Early NFL Conference Championship Predictions and Picks Against the Spread: Impacts of Jalen Hurts and Joe Burrow

An AFC title game rematch and a battle between the two top NFC seeds. Here are our early NFL Conference Championship predictions and picks.

We’ve reached the Conference Championship games. Four teams enter. Two teams leave. Here’s a preliminary look at our predictions and picks for both games. The following betting odds are for picks against the spread as well as moneylines based on DraftKings Sportsbook.

NFL Conference Championship Predictions and Picks

Just like during the NFL regular season, the playoffs feature the expected, the moderately unexpected, and the completely unexpected. When betting on point spreads and moneylines, we need to focus on the first two outcomes.

What are the highest-probability game scripts? Which interesting subplots could emerge? For example, we cannot anticipate when a little-used fullback will fall into the end zone twice in one half. But we can assess the likelihood that one team’s backfield will earn more scoring opportunities.

With that in mind, here are our preliminary assessments of how each game might proceed.

Philadelphia Eagles (-3) vs. San Francisco 49ers

  • Date: Saturday, Jan. 29
  • Start time: 3 p.m. ET

The 49ers finally earned a signature win. It sounds strange. But as I shared last week, they’d played only one team with 11+ wins during the regular season (the Chiefs, which blew them out). Furthermore, San Francisco’s only win versus a team with more than nine regular-season wins was against the eventual 10-7 Chargers — which played the Niners without their two top wideouts.

The 49ers started a bit slow against the Cowboys, as expected. This was the toughest defense Brock Purdy had faced, and at first, it showed. But Tony Pollard’s early injury ended any pretense of an adequate ground game. After all, Ezekiel Elliott finished the season with only 100 yards in his last 50 carries across four contests. Not good.

And two first-half Dallas turnovers — including one with the Cowboys in the red zone and looking to go up by a touchdown at the half — took pressure off the Niners’ rookie QB. Purdy never had to press, trailing by no more than three points during the contest. The 49ers had the luxury of leaning on a running game that amassed 32 carries, compared to only 22 for the Cowboys.

This is the key for San Francisco against the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Purdy threw only 18 times to his wideouts and tight end. The week before, he targeted them only 21 times. The week before that, 16 times. His completion percentage to WRs and TEs the last three weeks is a sterling 67%.

Combined with dump-offs to Christian McCaffrey and a two-headed rushing attack of McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell, we can understand how this balanced offense — combined with an elite defense — has gotten this far.

MORE: NFL Power Rankings Championship Round

The biggest challenge for San Francisco next week might be the Eagles’ elite pass rush, which sacked QBs an incredible 70 times during the regular season. Philadelphia played its best football in weeks this past Saturday, obliterating the Giants in their fifth meeting in the past 14 months. They appear to be locked in, with their key playmakers healthy and thriving.

Except . . . how will the Eagles adjust to the 49ers’ elite defense, which is yielding a league-best 3.4 yards per carry (compared to 4.6 for the Eagles’ D)? Jalen Hurts hasn’t been as productive on the ground since getting hurt in mid-December. Yes, they stomped on the Giants, which were surrendering the third-most yards per carry (5.2). So how might that translate on Sunday?

The Eagles make their living on the ground. Yes, their receiving corps is near-elite, if not better. But Hurts isn’t a high-volume passer. Philly is No. 3 in rushing attempts and No. 1 in rushing scores with 32. For context, the No. 2 team has only 24 rushing TDs.

The home team has won 12 of the last 20 NFC title games (60%). The Eagles are favored for many good reasons. But we just watched the Niners adjust beautifully to a swarming Cowboys defense that looked great early on but couldn’t pressure Purdy effectively after the first couple of drives.

Philly will need to play nearly flawlessly to break through the 49ers’ walls on both sides of the ball. I don’t see it happening.

Against-the-spread prediction: 49ers
Moneyline winner: 49ers

Kansas City Chiefs (-1) vs. Cincinnati Bengals

  • Date: Sunday, Jan. 29
  • Start time: 6:30 p.m. ET

I’ll admit it: the deeper we get into the playoffs, the harder these games are to predict. There’s a flow to the regular season. Moneylines are often straightforward. Point spreads generally have cracks of opportunity — a slight overweighting of the favorite or underdog.

But circumstances are different in the postseason. By the second half, we might see trailing teams play with more desperation. Because there’s no tomorrow, risk-taking might supersede conservative play-calling.

Going for it on fourth down at midfield might seem senseless in a tie game in Week 2. But depending on what the coaching staff is seeing on the field, it might be their best opportunity to seize an advantage in the postseason.

The Chiefs and Bengals are, by most accounts, evenly matched. Cincy won by three at home when these squads played in Week 13. Now KC has the edge at home. Or maybe it’s not that big of an edge.

MORE: Bengals QB Joe Burrow Is Who Everyone Believed Josh Allen Would (But Might Never) Be

The Bengals just handed Buffalo their worst defeat in 14 months. Cincinnati is peaking at the ideal time — winners of 10 straight, with five of those victories coming against playoff teams, and three others coming against franchises that were still in the playoff picture in Week 18.

Yet, there’s a revenge element to this game. Cincy knocked out the Chiefs in last year’s AFC Championship. In fact, the Bengals have won three straight against this dynastic conference rival. All three were decided by three points.

And that, in part, is what makes this call so difficult. This will be the fifth straight year that KC has hosted the title game. But the Bengals won’t be intimidated in the slightest. These are two relatively young, fearless, accomplished franchises. The Bengals are a little tougher against the pass, while the Chiefs have a slightly better (statistically) passing attack. Both are highly capable on the ground and sport middling run defenses.

It might come down to an interception, or a forced fumble, or an opportunistic sack that knocks a team outside of field-goal range. Speaking of which, Kansas City boasts the second-most defensive sacks, while Cincinnati has accrued the fourth fewest. In a game that could go either way, that might be the difference.

Against-the-spread prediction: Chiefs
Moneyline winner: Chiefs

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