Only three games remain in the 2021 NFL season. The Super Bowl will close the house down on Feb. 13, but the party begins Sunday with the AFC and NFC Championship Games.
It’s been a fun ride. And this Championship Sunday is unusual for this reason: For the first time since 2009, neither Tom Brady nor Aaron Rodgers will be competing in the conference-title showdowns.
A few notes for the investors:
– The betting favorites are 6-4 against the spread this postseason but the trend changed during the divisional round when underdogs were 3-1 straight-up and 3-1 against the spread.
– Keep this in mind: Through the first 10 playoff games played so far this month, all 10 teams that won the game also covered the spread as well. And this has been going on for a while now; 31 of the last 34 teams to win an NFL playoff game succeeded in covering the spread as well. That includes the favorites and the underdogs.
– If you like playing the over-under, Unders are 6-4 this postseason. Overs are 8-2 in Conference Championship Games in the past five seasons.
– Home teams are 13-3 outright and 11-5 against the spread over the last in the past eight Conference Championship games.
Let’s dive into Sunday’s games, shall we?
Cincinnati at Kansas City
2 p.m. STL time, KMOV-TV Channel 4
The Chiefs are favored by 7.5 points
Over-Under: 54.5 points
Analysis: The line was sitting at 7 all week but moved to 7.5 points on Friday … and may move again between now and kickoff. Including Sunday the Chiefs have been the favorite in 13 consecutive postseason games, which breaks a tie with the 2014-2018 New England Patriots.
This is a challenging assignment and environment for the Bengals, a young but confident team led by the brilliant second-year quarterback Joe Burrow. But as much as we love Burrow, who is 2-0 this postseason, he isn’t going against Derek Carr (Raiders) or Ryan Tannehill (Titans) this time. Patrick Mahomes is the opposing quarterback in this match. And if this turns into a duel, Burrow will face one of the finest postseason quarterbacks in NFL history.
Unless the opponent was Tom Brady, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes has never lost a playoff game, and his home postseason performances are preposterously good. In eight postseason games at Arrowhead, Mahomes has a 7-1 record with a 69% completion rate; an average of 319 yards passing per game; 23 touchdown throws with just one interception; and 232 rushing yards with four rushing TDs. The Mahomes home postseason passer rating is 120.5, and the Chiefs have averaged 36.5 points in their eight playoff games at Arrowhead.
KC comes in as the better all-around team. In the fancy-pants weighted DVOA stat – just think of it as an all-encompassing rating that puts more emphasis on recent form – the Chiefs are 6th overall and the Bengals are 14th.
Pass protection looms as a key factor, and I doubt that the Bengals can survive another game that leaves Burrow on the turf. He was sacked nine times in the 19-16 win at Tennessee last week, and Cincinnati has the second-worst pass pro in the NFL this season. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are ranked 4th in pass protection this season, and that’s a favorable asset in a game that will feature flying footballs.
We’re dealing with small sample sizes here, but as much as we admire the precocious Bengals for winning two straight postseason games, their offense has scored only three touchdowns from scrimmage in eight quarters plus and an overtime. Their eight field goals were paramount in the wins over Vegas and Tennessee, but you don’t beat Mahomes and the Chiefs by booting three-pointers.
All of that said, I hesitate to downgrade Burrow’s chances to pull off the upset. The Bengals weren’t afraid of the Chiefs in a 34-31 comeback victory in Week 17. Burrow and his mates erased a 28-17 halftime deficit and the Cincinnati defense held Mahomes and the offense to three second-half points. Yes, that game was in Cincinnati. Yes, the Chiefs were victimized by three horrendous, inexplicable officiating calls that greatly influenced the outcome. But here’s the takeaway: the Bengals came out of Week 17 knowing they can trade punches with the Chiefs. That confidence should help them for the appointment at Arrowhead.
As Will Brinson of CBS Sports points out, Burrow is 8-0 in “must-win” games for LSU and Cincinnati. When the pressure is on, when it’s win or get out, Burrow is usually at his best. And after watching what Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen did to the Kansas City defense last week, it’s hard for me to conclude that the Chiefs will shut the Bengals down in a way that turns the AFC Championship Game into a rout.
Burrow is fearless, he has Ja’Marr Chase and two other excellent wide receivers, and running back Joe Mixon is capable of controlling sections of this game on the ground. If the Bengals can bully up on possession time, it’s a real plus. If KC defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a bad day at the office, and the Chiefs fail to corral Burrow with pressures and sacks, this thing will get scary for the home team. To Spags: you can’t cover Chase with one guy. Do that again, and it’s hello offseason.
