This conference championship weekend has the chance to be an all-timer. In a season where we didn’t have a runaway favorite in either conference, the NFL still ended up with the four best teams playing in this round. Two combined point spreads that total just 3.5! What more could you ask for?
What does a win for each team look like? Which matchups actually matter? Who will advance? On to the picks!
Lines are from FanDuel as of Thursday night. Stats are from TruMedia/Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
Divisional round: 3-1
Season record: 145-129-7
San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles (-2.5)
What’s the case for the 49ers?
Kyle Shanahan’s team has won 12 games in a row and leads the NFL with a plus-173 point differential. Among the four remaining teams, the 49ers have the highest DVOA. They’re one of three teams to rank top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Any way you slice it, this version of the 49ers deserves to be here.
Offensively, the numbers since Brock Purdy took over at quarterback are pretty eye-popping. If we take their Expected Points Added (EPA) per play with Purdy and extend it over an entire season, it would translate to the second-best offense in the NFL, behind only the Chiefs. As for Purdy specifically, among the 36 quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks, he currently ranks second in EPA per pass play, behind only Patrick Mahomes. There’s this idea that Purdy has gotten unusually lucky with plays that could easily be turnovers and, no doubt, we’ve seen some of those in his starts. But Pro Football Focus tracks turnover-worthy plays to measure which quarterbacks are benefiting the most from dropped interceptions or fumbles recovered by their own team. And just 2.6 percent of Purdy’s plays qualify as turnover-worthy. That’s tied for ninth-best in the NFL.
The question with Purdy is the same as it was with Jimmy Garoppolo in previous postseasons. It’s not: Is he a top-five quarterback? It’s: Can the 49ers operate like a top-five offense with him at quarterback? And the answer to that question has been yes. Purdy gets the ball to Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk—giving them the opportunity to make plays. He works the middle of the field. And, he’s shown more second-reaction ability than Garoppolo. If the 49ers play well offensively, we know what it’ll look like: They’ll run the ball, work the middle of the field in the passing game, and avoid negative plays.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have the best defense in the NFL. They do a brilliant job of defending the run and protecting the middle of the field. Their linebackers play with speed and violence. And as we saw last week against the Cowboys, linebacker Fred Warner’s brilliance and athleticism allows them to get away with things that other defenses can’t.
How many linebackers are doing what @Fred_Warner is doing?— NFL (@NFL) January 23, 2023
: #DALvsSF on FOX
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/WBXF8YHjXz pic.twitter.com/aKpP67OKxz
If there’s a weakness to the Eagles’ offense, it’s their performance against the blitz. Jalen Hurts ranks 26th in EPA per pass play when opponents send five or more pass rushers. Against four or fewer pass rushers, Hurts ranks fifth. On the season, the 49ers rank 20th in blitz frequency, but I’d expect defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans to be aggressive in this game and challenge Hurts. The Niners have allowed 30 points or more just twice this season. Their defense is capable of keeping them in pretty much any game.
What’s the case for the Eagles?
They are 15-1 with Hurts as the starter this season. The Eagles’ plus-164 point differential is second to only the Niners, and they also rank top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Aside from a two-game stretch in which the Eagles had to start Gardner Minshew while Hurts was sidelined with a shoulder injury, they’ve looked like a juggernaut this year.
Offensively, the Eagles have a diverse run game and the best offensive line in football. If there’s a weakness on the 49ers defense, it’s at corner, and the Eagles have two wide receivers in A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith who can do damage on the outside. Expect the game plan to include a lot of throws outside the numbers, and look for Hurts to take shots downfield like he does every week.
Defensively, it’s all about the pass rush. The Eagles have sacked opposing quarterbacks on 11.4 percent of their dropbacks. That’s the highest single-season mark in TruMedia’s database, which goes back to 2000. Edge rusher Haason Reddick, who has 17.5 sacks in 18 games, will need to win his matchup against right tackle Mike McGlinchey. The Eagles’ interior pass rushers, like Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox, should have advantageous matchups as well. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon needs to scheme up ways to take away Purdy’s quick, middle-of-the-field throws. If he can force Purdy to hold on to the ball and hesitate on his throws, the Eagles pass rush should be able to make some plays.
As of this writing, the status of Eagles slot corner Avonte Maddox—who hasn’t played since suffering a toe injury in Week 16—is up in the air. If Maddox plays, it’ll mean the Eagles have all 22 of their regular starters available for this game. If not, it’ll be 21 of 22. That’s almost unprecedented for this time of year.
Who you got?
The in-game coaching decisions will be worth monitoring here. Shanahan has been notoriously conservative in big games. Nick Sirianni has been aggressive all season with his fourth-down calls, and that’s given the Eagles an edge. If the game is close, this could be a big factor that swings it one way or the other.
