San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs: Super Bowl LIV Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (14-4) vs. San Francisco 49ers (15-3) in Super Bowl LIV

The more hyped matchup in this game is the matchup between the Chiefs’ offense and the 49ers’ defense and rightfully so, as they are the top offense and defense in the league in my opinion. Neither unit finished the regular season first in the league in first down rate (or first down rate allowed), but regular season injuries played a big part in that. The Chiefs managed to finish in 2nd in first down rate at 40.53%, despite 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes missing two and a half games with injury and playing at less than 100% in several others. They also had injuries on their offensive line, most notably left tackle Eric Fisher (8 games), and they were without top wide receiver Tyreek Hill for a big chunk of the first half of the season. 

The Chiefs’ offense was able to tread water when Mahomes was out, but they’ve unsurprisingly been much better with Mahomes in the lineup, even playing at less than 100%. With backup Matt Moore in the lineup, the Chiefs had a 32.47% first down rate, as opposed to 43.86% with Mahomes, which would have led the NFL by a pretty wide margin over the Ravens (41.73%). The Chiefs’ offense has been especially good down the stretch with Mahomes getting closer to full strength, with a 45.39% rate in their past 7 games. It might seem like that’s an unsustainable high rate, but they had a 45.18% first down rate last season across 16 games with Mahomes healthy.

They’ve been even better offensively in two post-season games, as the first round bye seems to have done Mahomes a world of good. They’ve picked up 56 first downs and scored 12 offensive touchdowns on 121 snaps, a ridiculous 56.20% rate, including a 63.16% first down rate in their win over the Texans, the highest single game mark in the league this season. For comparison, the Chargers had the best single game mark in the regular season with a 56.90% first down rate in a 45-10 week 14 win in Jacksonville. The Chiefs have maintained that level of play for two weeks in the playoffs.

Mahomes didn’t quite have the same regular season in 2019 as he did in 2018, but he did cut down his giveaways significantly (1.0% interception rate vs. 2.1% in 2018), despite playing banged up, and now fully healthy, he’s arguably playing the best football he’s ever played, still somehow only in his 36th professional start. With another week off before the Super Bowl, expect a nearly unstoppable level of play from Mahomes.

I say nearly unstoppable because if any defense can at least slow him down and keep the Chiefs to a manageable point total it’s this 49ers defense. They finished “just” 6th in the NFL with a 32.95% first down rate allowed in the regular season, but like the Chiefs’ offense not finishing first in first down rate, that was largely due to injuries. Through the first 7 games of the season, the 49ers had a ridiculous 24.67% first down rate allowed. By comparison, the Patriots led the NFL with a 29.64% first down rate on the season and no other team was below 32.43%. Unfortunately, top linebacker Kwon Alexander went down in the 49ers 8th game of the season in week 9 and missed the rest of the regular season, while dominant edge rusher Ford played just 73 snaps after week 9. 

The 49ers faced a relatively easily schedule during those first 7 games, but still allowed a first down rate that was more than 10% below what would have been expected based on competition. With Ford and Alexander back for the 49ers’ two playoff games, the 49ers have held the Vikings and Packers to a combined 31.07% first down rate, though there was a pretty drastic difference between the Vikings’ 7 first down performance and the Packers’ 21 first down performance, even if most of the Packers success came with the game out of hand. Ford and Alexander haven’t even been at full strength or played a full snap count and should be closer to 100% after the extra week off before the Super Bowl. With those two back, the 49ers are dominant in all 3 levels of the defense and lack an obvious weakness for the Chiefs to exploit. 

As exciting as it will be to see the Chiefs’ offense square off against the 49ers’ defense, the matchup that may end up deciding this game is the matchup between the 49ers’ offense and the Chiefs’ defense. The 49ers’ aren’t known for their offense the way the Chiefs are, but they still finished the regular season with a 9th ranked 38.24% first down rate and that rate is even higher since acquiring Emmanuel Sanders during week 8, as they have a 39.94% first down rate since then, which would have been 3rd in the NFL this season. With Sanders coming in and rookie Debbo Samuels coming on in the second half of the season, the 49ers have a lot more aerial firepower now than they did at the start of the season and they also have offensive tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey healthy after they missed time in the regular season.

