Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Conference Championship Picks and Predictions

NFL StaffContributor IJanuary 17, 2020

Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Conference Championship Picks and Predictions

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    For the first time in five years, both home teams are favored by at least a touchdown in the NFL's conference championship games.

    Is that too much? After all, favorites are 0-4 against the spread and 1-3 straight-up on the NFL's last two championship Sundays, with both the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints losing at home despite laying points with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line last year. 

    Bleacher Report NFL analysts Gary DavenportBrad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski are somewhat split on whether the Chiefs and/or San Francisco 49ers will win convincingly Sunday. They don't agree unanimously on either pick. 

    Here's how that crew has fared this year (last week's records in parentheses):

    1. Brad Gagnon: 134-124-6 (1-3) 

    2. Brent Sobleski: 127-131-6 (1-3)

    3. Gary Davenport: 126-132-6 (1-3)

    Consensus picks: 124-134-6 (1-3)

    Moneyline consensus: 169-93-2 (3-1)

    And here's their attempt to recover in the final four.

         

    Lines from Caesars as of 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, Jan. 16.

No. 6 Tennessee Titans (11-7) at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

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    When: Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET

    Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City

    TV: CBS

    Referee: Tony Corrente

    Line: Kansas City -7

    In a nutshell: It wouldn't be hard to argue that this is a matchup between the league's best quarterback and the league's best running back. Quarterbacks carry a lot more weight these days, though, and Patrick Mahomes' team is the odds-on Super Bowl favorite. At home, the Chiefs are expected to overcome Derrick Henry and the surging Titans. But if Tennessee can win in Foxborough and Baltimore in January, it certainly has a shot at Arrowhead as well. 

    Injuries to watch: Titans cornerback Logan Ryan missed practice to start the week because of an illness, but linebacker Jayon Brown (shoulder) has returned in limited fashion. Tennessee could also get wide receiver Adam Humphries (ankle) back after he practiced for the first time in weeks. Linebacker Rashaan Evans (foot) and corner Adoree Jackson (foot as well) should be good to go. 

    The Chiefs are hoping that key defensive lineman Chris Jones can return from a calf injury after he missed last week's victory over the Houston Texans. But Jones wasn't practicing in the middle of the week, while star tight end Travis Kelce (knee) was limited. 

    Random tidbit: Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is 1-5 in his career in conference championship games and has lost eight of his nine career games against the Titans, including a shocking Week 10 defeat in Nashville. 

The Pick: Chiefs -7

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    Plenty has changed since the Titans shockingly defeated the Chiefs 35-32 back in Week 10. On one hand, Henry has only picked up steam as an offensive force since then. But on the other hand, the Chiefs were still reeling from a rash of midseason injuries at the time. 

    They were without starting offensive linemen Eric Fisher and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif that day, but both are back now. And Mahomes was just coming back from a pretty significant knee injury then, but he appears to be fully healthy now. 

    With that in mind and the hook off the table with Kansas City laying exactly seven points (it's been 7.5 for much of the week), the majority of our analysts are backing the Chiefs at home. 

    "I want to believe in the Titans," Davenport said. "They have already beaten both the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens on the road in these playoffs—teams that went a combined 26-6 in the regular season. But as unstoppable as Henry has been running the ball, Mahomes was just as dominant in last week's remarkable comeback against Houston. The real dealbreaker for me is the Chiefs defense. Take out the two touchdowns the Texans were gifted on special teams last week, and the Chiefs absolutely pounded them. Cinderella turns back into a pumpkin (or however that story goes) Sunday."

    That Kansas City defense was directly responsible for only 24 points against Houston, and that number would have been even lower if not for offensive and special teams gaffes in the first half. That defensive unit has given up only 11.5 points per game since the loss to Tennessee. 

    "The Chiefs will undoubtedly have their hands full with Henry, but if they can jump out to an early lead at home, they can limit Henry's impact and use a strong pass defense to put a lot of pressure on Ryan Tannehill," Gagnon said. "There's a good chance that happens because the Chiefs offense looks close to unstoppable right now. Check the tape and you'll see the Ravens had a lot of open receivers against Tennessee's zone, but Lamar Jackson and his pass-catchers weren't able to take advantage. Mahomes is a better passer with a better receiving corps."

    However, the Titans have become increasingly healthy of late, while top Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones is fighting a calf injury. That could partly explain why our guys lack unanimity, as Sobleski is attempting to fade the public in dissent. 

    "Tennessee might not have the firepower to keep the Chiefs in check through four quarters, but the Titans certainly have the right approach to make this contest close," he noted. "Their run has been nothing short of amazing since Mike Vrabel and Co. outcoached and outexecuted both the Bill Belichick-led Patriots and the league's best team in the Ravens. Henry can't be completely stopped, either. The Chiefs still have the talent to overcome, but this contest should remain close."

