NFL Best Bets: Championship Round

Last week against the spread: 2-2

2021 overall ATS: 40-41-1

1. Cincinnati Bengals (+7) at Kansas City Chiefs

On paper, this is probably only the third-most intriguing of the Chiefs’ four consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances. The best was Patrick Mahomes’s first, in 2018, when he matched up against Tom Brady and the Patriots in what could easily be argued as the best NFL playoff game up until the point where the Chiefs played the Bills last Sunday. The second-most interesting was last year’s AFC title against the Bills, even though it turned out to be a Kansas City landslide. The only one that was kind of a dud — objectively speaking — was the 2019 AFC Championship versus the Titans, which ended up a 35-24 Chiefs win.

Here are the respective spreads of each of those games:

2018: Chiefs (-3) vs. Patriots
2019: Chiefs (-7.5) vs. Titans
2020: Chiefs (-3) vs. Bills

That brings us here, to (the) 2021 (football season) [even though it’s actually 2022]). The Chiefs are 7-point home favorites in a game they have played four years in a row — all at home. The AFC North-winning Bengals could easily be the worst of all these teams, or they could totally come out and put up like 50 points against the Chiefs and go to the Super Bowl. It’s not easy to tell at this point.

If the Chiefs are who they appear to be — the class of the NFL — then they should win this game comfortably. Despite 2021 being Patrick Mahomes’s worst offensive season since he became a starter, I’d be willing to make the case that he has never been better, or more prepared for anything, than he is right at this moment.

That’s for the simple fact that this was the one year where defenses actually decided to change the way they played him. They collectively said no more to all the big plays we are so accustomed to seeing. They showed two-high safeties, protecting against the deep ball, and forced Mahomes to make seismic adjustments to score his points.

As a consequence, Mahomes turned into something of a rich-man’s Tom Brady. He grew comfortable taking the easy, short stuff, and rather than producing quick-strike drives he learned how to truly drive the ball down the field with multiple double-digit sequences over the course of games.

That means that, while he still has his fastball — and can still generate the big play when it’s available — he doesn’t always have to use it. He can rely on his strong offensive line and utilize the running game. He can hit Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill for 8-10 yards at a time instead of 20-30. And he can do what he’s always done: win football games.

The problem I have with this matchup against the Bengals is that Kansas City literally just had their craziest win of the last five years, and they did it against the universally-considered best or second-best team in the AFC. In many ways it feels like their mission of stopping Josh Allen and a potential Bills dynasty has been accomplished. It takes a helluva lot to come back from that the following week, in a game that’s much less of a coin flip and more of an expected win, and finish the job.

It’s also true that the Bengals played on Saturday, giving them an extra day of rest to prepare. I don’t think that’s a dealbreaker in this game — after all, the Chiefs’ defense never had to go on the field in overtime on Sunday — but it certainly can’t hurt a Cincinnati team that at this point is playing with house money.

The surest path to victory for the Chiefs is to beat the Bengals up early. Ideally Kansas City puts themselves in a position much like they did the first time these two teams played. At three different occasions — 14-0, 21-7 and 28-14 — the Chiefs had a two-touchdown lead. If they are somehow able to replicate that in this matchup they won’t lose.

But rarely do playoff games, especially championship games, work out exactly how you want them to. Joe Burrow has a ton of weapons, and he’s facing a Chiefs defense that has somehow lacked pressure and gotten beaten down in the secondary over the last month. I think Burrow has a lot of Mahomes in him, not necessarily from the playmaking side but the mentality that nothing is going to stop him. That can be a dangerous thing in a situation that he’s never been in. Ignorance can absolutely be bliss for the underdog.

I picture the Chiefs winning this football game, and advancing to their third straight Super Bowl. I just find, in my mind’s eye, that Kansas City will hold something in the range of a 10-point lead with 5 or so minutes to go. There, Joe Burrow will find a way into the end zone, and it will be up to Mahomes to make sure Burrow doesn’t see the ball again.

Score prediction: Chiefs 28, Bengals 24

2. San Francisco 49ers (+3.5) at Los Angeles Rams

No matter who wins this game, the head coach will be going to the Super Bowl for the second time. Rams head coach Sean McVay went in 2018 and lost to the Patriots, 13-3, and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan went in 2020 and lost to the Chiefs, 31-20. They are both good, they both have good teams.

But there’s just something about the 49ers that I really like. Maybe it’s the fact that their quarterback, Jimmy Goroppolo, never gets any respect. Maybe it’s that they are old fashioned and run the ball more than any other team. Maybe it’s that they have like four different Swiss Army Knives on offense who can run, catch, block… do everything.

Mostly, I just like San Francisco because I believe their roster — from player 2 to player 53 — is better than the stars and scrubs roster of the Rams. No one is doubting that Matthew Stafford is a better quarterback than Jimmy G. And no one is doubting that individual playmakers such as Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Jalen Ramsey and Cooper Kupp are probably better at their specific position than any of the counterparts who play for the 49ers.

Collectively, however, what the Rams are good at the 49ers are also good at. The pass rush that Donald and Miller provide get somewhat negated against one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Jalen Ramsey has been one of the best corners in the game for the last half-decade, but the 49ers don’t have a single weapon he can erase. And the 49ers would rather not pass the ball, anyway.

In other words, the Rams would probably be better equipped to beat a team like Kansas City or Cincinnati in the Super Bowl. But they aren’t necessarily the best matchup for a team like San Francisco, who uses all manner of offense and defense and special teams to win by whatever means necessary. It’s a strange dynamic, but it’s also what makes the NFL so great.

Because you aren’t building a team to win one specific matchup; you build teams who can do everything, and beat anybody — in theory. It’s for that reason that I just believe the Niners are the wrong matchup for the Rams. I think the very best players for Los Angeles are somewhat negated against a team that doesn’t really rely on superstars.

Score prediction: 49ers 30, Rams 27

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