The Chiefs’ defense, meanwhile, is probably more known for negative things than positive things, but that hasn’t been the case in recent weeks, as they have a 33.77% first down rate allowed since week 7. However, that comes after a 40.91% first down rate allowed in the first 6 games of the season and a league worst 42.20% first down rate allowed last season. Overall, the Chiefs finished just 19th with a 36.34% first down rate allowed this season. The question that I think will decide this game is which version of the Chiefs’ defense is for real, the strong unit they’ve been in recent weeks, the weak unit they were for all of last season and early this season, or somewhere in between. 

On paper, they seem more similar to the unit that struggled early in the season, as outside of obvious stars like Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Tyrann Mathieu, this is a pretty underwhelming unit, especially with talented rookie safety Juan Thornhill out for the season. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has gotten them to play much better than the sum of their parts in recent weeks, but even a little regression to their early season habits from the Chiefs’ defense could lose them the game, with the 49ers being strong on both sides of the ball. 

In particular, the Chiefs could have trouble with the 49ers’ run heavy offense because their run defense is significantly worse than their pass defense. They were able to handle the run heavy Titans in the AFC Championship, but that was largely because they were able to get a lead and force the Titans out of their gameplan. The 49ers are a more complete team and this should be a close game either way, so I wouldn’t expect them to be forced out of their game plan at any point in this game.

Ultimately, this seems like a matchup between a team with a better quarterback and a team with a better overall roster, which is often the case in Super Bowls. Mahomes is the kind of quarterback who can take over a game by himself because he can make plays other guys can’t, but historically speaking the team with the better regular season quarterback actually loses the Super Bowl more often than not. All-time, the quarterback with a higher regular season adjusted YPA wins just 37.7% of the time, including an 0-9 record in the past 9 Super Bowls.

That alone isn’t a reason to pick the 49ers, but it suggests that historically a better team will beat a team with a better quarterback. Mahomes is historically on a different level than most quarterbacks, even among quarterbacks appearing in the Super Bowl, and the Chiefs’ defense could continue to perform at a high level within Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme, so I wouldn’t bet on the 49ers if this was a random week 9 game, but they’re worth at least a small bet in the final game of the season.

San Francisco 49ers 26 Kansas City Chiefs 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Championship Pick

Tennessee Titans (11-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

Like the NFC Championship between the 49ers and the Packers, the AFC Championship is also a rematch of a regular season game, with the Titans and Chiefs meeting in Tennessee back in week 10. Few expected the Titans to win that game, as they were 6-point home underdogs, and even fewer expected that the Titans would go on to meet the Chiefs in a rematch in the AFC Championship. Even after their surprise win over the Chiefs, the Titans sat at just 5-5 and needed to win 4 of their next 6 games to qualify for the post-season as the 6th seed at 9-7. Overall, a Titans team that started the season 2-4 has won 9 of past 12 games, including huge upsets over the Patriots and the Ravens in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The offense has led the way for the Titans, as their defense has actually fallen from a 30.93% first down rate allowed in the first 6 games of the season, 4th in the NFL over that stretch, to a 36.90% first down rate allowed over the past 12 games, 3rd worst among playoff qualifiers, primarily due to injury absences by players like linemen Jurrell Casey (2 games) and Jeffery Simmons (7 games), linebacker Jayon Brown (4 games), edge rusher Cameron Wake (9 games), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (9 games) and Adoree Jackson (5 games). On offense, the Titans have gone from a 32.69% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, 26th in the NFL over that stretch, to a 41.44% first down rate in the past 12 games, 2nd among playoff qualifiers over that stretch. 