I keep looking at this: the Bengals are 7-2 against the spread on the road, 7-3 ATS as an underdog or pick ‘em, 5-1 ATS as a road underdog, and 7-1 ATS against teams that have won 55% of their games. KC’s against the spread numbers aren’t nearly as impressive, but they’ve covered in six straight home games.
Still, I can’t go against Mahomes and Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill and the entire collection of playmaking stars. Not at Arrowhead. I do think the Bengals have a helluva chance to cover.
My Pick: Chiefs 33, Bengals 27.
San Francisco at Los Angeles
5:30 p.m. STL time, FOX-TV, Channel 2
The Rams are favored by 3.5 points
Over-Under: 45.5 points
Analysis: The Niners have won six in a row against the Rams, with coach Kyle Shanahan outmaneuvering Sean McVay. Let’s dispose of a highly popular – but false – narrative, OK? San Francisco beat up LA by a 31-10 score in Week 10, and came back from a 17-point gap to upend the Rams 27-24 in overtime in Week 18. This has launched a billion “It’s Really Hard To Beat The Same Team Three Times In A Season” pieces of fiction.
Wrong. Since the 1970 merger there have been 22 instances of one team defeating another twice in the regular season with a chance to do it a third time in the postseason. The result? The team that won both regular-season meetings went on to prevail in the postseason round in 14 of the 22 opportunities. That’s a 63.6% win rate.
Shanahan not only knows how to beat the Rams, but he’s one of the best underdog coaches in the NFL, with a 27-18 mark against the spread when his 49ers come in as the underdog. And that includes an 18-10 record ATS as a road underdog. Moreover, Shanahan is 7-3 outright and 7-3 ATS against McVay.
And how about quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo? During his NFL career he’s 15-4 against the spread – and 14-5 outright – as an underdog. That 14-5 outright-win record as the ‘dog is the best by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era.
That’s why the matchup is so interesting – and kind of funny, really.
The Rams sent QB Jared Goff and a pile of draft picks to Detroit for quarterback Matthew Stafford last offseason – and Stafford is 0-2 vs. Garoppolo this season. The theory coming into Sunday: Garoppolo can’t keep doing this, and it’s time for the Rams to rise up and take Jimmy G and the 49ers down. But Jimmy G was supposed to get out of the way in Dallas, and the 49ers upset Dak Prescott and the Cowboys on wild-card weekend. Jimmy G was surely doomed in his matchup against Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay in the divisional round; the Packers went home.
Garoppolo isn’t the reason why the 49ers are going into Inglewood with a chance to ruin the day for cadaverous Rams owner Stanley Kroenke.
His postseason record as San Francisco’s starter is 4–1, which looks wonderful on the laptop screen. But in the fiva games Garoppolo has two touchdowns, five interceptions and a 70.3 passer rating. His story could crash at any moment – Sunday included.
The Niners are playing for a spot in the Super Bowl because of a stout defense that punishes opponents. And unlike Tampa Bay’s defensive coaches that blitzed their way to defeat last week, the San Francisco defensive staff isn’t foolish. The Niners had a low blitz percentage when facing Stafford this season – largely taking away Stafford’s history of destroying blitzes. San Francisco defensive coordinator is a rising star, and he’ll probably land a head-coaching job after the season.
Shanahan’s creative rushing attack strikes defenses from all angles, and somehow finds numerous ways to have the leverage on Rams all-world defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
Deebo Samuel is a wide receiver … he’s a running back … he’s a slot receiver … he’s a slot back … he’s running deep on a pass route … he’s running between the tackles as a tailback … he’s running a jet sweep … he’s catching passes downfield. He’s a fantastic weapon, and Shanahan uses him beautifully.
That said, San Francisco is technically on the road for the fourth consecutive week. (Caveat: their fans take over the Rams home field, so road rules don’t apply here – not in the normal sense.
Fact: In the last 35 seasons, teams playing four or more consecutive road games are 2-7 straight up and 1-6-1 against the spread, and that includes an 0-6 mark (0-5-1 ATS) in the postseason.
But again … is this really a road game for the 49ers? They’re not exactly intimidated at an LA venue that has a pro-Niner crowd.
And the DeMeco Ryan defense confounded Stafford in the two regular-season clashes; he threw four interceptions and had a 78.6 passer rating. The Niners picked him off twice – late in the game – when the 49ers won the final regular-season contest.
My Pick: 49ers 24, Rams 20. But I’m not real confident about that.
Pardon my typos.
Have a great weekend!
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz