FOX Sports NFL Writer
The NFL’s conference championships are finally here! Two exciting matchups will take place over the weekend, including the big San Francisco 49ers-Philadelphia Eagles showdown on FOX and the FOX sports app.
I ran my models to give you my favorite betting edges and predictions for each game in this weekend’s slate. My goal for this weekly column is to always provide you with nuggets you didn’t know before reading this piece.
Let’s take a look at my favorite edges of the week, with odds courtesy of FOX Bet.
Cincinnati Bengals (14-4) at Kansas City Chiefs (15-3), 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Last week I was down on the Bills’ defense. The Bills had played a ton of bad offenses, and when they stepped up in class to face a decent offense, they were exploited.
The Chiefs have played five games against offenses that ranked top-15 this season. While they went 3-2 in those games, what was more impressive was what their defense was able to do. Aside from their game vs. the Bengals (27-24 loss):
They held the Bills to 24, 49ers to 23, Jaguars to 17 and then 20, and Seahawks to 10.
Two things I really was down on regarding the Bills’ defense, which I thought would provide opportunity for the Bengals’ offense, was the Bills lack of pressure and their performance against short, quick passing.
First, the pressure. Prior to Von Miller’s loss, Buffalo ranked fourth in pressure rate while blitzing at the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL. Since his loss, the Bills ranked 24th in pressure rate despite blitzing at the 13th-highest rate. And they ranked 30th in pressure rate since Week 15.
That’s not an issue for the Chiefs. In fact, since Week 12, the Chiefs are recording pressure at the NFL’s sixth-highest rate despite blitzing at the NFL’s 10th-lowest rate.
And down that stretch, out of six defenses with a pressure rate above 38%, the Chiefs are the only defense to record that pressure rate despite blitzing on less than 23% of dropbacks (they blitz on just 21.6% of dropbacks).
The Chiefs have been a top-10 pressure rate team all season long, but unlike the Bills, they didn’t drop off at all.
So how have the Chiefs been defending short, quick WR throws?
We have a full sample size from that Bengals game earlier this year (Week 13) where the Chiefs allowed Joe Burrow to go 10-of-12 for 8.8 YPA, +0.73 EPA/att and 83% success when passing in fewer than 2.5 seconds. That’s not great.
But the Bengals did have all three starting offensive linemen in that game and will be without them in this one.
Since that Week 13 game, and including the first playoff game, vs. WR passes thrown in fewer than 2.5 seconds, the Chiefs defense ranks first in success rate, fifth in EPA/att and sixth in YPA.
Naturally they faced plenty of bad offenses in that range, but against the fifth-ranked Jaguars’ pass attack (which is statistically better than the sixth-ranked Bengals’ pass attack), the Chiefs’ defense held Trevor Lawrence to:
- -0.48 EPA/att, 36% success, 4.6 YPA and 9-of-14 on passes to WRs thrown in under 2.5 seconds
And against the Seahawks’ and Raiders’ passing attacks, both of which rank above average, the Chiefs held them to:
- -0.02 EPA/att, 35% success, 6.1 YPA and 15-of-23 on passes to WRs thrown in under 2.5 seconds
This secondary has shown improvement with the healthy return of Trent McDuffie in Week 9.
The bottom line?
The Chiefs’ defense is better than the Bills in both of those two key areas: pressure and pass defense vs. quick WR passes.
When you look at last week’s game to see the way the Bengals jumped out to put up 14 points in the first quarter, one thing stands out:
The first two drives of the game the Bills sat back in a soft zone and let the Burrow have anything he wanted. They played man on just 6% of the Bengals’ snaps and on 0% of Burrow’s pass attempts.
The Bills primarily played 2-high (8-of-9 dropbacks) in forms of Cover-6, Cover-4 and Cover-2, and one snap of Cover-3. Burrow shredded them.
So the Bills made an adjustment on the Bengals’ third drive of the game.
They played man on 33% of Bengals’ snaps on that next drive, and combined to close the half over three drives, the Bills played 28% man. They used Cover-1 man more than any other defensive coverage on those next two drives.