The turnaround coinciding with quarterback Marcus Mariota being benched for Ryan Tannehill is obvious, but running back Derrick Henry of course deserves a lot of credit as well. Tannehill’s play hasn’t been quite as good in the post-season thus far and it’s reasonable to expect that Tannehill, who led the league with a 117.5 QB rating in his 8th season in the league after previously maxing out with a 93.5 QB rating in 2016, will continue to fall back to earth a little bit going forward, but the way Henry is running right now is making up for it. Henry might not be quite as good going forward due solely to regression to the mean, but defenses are tired at this point in the season and Henry, who is very physical and tough to tackle, is taking advantage of it for the second season in a row. 

The Chiefs have also had a strong second half of the season, in fact not losing once in the 7 games since their week 10 loss in Tennessee. That loss was quarterback Pat Mahomes’ first game back from missing two and a half games with a knee injury and, even if he might not have been 100%, he was far from the reason for their loss, as the Chiefs had a 39.74% first down rate, but a 46.94% first down rate allowed. On the season, the Chiefs have a 43.41% first down rate with Mahomes on the field, including a 63.16% first down rate against the Texans last week that was the highest in the NFL for any team in a game this season. The Chiefs scored 51 despite converting just 2 third downs all game, which is just ridiculous.

Last week’s strong performance, which came after a week off for Mahomes and company, was part of a larger trend for the Chiefs offense, who rank first among playoff qualifiers with a 44.57% first down rate since their week 12 bye. Dealing with a variety of injuries, Mahomes hasn’t been at 100% even when on the field for most of the season, but he’s still become a more efficient quarterback in terms of ball security this season compared to his MVP season last year and he is arguably playing the best football of his career right now, looking very healthy after the Chiefs’ first round bye. He also has all of his weapons healthy around him, which hasn’t been the case for most of the season.

The Chiefs’ defense struggled in the first matchup, but that was an exception to the recent trend for their defense, which has allowed a 33.29% first down rate since week 7, 3rd among playoff qualifiers. That’s a massive shift for a team that allowed a league worst 42.20% first down rate last season and a 29th ranked 40.91% first down rate through the first 6 games of this season. Outside of the Tennessee game, the Chiefs defense has played consistently strong defense for several months. 

The Titans could have a good offense performance again this week in Kansas City though. They have a lot of offensive firepower and I don’t fully trust that the Chiefs defense has suddenly become a consistently strong unit. That’s especially true with the Chiefs defense not at full strength, missing safety Juan Thornhill and possibly defensive tackle Chris Jones. However, as good as those two players are, the Chiefs’ defense still performed well in their first game without them last week, allowing the Texans to move the chains at just a 33.33% first down rate, after finishing the regular season 8th with a 38.35% first down rate, so I wouldn’t expect the Titans to have as much offensive success in this matchup as they did in the first matchup even if Jones doesn’t play.

Speaking of Jones, he’s one of a few key players that are uncertain to play in this game, along with Titans linebacker Jayon Brown and Titans right tackle Jack Conklin. The uncertainty of that trio makes this game tough to pick, with the Chiefs currently favored by 7.5 points at home. Brown missed the first matchup and if he plays, their defense will be healthier than it’s been since their strong start to the season, which would go a long way towards their chances of slowing down Mahomes and company and keeping this game within a touchdown, but if Conklin were to miss this game it would be a huge blow to a Titans offensive line that has very healthy this season. Jones, meanwhile, is arguably the Chiefs’ best defensive player and has been a huge part of the Chiefs’ late season defensive turnaround. I’m tentatively taking the Chiefs, but for a no confidence pick. I’ll likely have an update when inactives are released and may actually end up betting on either side depending on injuries and line movement.

