Now that we know the last two stops on the road to Super Bowl LVII, let’s take an early look at some of the key matchups and factors in those two contests.
AFC Championship: Bengals at Chiefs -1.5
Patrick Mahomes intends to play with a high-ankle sprain. This is an injury that routinely sidelines NFL players for at least four weeks. Operating under the expectation that Mahomes starts this contest, our first concern is that his mobility will be greatly reduced. Mahomes is dangerous from the pocket, but he is among the greatest out-of-structure quarterbacks in history. His reduced ability to extend plays and manage pressure could lead to more conservative play-calling and a lower offensive ceiling from Kansas City.
Of even greater concern is that, even if Mahomes starts, there is no guarantee he’s able to finish this contest. Chiefs coach Andy Reid has gotten exceptional play out of backup quarterbacks in the past, but expecting Chad Henne to knock off Joe Burrow and the Bengals with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line is a big ask.
Buffalo didn’t exploit the Bengals’ injury-ravaged offensive line in the Divisional Round, but we can reasonably expect Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to bring pressure in creative ways. Chiefs premium defensive tackle Chris Jones has the ability to be a game-wrecker in this matchup.
The Bengals allowed the seventh-most yards receiving to tight ends this season. Their ability to manage Travis Kelce, along with their injury-reduced offensive line against Kansas City’s defensive front, are some of Kansas City’s biggest matchup advantages in this contest.
Joe Burrow’s Bengals are 3-0 against the Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs, which includes a victory in Arrowhead during last year’s AFC Championship. The Chiefs’ defense has been beaten up by slot receivers and tight ends lined up in the slot all season. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins both see around 20% of their snaps in the slot, but Tyler Boyd serves as the Bengals’ primary slot receiver. In fact, Boyd was third in the league in snaps from the slot this season, per TruMedia. Chase and Higgins are a matchup problem for everyone, but Boyd and tight end Hayden Hurst both have plus matchups themselves.
I took Burrow’s Bengals as a slight underdog against Kansas City in the regular season. If Mahomes were completely healthy, I would take the Bengals or pass in this contest. Considering that there is no guarantee that Mahomes will be able to start or finish this contest, I’ve already taken the Bengals again as a slight underdog.
Editor’s note: The Bengals are now slight road favorites due to Mahomes’ injury uncertainty. This isn’t unexpected, which is why I bet this game early. I never recommend betting bad lines, but if forced to choose I’d still lean toward the Bengals side given Mahomes injury uncertainty.
NFC Championship: 49ers at Eagles -2.5
The NFC Championship is a battle between the league’s two most talented rosters. Both teams have elite skill groups, premium defensive fronts, and top-ten offensive lines. Each side of the trenches in this contest is a strength vs. strength type of matchup. While both teams are absolutely loaded with talent with few weaknesses, there are a few matchups I have my eye on in this contest.
Jalen Hurts was the MVP favorite before an injury to his throwing shoulder cost him two games late in the season. After an underwhelming return in the regular-season finale, Hurts looked like himself again during the Eagles’ bludgeoning of the Giants in the Divisional Round. Hurts is a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback that can either tuck it and run or shred you in the air when he’s out of structure.
The one area the 49ers’ league-best defense has struggled with this season is against perimeter receivers. The Eagles have one of the best wide receiver duos in the league in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. Hurts and his high-end wide receiver duo are a tough draw for San Francisco on the perimeter, especially when Hurts is extending plays.
The Eagles are a well-coached offense, while San Francisco’s relies more on its scheme. Kyle Shanahan is a master play-caller who gets the absolute most out of his ridiculously talented skill group. Brock Purdy and the offense fell considerably short of their routine 30-point outputs against Dallas in the Divisional Round. That said, he played a clean game against a supremely talented Cowboys defense. Purdy will face the best defense he’s played in his career for the second week in a row.
No one could have realistically asked for more out of Purdy to this point, but expect the 49ers to be more conservative on offense against the Eagles as they were against Dallas. If Purdy can play another clean game against a high-end defense, San Francisco can leave Philadelphia with a win and a trip to the Super Bowl. However, the Eagles are better equipped to play from behind than Brock Purdy’s 49ers are.
This is a tough game between two teams that have built truly phenomenal rosters. I have not bet on this game directly yet, but the Eagles have more paths to a victory than the 49ers do.
I currently lean Eagles -2.5.