The spread reflects a matchup between two evenly matched teams. For as well as Purdy has played, he’s now going on the road against a team with the best pass rush in the NFL. He’s been surprising everyone since he took over for Garoppolo, and Shanahan will position Purdy to succeed, but at the end of the day it’s still a tough spot. Hurts has answered the call all season long. The Eagles are healthy. They’re at home. And their pass rush can take games over. I like them to advance.
The pick: Eagles (-2.5)
Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs (-1)
What’s the case for the Bengals?
They enter Sunday on a 10-game winning streak, one victory away from returning to the Super Bowl for the second straight season. It’d be impossible to overstate how impressive that 27-10 win in Buffalo was last week. The Bills had not lost a game by more than a field goal all season, and their three previous losses came by a combined eight points. The Bengals just went up and down the field against them with ease. Cincinnati had seven real possessions and scored on five of them—three touchdowns and two field goals. Oh, by the way, they were playing with three backup offensive linemen!
This current Bengals team is better than the version last year that won the AFC title. Cincinnati ranks fifth in overall DVOA (fourth on offense, 11th on defense), compared to 17th (18th on offense, 19th on defense) last year. One big difference has been their run game. The Bengals ran 34 times for 172 yards (5.1 yards per carry) last week against the Bills. That type of performance is nothing new. They rank second in overall rushing efficiency, compared to 19th last year. The Bengals now have more solutions available to them. Joe Burrow can attack deep with Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, or he can methodically take the underneath stuff. This is just a tough group to defend.
Defensively under DC Lou Anarumo, this has been one of the NFL’s best-coached units. The Bengals have consistently outperformed their talent and shown an ability to change what they do on a weekly basis—depending on the opponent.
Who do you trust more in a big spot than Burrow? The Bengals have been underdogs 15 times in the last two seasons. In those games, they’re 12-3 against the spread and 9-6 straight up.
What’s the case for the Chiefs?
Maybe we’ll get Patrick Mahomes’s version of the flu game? Seriously! Mahomes is going to go down as an all-time great, and he’s in the prime of his career. We know his ankle isn’t going to be 100 percent, but the Chiefs have a full week to scheme around Mahomes’s limitations. That wasn’t the case during the second half of last week’s win over the Jaguars. They just had to adjust on the fly.
The Chiefs have one of the best offensive coaches of all time in Andy Reid and one of the smartest quarterbacks in Mahomes. I don’t know what the percentage is, but there’s a chance they come up with something brilliant. Maybe they’re able to run the ball like they did when Chad Henne was forced into the game last week. Maybe they have Mahomes live in shotgun and just get rid of the ball in two seconds on every snap. Maybe they go no-huddle to take the Bengals out of their creative looks and tire out their pass rush. Maybe it’s a combination of all of those things! That’s what’s so fun about this game. It’s a bummer that Mahomes got injured last week, but 20 years from now when we’re talking about how great he was, it’s possible that this game will end up being one of the moments we first bring up.
His Chiefs teammates are in an unfamiliar spot here. They know they don’t have Superman at QB and are going to need everyone else to step up to help Mahomes out—especially the defense. The Bengals backup offensive linemen did an excellent job holding up against Buffalo last week, but the Bills don’t have a great pass rush and their rushers were slowed by the snowy conditions. Are we sure Cincinnati is going to be able to deliver another great performance up front, especially if they have to play backup linemen again? (As of this writing, we don’t know if they’ll have left tackle Jonah Williams or right guard Alex Cappa.) It’d be no surprise to see Kansas City’s star defensive tackle Chris Jones go full game-wrecker mode and just destroy a couple of Bengals drives.
When Mahomes is healthy, there’s no doubting the Chiefs. Their résumé looks every bit like that of a Super Bowl contender. They’ve lost three games by a total of 10 points this season, and no loss has been by more than four points.
Who you got?
If they were facing a different defense, I’d be tempted to take the Chiefs here. Limited or not, Mahomes is still Mahomes. Plus, I feel like if you give Reid a week to figure out a solution to a problem on offense, he usually comes through.
Having said that, I think Mahomes’s expected physical limitations are going to be tough in this specific matchup. The Bengals have flustered him before from a game plan perspective. They can go into this one feeling good that he’s not going to be able to make second-reaction plays or scramble. They don’t need to necessarily blitz him. They just need to employ coverages and disguises that force Mahomes to hold on to the ball so that the pass rush can get home. The Bengals specialize in such game plans.
I’m not putting it past Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to come up with something special for this game. He’s plenty capable, given what we’ve seen in the past. But Burrow has the superpower we see from all the greats: an ability to problem solve. You might get him for a possession or a quarter or a half, but containing this version of Burrow with these weapons for an entire game is just going to be tough. Because of that, I like Cincinnati to advance.
The pick: Bengals (+1)