Final Update: Conklin, Brown, and Jones are all active, though Jones could be very limited after barely practicing over the past couple weeks. This line has fallen to 7, perhaps due to Jones’ injury uncertainty, so I still like the Chiefs for a no confidence pick even if Jones might not be 100%.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Tennessee Titans 23

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -7

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 NFC Championship Pick

Green Bay Packers (14-3) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

Like the Chiefs/Titans matchup in the AFC Championship, this NFC Championship matchup between the 49ers and the Packers is a rematch of a regular season game. Unlike the first Chiefs/Titans matchup, which few would have predicted would be an AFC Championship preview, the first 49ers/Packers matchup was an obvious potential NFC Championship preview, with the 49ers entering at 9-1 and the Packers entering at 8-2 in a game that wound up deciding the #1 seed in the NFC. 

Despite both teams having strong records, the first matchup was not close at all, with the 49ers winning at home by a final score of 37-8 in a game in which they won the first down rate battle by 15.87%. Favored by just a field goal the first time around, the 49ers are now 7.5-point home favorites in the rematch, as bettors remember the week 12 blowout well. History suggests that these rematches don’t always go the same way, however, and in fact in non-divisional same-site post-season rematches, the team that lost the first time is actually 33-20 ATS over the past 30 seasons. 

That being said, I think there is good reason to expect that the 49ers should win fairly easily again. Even though these teams have the same record, the 49ers had a much stronger season, holding the edge in the regular season in first down rate differential at +5.29% to +1.15% and in point differential at +169 to +63. The Packers’ point differential was the worst ever by a team that finished with 13 wins or more and ranked just 9th in the NFL, compared to 3rd for the 49ers. In first down rate differential, the difference was even more pronounced, with the 49ers ranking 2nd and the Packers ranking 14th. While the Packers are 9-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, the 49ers are just 5-3 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, winning 9 of their 14 games by more than 8 points, as opposed to just 5 for the Packers. 

That’s despite the fact that the 49ers were missing their top edge rusher Dee Ford and their top linebacker Kwon Alexander for most of the second half of the season. Alexander went down in the 49ers 8th game of the season in week 9 and missed the rest of the regular season, while Ford played just 73 snaps after week 9 and was inactive for the Packers game. Neither one is at 100% this week, but having both back in the lineup is significant. The 49ers allowed just a 24.67% first down rate in their first 7 games of the season with Alexander and Ford healthy, which would have been easily the best in the NFL if they kept it up all season. 

The 49ers had a relatively easy schedule over that stretch, but their strength of schedule suggested they should have allowed a 34.56% first down rate over those 7 games, so they performed significantly better than average. Last week, with Ford and Alexander back, the 49ers held a Vikings offense that finished 11th in the NFL in first down rate (higher than the Packers who finished 16th) to just 7 first downs and a 17.78% first down rate. This is the healthiest the 49ers have been since their dominant start and they are playing like it. 

The Packers are basically at full strength as well, but that’s been the case for most of the season. Meanwhile, in addition to the 49ers having Ford and Alexander back, the 49ers will also have tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel at full strength, which they didn’t have in the first matchup and, while they’re missing center Weston Richburg, they will have left tackle Joe Staley this time around, which is more important, especially since backup center Ben Garland has filled in well for Richburg. I’m hoping this line will fall to a touchdown before gametime, but I like the 49ers for a smaller bet even if it stays at 7.5.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Green Bay Packers 16

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -7.5

Confidence: Medium

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers: 2019 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)

The Packers won 13 games and got a first round bye in the NFC, but they didn’t play as well as their record suggests, barely pulling out some close victories. They went 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and 4-0 in games decided by 5 points or fewer and ranked just 9th in the NFL in point differential at +63, the worst ever point differential by a team with 13 or more wins. Fortunately for the Packers, they open the post-season at home, where they are 43-22 ATS since 2011 in games that Aaron Rodgers starts and finishes, and they play a Seattle team that is also not as good as their record.

