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2020 NFL playoffs: Betting picks for the conference championships

If you aren’t fascinated by Mike Vrabel’s Cinderella Titans, are you even a football fan?

Divisional Round - Tennessee Titans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Much of the world seems disappointed that we won’t get to watch a rematch of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in the AFC Championship Game. Believe me, I feel it a little bit too.

Chiefs vs. Ravens. Mahomes-Lamar II. Possibly the first of many outstanding playoff showdowns between a pair of young quarterbacks who look like they will have the NFL at their fingertips for many years to come.

I had my mind set on watching this playoff matchup all year long, ever since Kansas City survived a 33-28 nail-biter in Baltimore back in Week 3. I was convinced that even if the Patriots didn’t make it to the AFC title game, it would be just fine because there would be a good chance we would instead be watching the rematch of a lifetime. It would be fun. It would be thrilling. It would be epic.

But it’s not happening this year. The Tennessee Titans made sure of that.

Patrick Mahomes vs. Ryan Tannehill might not have the same ring to it. Nobody really planned on or expected to be watching the Titans playing for a trip to Super Bowl 54. But if you’re a football fan, and you appreciate a good underdog story, then you have to be intrigued by this game.

The Titans, coached by former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, have no business being here. They started the regular season at 2-4, then benched their starting quarterback Marcus Mariota in favor of Ryan Tannehill — a guy who washed out of Miami after seven years of straddling the line between mediocre and below average.

Suddenly, with a fresh start in Tennessee, Tannehill turned on the engines and led the Titans to wins in seven of their last 10 games to end the season (including a home win over the Chiefs in Mahomes’ first game back from injury). At 9-7, they barely squeaked into the playoffs as the 6-seed in the AFC. They remained hot as they went into New England and took advantage of an excruciatingly vulnerable Patriots team, and bumped them from the postseason in the wild card round for the first time in 10 years.

Then Tennessee carried that momentum into Baltimore against the heavily-favored Ravens and pulled off the biggest shocker of the season: obliterating the 14-2 Ravens, who had won 12 straight games, and completely befuddling the seemingly-unstoppable Lamar Jackson offense.

Tannehill might not be putting up MVP-like numbers; certainly nothing compared to what Mahomes did while leading Kansas City’s comeback against Houston last Sunday (321 passing yards, five touchdowns). Heck, Tannehill only threw for 88 yards in Baltimore. But ever since he took over, this Titans team has had a different mentality. He’s leading them in a way that Mariota never could. He might not be dominating opposing defenses, but he’s making two or three humongous plays in every game to help the Titans win, and that’s the kind of quarterback you need in the playoffs.

The Titans are winning football games because of the little things Tannehill is doing right, because Derrick Henry has morphed into an unstoppable force that has yet to meet an immovable object, and because Vrabel has coached this team into playing lights out defense — something he grew very accustomed to during his years in New England.

It’s all coming together at the right time for Tennessee, and now they are just a win away from their first Super Bowl appearance in 20 years. It’s truly remarkable.

And now, I present my picks for the two conference championship games. I’m 3-5 for the playoffs so far, both against the spread and straight up. I know it’s pretty pathetic, you don’t have to remind me. Every year, I feel like it’s the year that I’m finally going to make some decent picks, and every year I get reminded of how bad I am at this. But it’s still so much fun that I just can’t stop.

On that note, please don’t ever let me go to Vegas by myself.

AFC Championship: Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs

Favorite: Kansas City (-7)

Against the Texans on Sunday, the Chiefs fell down by 24 points in the first half. That was when Mahomes proceeded to unleash his inner MVP as the Chiefs stormed back to put 51 points on the board. To be fair, they were facing a team coached by Bill O’Brien, a team doomed for an implosion sooner rather than later. But nonetheless, few things are scarier than facing a determined Patrick Mahomes, especially when he has Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill ready to explode at any moment.

If anybody is going to figure out a way to prevent this from happening again, it’s Mike Vrabel, whose defense held the similarly explosive Ravens to just 12 points last week despite Lamar Jackson throwing for 365 yards. The Titans managed to frustrate Jackson as well, picking him off twice in the game.

Stopping Mahomes entirely might be too tall of a task, but Vrabel has to at least find a way to minimize the number of times he can get the ball into the end zone. Whatever he did worked against the Ravens, and he’ll almost certainly have some kind of strategy cooked up to make things difficult for Mahomes. Whether or not it works is to be determined.

On the offensive side, the Titans have to stick with what has gotten them here: an outstanding run game from Henry (which is almost a given), and three or four crucial plays by Tannehill. Luckily for them, they will be facing an Andy Reid defense, something you can never rely too heavily on. The Chiefs win games with their offense instead of their defense. In many cases, that hasn’t been the most rock-solid Super Bowl-winning formula.

If the Titans can piece together these little things for the third straight week, we could be looking at yet another massive upset. They’ll have to face another rowdy, opposing crowd at Arrowhead Stadium, but seeing as how they’ve won their last two games in New England and Baltimore, that part of the game doesn’t seem to faze them.

Prediction: Titans 23, Chiefs 20

NFC Championship: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers

Favorite: San Francisco (-7.5)

The Packers have certainly done a terrific job of bouncing back in the 2019 season. They missed the playoffs the last two years despite having arguably the most purely gifted quarterback in the game (Aaron Rodgers). They fired their longtime coach (Mike McCarthy) toward the end of last season. They bounced back tremendously under their new coach (Matt LaFleur), going 13-3 to win the NFC North and earn a first-round bye. Kudos to them.

With that being said, it’s hard to see them beating the Niners on Sunday given the depth of this San Francisco team. There is no doubt they will get pressure on Rodgers throughout the game, and when he can throw, he will have to constantly be on the lookout for Richard Sherman covering his receivers.

At the same time, the Niners are as dangerous on offense as anybody with their three-headed monster in the running game, top tier tight end George Kittle, and former Brady student Jimmy Garoppolo leading the way at quarterback.

You could say the 49ers had somewhat of a down game last week against Minnesota (Garoppolo only completed 11 passes and Kittle only had 16 receiving yards), and yet they still scored three touchdowns and beat the Vikings by 17 points. If they can’t light it up through the air, they’ll light it up on the ground.

The Niners run extremely deep, both offensively and defensively. They were the top team in the NFC this year for a reason.

Prediction: 49ers 30, Packers 17