NFL Playoff Predictions: Our Conference Championship Picks
The matchups in this season’s conference championships are not just close, they are historically so, at least from a market perspective. The teams in both games are so evenly matched that the point spreads for the AFC and NFC championship games are each less than a field goal.
The Super Bowl-winning odds of the Eagles (+230), Bengals (+240), Chiefs (+280) and 49ers (+320) leave barely a glint of daylight between them, the first time in the recorded history of the NFL Betting markets that all four teams in the conference championships were this close. By comparison, the odds for last year’s final four were spread out between +125 and +900 going into championship weekend.
The relative parity in the AFC championship forecasts owes almost entirely to Patrick Mahomes’s high ankle sprain, sustained in last week’s divisional-round win over the Jaguars. Fears that Mahomes may not be able to play on Sunday, or will be so hobbled by the sprain that he can’t play effectively, have sent Kansas City’s stock plummeting: The team entered the playoffs as Super Bowl favorites and dropped to the third choice after the injury.
But probability and possibility are not the same thing. Last year, Kansas City was the +125 favorite to win it all while the Bengals were the +900 longshots, and the Bengals sent a healthy Mahomes packing. Cincinnati has won the last three meetings and has only lost to a Mahomes-led Kansas City team once.
Could Mahomes play hurt and still turn the tables on the Bengals? It’s not impossible. Could this weekend’s conference championships be boring? To install Improbable.
Last week’s record: 3-1
Overall record: 141-130-10
NFC Championship Game
San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, 3 pm, Fox
Line: Eagles -2.5 | Total: 46
Jalen Hurts seemed to address questions about the health of his sprained throwing shoulder early in last week’s divisional-round win, when he completed a 40-yard pass on his second play against the Giants. But the Eagles got out to a quick four-score lead, and Hurts didn’t need to do much to come away with the win. He finished with only 154 passing yards, his second-lowest total of the season.
That’s probably not going to work against the 49ers, who have the best linebacker trio in the NFL in Azeez Al-Shaair, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. They’re fast enough to keep up with receivers and tough enough to stop running backs in their tracks. Coupled with a staunch defensive line featuring Nick Bosa, the prospective defensive player of the year, San Francisco holds opponents to a league-low 3.4 yards per rushing attempt this season and put the clamps on the Cowboy’s top-3 offense last week. They’ll need another tightfisted game against the Eagles, the NFL’s No. 2-rated offense, which has kept defenses off-kilter by choosing wisely between the pass and run game.
The rookie quarterback Brock Purdy has won seven straight as the 49ers’ starter, with each successive game looking like the one in which his inexperience would be the team’s undoing. In the divisional round against the Cowboys, Purdy finally looked shaky and was held without a touchdown for the first time. He still managed to power a win over a tremendous defense.
Against the Eagles, on the road, the task becomes even more difficult. Philadelphia finished the season two sacks shy of the NFL record set by the Bears in the 1984 season (72), and got five sacks last week against the Giants. Purdy will be aided by an offense that thrives on short and intermediate passing — the better to get the ball out of his hands quickly — and teammates’ “everybody blocks” mentality, in which hybrid-skill position players get physical.
The Eagles have attracted over 90 percent of the money bet on this game, but every time this point spread touched 3 at sports books around the world, money came in on the 49ers and brought the spread back to 2.5. It’s a tight number in what will most likely be a tight game. All season long, we’ve leaned toward the underdog in games that felt this close, and we’re sticking with that strategy again this week. Pick: 49ers +2.5
AFC Championship Game
Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City, Sunday, 6:30 pm, CBS
Line: Kansas City +1 | Total: 47
Patrick Mahomes plans to play through his high ankle sprain this week, but because of the injury Kansas City is the home underdog for only the second time this season. Bengals defensive coordinator, Lou Anarumo, has thwarted the quarterback with second-half adjustments in each of their past three meetings, and if Mahomes is going to reverse the losing streak against Cincinnati, he will have to rely on his playmakers to keep the offense moving. . That’s especially true given that the forecast calls for below-freezing temperatures and snow that could inhibit big-play gambles.
Mahomes leaned on running back Jerick McKinnon as a passing option this season, where McKinnon averaged a team-high 9.7 yards after catch per reception (usually Travis Kelce’s annual honor). With the quarterback hobbled last week against the Jaguars, McKinnon saw fewer targets, a trend that’s likely to continue if Kansas City needs him as a blocker. That leaves Kelce as the primary safety-valve option, but when these teams met in Week 13, the Bengals defense held Kelce to four receptions and 56 yards, and linebacker Germaine Pratt forced a game-shifting Kelce fumble in the fourth quarter that allowed Cincinnati to seal the win.
The Bengals are steam-rolling teams as they did in the run up to its Super Bowl appearance last year, in no small part because Joe Burrow is taking fewer sacks than he did last season (41 vs. 51 in the regular season). The Kansas City defensive line should generate more pressure than Buffalo did last week without Von Miller, which could pose a problem for a Cincinnati offensive line that has three starters listed as questionable for Sunday. But the Bengals’ late-season win streak coincides with a rebuilt run game, and Joe Mixon’s big day (20 carries for 105 yards) last week was a big reason Buffalo couldn’t key in on Burrow.
The Bengals enter this game with a 13-5 record against the spread, but they’ve been a mixed bag on the road. Including the bye week, top-seeded Kansas City will have spent three straight weeks at home. Last week, we pointed out that Kansas City has had a hard time covering because it faced too-large point spreads at home that were inflated by an adoring public. This week, that isn’t the case.
The Bengals have been great at covering the spread largely because they haven’t had much market respect. This time they’re getting 73 percent of the money as road favorites. They’re finally getting the respect they deserve, but is it too late? It really all depends on that ankle. Pick: Kansas City +1
How Betting Lines Work
A quick primer for those who are not familiar with betting lines: Favorites are listed next to a negative number that represents how many points they must win by to cover the spread. Buccaneers -2.5, for example, means that Tampa Bay must beat the Seahawks by at least 3 points for its backers to win their bet. Gamblers can also bet on the total score, which is whether the teams’ combined score in the game is over or under a preselected number of points.
Betting-market data is taken from Action Network’s Public Betting data, and lines are taken from Unabated’s real-time-odds tracker.