The Seahawks won 11 games, but just one by more than a touchdown and had a +6 point differential that is 14th in the NFL and 3rd worst ever by a team with 11 or more wins. While the Packers are around a 10 or 11 win caliber team that won 13 games because of close wins, the Seahawks are around an 8 or 9 win caliber team that won 11 games because of close wins. Two of the Seahawks’ wins came because the other team shanked makeable field goals that would have ended the game. If not for those two misses, the Seahawks easily could have missed the post-season entirely. They won their opening round playoff game in Philadelphia, but likely would have lost had Carson Wentz not gotten hurt in the first quarter, as the Josh McCown led Eagles got inside the Seahawks’ 30-yard line five times, but managed just three field goals and two failed 4th downs in a 17-9 loss. 

The Seahawks also are in much worse injury shape than the Packers. While the Packers are as healthy as any team left in the playoffs, the Seahawks are without linebacker Mychal Kendricks, running backs Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, left guard Mike Iupati, and possibly defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, left tackle Duane Brown, and backup left tackle George Fant. Despite their injury situation and the Packers’ significant edge in point differential and first down rate differential (+1.15% vs. -1.17%), the Seahawks are only 4-point underdogs in this game in Lambeau, where the Packers are very tough to beat with Aaron Rodgers under center. I have this line calculated at Green Bay -7.5, so we’re getting great line value with the Packers at -4. This is my biggest play this week.

Green Bay Packers 31 Seattle Seahawks 23

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -4

Confidence: High

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Houston Texans (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

These two teams met back in week 6, with the Texans pulling off the upset in Kansas City by score of 31-24. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Texans will pull the upset again this week though, or even keep this game close. Teams are 32-20 ATS over the past 30 years in the playoffs in a same-site rematch against a team that beat them in the regular season. Of those teams, 10 were favorites in the rematch and they outscored their opponents by 7.5 points as an average of 5-point favorites, covering 6 out of 10 times. 

That alone isn’t enough reason to pick the Chiefs, but the Chiefs are also in a completely different injury situation than they were in the first game. On offense, quarterback Pat Mahomes was playing at far less than 100% through injury and had his worst game of the season according to Pro Football Focus, top wide receiver Tyreek Hill played just half of the snaps in his return from injury, fellow wide receiver Sammy Watkins was out, and the side left of the offensive line, Eric Fisher and Andrew Wylie, was out as well. 

On defense, cornerback Kendall Fuller was playing through a broken thumb, defensive end Frank Clark was playing through a neck injury and, while the Chiefs did have safety Juan Thornhill and defensive ends Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah healthy back then, they did not have late-season addition defensive end Terrell Suggs, nor did they have injured defensive tackles Xavier Williams and Chris Jones, the latter of whom is one of the best players in the league at his position. Jones tweaked a calf injury at practice this week, but is still expected to play and even if he’s at less than 100% he could easily have a huge impact on the rematch.

Of course, having Mahomes healthy is also a pretty big deal. Mahomes was limping through an ankle injury back in week 6 and eventually ended up missing two games with a knee injury that he suffered the following week in Denver, but he returned in week 10 and has led the Chiefs to a 40.00% first down rate in 7 games since, 4th among playoff qualifiers over that stretch, and should be as close to 100% as he’s been all season after the first round bye. 

Mahomes’ injury might have actually ended up being a blessing in disguise for the Chiefs, as the Chiefs started playing much better defensively around the time he got hurt. It’s possible the Chiefs’ defense would have started to click around then even if Mahomes hadn’t gotten hurt and certainly the Chiefs’ improved health on defense is part of the reason for their improvement, but whatever the reason, the improvement has been very noticeable. Since week 7, they rank 3rd among playoff qualifiers in first down rate allowed at 33.28%, after ranking 29th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 40.91% through the first 6 games of the season. This is a much more complete Chiefs team than they were in the post-season last year, when they finished dead last in first down rate allowed at 42.20%.

Meanwhile, the Texans are going in the opposite direction injury wise, as right tackle Tytus Howard is out for the season, JJ Watt is playing at far less than 100% and coming off of an underwhelming performance in the playoff opener, and wide receiver Will Fuller is highly questionable and would be at risk of limited snaps or an in-game setback after missing much of the past couple months, including last week, and not getting in a full practice all this week. Since their week 10 bye, the Texans have a first down rate differential of just -3.50% (excluding the week 17 game in which they rested starters). 

