2022 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

Here we are! The Final Four of the NFL Playoffs. The combined record of the remaining teams is 53-14 or 79.1%. I can't remember a Final Four being so strong. You might have to go back to the early 90's when the 49ers, Cowboys, and Bills were dominating the rest of the league. We should be treated to some entertaining games with all four teams loaded with talent. You can't ask for a better Conference Championship Sunday!

Last weekend's predictions were nearly perfect. I correctly had Kansas City winning by 7 points and the Eagles covering the spread. I also predicted a low scoring, tight game between San Francisco and Dallas that came down to the final second with of course San Francisco ending up victorious.

However, I was WAY off with Buffalo. They looked completely out of sorts against Cincinnati. To me that game was a head scratcher since Buffalo made several mental errors in the form of penalties, especially defensive pass interference. Twice Buffalo committed defensive pass interference on their own side of the field that led to 10 points for Cincinnati. Overall the Bills were called for 8 penalties for 60 yards while the Bengals had just 2 penalties for 9 yards. What was even more shocking was how well the Bengals offensive line asserted itself even with injuries to three of their starters. Joe Mixon and company rumbled for 172 yards on the ground on 34 carries. Combine that with penalties late in the game and the Bills season sadly came to a close.

Overall I am 9-1 straight up and 8-2 against the spread during the 2022 NFL playoffs. The model has performed well so what does the model like for this Sunday? No doubt the stakes are high so it is easy to over think these games and whiff badly. However, after digging deep to find reasons to support the model's outputs, I am confident we will have a perfect day. So what does the model like? Let's get down to business with analyzing the AFC and NFC Championship Games!

  1. San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles

I am becoming a firm believer that my newborn daughter Allegra is the reason why the 49ers cannot lose! She was born on October 23 in the evening which was a few hours after the 49ers lost to Kansas City 44-23. Since then my daughter has turned 3 months old and the 49ers winning streak sits at 12 games! I also told my students before I left for paternity leave on October 11 that the 49ers would be in the Super Bowl when I return to work which will be this Monday. Isn't it funny how the universe can work this way!

Now let's hope I didn't jinx my beloved 49ers. I try my best to be unbiased when writing about them and so far my pregame analysis has been supported by what has actually transpired on the field. For example, we knew Dallas would not be an easy out last week but the 49ers had several things going right for them. Home field advantage. Extra rest while Dallas was more road weary. Better kicker which would be critical in a close, low scoring game. Phenomenal red zone defense to counteract Dallas's exceptional red zone offense. Strong run game. Once all was said and done, it was the 49ers moving onto NFC Championship game, a place they are very familiar with whereas Dallas cannot seem to get past the 2nd round of the playoffs no matter how much money they spend at QB or who they hire as a head coach.

So what about this weekend? Have the 49ers finally met their match? Of course with each round a team advances in the playoffs, the competition gets more fierce. This kind of reminds me of the old Nintendo game Mike Tyson's Punchout. For those who are my age or older (40+), you know what I am talking about! You have Little Mac, the game's protagonist, who is a 17 year-old boxer from the Bronx. A scrawny kid who you have to box all the way to the top to face Mike Tyson, who at that time the game was published was the undisputed heavyweight champion and 31-0. After winning 12 consecutive fights, you face the penultimate game boss Super Macho Man. Interestingly the 49ers have won 12 games in a row and now they face the Eagles as their penultimate opponent before getting to the Super Bowl which would be like facing Mike Tyson in the video game. In some ways Brock Purdy is like Little Mac, an underdog who was drafted last in the 2022 draft who is still doubted by the so-called pundits on ESPN. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is like Doc Louis, Little Mac's trainer who helps his protege in his path to greatness despite the odds stacked against Little Mac.

If you want to go further with this boxing analogy, consider that Philadelphia was the setting for the Rocky movies. Rocky Balboa himself was an underdog who ultimately won the boxing heavyweight title. Balboa was an unknown like Purdy and it took a big win against Apollo Creed in the City of Brotherly Love to become a household name. This stage of the NFL playoffs is no different. The remaining QBs were all well known in college and entered the NFL with much fanfare. Not Purdy or Mr. Irrelevant. As you can tell, I am loving this underdog story and it will only get magnified should the 49ers figure out how to beat the Eagles on the road.

So how do you do that? How do the 49ers get past a formidable foe like Philly? After all, the Eagles boast one of the best rushing offenses in football. Here we have strength matched against strength since the 49ers have one of the best run defenses. Something has to give, right? Consider the Eagles' opponents. Yes, the NFC East was stronger than the NFC West. The Eagles had to play the Cowboys twice and the Cowboys are a strong team as the 49ers experienced for themselves last Sunday. The Giants were a playoff team and Washington almost made the playoffs. Meanwhile Seattle was the 2nd best team in the NFC West and is probably similar to the Giants whereas Arizona and the LA Rams were terrible this season. The 49ers also played the NFC South, a division where not one team had a winning record but the Eagles played a better division in the NFC North with a 13-4 team and two other teams that almost got to the postseason. Still, I am not impressed with the Eagles' strength of schedule mainly for one reason: they faced teams with horrendous run defenses.