When the Bills played man (mostly Cover-1 but one snap of 2-man) they held Burrow to:
- -0.50 EPA/att, 17% success, 1.5 YPA, 1-of-5 for 20% completions
When they played zone:
- +0.40 EPA/att, 50% success, 6.3 YPA, 5-of-8 for 63% completions
On the season, look at Burrow’s splits by coverage scheme:
- 2-man: -0.31 EPA/att, 36% success, 5.4 YPA, 42% comp (14 dropbacks)
- Cover-0 man: -0.14 EPA/att, 54% success, 3.8 YPA, 58% comp (26 dropbacks)
- Cover-1 man: +0.07 EPA/att, 45% success, 8.7 YPA, 57% comp (132 dropbacks)
- Cover-3 zone: +0.03 EPA/att, 48% success, 7.2 YPA, 72% comp (178 dropbacks)
- All 2-high zone: +0.09 EPA/att, 49% success, 7.4 YPA, 74% comp (339 dropbacks)
Burrow and the Bengals have solved 2-high zone for themselves.
The Bengals struggled massively vs. 2-high zone to start the year, even though they expected to see more of it entering the season. But look at what happened from Week 6 onward:
- Weeks 1-5 vs. 2-high zone: -0.25 EPA/att, 39% success, 6.3 YPA, 71% comp
- Weeks 6-plus vs. 2-high zone: +0.24 EPA/att, 54% success, 7.9 YPA, 76% comp
Cincinnati has become much better and yet teams are still throwing it at them as if it might cause them problems when it has not.
In Week 13, the Bengals shredded the Chiefs usage of 2-high zone, recording +0.58 EPA/att, 64% success, 10.7 YPA, 12-of-13.
Steve Spagunolo must figure out a different strategy to attack Burrow from a coverage perspective, potentially dramatically increasing their usage of 2-man which has been their best defense to close the season (-0.42 EPA/att, 21% success, 5.0 YPA and 35% completions).
Aside from coverage, the biggest key for this game when the Bengals have the ball is pressure.
When the Chiefs get pressure, they rank first in EPA/att, second in success rate, first in YPA (3.6) and sixth in completion rate (42%).
When they don’t get pressure, KC’s defense ranks 32nd in EPA/att, 25th in success rate, 24th in YPA (7.8) and 32nd in completion rate (75%).
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When the Chiefs have the ball, they’ve done just fine vs. this Bengals’ defense.
While the Bengals are 3-0 in these games against the Chiefs, Kansas City has:
- led these games by 18, 14 and 7 points
- never trailed entering the fourth quarter
- trailed for an average of only 15 minutes each game
- trailed for an average of only 7:52 in each second half
But Lou Anarumo always has something up his sleeve to slow down Patrick Mahomes. And generally speaking, it revolves around one key principle: Make Mahomes hold onto the ball.
In their very first meeting in the regular season last year, Mahomes was dicing up Anarumo’s defense in the first half. He played a ton of zone coverage. So he shifted to substantially more man coverage in the second half.
In the AFC Championship, Anarumo started the game playing zone, like he did the first meeting, but didn’t blitz much. Then he adjusted to play a lot more man and used a ton of drop-8 coverage, rushing only three players and dropping eight into coverage. This resulted in Mahomes holding the ball longer and longer.
And earlier this year, Anarumo rarely used drop-8 coverage, but sent slightly more blitzes while playing less 2-high.
The end result of all of this scheming?
Mahomes has held the ball an average of 2.9, 3.1 and 3.1 seconds in the three meetings with the Bengals, which are his two longest time to throw games since 2020, and the 2.9 seconds was his sixth-longest time to throw game.
What did Anarumo notice?
Since 2020, when Mahomes averages less than 2.75 seconds per throw in a game, he is 33-1.
When Mahomes holds the ball for at least 2.75 seconds per throw on average, he is 12-10, including 2-5 when averaging 3.0 seconds per throw or longer.
In Mahomes last game, he completed only 59% of his passes for 223 yards, his third-lowest yardage game of the season.
