maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): After an almost (sorry, New York teams) equally fabulous divisional round, we’re looking ahead to some fabulous football in next week’s conference championships, when the San Francisco 49ers travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles and the Cincinnati Bengals head to Kansas City to play the Chiefs. We’re going to discuss all four games in more detail, but let’s get right into it.
Are these the four best teams in football right now?
neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): I don’t see how you could say they aren’t. They are four of the top five teams in our full-strength Elo ratings and four of the top six in points-per-game margin across the entire season. And the only interlopers in those categories are the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys, who just lost head-to-head (and not in particularly fluky fashion). In a top-heavy season, these are the cream of the crop by far.
ty (Ty Schalter, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The easy answer is “yes” — not just because they’re the last four teams in the tournament, but because the tournament seeding captured team strength well, and the results have been rather chalky. The only upset this weekend, the Bengals’ 27-10 road win over the Bills, looked definitive. But even including playoffs, the Bills (No. 3, 155.03) and Cowboys (No. 4, 137.22) bump the Bengals (No. 6, 125.44) and Kansas City Chiefs (No. 5, 131.16) out of the top four in total expected points added, per ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Going by straight scoring margin gives us the exact same 1-6 ranking, by the way. DVOA still loves Buffalo so much that even recency-weighted DVOA has Buffalo at No. 2 overall.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Agreed, Neil and Ty. In point margin this year through the playoffs, the only real outlier was the Giants, way down at No. 23 with negative-30 points. So the only real question is: What does that say about the strength of the Eagles relative to the rest of the playoff teams that had to face real tests this weekend?
neil: For me, the Eagles’ big question was about Jalen Hurts’s health, given how he looked in the regular-season finale and those reports about him not being 100 percent on Saturday morning. But let’s just say he dismissed those concerns.
The Giants are a bad defensive team, but that would have been a clinic against anybody.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I guess I would have liked to see Hurts be a bit more prolific with his arm, as 6.4 YPA and 154 passing yards isn’t incredible.
neil: There was no need Josh, given how the Eagles got off to literally the best start possible.
maya: Right, he didn’t have to be more prolific! The Eagles had 44 called runs in a game where they dominated time of possession by more than 11 minutes.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It was the week of one-handed tight end catches. Dallas Goedert’s first-quarter touchdown started the Eagles rolling on Saturday against the Giants, and George Kittle’s one-handed double-bobble reception against Dallas sparked the 49ers’ lone touchdown drive.
maya: I think if you had given me these semifinalists a month ago, I would’ve said no way are these the best four teams. But here is where I owe the city of Cincinnati a serious apology. I wrote this team off way too early and didn’t pay that much attention to the offensive resurgence they’ve had over the past few months. Cincy put up 51 combined points against two top-3 scoring defenses in back-to-back weeks.
ty: I’m with you on Cincy, Maya. Last year I rang the bell on the Bengals early and often — but when they started the season 4-4, I slept on them not losing a single game after that.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Joe Mixon looked like he was running on a different surface than the Bills defenders. It was wild.
neil: Talk about clinics. I understood the Eagles getting off to that start against the Giants (even though I picked the G-Men for vibe reasons, LOL), but what I did not expect at all was for Cincinnati to get out to a pretty similar start against the mighty Bills, in Buffalo.
Buffalo had ranked second in fewest PPG allowed during the regular season. Joe Burrow and company made them look like, IDK, the Texans.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills needed Allen to put the team on his back like Mahomes does with such regularity. They have a very good team, but they need Allen playing his best ball to win Super Bowls, and he didn’t do that this postseason.
neil: What’s crazy, though, is that he had zero turnovers until that garbage-time pick late.
If you’d told me the Bengals went into Buffalo and won like that, I would have said for SURE that Allen turned it over four times or something.
joshua.hermsmeyer: He looked lost quite a bit though. His average time to throw was 3.2 seconds, higher even than Daniel Jones against the Eagles.
maya: I felt like Allen was spending a bit too much time looking downfield and not enough time looking for situational gains. I don’t want to call it hero ball, because that’s not really what it was, but he played more aggressively than I would’ve expected. As a result, he had the second-biggest gap between his air yards per attempt and actual yards per dropback this week, behind only Jones.
maya: Burrow should be first in that category, right? The Bengals had the most yards after the catch this week with 140.
Not bad for a team that came in with just one receiver in the top 40 in terms of regular-season YAC (Ja’Marr Chase, who tied for third on the weekend with 42 yards after the catch).
neil: One of the problems was that Cincy put them in a two-TD hole with just a little under 4 minutes left in the first quarter. Buffalo was battling back from that all game, and it seemed to send Allen into that aggressive mode early.
