s goofy, athletic playmaking tight-end fund. We all know about his receiving abilities but his blocking skills also contribute to the 49ers’ strong rushing attack.
Prediction: Packers 19-17 49ers. The Niners crushed the Packers last time the teams met but Green Bay will adapt and, in a close game, I’d rather have Rodgers than Garoppolo leading my offense.