T he conference championship games are set. In the NFC, the Green Bay Packers will meet the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, while in the AFC the Kansas City Chiefs will host the surprise package Tennessee Titans.
The talk of the weekend was the Titans’ second upset win on the road in eight days. After putting the New England Patriots to the sword last week, they followed it up by beating the Baltimore Ravens.
Tennessee have found a rhythm and the drum major has been 6ft 3in running back Derrick Henry. On Saturday, he ran for 195 rushing yards.
After their triumph in Foxborough, the Titans travelled back to the East Coast to play a game not many thought they could win and, despite giving up 530 yards of offense, their defence held the Ravens to a single touchdown.
Yes, it helped that Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had ball security issues – he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble – but he still threw for 365yds and rushed for 143.
So how did the Titans do it – again?
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel got the running game right. In Henry, he has a tool that harks back to Titans football of old, well 20 years ago.
Vrabel understands the importance of setting the rest of his plan around the running attack. A fundamental of football is to run the ball. And, when you commit to that, the defence has to engage men to stop you.
This opens up space in the passing game and allows your quarterback to be a weapon.
On Saturday Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill only threw the ball 14 times, with seven completions, two of which were for touchdowns. In comparison, Jackson had 59 attempts through the air.
The difference between the Ravens and Tennessee was that the Titans’ defence knew everything would go through Jackson and that, if they homed in on him, they would get success.
By setting up a game based around Henry the Titans created a problem for Baltimore, and the more they committed to solving that problem, the more they allowed space elsewhere. The same can be said for Kansas and Green Bay who used gameplans made around play-action (faking a run before passing), something you can’t do unless you establish a commitment to running the ball, or at least trying to.
The second game of the weekend was on in the early hours of Sunday morning, and the San Francisco 49ers barely broke a sweat as they remained firmly in control of the Minnesota Vikings throughout.
San Francisco’s defence had looked shaky in the last few weeks of the season but showed up with six sacks of Kirk Cousins as well as intercepting him and forcing three fumbles.
The Vikings will be disappointed they couldn’t capitalise on the momentum created last week with their win in New Orleans.
Seattle and Green Bay met at Lambeau Field in Wisconsin – Seattle’s bogey ground. The Seahawks haven’t won there since 1999 and current quarterback Russell Wilson hasn’t won any of his four games there.
The Packers led early and remained in the lead throughout, although the game ended much closer than first-year head coach Matt LaFleur would have liked. The Pack led 21-3 at half-time and seemed in control, but the Seahawks weren’t to be beaten so easily.
Russell Wilson led the team back from three scores down, throwing for one touchdown and twice getting Seattle close enough for Marshawn Lynch to score twice. The comeback ended with a little over two minutes left on the clock, with Green Bay winning 28-23.
In the game of the weekend, the Houston Texans arrived in Kansas City and raced into a 21-0 first-quarter lead before adding a field goal to make it 24-0. But the high-powered Chiefs offense took that as a challenge and, within four minutes of game time, had turned the game. A two-play drive, a fumbled kick off and another three-play drive and the score was 24-21. With the momentum well behind the home team, they never looked back and finished 51-31 winners to book a second consecutive home conference championship game.