But the Bengals defense also shut down the Bills’ patented explosive offense, for the most part. They were fourth in explosive plays per game (7.1) during the regular season, but only got three of those Sunday (none of which went for scores).
joshua.hermsmeyer: Josh definitely chucked it up there, but he was off the mark in ways Buffalo fans aren’t accustomed to. Seeing Diggs yelling at him with his arms in the air on the sideline was a scene.
maya: His off-target rate of 15 percent this weekend was only off his regular-season average by three-tenths of a percentage point, though. Say more about how he was off the mark, Josh?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m thinking specifically of a sideline throw to Diggs that was overthrown, and the interception intended for Beasley. On passes over 10 air yards, ESPN charting has his off-target rate in the game at 26.7 percent, off his season average of 21.8 percent.
maya: Let’s move to the other team remaining in the AFC: The Kansas City Chiefs, who had a flawless first drive and then appeared to have a one-legged quarterback for most of the rest of the game. How much does a high ankle sprain for Patrick Mahomes cap the Chiefs’ ceiling?
neil: It seems like a significant problem for K.C. Mahomes ranked second in passing yards outside the pocket this regular season, so his ability to make those magic plays with his mobility is a key component of this Chiefs offense.
And with apologies to Jacksonville, the Bengals aren’t the Jaguars.
maya: Yeah, the out-of-pocket passing seems to be an issue. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Mahomes’s numbers were similar before and after the injury (he still managed a ridiculous QBR rating of 97.9 against man coverage on the game, the weekend’s best) — but he did not throw a single pass from outside the pocket after getting hurt.
ty: For what it’s worth, Mahomes has been No. 1 in raw QBR from inside the pocket all year.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If anyone not named Kyle Shanahan can design a game plan around a backup QB, it’s Andy Reid. But that’s probably small consolation to the Chiefs.
neil: Maybe this version of the Chiefs can survive a hobbling Mahomes more than, say, the 2020 version could. Their pass protection is much better this season, and they’ve relied on quick passing much more than in the past.
(If Mahomes plays, that is.)
maya: Mahomes has never beat the Burrow-led Bengals — Cincinnati is 3-0 against Kansas City since Burrow got there. Just sayin’!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Is this where we are supposed to mention the Chiefs’ improved run game?
neil: Give us the Isiah Pacheco love, Josh!
joshua.hermsmeyer: The seventh-rounder learned everything he knows from the first-round pick. You can’t spell Pacheco without C-E-H!
maya: Let’s return to the NFC, and the matchup we’ve got coming down the pike there. What’s the biggest wild card for the Eagles and the Niners?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the Eagles will need to continue to win on the ground, and I’m not sure how much success they’ll have if they try to do it the way they did against the G-Men. But most of their success — 11 of 16.6 EPA on runs — came outside the tackles. With the Niners’ rangy linebackers (that Fred Warner pass breakup on CeeDee Lamb was bananas), they will probably have to switch things up.
neil: Yes, the Niners defense is simply on another level compared with the Giants.
ty: The Eagles will need to cover the middle of the field. Per NFL NextGen Stats, the 49ers have targeted in-breaking routes at the highest rate in the league each of the last five seasons — and we saw Brock Purdy working those areas effectively against the Cowboys.
maya: How could it not be effective when you’re throwing to guys who need only one hand and one face to catch a ball?
neil: For San Francisco, I think one big wild card is that now they aren’t facing an opponent who will find ways to botch the end of a game in increasingly comical ways like the Cowboys did (and always do).
I don’t think the Eagles will be trotting out … whatever that last play call was by Dallas.
maya: The Eagles also don’t need to game plan around keeping their kicker off the field for as long as possible.
neil: Hah, yes, although Brett Maher made a few in the end! (After yet another botched extra point.)
Who would have guessed Maher would be so low on the blame list for Dallas losing?
ty: In theory, Neil, I like lining up skill-position players as ineligible “linemen” if you’re doing a planned many-laterals play. But whatever practice time was dedicated to installing that (a) clearly wasn’t enough, and (b) should have been spent on getting the punt team ready to line up faster at the end of the previous series.
neil: Let’s just say that play had a lot of “Colts punt vs. the Patriots” energy.
joshua.hermsmeyer: As someone who revels in the pain of Cowboys fans, it was the perfect ending.
ty: As I said on Twitter, that second-to-last possession was really where the Cowboys lost the game. Dak had time to execute a full, normal game-winning drive, and he immediately threw what should have been a pick, severely underthrew an open receiver on what would have been a chunk play, and took a bad sack.
neil: Oh yeah, for sure. Mistakes had already been made long ago.
In fact, their win probability slide began with that decision to take an intentional delay of game at the Niners’ 40 and then punt.
