The model is a picky bastard. It likes a Cheesecake sized menu, where it can discard those dumb correctly priced games and order up course after course of the mispriced games. When there's a selection of 2 games, there's a decent chance it's going to give a hard no on both of them, and that's exactly what we have here. Typically speaking, I write about the games we bet on in case people want to learn more about the game they're about to sweat, but at this stage everyone is watching everything, so why not preview them anyway. Without further ado..
Cincinnati @ Kansas City
Power rankings: Cincinnati 13, Kansas City 2
Spread: The Chiefs are a 7 point favorite. The model prefers Cincy with the points, but the strength is only at 0.70, well below the 1.89 threshold that we require before taking a wager (why 1.89? Read all about that here). The spread is perfect, and you should only bet it if you hate money.
When Cincinnati has the ball:
The Chiefs on offense are 18th in DVOA and 11th in EPA/play. Including the playoffs, Joe Burrow has the highest PFF passing grade (91.8), completes 70.7% of his passes (an insane 6% above expectation) and gains 8.8 yards per attempt. Stylistically, he has the 10th highest average depth of target (8.8) and the 14th highest deep passing rate (12.2%), but still gets rid of the ball fairly quicky -- his average time to throw of 2.63 seconds is 11th fastest in the league. Burrow has the highest PFF passing grade against the blitz (92.3), a trend that teams long since caught onto -- he's blitzed at a rate of 22.4%, 4th lowest in the league. Burrow hasn't had a single turnover worthy throw in 5 straight games -- his overall rate of 2.1% on such throws is 4th best in the league. He gets rid of the ball quickly, is accurate on deep passes, and keeps the ball out of harms way. The one drawback in Burrow's game is he has issues with sacks -- his pressure to sack ratio of 27.6% is 2nd highest in the league. Getting rid of the ball quickly is necessary behind an offensive line that ranks 30th in ESPN's pass block win rate metric. The strength of the line is the left side -- LT Jonah Williams and LG Quinton Spain are the two best players along the line, but both are better at run blocking than pass blocking. Since RT Riley Reiff (ankle) went down, Isaiah Prince has stepped in and allowed just about any pass rusher into the backfield who asks nicely -- he's allowed 17 pressures in the 5 games he's started. As bad as Prince has been, RG Hakeem Adeniji has been arguably even worse as a pass blocker. The Bengals will rely on Ja'Marr Chase (outside WR), Tee Higgins (outside WR), Tyler Boyd (slot WR), CJ Uzomah (TE), and Joe Mixon (RB) to catch passes. In his last 5 games, Chase is averaging 8.6 catches for 128.4 yards. He's been an unstoppable force along with former college teammate Burrow, to the point of making people not realize just how good Tee Higgins is. On the ground, Joe Mixon will handle the bulk of the carries behind a line that ranks 10th in ESPN's run block win rate metric. The Bengals run a balanced attack, ranking 13th in early down situation neutral pass rate, and have been slightly better throwing (15th in DVOA) than running (20th). On defense, the Chiefs are 24th in DVOA and 23rd in EPA/play. The defensive line specializes in pass rush, where they rank 7th in ESPN's pass rush win rate and dead last in run stop win rate. It's an interesting dynamic facing the Chiefs line who goes in the exact opposite direction. The Chiefs have, almost by design, been absolutely horrid against the run for quite some time -- if the offense is scoring at a fast pace, the opposing team can't rely on the run game to keep up with them. The strength of the pass rush is DT Chris Jones and DE Melvin Ingram, the latter the being a key trade deadline move with the Chiefs grabbing Ingram from the Steelers. Last week, Titans DT Jeffery Simmons dominated Hakeem Adeniji, racking up 4 pressures and 3 sacks. As good as Simmons is, Jones has been even better -- he has more pressures and a higher pass rush win rate. At linebacker, Nick Bolton has been strong against the run, but the entire unit has struggled in coverage. In the secondary, the Chiefs appear to be getting back CB Rashod Fenton (back), who has missed the last two weeks, but is practicing in full. Fenton is PFF's 3rd highest graded corner; quarterbacks have a 86.6 rating when targeting him. Along with Chavarius Ward and L'Jarius Sneed, it isn't necessarily the greatest cornerback room, but none are necessarily weaknesses either. We can certainly conclude that the Bengals receivers have a sizeable (pun intended) advantage. The Chiefs also have an above average safety tandem between Juan Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu. The latter left last weeks game with a concussion, but let's be real, it's the playoffs, he'll get cleared. Kansas City is generally a blitz heavy team, their rate of 28.1% is 8th highest in the league, but as mentioned above, that's been a bad idea against Burrow throughout the season. They're also 26th in DVOA against running backs as receivers, a trend of failing to cover running backs as receivers that's continued for a few years now. This matchup comes down to the Chiefs ability to get after Burrow, potentially exploiting his love of getting sacked before he inevitably finds an open receiver. If the game script allows them to run, Joe Mixon could turn out to be a problem.