The other element to these games are reduced drive volume:
- Week 13, 2022: eight drives (season-low)
- Week 17, 2022: nine drives (only two other weeks saw lower drive numbers)
- Conference Championship 2022: 10 drives
This enhances the importance of drives and magnifies mistakes and, in the case of the Chiefs, turnovers.
This game is exceedingly difficult to handicap given the unknowns surrounding Patrick Mahomes, but he did look substantially spryer than expected in Wednesday practice.
I expect a shorter passing, quicker release from Mahomes which plays against what Lou Anarumo wants him to do, which is hold the ball.
In three games vs. Anarumo:
- Passes thrown < 1.8 seconds: +0.21 EPA/att, 57% success, 6.1 YPA, 81% comp, 2.0 air yards (22 att)
- Passes thrown 1.9 – 2.5 seconds: -0.14 EPA/att, 58% success, 7.9 YPA, 73% comp, 5.7 air yards (31 att)
- Passes thrown 2.6 – 3.5 seconds: +0.38 EPA/att, 55% success, 9.8 YPA, 68% comp, 10.5 air yards (29 att)
- Passes thrown over 3.5 seconds: -0.20 EPA/att, 32% success, 5.4 YPA, 43% comp, 15.2 air yards (25 att)
Because the Bengals blitz at a below-average rate, Mahomes should be able to dink and dunk underneath if he stays disciplined. I don’t think he will be able to scramble around for over 3.5 seconds on a regular basis even if he wanted to on his ankle. So this comes down to whether Andy Reid can give Mahomes the fastest answers to the test and whether Mahomes buys into the game plan and throws them, even though they aren’t the challenging and exhilarating passes he’s so fond of completing.
Two reasons I’m a supporter of the Chiefs in the first half:
First, just look at Mahomes splits in three games vs Anarumo:
- First half: +0.44 EPA/att, 64% success, 8.8 YPA, 75% comp, 6:0 TD:INT
- Second half/OT: -0.39 EPA/att, 35% success, 5.8 YPA, 57% comp, 0:2 TD:INT
And that was with a healthy ankle. I want no part of what Anarumo might cook up in the second half vs. Mahomes.
Secondly, if there is a time Mahomes will be “peak-Mahomes” for whatever “peak” is with his injury (99% of regular Mahomes? 90%? 75%?) it’s likely to come in the first half. That’s when his ankle will have had zero chance to be re-injured by a defender or an awkward step taken. It will have been recently shot-up and will feel as good as it will feel the rest of the day.
But with every play that elapses in the game, the odds that the ankle will feel worse increase. Even if it’s just wear-and-tear combined with the pain injection wearing off. Let alone it gets tweaked. I have a far better chance of getting “peak-Mahomes” in the first half than I do in the second half, and I want to capitalize on it.
San Francisco 49ers (15-4) @ Philadelphia Eagles (15-3), 3 p.m. ET, FOX and FOX Sports App
I like how this game is being billed by some as “what is going to happen when the run-heavy Eagles finally meet a solid run defense.”
Do these people not realize the Eagles are the fifth most pass-heavy offense in the first half of games? And they operate at the fastest pace of any offense in the first half?
We’re acting like the Eagles are one of the NFL’s more run-heavy teams when it’s the exact opposite.
Meanwhile, why don’t we ask this question about that aspect of the game: The Eagles have the NFL’s best rushing offense and have earned that ranking vs. a league-average schedule of run defenses. But the 49ers have the NFL’s best run defense which has come thanks to playing the NFL’s third-easiest schedule of run offenses.
The 49ers have played just three games vs. top-10 run offenses this year: a loss to the Falcons, a win over the Raiders and a win over the Cowboys after Dallas’ starting RB suffered a broken leg in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, the Eagles, with Jalen Hurts, have played five games against top-10 run defenses, and they’re 4-1 in those games, scoring 35, 35, 26, 24 and 21 points.
When the 49ers’ run defense has played a top-10 run offense, the vaunted 49ers’ run defense ranks drops to a bottom-10 run defense. Looking only at when teams face top-10 run offenses, the 49ers run defense ranks 23rd in EPA/rush (+0.08), 25th in success rate (51%) and 11th in YPC allowed (4.7).