I would say there were six games where the Eagles rushing offense feasted and those six games took place against teams that were shredded on the ground by other teams during the regular season. Check out the list below and how the Eagles rushing offense fared.

Week 1: Detroit (29th in rushing yards allowed); Eagles rush for 216 yards and 4 TDs
Week 9: Houston (32nd in rushing yards allowed); Eagles rush for 143 yards and 2 TDs
Week 12: Green Bay (26th in rushing yards allowed); Eagles rush for 363 yards and 3 TDs
Week 14: NY Giants (27th in rushing yards allowed); Eagles rush for 253 yards and 4 TDs
Week 15: Chicago (31st in rushing yards allowed); Eagles rush for 112 yards and 3 TDs
Week 18: NY Giants (27th in rushing yards allowed); Eagles rush for 135 yards and 1 TD

Do the math and that is an average of 203 rushing yards per game and exactly 3 rushing TDs per game. The Eagles went 6-0 in those games with a +59 point differential or an average margin of victory of 9.83 points per game. On the flip side, the Eagles went 8-3 in the other 11 games with a +74 point differential or an average margin of victory of 6.73 points per game. The rushing offense wasn't nearly as prolific in those 11 games and I would argue that it wasn't even half as good: 117 rushing yards per game and 1.27 rushing TDs per game.

The Eagles have not seen a run defense as good as the 49ers'. The 49ers don't just rank high this season but it ranks high among several seasons of NFL football. When you allow less than 80 rushing yards per game and less than 3.5 yards per rushing attempt, we are talking about championship level football. The Eagles did find a way to still put several points on the board against teams with a decent rush defense such as Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Arizona, and Tennessee (who actually allowed fewer rushing yards per game than the 49ers). However, the Eagles did so with the passing game and each of those teams were terrible at defending the pass, especially Tennessee which kind of redefined the term "pass funnel". While the 49ers may have allowed a decent amount of yards per game through the air, they rank high with QB rating allowed and DVOA for passing defense a metric you can find at the Football Outsiders site. Keep in mind that defensive end Nick Bosa is one of the best pass rush specialists in the league.

The bottom line is that I don't see Philadelphia having their way on the ground against San Francisco and probably won't have much luck moving the ball through the air either. Yes, the Eagles offense has been superb all year but they will be in for a rude awakening come Sunday just how Apollo Creed did not expect Rocky Balboa to put up such a strong fight in the first two installments of the Rocky saga.

As for the other side of the ball, how will the 49ers get points on the board against a good defense? After all, the 49ers won't have the luxury of playing at home and like the team they beat last week, they have one less day of rest compared to their opponent and a long travel day ahead of them. No doubt the 49ers will have to be strategic when they have the ball, just how Little Mac had to be strategic to beat the top boxers in Mike Tyson's Punchout (you would get knocked to the ground in the first 90 seconds if Tyson landed a punch on you). I trust that Shanahan will have Purdy utilize all the firepower at his disposal in a judicious manner. Running the ball will be key and occasionally the 49ers will get a big passing play when the time is right. It is strength against strength again with the 49ers passing offense and Eagles passing defense both rated high which makes the run game even more important for San Francisco.

The Eagles are beatable and one only has to look closely at the three games they lost this season. In each of those games, the Eagles lost the time of possession battle and the other team ran the ball very well. The loss to Washington is especially useful to consider since the Commanders had over 40 minutes time of possession and ran the ball 49 times for 152 yards and 2 TDs. They also had a +2 turnover differential in that game. Keep in mind that Jalen Hurts was healthy and the Eagles were riding an 8 game winning streak at that time. Also, that game was in Philadelphia. The result was an 11 point victory for Washington who entered that game as a 10.5 point underdog. New Orleans used a similar approach by running the ball well and dominating time of possession. The Saints won by double digits as well and that game was also in Philadelphia. In all fairness though, Hurts did not play in that game. Likewise with the loss to Dallas the week before.

Still, it seems that with or without Hurts, to beat Philadelphia you have to keep the Eagles offense off the field and not give them second chances by avoiding turnovers. You do that by controlling the clock and winning the turnover battle. Fortunately for the 49ers, they rank 2nd in time of possession at 53.26%. Guess who was 1st? Washington at 55.15%! And who was 1st in turnover differential this season? San Francisco at +13!

We could go deeper with the personnel on each team but no need to over think this one. The Eagles had a great rushing offense with several Pro Bowlers on the offensive line but those rushing stats were inflated against weak run defenses. The 49ers rush defense has played at a championship level, even against teams who run the ball well. Bosa is the exact player the 49ers need to rush the QB without having to blitz too often. On the other side of the ball, the 49ers have plenty of talent with their rushing offense such as Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, and Elijah Mitchell to deploy Shanahan's heavy run scheme this Sunday. That should keep Hurts and his teammates on the sidelines and help Purdy manage the game well and avoid turnovers in what will be his biggest test so far in his young professional career. Keep in mind that the 49ers can run block just as well as Philadelphia. They have All Pro players in fullback Kyle Juszczyk and offensive tackle Trent Williams. This game will be close but the 49ers will be the ones punching a ticket to Super Bowl LVII in Arizona.

