The NFC and AFC championship games are upon us, and both matchups — the Green Bay Packers versus San Francisco 49ers and the Tennessee Titans vs. Kansas City Chiefs — are sure to go back and forth on the scoreboard.
Each game has several pivotal matchups between individual players and collective units. Here are the keys to victory for each team in these championship games; and which players need to shine the brightest.
Tennessee Titans (9-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
3:05 p.m. ET, CBS
Key for the Chiefs: Stop Derrick Henry at all costs
There are two clear game plans for each team in this AFC Championship Game. For the Chiefs, it is to make someone on the Titans’ offense other than running back Derrick Henry to beat them. The Chiefs need to make this game a track meet, similar to what they did last week against the Houston Texans, but that’s exactly how the Titans won the regular-season matchup against this team.
Tennessee was down 10 points in the first quarter and Patrick Mahomes ended up throwing the ball 50 times for over 400 yards and three touchdowns — the Titans won 35-32. The Titans’ offense kept up with the Chiefs. How? Henry, who had 191 total yards and two touchdowns in that Week 10 matchup.
Fast forward to the postseason and Henry is playing at a level that can be defined as dominant. He has rushed for almost 400 yards in the last two playoff games against the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, serving as the engine of the offense. The game plan for the Chiefs is pretty simple: load the box and contain Henry as best as possible. If that means being more susceptible to big plays in the passing game, then the Chiefs have to be content with that. Think about this statistic for a second: Ryan Tannehill threw for less than 100 yards in both of the Titans’ playoff wins. History will repeat itself if the Chiefs don’t sell out to stop the run, and if they can hold Henry to under 100 rushing yards, Kansas City will secure a spot in the Super Bowl.
Key for the Titans: Win in the trenches
One of the biggest stories of the season has been the improved play of the Titans’ offensive and defensive line throughout the season. Both units are playing their best football at the most important time of the season. Whether it’s the development of rookie guard Nate Davis, free agent Rodger Saffold getting more and more comfortable in the offense or defensive tackle Jurrell Casey turning it on at the end of the year, the anchor of this Titans team is at the line of scrimmage. Henry is obviously the headliner of this offense with his absurd combination of size, speed, and power, but the bottom line is the Titans have won their last two games because they whooped the other team at the point of attack on both sides of the ball.
In Week 10 against Kansas City, Tennessee rolled the Chiefs in the run game and to make matters worse for the latter, star defensive tackle Chris Jones is questionable to play. If the Titans pull off yet another upset against this explosive Chiefs team, it will be because Henry ran wild again behind this powerful offensive line.
Green Bay Packers (13-3) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
6:40 p.m. ET, FOX
Key for the 49ers: Winning the turnover battle
One of the biggest reasons why the 49ers beat the Packers by nearly 30 points two months ago was because they didn’t turn over the ball. However, that was an anomaly by this San Francisco offense. The team ranked in the bottom 10 in giveaways per game, but opposing offenses have failed to capitalize on the mistakes made by Jimmy Garoppolo and this unit. The Packers are firing at all cylinders right now offensively, so if Garoppolo makes the same bad decisions he made against the Minnesota Vikings last week, that will open the door for Green Bay to take control.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers ranked sixth in takeaways per game. With the best pass rush unit in the league, this defensive front needs to have another big performance against the Packers. In the Week 12 matchup, San Francisco’s defensive line had five sacks and a forced fumble. In last week’s divisional round against the Vikings, the 49ers forced four fumbles and secured an interception.
Garoppolo needs to be a game manager and protect the ball, while this defense needs to create havoc like the unit has done all season. If that happens, the 49ers will be playing in the Super Bowl.
Key for the Packers: Protecting Aaron Rodgers
The Packers met the 49ers on the road and got absolutely steamrolled in a 37-8 defeat. The biggest reason why? Look no further than the team’s dreadful efficiency on third down. Green Bay was just 1 for 15 on third down in that contest. The only other time the Packers were truly beaten this season was against the Los Angeles Chargers — a game where the offense went just 2 for 10 on third down.
The consistent theme with those two outcomes was the amount of success both defenses had with their pass rush unit. Chargers’ Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram had two sacks apiece in that 26-11 defeat. Against the 49ers? Rodgers was sacked five times including one that resulted in a fumble. Each of the Packers’ losses has been a result of not keeping their star quarterback upright, and history will repeat itself if the offensive line struggles against this talented San Francisco front.
The other big factor for Green Bay’s offense in this game will be getting Aaron Jones and Davante Adams involved early. Neither player had more than 45 yards against San Francisco, yet the two had a combined four touchdowns in last week’s divisional game against the Seattle Seahawks. If Green Bay is going to win the NFC championship, Adams and Jones need to make their mark.