That was literally the last time they were above 50 percent to win.
ty: Yeah, that tight end Dalton Schultz made an absolute hash of nearly all those endgame boundary passes wasn’t the difference here.
neil: (Although that didn’t help! LOL.)
maya: That was tough to watch. There were just mistakes across the board. The Cowboys had the second-highest drop rate on the weekend, and while I don’t want to fully blame Prescott for some bad decisions, we’ve known his turnovers have been a problem for a while now …
joshua.hermsmeyer: Instead of blaming Dak, I’m giving credit to Purdy. He once again did the unthinkable for the last pick of the draft, and led all passers in the divisional round with 7.38 YPA.
ty: Iiiiii’m still blaming Dak. After he was so superlative against Tampa, I hoped we’d see him at at least close to his best again this week — instead, his performance was in his personal bottom-four games played this year per raw QBR, completion percentage over expected, adjusted net yards per attempt, and passing EPA.
maya: This game convinced me that Purdy is Good. He was so cool under pressure, zipping balls all over the field for his bajillion weapons. This was his seventh start. His SEVENTH!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Niners are Super Bowl bound, baby.
neil: On the one hand, this was Purdy’s second-lowest QBR in a start (53.1), a far cry from the 89.4 he had against Seattle in the wild card.
On the other hand, if the floor is a 53.1 QBR, that’s not bad! Only 17 QBs were above that for the entire season, and big names like Tom Brady were not among them.
joshua.hermsmeyer: He should be expected to struggle! But as Maya mentioned, he is always looking to make plays, and his scrambles are mostly smart, not panicked. He’s a game manager in the very best sense.
maya: I think the difference for Purdy was a bit more pressure this week. He faced almost twice as many blitzes this week than last, and had a contact rate almost 5 percentage points higher against Dallas than against Seattle.
But even against pressure, he wasn’t that bad! Purdy took pressure on a career-high 14 dropbacks, going 3-of-10, but he didn’t turn the ball over. Plus, he completed a career-high 84 percent of his passes when not pressured, per ESPN Stats & Info.
joshua.hermsmeyer: He also completed more passes than expected — a knock against him in the Shanahan system, where for most of the year he’s had a negative CPOE.
neil: Now let’s see what he does against the defense that had 15 more sacks than any other team this season …
maya: Given how talented the skill players are in San Francisco, I’m particularly interested to see how the Eagles generate pressure.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I actually think that Dallas D-line was a great test for what he’s about to face in Philly. I remain all-in!
neil: Well, the Cowboys have one Micah Parsons. The Eagles have four of them. (Or at least, four guys with at least 11 sacks, which is insane.)
maya: It felt like every quarter featured a different Niners receiver popping free. Brandon Aiyuk! Kittle! Deebo Samuel! Christian McCaffrey! And Elijah Mitchell just scampering through every gap whenever the team needed to wind down the clock.
joshua.hermsmeyer: CMC even took large portions of two quarters off.
(I know because I bet the under on total carries for him, and was sweating it all game.)
maya: LOL. Hope you took the under on the point total, too.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Anyone think the NFC champ wins the Super Bowl? Or are the AFC teams the toast of the league?
I’m torn, hopefully NOT like Mahomes’ ankle.
maya: I think if the Chiefs win but Mahomes isn’t 100 percent, it’s going to be like that 2021 Buccaneers-Chiefs Super Bowl. I would take either the Niners or the Eagles in that case.
neil: So much of it depends on the Mahomes injury. But conditional on K.C. winning the AFC, you’d think that would mean he was healthier than we might think right now.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bengals disrespect remains. Still, they almost lost to a Lamar-less Ravens team.
neil: No Bengals disrespect here! This final four is all pretty evenly matched now.
So I don’t think there’s any huge lopsided conference imbalance in a potential Super Bowl matchup, and the conference title games are also fairly close to 50-50.
The football should be really good next weekend.
maya: OK folks, I think it’s time to get everyone on the record. Let’s have your conference championship picks with some scorelines. I want circulate-on-Twitter-with-the-caption-freezing-cold-takes level stuff.
neil: I tried that last week, Maya.
(RIP Danny Dimes.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Niners 27, Eagles 10
Bengals 35, Kansas City 28
maya: Bengals 28, Chiefs 24
Niners 12, Eagles 7
ty: I’ve been saying for the past couple of weeks that the experience of lucking into a Super Bowl appearance last year might have given them the experience they need to go head-to-head with the AFC’s best and win decisively. Zac Taylor is coaching his brains out, and the patched-together offensive line has handled as strong a test they’ll face. I’ll take the Bengals in a barnburner, 37-34.
On the other side, I think Purdy’s magic toe shoes run out of magic. Eagles 27, Niners 17.
neil: Eagles 24, Niners 21
Bengals 27, Chiefs 24
maya: Did we overcorrect on the Bengals disrespect? I can’t believe all of us are picking against Mahomes!
joshua.hermsmeyer: I have a bad feeling about this …
neil: The entire NFL season revolves around his ankle!
(Also, Cincy literally beat K.C. in December, 27-24, LOL.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s cheating, Neil.
ty: And of course, this is literally a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game, which the Bengals also won … 27-24.
neil: Also Maya, 12-7? Why not just pick a Scoragami and get it over with.
maya: Ooh, I should’ve done that. How low-scoring can I go without making it too weird?
Regardless, these games should be terrific. I’m looking forward to them almost as much as I’m looking forward to never seeing those Verizon commercials with Paul Giamatti as Albert Einstein again.
neil: That’s something we can ALL agree on.
joshua.hermsmeyer: One more crypto ad, for the memories. All I ask.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.