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NFL Playoff Predictions: Our picks for the conference championship

 

Matchups in conference championships this season aren’t just close, they have historically been, at least from a market standpoint. The teams in both games are so evenly matched that the point difference for the AFC and NFC championship games is less than a field goal.

The Super Bowl winning odds of the Eagles (+230), Bengals (+240), Chiefs (+280) and 49ers (+320) barely leave a glimmer of light between them, the first time in recorded NFL history betting markets that all four teams in conference championships were so close. By comparison, the odds for last year’s final four were between +125 and +900 at the start of the championship weekend.

The relative parity in the AFC championship predictions is due almost entirely to Patrick Mahomes’ sprained ankle sustained in last week’s divisional round win against the Jaguars. Fears that Mahomes might not be able to play on Sunday, or will be so hampered by the sprain that he can’t play effectively, sent Kansas City’s stock plummeting: The team entered the playoffs as Super Bowl favorites and fell to the third pick 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 shipped a healthy Mahomes packing. Cincinnati has won its last three meetings and lost only once to a Kansas City team led by Mahomes.

Could Mahomes play poorly and turn the tables on the Bengals again? It’s not impossible. Could this weekend’s conference championships be boring? Unlikely.

Last week’s record: 3-1

Overall record: 141-130-10

San Francisco 49ers to Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, 3pm, Fox

Line: Eagles -2.5 | Total: 46

Jalen Hurts appeared to be answering questions about the health of his dislocated shoulder early in last week’s Division Round win when he completed a 40-yard pass on his second play against the Giants. But the Eagles pulled to a quick four-point lead and Hurts didn’t need to do much to get the win. He finished with just 154 passing yards, his second-lowest total of the season.

It probably won’t work against the 49ers, who have the best trio of linebackers in the NFL in Azeez Al-Shaair, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. They are fast enough to keep up with the receivers and tough enough to stop going back. Coupled with a solid defensive line with Defensive Player of the Year prospect Nick Bosa, San Francisco is holding opponents to a minimum of 3.4 yards per rushing attempt this season and has put the Clamps on the Cowboy’s top-3 offense in La last week. They’ll need another close-fisted game against the Eagles, the No. 1 offense. 2, which kept defenses out of place by choosing wisely between the pass and run game.

Rookie quarterback Brock Purdy went on a seven-game hitting streak as the 49ers’ starter, with each subsequent game looking like 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 get a victory over a huge defense.

Against the Eagles away, the task becomes even more difficult. Philadelphia finished the season two sacks short of the Bears’ NFL record set in the 1984 season (72), and caught five sacks last week against the Giants. Purdy will be aided by an offense that thrives on short, in-between passes — the best way to get the ball out of his hands quickly — and teammates’ “everyone blocks” mentality, where positional players of hybrid skill get physical.

The Eagles attracted over 90 percent of the money wagered on this game, but every time this point spread hit 3 in sports betting around the world, the money came to the 49ers and brought the spread back to 2, 5. That’s a tight number in what will most likely be a tight match. All season long, we’ve been leaning towards the underdog in games that felt so close, and we’ll continue to follow that strategy this week as well. Pick: 49ers +2.5

Cincinnati Bengals in Kansas City, Sunday, 6:30 p.m., CBS

Line: Kansas City +1 | Total: 47

Patrick Mahomes plans to overcome his high ankle sprain this week, but the injury leaves Kansas City underdogs at home for only the second time this season. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has stymied the quarterback with second-half adjustments in each of the past three meetings, and if Mahomes is to reverse his losing streak to Cincinnati, he’ll have to depend on his playmakers to keep the offense moving. . This is especially true given the forecast calls for sub-zero temperatures and snow which could inhibit big bets.

Mahomes has leaned on running back Jerick McKinnon as a passing option this season, where McKinnon has averaged 9.7 yards after a catch per reception (usually Travis Kelce’s annual honor). With the quarterback limping last week against the Jaguars, McKinnon saw fewer targets, a trend that will likely 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-changing fumble by Kelce in the fourth quarter which allowed Cincinnati to seal the victory.

The Bengals are steamy teams as they did in the run-up to its Super Bowl appearance last year, in large part because Joe Burrow is taking fewer sacks than he did last season (41 vs. 51 in the regular season). Kansas City’s defensive line is expected to generate more pressure than Buffalo 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 streak coincides with a rebuilt run game, and Joe Mixon’s (20 carries for 105 yards) big day last week was a major reason Buffalo failed to get into Burrow .

The Bengals go into this match with a 13-5 record against the spread but have been a mixed bag on the road. Including the week of the bye, the top seed Kansas City will have spent three consecutive weeks at home. Last week, we pointed out that Kansas City had a tough time covering because it faced too-large home point spreads that were inflated by an adoring crowd. That’s not the case this week.

The Bengals have been great at covering the spread largely because they haven’t had much market respect. They get 73 percent of the money this time around as street favourites. They’re finally getting the respect they deserve, but is it too late? It really all comes down to that ankle. Choose: Kansas City +1

A quick introduction for those unfamiliar with bet lines: Favorites are listed next to a negative number representing how many points they need to win to cover the spread. Buccaneers -2.5, for example, means Tampa Bay must beat the Seahawks by at least 3 points for its supporters to win the bet. Gamblers can also bet on the total score, i.e. whether the combined score of the teams in the game is above or below a pre-selected number of points.

The betting market data is taken from Action Network’s public betting data and the lines are taken from Unabated’s live odds tracker.

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