Their struggles are in large part due to key players being injured or playing at less than 100%. Even at full strength though, the Texans weren’t a great team and they are the only playoff qualifier with a negative point differential at -7. They barely beat the Bills, arguably the worst playoff qualifier, in Houston last week. They might not be able to even keep it close this week in Kansas City. This line is high at -9.5, so there’s not enough here to bet on the Chiefs, but they should be the right side. If Jones ends up being out for the Chiefs, I will revisit this pick.

Update: Jones is surprisingly out for this game, unable to get the green light after his pre-game workout. That makes a huge impact on a Chiefs defense that is also missing talented rookie safety Thornhill. Despite that, this line has moved up to 10 in all places. This is a no confidence pick, but this should be a closer game with the Chiefs at less than 100% injury wise.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Houston +10

Confidence: None

Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Tennessee Titans (10-7) at Baltimore Ravens (14-2)

The Titans looked in the middle of a lost season when they started 2-4, bottoming out with a shutout loss in Denver week 6. That loss ended up being a blessing in disguise, however, as that was the performance they needed to pull the trigger on the switch from former #2 overall pick Marcus Mariota to veteran off-season acquisition Ryan Tannehill under center. Since making that move, the Titans rank 4th among playoff qualifiers with a +4.47% first down rate differential.

Tannehill hasn’t just been game-managing this team either, as their defense has actually fallen off significantly since Tannehill took off, allowing a 37.43% first down rate over Tannehill’s 11 starts, as opposed to a 30.93% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, in large part due to injuries to key players like defensive linemen Jurrell Casey (2 games) and Jeffery Simmons (7 games), linebacker Jayon Brown (2 games), edge rusher Cameron Wake (7 games), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (7 games) and Adoree Jackson (5 games). Tannehill and the offense have carried this team, picking up first downs at a 41.90% rate in Tannehill’s 11 starts, only behind the Ravens over that stretch, as opposed to 32.69% in the first 6 games of the season. Tannehill also finished the regular season as the league leader in QB rating. 

The switch to Tannehill took this team from seemingly dead in the water at 2-4 to not only qualifying for the post-season at 9-7, after winning 7 of their final 10 regular season games, but also winning a playoff game last week in New England against the Patriots. Tannehill didn’t do much in a game in which the Titans called 40 run plays to 17 pass plays to attack a Patriots defense that is significantly better against air attacks than ground attacks, but this offense is much more than just Tannehill, as they have a strong offensive line, a great feature back in Derrick Henry, and a downfield #1 receiver in AJ Brown. They’re multi-dimensional and can have offensive success in different ways.

This should be where the Titans’ season ends though and they could really struggle in this game in Baltimore, for several reasons. For one, Tannehill probably won’t be quite as good as he’s been going forward, as it’s unlikely he’s suddenly become an elite quarterback in his 8th season in the league. Tannehill won’t necessarily struggle going forward, but if he’s not the quarterback that led the NFL in QB rating going forward, that will have a noticeable effect on a team that has been so reliant on their offense in recent weeks with their defense struggling.

Speaking of that defense, the Titans still have a lot of injury concerns on that side of the ball. Even with starting cornerback Malcolm Butler and key edge rusher Cameron Wake out for the season, things appeared to be looking up last week when they got top cornerback Adoree Jackson back from a 5-game absence, but they lost top linebacker Jayon Brown with an injury in the first minute of their win in New England, which is a huge absence, as Brown was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked off linebacker during the regular season.

The Patriots, who have been stagnant on offense for months and couldn’t take it to another level in the post-season, were unable to exploit Brown’s absence in any significant way, but the Ravens should have a much easier time. In fact, given the way the Ravens run their offense, Brown is probably the worst possible player the Titans could be missing on defense for this matchup. Brown not only is the one Titans linebacker with the speed to contain Lamar Jackson in the open field, but he’s also easily their best coverage linebacker, a big absence against a team that relies heavily on tight ends in the passing game.