    He's outnumbered, but it's worth noting that those picking against the majority as lone wolves are 81-66-3 this season.

         

    Predictions
    Davenport: Chiefs 31, Titans 20
    Gagnon: Chiefs 31, Titans 20
    Sobleski: Chiefs 27, Titans 21
    Consensus: Kansas City (-7)

    Score Prediction: Chiefs 30, Titans 21

No. 2 Green Bay Packers (14-3) at No. 1 San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    When: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET

    Where: Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara

    TV: Fox

    Referee: John Hussey

    Line: San Francisco -7.5

    In a nutshell: Two fresh, offensive-oriented head coaches coming off their first-ever playoff wins do battle in the race to become the NFL's next hot young coach. The legendary Aaron Rodgers returns home to take on a run-first defensive juggernaut that hammered him back in Week 12. Two illustrious franchises seeking yet another trip to the Super Bowl (they've played in a combined 11). No shortage of storylines here. 

    Injuries to watch: Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga looks as though he'll be ready to return after missing last week's victory over the Seattle Seahawks because of an illness. Elsewhere, defensive tackle Kenny Clark is playing through a back injury and wide receiver Allen Lazard is dealing with an ankle injury, but both have practiced on a limited basis. 

    Star 49ers tight end George Kittle missed practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury, while pass-rusher Dee Ford (quadricep, hamstring) was also sidelined. Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander (pectoral) and Kittle should all be fine, especially with Kittle returning to a full practice Thursday. 

    Random tidbit: At this very site in November, the 49ers crushed the Packers 37-8. But that doesn't necessarily mean we'll see a repeat performance Sunday. In the previous 36 playoff meetings between teams that had a 25-plus-point scoring margin when they met in the regular season, the regular-season winner was a mere 22-14 straight up, according to Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper.

The Pick: 49ers -7.5

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    A lot has changed since the 49ers smashed the Packers 37-8 back in Week 12.

    On one hand, Green Bay's defense has rebounded dramatically from a midseason rut. But on the other hand, San Francisco has become a lot healthier than it was at the time. 

    San Francisco won that game handily without the services of Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander, Matt Breida and Joe Staley, all of whom played in the team's first playoff game and should be ready to roll Sunday. 

    So while this might not be as one-sided as the regular-season battle, the majority of our experts are willing to lay 7.5 points with San Francisco. 

    "We've already seen this movie," Davenport said. "Quite recently, in fact. In that 37-8 rout, the Green Bay offense was completely shut down, managing less than 200 total yards. Rodgers had one of the worst outings of his career, passing for only 104 yards and one touchdown. Rodgers and the Pack aren't the same team away from Lambeau Field, and the Niners were firing on all cylinders in last week's throttling of the Vikings. This (probably) won't be a blowout, but San Francisco's front seven is just too good."

    Indeed, the Packers barely beat the terrible Detroit Lions in their road finale, and they were outscored 63-19 by the 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers in their two trips to California this season. Meanwhile, Rodgers' passer rating was 101.6 at home but just 89.6 on the road in 2019. 

    Sobleski, meanwhile, is more focused on what he sees as a coaching edge in favor of San Francisco. 

    "The difference in this matchup really comes down the head coaches/offensive play-callers," he said. "Kyle Shanahan holds a decided advantage over Matt LaFleur. San Francisco's leading man is a star when it comes to play design and keeping opposing defenses guessing. Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine won't be deterred and will unleash his full onslaught of blitzes and various looks, but San Francisco is far too varied and capable of beating opponents in different manners to doubt its effectiveness. 

    Alas, we have no unanimous consensus here, either. Gagnon is taking the points with another mild public fade. 

    "Green Bay has surrendered only 15.7 points per game ever since that prime-time loss to San Francisco," he said. "That strong pass rush should be able to do some damage against a quarterback who lacks playoff experience. Also, the Packers should get right tackle Bryan Bulaga back from an illness, and he left that regular-season loss to the 49ers after playing only nine snaps. Ultimately, there's no way I'm laying 7.5 points against Rodgers with his legacy on the line, especially considering that we saw vintage A-Rod with the game on the line last week against the Seattle Seahawks." 

    And for what it's worth, our lone dissenting voice in this case was the regular-season picks champion. 

         

    Predictions
    Davenport: 49ers 27, Packers 16
    Gagnon: 49ers 23, Packers 20
    Sobleski: 49ers 28, Packers 20
    Consensus: San Francisco (-7.5)

    Score Prediction: 49ers 26, Packers 17