I’m looking forward to the four games that will set the field for the AFC and NFC conference championship matchups next weekend.
Here’s my analysis of each contest, and I’ll include my pick at the end for entertainment purposes only – comedy, as you laugh at my choices.
Let’s start with the two Saturday games, then hit the two Sunday games.
CINCINNATI (11-7) at TENNESSEE (12-5)
The Titans are a 3.5-point favorite. As the AFC’s No. 1 seed its an understatement to say the Titans are overlooked. They had a bye in the wild-card round last week, and it may have been hard to remember that they were even in the playoffs.
Derrick Henry is set to return for this one after missing the last nine games with a foot injury and surgery. He’s the true definition of a power back who softens up the defense over the first three quarters and finishing them up in the fourth. Over the past two seasons Tennessee is 14-4 when Henry rushes for at least 84 yards in a game. The Titans did surprisingly well during Henry’s absence, winning six of nine games.
Henry rumbled for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2020. This season, before his injury, Henry led the NFL with 219 carries for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns – and averaged more than 5 yards per rush in the fourth quarter.
As much as I enjoy watching the supremely confident Joe Burrow gun precise passes to a sports-circus collection of elite playmakers, I’m not sure Cincinnati’s offense will have enough possessions to lure the Titans into a shootout-style game.
According to Football Outsiders Tennessee had the No. 1 power rushing attack in the NFL this season, and the Bengals were rated among the worst at stopping a power rushing game. And with run–stuffing defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi out for the remainder of the season with an ankle injury, Cincinnati’s defense faces an ominous challenge. With Henry back, the Titans finally will go into a game with their cast of big-play guys intact including wide receivers AJ Brown and Julio Jones.
Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel will undoubtedly get after Burrow with pressure packages that will storm the pocket from all angles. The Bengals finished 30th in ESPN’s pass-block wins this season. And while Burrow is fearless under pressure, the Titans will be hitting him all afternoon.
It’s tough to go against the Bengals. After coach Zac Taylor opened up his passing game late in the season, Burrow has completed 74.6% of his passes and averaged 9.8 yards per attempt with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past five games.
But I have to go with Tennessee’s muscle.
If you’re looking for a reason to go the other way, then consider this: the Titans are 4-5 against the spread as the betting favorite this season, and that includes a 3-3 ATS record as a home favorite. If Cincinnati can come out fast and build a lead, the terms of the competition will change, and the Titans won’t be able to go power ball.
Pick: Titans 27, Bengals 23
SAN FRANCISCO (11-7) at GREEN BAY (13-4)
The 49ers come in as underdogs for the second week in a row, with the Packers listed as a 5.5-point choice as of late afternoon.
The 49ers have an underrated and creative running game that slugged Dallas out of the postseason last Sunday. And I do think Elijah Mitchell and Debbo Samuel will cause problems for the Packers.
But Green Bay isn’t as stupid and undisciplined like Dallas, and the Packers coaches won’t stand there looking dumbfounded as the 49ers make plays. In the wild-card game the Niners won by only six points and had to hang on at the end despite dominating for most of the way and being the beneficiary of 14 Dallas penalties.
Green Bay has gotten knocked off in the postseason too many times with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, and the Niners eliminated Green Bay as recently as 2019. But who do you think is more likely to make a couple of awful mistakes, Jimmy Garoppolo or Rodgers?
Yes, Jimmy G won the matchup vs. Rodgers during the 2019 postseason but he wasn’t the winning factor. Green Bay couldn’t stop the Niners’ running game and Garoppolo attempted only eight passes.
A brutal Jimmy G interception gave the Cowboys late-game life last week. Garoppolo has 16 turnovers in 16 games this season including five in his last three. Rodgers, on the other hand, had only four turnovers all season.
Green Bay is 7-1 against the spread at home this season, 6-1 ATS as the home favorite, and 5-1 ATS vs. teams that have won at least 55% of their games this season.
Will the 49ers target tight end George Kittle to make plays in the passing game? He gets open and is excellent after the catch. The Niners didn’t weaponize Kittle in Dallas, so expect a rollout against the Packers. Unless the Packers defense collapses against the run and forgets to cover Kittle this should be a happy Saturday night in Wisconsin.
