"In '87, Huey released this; Fore!, their most accomplished album. I think their undisputed masterpiece is "Hip To Be Square". A song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it's not just about the pleasures of conformity and the IMPORTANCE OF TRENDS. It's also a personal statement about the band itself." - Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.
By now you are probably wondering why on Earth am I quoting a movie from 22 years ago. Have I lost my mind like Patrick Bateman? Am I just trying to fit in in an attempt to seem knowledgeable? LOL! For those who know me well, that is perhaps one of my favorite movie lines ever and I recall laughing my ass off the first time I saw that scene with Bale and Jared Leto. OK, maybe I secretly idolize actors who play sociopaths to a tee but I bring up that quote because it's the IMPORTANCE OF TRENDS I want to discuss in my analysis of the NFC and AFC Title games this weekend. Wild Card predictions went well when I considered trends. Divisional predictions were not so hot but boy was that a crazy weekend of endings! Each game came down to the wire!
For the NFL's version of the Final Four, I think my predictions will be more reliable and there are some trends I want to share that will back up my prognostications. Additionally, I have decided to make a necessary change to the input of my model. Instead of using conventional DVOA from Football Outsiders, I will be using weighted DVOA. This should be a more reliable metric since it takes into account how the remaining NFL teams are playing right now and it also adjusts to strength of schedule. Here is my model's output for this ever so important weekend of football before we are down to two teams to play for all of the marbles in Hollywood.
Again, the model loves the 49ers. Last week it had them favored to win by 3 points and a 3 point road victory is what happened at Lambeau Field for the so called "Team of Destiny". The model also likes the Chiefs to cover the point spread. The Bengals are a dangerous offense that can "back door" us when betting against the spread with a late surge to make the game interesting. Without further ado, here are my predictions for the AFC and NFC Championship games.
- AFC Championship: Kanas City 32 - Cincinnati 20
With Andy Reid as head coach from 2013 until how, the Chiefs rarely lose to the same opponent twice in the same season. It has happened just four times: Denver in 2013, Denver in 2014, Pittsburgh in 2016, and New England in 2018. The Broncos were a very strong team from 2013 - 2015 with Peyton Manning putting up record breaking numbers and leading the Broncos to two AFC titles and one Super Bowl victory. The Steelers and Patriots were the class of the AFC from 2016 - 2018. That is before Patrick Mahomes took the helm and ultimately became the best QB in the universe. The Chiefs won't forget about the game they let slip away to Cincinnati during Week 17 when they were up 28-14 near the end of the 1st half. If not for the Bengals comeback, the Chiefs would be riding an 11 game winning streak. This time the game will be in Kanssas City where the fans will be loud and super amped up after witnessing a miraculous victory (and arguably one of the greatest endings ever to an NFL game) the week before.
There are two other issues facing Cincinnati: (1) the high number of sacks Joe Burrow has had to endure this season and (2) Cincinnati's mediocre pass defense. Mediocre won't cut it against a prolific passing offense like the Chiefs. The Bengals don't have much of a pass rush meaning that Mahomes will have plenty of time to slice and dice the Bengals secondary. With the Chiefs putting up points on almost every drive and doing so in a more methodical manner than in prior seasons, there will be pressure for Burrow to make big plays just to have the game within reach. The Bengals certainly have the talent on offense to keep pace with Kansas City should the game turn into a track meet but when you factor in the crowd noise and weak pass protection, I can see several drives for Cincinnati resulting in three and outs, especially if Burrow is sacked for big losses.
The Chiefs should have no problem going up by 2 TDs early and maintaining that margin for most of the game. Perhaps the Bengals will make things interesting by scoring on a big play with a few minutes left but Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce will quickly remind the Bengals and the entire viewing audience why they have dominated the AFC since 2018 by gaining a few first downs as the clock winds down to earn Kansas City a third consecutive AFC crown.
- NFC Championship: San Francisco 25 - LA Rams 23
I will keep this simple. There are three reasons why the 49ers continue their magic carpet ride.
Reason #1: Since 1950, teams that swept an opponent during the regular season and then faced them again in the playoffs won the playoff game 67.9% (19 for 28) of the time. There is a reason for that strong percentage: the NFL team who goes 3-0 against a familiar opponent simply matches up better.
Reason #2: Since 1990, wild card teams which made it to the conference championship go onto the Super Bowl 46.67% (7 for 15) of the time. In fact, 6 of those 7 teams wound up winning the Super Bowl with the 2020 Tampa Bay Bucs being the most recent team to pull off that feat. The one team which didn't win the Super Bowl was the 1999 Tennessee Titans (interestingly they played the Rams that year) but were just one yard away from tying the game as the final second in regulation ticked off.
Reason #3: When the Rams have lost during the Sean McVay era (2017-2021), it's usually due to being out gained on the ground and turning over the ball. The Rams have lost 29 games (playoff included) with McVay as the head coach. For 68.7% of those losses, the Rams rushing yards were less than the opposition. As for turnovers, the Rams gave away the ball at least twice for 65.5% of those games. During the last 5 years, when the Rams win (60 such games), they lost the rushing battle just 18 times (30%) and committed at least two turnovers only 15 times (25%). In fact, the Rams gave up an average of 137.62 rushing yards per game during their losses and averaged 2.21 turnovers. For their 60 wins, the opposition managed only 95.97 yards per game and the Rams gave up the ball 1.52 times per game.
Since the Rams-49ers first game of the 2021 season on Monday Night Football on Nov. 15 (Week 10), the 49ers have gone 9-2 thanks to a strong rushing attack and a penchant for taking away the ball. Only twice during that 11 game stretch did the 49ers not reach 100 rushing yards and also just twice they lost the rushing battle to their opposition. Both events happened at the same time to two opponents: Seattle and Tennessee. 49ers lost both of those games but didn't lose by much. Even if we include those two games, the 49ers have averaged 139.64 rushing yards per game and six times they have forced the opposition to commit at least 2 turnovers since their 31-10 ass kicking of the Rams on national TV.
In summary, the Rams typically lose when the other team runs the ball better and forces turnovers. That is precisely how the 49ers have made it this far and how they will beat LA for a 3rd time this Sunday. Expect pass rush specialist Nick Bosa to bring relentless pressure to Matt Stafford, Deebo Samuel to pile up yards both on the ground and through the air, and place kicker Robbie Gould to maintain his perfection in the postseason by kicking a game winner for a return trip to LA For Super Bowl LVI.
There you have it. Chiefs cover and 49ers win straight up. Remember, TRENDS will be the theme for this weekend. The Chiefs typically avenge losses earlier in the season and teams who dominate a divisional opponent maintain that dominance in the postseason. Gear up for a rematch of the Super Bowl two years ago! Perfect for a Hollywood sequel!