When Kansas City has the ball:
It's a wonder the Chiefs even made it to their 3rd straight AFC Championship game. The internet hailed Mahomes as solved, simply play Cover 2 zone and you win. That strategy is straight forward -- with 2 high safeties you take away the deep ball. Don't blitz, sit back and allow Mahomes to kill you underneath. The bet here is he simply won't, and instead will force the ball down field. Not that it was a bad idea -- Mahomes had arguably his worst season of his career, finishing 13th in PFF passing grades (76.5), completing 67.3% of his passes (2.1% below expectation), and gaining 7.6 yards per attempt (hint: all worse than Burrow). Teams blitzed him at a rate of 15.2%, by far the lowest in the league (Roethlisberger was 2nd lowest at 21%). Mahomes's "big time throw" rate plummeted to 3.7% (he was at 6.7%, 5.4%, and 7.4% the last 3 years). His turnover luck also ran out -- where Mahomes threw 7 and 8 picks the previews 2 years, but threw 14 this year. That stat is a farce, as his turnover worthy play rate of 2.5% is actually the lowest of his career. Mahomes's "aggressiveness index," a stat from NextGenStats that tracks how often a QB targets a receiver when a defender is within 1 yard, put him as the safest QB in the league when he's typically top 3 most aggressive. INT luck debate aside, it was clear Mahomes was put out of his comfort zone. Of course, Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy aren't dumbasses, they see the same things we do (and then some), and have an ability to adapt and adjust. The notion that Mahomes won't kill you underneath turned out to be patently false; his average depth of target in his last 3 games have been 5.2, 5.9, and 4.8 -- far lower than his career average of 8.6. And here he is, yet again in the AFC Championship game, anchoring an offense that sits at 3rd in DVOA and 2nd in EPA/play, coming off a game where they put up 42 points against the best defense in football. As Dennis Green once said, "they are who we thought they were." Enough about Mahomes -- the offensive line is far from the train wreck that you saw in last year's Super Bowl, they rank 2nd in ESPN's pass block win rate and 3rd in run stop win rate. They spent big money in the offseason on LT Orlando Brown and LG Joe Thuney and brought in rookies Creed Humphrey (C) and Trey Smith (RG), both who have surpasses expectation. Humphrey finished as PFF's highest graded center -- he could potentially challenge Chase for offensive rookie of the year if anyone knew who the hell he was. If there's a weakness along the line, it's pass rushing against the right side -- RT Andrew Wylie has allowed at least 2 pressures in all but 1 game since week 8, and as good as Smith is, he's certainly a better run blocker than pass blocker. The Chiefs will, of course, feature Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce in the pass game. Byron Pringle has emerged as the number 3 option -- he ran a route on 46/56 dropbacks last week. Hill and Pringle essentially switch back and forth between who runs in the slot vs the outside. On the ground, Jerrick McKinnon had 10 rushing attempts last week to a Clyde Edwards-Helaire's 7, and also ran 41 routes where CEH only ran 11. CEH is now fully healthy, the expectation should be that a similar trend should carry forward. The Chiefs are, however, a pass first team, ranking 2nd in early-down situation neutral pass rate. They are 3rd in DVOA throwing the ball and 10th running it. I'm not sure that you needed my rambled mess to tell you that the Chiefs offense is really good, but you fucking got it anyway. The Bengals on defense are 19th in DVOA and 11th in EPA/play. The defensive line has struggled, ranking 25th in both ESPN's pass rush win rate and run stop win rate. The strengths are Trey Hendrickson (79 pressures and 17 sacks in total), and run stoppers DJ Reader and BJ Hill. It's worth noting that Hendrickson lines up almost exclusively on the right hand side, where he'll face off against the strength of the Chiefs line. The Bengals also lost DT Larry Ogunjobi (foot) in the divisional round, who was a solid pass rusher but a horrid run stopper. Their linebacking crew is objectively horrible, but they make up for it with a strong secondary. Chidobe Awuzie (outside corner), Mike Hinton (slot corner), and Vonn Bell (strong safety) have all put together strong seasons. Outside corner Eli Apple has been the one weakness, ranking 75th in PFF grades out of 122. FS Jessie Bates has had a down year after blowing up last year, but is still a solid player, and has been fantastic in the playoffs (in a world where 2 game samples matter) -- he's been targeted 5 times, but has allowed just 1 catch with 2 pass breakups and a pick. They hardly ever blitz (20.5% rate is 26th highest), a trend that should continue against Mahomes. They're been far better against the run (13th in DVOA) vs the pass (24th, that's not good) and also struggle against tight ends (24th, hint: the Chiefs have Travis Kelce). This is an advantage purely in favor of the Chiefs, as is most games. No wonder the total is 54.5.