No. 6 Tennessee (11-7) at No. 2 Kansas City (13-4), Sun., 3:05 p.m. ET (CBS)
Most intriguing matchup: In a John Riggins- or John Wick-level zone going into the Titans’ first AFC championship game in 17 years, Derrick Henry encounters a Chiefs team yet to stop him. For all their improvements, the Chiefs’ defense is not on the level of the Titans' playoff opponents, the Patriots or Ravens. After finishing last in run-defense DVOA in 2017 and ’18, the Chiefs ranked 29th this season. Henry has delivered ruthless consistency against the Chiefs, gaining 191 scrimmage yards on 25 touches in each of his past two opportunities –- in November 2019 and in the Titans’ 2017 wild-card-round upset win. Henry scored twice in a 2016 upset win in Kansas City and has five touchdowns against the Chiefs. Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan- and Rodger Saffold-led offensive line has helped Henry to four of the NFL’s top six rushing performances this season. The Titans’ only victory path is not a secret.
QB intelligence report: Becoming the ninth player to throw five touchdown passes in a playoff game, Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes now has eight TD tosses, 894 yards and no interceptions in three postseason contests. Only Mahomes and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger have quarterbacked teams to AFC championship games in their first two seasons as starters. Mahomes piloted an NFL-playoff-record seven straight touchdown drives Sunday, with the Texans becoming the first team since 1940 to lose a playoff game in which it held a 17-plus-point first-quarter lead. Kansas City’s comeback-turned-blowout showed the margin for error Mahomes creates. This is the optimal modern quarterback. Tennessee QB Ryan Tannehill, whose yards per passing attempt (9.6) total was the fourth most since 1960, faces the NFL’s eighth-ranked pass defense. It slammed the door on a Houston rally. Tannehill, however, did orchestrate a four-play, 61-yard, game-winning drive to beat the Chiefs in November and just navigated two superior defenses to reach this round.
New blueprints coming soon: These franchises’ respective roster constructions raise the stakes. The Chiefs are 2-for-2 in AFC championship game appearances behind Mahomes, but he’s now extension-eligible and will command a market-reshaping contract this offseason. The Chiefs also will have Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones on either a franchise tag or near-Aaron Donald-level extension next season. The forthcoming calculus change will require new Chiefs road maps to championship-caliber rosters. The Titans are ready to pay up to see if Tannehill’s late bloom is legitimate. They also have one of the more unusual extensions to negotiate with Henry -– an old-school back whose skill set differs from the position’s top wage earners –- and also have right tackle Jack Conklin as an impending free agent. These costs amplify the importance of maximizing opportunity when the math is easier.
And the winner is… Kansas City
The Chiefs are 0-3 against the Titans during Henry’s career, and this is the most consistent version of the bludgeoning back. Kansas City is 2-7 in home playoff games since 1995, and Andy Reid teams are not known for big-stage reliability. But the Mahomes advantage will be too much. The Chiefs’ Legion of Zoom receiving corps, coupled with potential Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce, represents a significantly more difficult matchup for the Titans’ No. 20-ranked DVOA pass defense than the Patriots or Ravens did. More victory avenues exist for the favorite, Henry’s brutal brilliance notwithstanding. The Chiefs will survive another Henry onslaught and book their first Super Bowl berth in 50 years.
No. 2 Green Bay (14-3) at No. 1 San Francisco (14-3), Sun., 6:40 p.m. ET (FOX)
Most intriguing matchup: San Francisco’s defensive line hounded Aaron Rodgers in Week 12, sacking him five times and holding him to a career-worst 3.15 yards per attempt. Rookie Nick Bosa (1 sack) and the once-underwhelming Arik Armstead (2 sacks) ignited the 49ers’ 37-8 rout. Dee Ford (7.5 sacks in an injury-prone season) did not play that night; he will Sunday. Green Bay’s offensive line rated 10th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders, and has veteran tackles in David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. The latter missed most of the Packers’ loss to the 49ers, and Armstead and Bosa dominated backup Alex Light. Even with Bulaga, who will presumably be back from an illness that sidelined him against the Seahawks, the Packers are up against a special defense -– one that will have high-priced linebacker Kwon Alexander back as well.
QB intelligence report: Rodgers has delivered playoff excellence since 2009, but this will be a tough assignment. Although he faced the 2010 Steelers and 2014 Seahawks, Rodgers will encounter perhaps the most tenacious pass defense of his playoff career. The 49ers boast a minus-26.3% pass-defense DVOA figure; that is considerably better than the ’10 Steelers’ or ’14 Seahawks’ Super Bowl-qualifying groups’ work. The 49ers allowed seven Vikings first downs and limited Dalvin Cook to 18 rushing yards in their playoff win Saturday. Rodgers pushed the 2015 Cardinals to the brink in the playoffs without Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb, but his current Davante Adams -and-role players group is in trouble. In Week 12, Jimmy Garoppolo went 6-for-6 on passes of at least 10 yards against the Packers, and his Nos. 2-3 aerial weapons (Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel) are far better than Rodgers’. Despite the Packers’ offseason changes to alleviate some of Rodgers’ burden, the 36-year-old icon faces a menacing task.
Rebuild soars into historic territory: In the NFL’s 50-year post-merger period, the 49ers’ ascent has almost no parallel. Only one other team has gone to a conference championship game after at least four consecutive 10-plus-loss seasons. The Jaguars reeled off six straight double-digit defeat slates before their 2017 AFC championship trip. The 49ers’ Jim Tomsula, Chip Kelly and first two Kyle Shanahan seasons produced a 17-47 record. No disrespect to a fluky Jaguars team, but Shanahan’s third 49ers squad is far superior. The Coach of the Year candidate’s presence, and the Browns passing on bringing defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and other staffers to Cleveland, gives San Francisco’s rapid revival staying power. And even with the 49ers’ recent struggles, they will still finish their 2010s seasons tied with the Packers in NFC championship cameos (four).
And the winner is … San Francisco
Green Bay’s advantages at quarterback and No. 1 wide receiver will not be enough to oust a balanced, well-coached San Francisco squad. Although 49ers center Weston Richburg is out after a December injury, stalwart left tackle Joe Staley will face the Packers’ edge-rushing Smiths after missing the November meeting. Za’Darius and Preston combined for four sacks and eight hits on Russell Wilson in Sunday's divisional round win, continuing their ignition of the Packers’ pass rush. But the Packers rank 23rd in run-defense DVOA and will see a consistent 49ers rushing attack that gashed the Vikings for 186 yards. Garoppolo does not possess Rodgers’ gifts, but he’s working with a team that will allow him to be less than dominant and still hold that bizarrely hideous conference championship trophy.