Pick: Green Bay 30, San Francisco 20
LA RAMS (13-5) at TAMPA BAY (14-4)
The Buccaneers are the betting favorite at minus 2.5 points. Backing that up is a 7-2 record against the spread at home, and a 7-2 mark at home when installed as the betting choice. The Bucs are also 5-2 against the spread against opponents that average between 21 and 25 points scored per game.
This is a potentially treacherous matchup for Tampa Bay, which is unlikely to have All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs available – or close to full strength – because of a high ankle sprain. Center Ryan Jensen has his own ankle injury to deal with, and he’ll try to play but could struggle. Having two important O-linemen hobbled for a game that will have Von Miller, Leonard Floyd and Aaron Donald pursuing Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady … well, that’s a disturbing scenario for the Bucs.
I don’t care what happened between the teams early this season when the Rams defeated the Bucs. More on point: the Rams have won six of their last seven games, with the only loss coming in overtime. They’ve reduced the number of hero-ball forced throws from quarterback Matthew Stafford by going heavier with the run.
Tampa Bay had better get to Stafford with four rushers. Under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles Tampa Bay blitzes more frequently than any team in the league – but Stafford has been the best QB in the NFL against the blitz this season. If TB corner Sean Murphy-Bunting (hamstring) can’t play, Stafford should pile up the passing yards and explosive plays. This won’t be like Tampa Bay’s matchup with Philadelphia last week; the Rams have a big-armed quarterback and plenty of quality receiving targets in Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., Tyler Higbee, and Van Jefferson.
With WRs Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown gone from the scene, Brady has fewer options to work with. And the Rams have the best cornerback in the league, Jalen Ramsey, to shut down WR Mike Evans. Will it be Gronk and the other Tampa Bay tight ends to the rescue? Will RB Leonard Fournette return from injury? Will Brady have the time to pick the Rams apart with short passes?
The Tampa Bay defense is getting healthier and stronger, so that gives us a reason to pause. But unless Stafford spits it up for the Rams – he had eight interceptions in the final four regular-season games – LA has a good chance to clear Brady and Tampa Bay out of the way.
I think I’m a little crazy for taking Team Stafford over Team Brady, but …
Pick: Los Angeles 29, Tampa Bay 27
BUFFALO (12-6) at KANSAS CITY (13-5)
The Chiefs are favored by 1.5 points; that’s down an opening line of 2.5 points. I’ll keep this one simple: the Bills and quarterback Josh Allen were so outrageously dominant and spectacular in wiping out New England in the wild-card game, a fever of overreaction has set in and the American people are too dizzy to remember that the Chiefs are 10-1 in their last 11 games.
And the rave reviews over Allen are so breathless, Patrick Mahomes has been moved to the side in the pregame huffing and puffing and gushing. And Mahomes has been phenomenal over his last nine games, passing for an average of 301 yards per contest with 22 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Chiefs have the edge in the playmaker count; coach Andy Reid has given Mahomes a wide array of options that create mismatches galore. The newest toy is RB Jerick McKinnon, who had 142 yards from scrimmage with a touchdown in the wild-card trouncing of the Steelers last week.
Buffalo’s defense is ranked at the top (or near it) in multiple statistical categories. But here’s the list of quarterbacks the Bills have played (in order) since their bye week: Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence, Mike White, Carson Wentz, Trevor Semian, Mac Jones, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Zach Wilson, and Mac Jones again. There are only two good quarterbacks on that list: Brady and Ryan. The Bills lost to Brady and had to rally in the second half to get past Ryan and Atlanta. Meanwhile, the KC defense led by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has allowed the fewest points per game (16.1) since Week 8.
Sure, Buffalo can win this game. But the Chiefs have been the better team for a longer stretch of games. That matters. The New England win was huge, but it shouldn’t overshadow Mahomes and the Chiefs.
Pick: Kansas City 31, Bills 28
Thanks for reading … and enjoy the games!
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz