What To Watch For In The NFL’s Conference Championships

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After a weekend of football that was, even by the divisional round’s usual high standards, probably the best in NFL history, we can only imagine what’s left in store for the rest of the playoffs. The last stops on the road to the Super Bowl? To start, we’ve got the two-time defending AFC champs taking on a dangerous upstart coming off its only two playoff wins in the past three decades. Then we’ll get a battle between very familiar division rivals coached by a pair of old friends. Although last weekend was a tough act to follow, this final four should give us plenty of excitement and drama.

For both of the games, in chronological order, let’s dive into what our Elo forecast model sees ahead, as well as the numbers behind why either team could engineer the victory.

AFC No. 2 Kansas City vs. No. 4 Cincinnati

3 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS

Elo favorite: Kansas City -10 (81 percent)
Consensus Vegas line: Kansas City -7

Why the Chiefs are favorites: Fresh off beating the Buffalo Bills in what might have been the greatest NFL game of all time, the Chiefs now face an easier opponent — in theory. Whether we look at Elo or other power ratings, Kansas City ranks significantly ahead of Cincinnati in overall strength, as we might expect from a team that has outscored opponents by nearly 50 more points over the entire season despite playing a more difficult schedule. Both teams count passing as their offense’s strength, but Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are more efficient at it than Joe Burrow and the Bengals: Across the regular season and playoffs, K.C. has a better total quarterback rating (66.3 versus 49.5) and adjusted net yards per attempt (7.35 versus 7.22) and more schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game (+7.72 versus +1.23) than Cincinnati. If the top-ranked Bills’ defense failed to contain the Chiefs at key moments, the Bengals’ middle-of-the-pack D would seem to stand little chance. On the other side of the ball, Cincinnati’s running game (No. 28 in EPA) isn’t likely to take advantage of K.C.’s biggest weakness — its 24th-ranked run defense — after producing just 3.4 yards per carry in two playoff games where stronger rushing could have helped. And Kansas City’s postseason experience cannot be ignored: The Chiefs’ 8-0 advantage in total playoff games played over the previous three seasons is tied (with New England versus Jacksonville in 2017) for the largest experience gap in championship-round history.

Why the Bengals can pull the upset: One huge reason that overall passing metrics favor Mahomes over Burrow is the latter’s propensity to take sacks. (The Tennessee Titans can attest to this after taking down Burrow nine times on Saturday.) But the Chiefs may not be poised to press that advantage. Although Kansas City can generate pressure, its defense ranked third-to-last in sack rate during the regular season. And if Burrow has time to stay upright and throw, he is extremely dangerous — witness the 446 yards, four TDs and 148.0 passer rating he dropped on the Chiefs in Cincinnati’s 34-31 home win over K.C. earlier this month. So look for Cincinnati’s aerial attack to go after a Kansas City pass defense that ranks just 20th in EPA, and for its defense to dial up more of the same coverages that helped hold Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to a combined 65 receiving yards — keeping K.C. to just 3 second-half points — in that earlier matchup. And if the game is close late, don’t be surprised if the Bengals’ strong special teams (No. 3 in EPA) plays a big role again.

NFC No. 4 L.A. Rams vs. No. 6 San Francisco

6:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Fox

Elo favorite: Los Angeles -4 (64 percent)
Consensus Vegas line: Los Angeles -3½

Why the Rams are favorites: After knocking off the defending-champion Bucs in a game that was mostly lopsided before taking an absolutely bonkers turn late, the star-studded Rams will now try to earn the right to host Super Bowl LVI by beating their in-state rivals to the north. And similar to how the Chiefs look better than the Bengals in the power ratings, Los Angeles has a clear edge over San Francisco — albeit a smaller one than K.C. has over Cincy. It starts with an upper hand in the passing game: While Matthew Stafford has been very sharp in the playoffs, leading a Rams attack that ranks fifth through the air by EPA, fourth in QBR, third in passer rating and first in adjusted net yards per attempt (including the playoffs), the 49ers’ passing offense is somewhat less impressive — ranking 10th, 17th, 12th and sixth, respectively — with Jimmy Garoppolo producing less-than-amazing individual numbers in the postseason so far. But L.A. may have an even larger advantage in pass defense. The Rams are sixth in EPA there, versus San Francisco’s 16th-place ranking. Garoppolo will likely have to contend with L.A.’s disruptive pass rush — the Rams rank fifth in creating pressure — and his QBR drops from 66.2 without pressure (11th among qualified passers) to an abysmal 8.1 (26th) when pressured. Plus, the Niners’ penchant for pre-snap motion — they’ve used it on a league-high 77.8 percent of offensive plays — could be of limited use against a Rams defense that allowed the NFL’s lowest QBR and third-fewest yards per play when opponents used motion. All of this could be bad news for San Francisco’s offense.

Why the 49ers can pull the upset: As good as the Rams have been against just about everyone else, the Niners have completely owned them head-to-head in recent years. San Francisco is 6-0 against Los Angeles over the past three seasons, including a sweep of this season’s matchups by a combined score of 58-34. Those contests provided lessons in winning two very different ways. In the first game, the Niners jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead and never looked back, running down the Rams’ throats for 156 rushing yards while Garoppolo significantly outplayed Stafford. In the second, San Francisco came back from a 17-point deficit, executed an impressive game-tying drive at the end of regulation and sealed the victory by intercepting Stafford in overtime. In both games, the Niners showcased a superior brand of physical football, outgaining L.A. 254-95 after first contact and outrushing them 291-116 overall. But what makes the 49ers so difficult to stop is that they also love to run to the perimeter with speed; nobody has rushed outside the tackles at a greater rate than San Francisco, at 30.9 percent this season, with RB Elijah Mitchell leading all non-QBs in yards on those runs and WR Deebo Samuel ranking sixth. These unique stylistic quirks make the Niners more formidable than they might appear on paper. Even though the Rams have the better overall team by the numbers, they will need to provide answers for San Francisco’s matchup dominance head-to-head before they can think about advancing to the Super Bowl.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.



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