NFL Conference Championship Picks: Expert Bets for Eagles vs 49ers, Chiefs vs Bengals
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images. Pictured: Patrick Mahomes.
The injury to Patrick Mahomes’ right ankle has left the final four teams in the playoffs as evenly matched as they’ve ever been in modern NFL history.
We have two spreads fewer than 2.5 points for Sunday’s Conference Championship games and four teams within 1.5 points of one another on a neutral field in the lookahead Super Bowl markets.
The AFC was widely regarded as the better and deeper conference all season — but the NFC’s two best teams will face off for the first time this season on Sunday in Philadelphia. The markets also think that whoever wins the NFC has roughly a coin flip chance of winning the Lombardi Trophy against the survivor of the AFC gauntlet.
Here are my thoughts, analysis and betting picks for 49ers vs. Eagles and Bengals vs. Chiefs.
-110o / -110u
-110o / -110u
Sunday, 3 p.m. ET on FOX
San Francisco and Philadelphia have the two best non-QB rosters in the NFL. There are almost no holes across either roster, but it’s also true that neither team has really been tested in this season.
The Eagles have the No. 1 DVOA defense, which is an opponent-adjusted metric. But when you look at the Eagles’ schedule, there’s a real lack of good quarterbacks.
The top offenses the Eagles faced were the Lions, Packers, Cowboys and Jaguars. The Jaguars game was played in a rainstorm, so you can view that game as an outlier. That means in the three games against great offenses, the Eagles gave up 35 points to Jared Goff, 33 to Aaron Rodgers and 40 to Dak Prescott.
This isn’t a new problem or new criticism of Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. He runs a very passive scheme that has struggled against precise quarterbacks who are quick processors.
Last season, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Prescott and even Derek Carr tore them up. Prescott and Goff did the same in favorable conditions this season. The question is whether Brock Purdy is capable of doing that in a hostile environment.
Bet the NFC Championship Game at FanDuel
For all the talk of regression and Purdy’s good fortune, it doesn’t really hold up when you look deeper. Few people are denying that Purdy is limited as a quarterback. But what about Purdy in this offense?
He has the lowest tight window throw rate this season. He hasn’t had a turnover worthy play since Week 17 and has played three games since without one, per PFF. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has made it easy on Purdy, and the rookie has even added more when he’s able to escape the pocket and use his elite offensive weaponry to threaten in space.
If the Eagles defense has a weakness, it’s tackling. They’re a speed-first group, excellent at playing from the front with an elite and deep pass rush. San Francisco uses the middle of the field, generates plenty of yards after the catch and could potentially exploit the Eagles’ linebackers.
Philadelphia’s run defense improved in the second half of the season after Linval Joseph was added via free agency and Jordan Davis returned from injury. I’m not as worried about the Eagles’ run defense here as I am concerned about the YAC and the tackling on throws over the middle.
If Gannon sits in more passive zones, Shanahan could take advantage. And if the Eagles play more man and bring pressure, that isn’t necessarily the answer either — Purdy has been good under pressure and the Niners have superior weapons than what the Giants presented in the Divisional Round.
The Niners defense faced a friendly schedule of opposing offenses as well. If they have a weakness, it’s in the secondary, and especially against deep passes. San Francisco is 24th in DVOA against the deep ball.
Most teams aren’t able to pass protect long enough to exploit that weakness, but the Eagles have one of the best — if not the best — offensive line. Dallas didn’t test San Francisco deep nearly enough, but Prescott hit CeeDee Lamb for a big play on one route, and nearly had Lamb again if not for an incredible play from Fred Warner. Prescott also misfired on an open Michael Gallup on the final drive.
Jalen Hurts has always thrown a good deep ball, so I’d look for him to take shots down the field. We’ve seen the Eagles offense go with a more pass-heavy script when facing good run defenses with vulnerable secondaries in the past. Don’t be shocked to see something similar.
The 49ers linebackers should control Hurts in the run game enough for the offense to need to be successful through the air.
Verdict: Unless San Francisco gets to +3, I’ll be sitting out the side in this matchup. At three, these teams are too even on paper for me to not take the field goal, even on the road.
Player Props to Bet
- Jalen Hurts Under 47.5 Rush Yards (-115; BetMGM)
- A.J. Brown Longest Reception Over 26.5 Yards (-110; DraftKings)
-110o / -110u
-110o / -110u
Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS
You’ve heard the narratives by now about how the Bengals are 3-0 against the Chiefs in the last 13 months. The Joe Burrow ‘clutch’ playoff performances. The Mahomes injury. The market got as high as Cincinnati -2.5 before limits went up and respected money hammered the Chiefs back to their rightful place as favorites.
The Chiefs are 0-3 against the Bengals, but they held a fourth quarter lead in all three games. A few controversial defensive pass interference calls, a Chiefs second half meltdown and a Travis Kelce fumble all led to that record.
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has done a better job of consistently corralling elite quarterbacks than any other defensive coordinator:
Follow up to this tweet:
Here's the average time to throw for the 5 elite(ish) quarterbacks over the last three seasons…then their time to throw in their games against Lou Anarumo's defense.
Notice a trend? pic.twitter.com/AZ56QjyvYh
— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) January 25, 2023
It’s also important to realize just how much of a market correction this is. The Chiefs closed as 2.5-point favorites in Cincinnati this season. They laid 7.5 at home in last year’s AFC Championship game.
When the Bills closed as two-point favorites at Cincinnati in the canceled regular season game, they ended up being six point home favorites in the playoffs. By that math, the Chiefs should be clearly favored by more than a field goal, even if you bump Cincinnati for the dominant win against Buffalo.
Now, Kansas City is barely a favorite at all.
The Bengals’ win in Buffalo comes with a huge caveat — the game was played in snow. Both teams had to bear the conditions and Cincinnati deserves credit for handling it better, but the Bengals’ biggest weakness — their offensive line — couldn’t get exposed by the Bills’ poor pass rush. The snow massively helps the offense because life as a pass rusher is significantly more difficult in those conditions.
Cincinnati won’t have that benefit in Kansas City and it’ll once again be without three starters along the front. The Bengals struggled massively in one playoff game and played great in the other. It seems the sentiment around them is much higher now than it was after the fluke win against the Ravens.
I’ve lost betting against the Bengals a few times this year, but never have they received the current market respect they’re getting off one game in the snow and injury uncertainty for Mahomes.
Verdict: I’m willing to pay to find out how healthy Mahomes is. If he were healthy, this line would be -3 at a minimum. I never thought we’d get Mahomes in a contrarian home underdog spot in the AFC Championship Game, but that’s exactly the case here. I like the Chiefs at -2 or better.
Pick: Chiefs -1.5
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