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Jan 14, 2020

NFL Championship Weekend preview: AFC and NFC matchups

NFL Championship Weekend preview and predictions

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Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers

NFL Championship Weekend preview: AFC and NFC matchups

It is time for the Championship Weekend in the NFL playoffs as the four remaining teams face off to both win the AFC and NFC Championships and secure their spot in this year’s Super Bowl. With two exciting matches in store, what might happen this weekend and what should bettors consider? Read on to find out.

NFL Divisional Weekend recap

Whilst last weekend’s divisional playoffs primarily featured the expected home field dominance, there were still exciting matches and a major upset.

AFC first seeds and strong Super Bowl favourites Baltimore crashed out to sixth seeds Tennessee on Saturday. The Ravens were blighted by unfinished drives, turning four possessions over on downs and three more by turnover.

The AFC Championship game looked destined to be an all-South affair when Houston led Kansas City 24-0, but the hosting Chiefs were in front at the half and eventually ran out 20-point victors.

By contrast, the NFC was sedate, as seeding and home field advantages led to predicted victories for San Francisco and Green Bay.

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs

Tennessee were the AFC sixth seed entering the playoffs, although they had a marginally better Pythagorean win expectation than fifth seed Buffalo and a much better one than AFC South title winners and fourth seed Houston.

Excellent passing efficiency has been the cornerstone to Kansas’ success in 2019.

Teams that progress through the postseason inevitably boost their Pythagorean, and the Titans might be considered slightly more than a ten-win team over a 16-game season following comfortable victories on their travels in New England and Baltimore. Saturday’s Championship game will be their fifth away fixture in the last seven weeks.

Kansas City were an 11.5 win Pythagorean team at the end of the regular season, which ranked them behind the two teams Tennessee have already eliminated from the playoffs.

Their win on Sunday featured a remarkable turnaround, as they converted a 24-0 deficit into a 41-24 lead before ultimately winning 51-31.

Throughout the regular season, 31 points or more was usually the benchmark required to defeat the Chiefs. Their opponents scored at least 31 points in over half of their losses in the last three seasons, including Tennessee in the Titans’ 35-32 win in Week 10.

Whilst such trends are often tenuous, there does seem to be sufficient evidence that Tennessee will be a competitive matchup for Kansas City.

Excellent passing efficiency has been the cornerstone to Kansas’ success in 2019. They pass for a yard more per attempt than par and were aided by Patrick Mahomes returning to his early season form on Saturday.

Game state and a relaxing of the “mercy rule” when leading by a large margin in the postseason may have contributed to Kansas showcasing how devastating their offence can be, although their talent has been underpinned by excellent underlying statistics since Mahomes’ full season debut in 2018.

Total points will be pitched high, due to the rarefied atmosphere of an AFC Championship game.

Conversely, Ryan Tannehill was not in Tennessee’s initial plans. He didn’t start until Week 7, but has since been as efficient as Mahomes, albeit whilst being used much less. Indeed, Tannehill has attempted ten fewer passes per game in matches he has started.

The Titans also boast an efficient running game, but their commitment to a more balanced offence has limited their scoring potential. Kansas have outscored the defences they’ve faced by around a touchdown per game, whereas Tennessee have averaged just two points superiority.

Kansas have a better passing defence whereas Tennessee’s is merely amongst the league average, and that creates a potential mismatch in Mahomes’ favour that may preclude the Titans from exploiting Kansas’ weak run defence.

Scoring rates suggest that the hosts are superior by six points to the Titans, with home field advantage and the Titans’ grueling travel schedule since the start of December potentially pushing the margin of victory to over a full touchdown.

Total points will be pitched high, both due to the rarefied atmosphere of an AFC Championship game (where totals have averaged 49 points since 2002) and the match following quickly from Kansas’ 82 total point spree last week.

Scoring projections suggest 52 total points between two teams who combined for 67 in Week 10’s rehearsal in Tennessee.

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers

The manner of these teams’ victories in the divisional playoffs reflected the bulk of their season. The 49ers, Championship Game regulars from 2011 to 2013, returned to dominating opponents both on the field and scoreboard.

Statistically, the 49ers have both the more efficient offence and defence of the two rivals.

Comfortable margin wins were a common feature of their first 12 weeks of competitive action, but were replaced by narrower victories during December.

However, San Francisco reverted to type against Minnesota, easing to a comfortable 27-10 win courtesy of their peerless passing defence that harassed their opponents throughout the game and a run defence that stepped up on their previous regular season performances. Indeed, the Vikings’ first downs were a rarity and they only managed seven overall.

San Francisco also ran the ball more efficiently, meaning quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was a rarely used shadow of his regular season self as they coasted to victory.

Meanwhile, Green Bay ensured a meeting of the top two seeds in a manner that highlighted the disparity between their ten-win Pythagorean campaign and 13 actual regular season victories.

Aaron Rodgers’ decisive pass to Davante Adams steadied the Packers during a late Seahawks revival and followed another solid rushing performance from Aaron Jones, who tied the regular season touchdown record with his 18th and 19th scores.

The confrontation between Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco’s passing defence will decide this match.

However, Green Bay also failed to shake off their tendency to play single score games, stretching their 2019 sequence to a remarkable but precarious 9-0.

Statistically, the 49ers have both the more efficient offence and defence of the two rivals and they also leverage this advantage into a more dominant over-performance when scoring or allowing points.

They score six more points per game than par for the defences they have faced, compared to just one point over for the Packers, and allow four fewer points per match than the opponent-adjusted average to Green Bay’s also impressive but slightly lower three.

This fixture is an exact reprise of the Week 12 match, which was won by San Francisco 37-8. On that occasion Garoppolo was impressively efficient, averaging over 12 yards per attempt and turning in a similar performance to his efforts in the seed-deciding Week 17 game in Seattle.

In contrast, Rodgers threw often but with little effect, amassing 33 attempts that managed just 104 yards – barely three yards per attempt against the NFC’s best pass defence.

The confrontation between Rodgers and San Francisco’s passing defence will decide this match, although the former’s declining output suggests it will hand a decisive advantage to the hosts. A 49ers win by nine points in a match featuring 45 in total is suggested.

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