Prediction: San Francisco 28 - Philadelphia 21

  1. Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs

If you made it this far, thank you! That was quite the analysis for the NFC Championship but I had to make sure I was not letting my 49ers bias get the best of me! As for this game, I can view it more objectively. I don't have an affinity for either team and I highly respect both of them. They are each well coached and feature star QBs. The problem is that one of those star QBs is dealing with a high ankle sprain. Logic dictates that he should not play and that he will be ineffective if he plays.

There have been a few key players in the Super Bowl who suffered a high ankle injury in the previous game and either toughed it out two weeks later or didn't play. Their teams ultimately lost in the Super Bowl. Here is that list.

2009: Dwight Freeney, defensive end for Indianapolis
2010: Maurkice Pouncey, center for Pittsburgh
2011: Rob Gronkowski, tight end for New England

High ankle sprains take 4-6 weeks to heal. I don't care how superhuman you are. You simply don't have the mobility you are accustomed to when your ankle is swollen. You can also throw in Eric Fisher (offensive tackle) for Kansas City) who tore his Achilles in the 2020 AFC Championship game (still a lower body injury) and missed the 2020 Super Bowl. Kansas City lost 31-9 to Tampa Bay two weeks later.

The point I am trying to make is that those teams relied on those players to advance far in the postseason and once they suffered an injury that restricted their movement, the team as a whole suffered.

No question Mahomes means everything to the Chiefs. Let's be honest, Mahomes is the engine for the Chiefs offense and even the defense plays better when Mahomes is on the field since he keeps the chains moving which gives the defense enough time to rest before their opposition has the ball. Mahomes is especially lethal when he is moving around in the pocket and in play action. He buys so much time with his footwork and is so adept at throwing on the run that it makes defending the Chiefs' offense a total nightmare for defensive coordinators.

However, Mahomes is a QB, not a lineman or tight end. Mahomes is not being asked to block or go after the QB where you need to consistently maintain balance, pivot often, and push off your feet after getting hit. One thing Mahomes has going for him is a very intelligent head coach in Andy Reid and offensive coordinator in Eric Bieniemy. I am sure they will come up with a game plan that will protect Mahomes' ankle. Perhaps they call more plays out of shotgun. Perhaps they run more with Isiah Pacheco who was highly effective last week. Perhaps they do more dump off passing plays to Jerick McKinnon and Travis Kelce who each had impressive seasons. Nothing against the Bengals defense but it's an above average unit at best. Mahomes still has his arm strength and home field advantage on his side. Plus Kansas City had an extra day of rest and no travel.

As for the Bengals offense, it is a legitimate squad. After all, Joe Burrow is 3-0 against Kansas City, including a win in Kansas City in last year's AFC Championship game. Ja'Marr Chase will do damage and perhaps some of his teammates will have solid games. Still, the Bengals offensive line is banged up. I don't know how it held up in Buffalo but what I do know is that Buffalo lacked a pass rush specialist. The defense was not quite the same after Von Miller went down. Chris Jones for Kansas City is a brilliant defensive tackle who has become a perennial Pro Bowler and finally made the First-Team All Pro this season after three season as a Second-Team All Pro player. He will make his presence felt and the crowd noise could prove troublesome for Burrow.

Another thing I think works to the Chiefs advantage is the point spread. I find it odd that the Chiefs opened as 1 point underdog at home in the AFC Championship (which has now moved to 1.5 points in favor of KC). That is a total slap in the face to KC. Yes, Mahomes is hurt. Yes, the Bengals are the defending AFC Champions and won in Kansas City last year to get to the Super Bowl. Still, the Chiefs won 14 games without Tyreek Hill this season and are playing in their 5th consecutive AFC Championship game (the duration of Mahomes NFL career). Furthermore, Mahomes passed for 5,250 yards, career high.

All of that speaks volumes about the offensive system Reid and Bieniemy have put in place and how well Mahomes runs that system who has had both Reid and Bieniemy as his mentors during his five years as an NFL starter. Mahomes' ankle injury does not help but the Bengals don't have the pass rush to disrupt Mahomes enough in the pocket nor do they have enough able bodies on the offensive to keep Chris Jones at bay. I trust that the Chiefs will be creative with their play calling to gut out a hard fought win in front of the Arrowhead crowd. This will be an epic game with an epic finish.

Prediction: Kansas City 28 - Cincinnati 27

There you go! Expect a rematch of Super Bowl LIV. This time the 49ers will get their revenge since they have a pass rush specialist to go after Mahomes who won't quite be fully healed 2 weeks from now and a strong blocking scheme to have its way on offense. But first things first, we need the conference championships to play themselves out. Buckle up this Sunday. It will be a wild ride!