Even if Brown was playing, the Titans would have a tough time slowing down a Ravens offense that not only lead the league with a 41.73% first down rate, but that has actually been even better than that over the past few months, as Jackson and company have gotten more comfortable in the scheme. Over their past 10 games since week 7, the Ravens have a 42.47% first down rate, despite resting their key players in a meaningless week 17 game against the Steelers. The Ravens have won 12 straight games overall, but have been especially dominant over their past 10 games, covering in all but one game and winning by an average of 20.5 points per game, including an 18-point week 17 win with backups against a capable Steelers team.

That impressive stretch isn’t just because of the offense either, as their defense has allowed just a 30.00% first down rate over those 10 games and ranks 1st among playoff qualifiers in first down rate allowed over that stretch. That’s in comparison to a 37.95% first down rate that ranked 24th in the NFL over the first 6 games of the season. It’s easy to point to the acquisition of cornerback Marcus Peters between week 6 and week 7 as the reason for their drastic improvement and certainly he has been a big part of the reason, but the Ravens also added key linebacker Josh Bynes between week 4 and week 5 and have gotten significantly better play at safety since Tony Jefferson got hurt and was replaced with breakout player Chuck Clark. With an elite offense and defense, the Ravens are obvious Super Bowl favorites and I don’t expect this game to be close. There’s not quite enough here to bet the Ravens with confidence as 9.5-point favorites, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Baltimore Ravens 31 Tennessee Titans 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -9.5

Confidence: Low

Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Minnesota Vikings (11-6) at San Francisco 49ers (13-3)

The 49ers got a bye in the first round of the playoffs and it came at a perfect time, as the 49ers had several key players dealing with injuries at the end of the season. They’re not at full strength, but no one is at this point in the season and a trio of key 49ers are expected to return this week, defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and safety Jacquiski Tartt. Alexander has been out since week 8, Ford has played just 4 snaps since week 11, and Tartt has missed the past 4 games, so the 49ers are healthier now than they were at any point in the second half of the season, even with players like Ronald Blair and Weston Richburg out for the season. 

What works against the 49ers, however, is the lack of post-season experience from quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo, who is making his first career playoff start this week. The track record of quarterbacks making their first career post-season start against a more playoff experienced quarterback isn’t good, as they are 15-34-1 ATS since 2002, including 5-16 ATS and just 8-13 straight up as home favorites. Last week, first time starting quarterbacks went 1-2 ATS, with the only win being Ryan Tannehill, who barely had to do anything because of a run heavy game plan. The 49ers are a good running team, but will need a balanced attack to cover this 7-point spread against a solid Vikings team. In fact, even with the 49ers being healthier than they’ve been in months, I have this line calculated at just San Francisco -5.5, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Vikings as well.

That being said, I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Vikings. The common narrative is that Kirk Cousins destroyed the old common narrative that he couldn’t win against tough opponents by getting his first career post-season victory last week, but I think the old common narrative is still closer to the truth. It was never that Cousins couldn’t win against tough opponents, as last week’s win was his 8th victory over a team that entered with a winning record since 2015, but that’s compared to 21 losses, including a 4-10 record (4-9-1 ATS) since joining the Vikings before last season. 

One win shouldn’t change the narrative much when you look at years of data, especially since Cousins overall had a pretty average game last week and the Vikings offense was not the primary reason why they won, picking up first downs at a below average 33.78% rate. In fact, if the Saints had won the coin toss in overtime, the Vikings easily could have lost, in which case we’d still be hearing about how Cousins can’t win big games. The Vikings could definitely keep this game close, but it would surprise me if they were able to pull the upset for the second straight week.

San Francisco 49ers 24 Minnesota Vikings 19

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Low