Frankly, I’d be more concerned about where the 49ers’ defense stacks up against top-10 pass offenses, of which the Eagles rank seventh in EPA/att on early-down passes in the first three quarters (ninth in all downs, all game).
Because the 49ers have played the fifth-easiest schedule of pass offenses this year. And when they have played a top-10 pass offense, they’ve allowed staggeringly bad production. Looking at where the 49ers’ pass defense ranks on early-down passes in the first three quarters vs. top-10 pass offenses compared to the rest of the NFL vs. those same top-10 pass offenses:
- 30th in EPA/att (+0.27)
- 25th in success rate (54%)
- 28th in YPA (8.8 YPA)
- 31st in first-down rate (42%)
Naturally any defense should look worse when playing a top-10 pass offense (games were Dallas, Miami, Las Vegas and Kansas City). But the 49ers’ stats weren’t just “worse” – they were bottom-five compared to all other defenses.
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Yes, the 49ers are one of the best defenses in the NFL and yes, the Eagles’ offense will look worse than it did last week vs. the Giants.
But when the Eagles have the ball, this is absolutely not “Great Run Defense vs. Great Run Offense” like it’s being billed.
In their last 10 games, the 49ers’ defense has played two games vs. top-10 offenses in points/first-half drive this season (Miami, Las Vegas).
The Dolphins put up 10 first-half points (and the first half saw a combined 27 total points) and the Raiders put up 17 first-half points (and the first half saw a combined 31 first-half points).
They’ve played four teams that rank bottom-10 in the metric (Cardinals, Saints, Buccaneers and Commanders) while also facing No. 11 Dallas and No. 12 Seattle.
Yes, the 49ers have the NFL’s best defense, but they’ve played the NFL’s fourth-easiest schedule of opposing offenses.
49ers/Eagles have hit 23-plus points in 24 of 37 games this year, including 13 of 16 started by Hurts.
Since obtaining Christian McCaffrey in Week 7, the 49ers have hit 23-plus in the first half in nine of 13 games (1-of-6 prior).
Brock Purdy began starting games in Week 14. Since then, the 49ers have hit 23-plus points in four of seven games, with the unders coming vs. the Seahawks, Commanders and Cowboys.
When the Eagles have the ball, my primary concern is the rate of zone the 49ers run which will limit the passing efficiency of Philadelphia to an extent. Although Hurts still ranks top-15 vs. zone, statistically he’s worse across the board as compared to man coverage.
I’m not really concerned about the 49ers blitz rate on early downs, as they’ve been terrible at actually generating pressure when blitzing and actually rank bottom-five in pass defense when they do send extra rushers. Philadelphia should lean into deeper passes and use more play action.
When the 49ers have the ball, they must come out early with aggression, as Brock Purdy has rarely had to pass when trailing in the second half, but his limited performance hasn’t been pretty (14-of-23, 61% comp, 0 TDs, 2 INTs). Ideally, aside from running between the tackles rather than behind tackles or to the edges of the defense, where the Eagles have a big advantage, the 49ers should embrace a passing approach which removes play action.
The Eagles are elite vs. play action and their defense excels defending passes thrown 10-plus yards down the field. Purdy has proven to be elite (top-five) this season at passing from shotgun without play action and letting his receivers pick up YAC. And it’s a weakness of the Eagles defense:
- The Eagles’ pass defense is first in EPA/att, second in YPA and seventh in success rate this year.
But where do they rank vs. shotgun, no play action over the second half of the season?
- 24th in EPA/att, 23nd in success rate, 28th in YPA, 31st in completion rate and 31st in passer rating
I still have concerns about Jalen Hurts’ shoulder and the potential for injury, but I think the Eagles can push the right buttons offensively to ensure they’re leading at halftime. And if they are, barring turnovers, I don’t like the 49ers’ chances of coming back in the game.
Warren Sharp is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He is the founder of Sharp Football Analysis and has worked as a consultant for league franchises while also previously contributing to ESPN and The Ringer, among other outlets. He studied engineering before using his statistical acumen to create predictive football models. You can follow Warren on Twitter at @SharpFootball.
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