NFL Conference Championship Predictions and Picks Against the Spread: Impacts of Jalen Hurts, Christian McCaffrey, Patrick Mahomes, and Joe Burrow

    A battle between the two top NFC seeds and an AFC title game rematch. Here are our final NFL Conference Championship predictions and picks.

    We’ve reached the Conference Championship games. Four teams enter. Two teams leave. Here’s a final 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 (-2.5) vs. San Francisco 49ers

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

    To a casual bettor, the point-spread shift since Monday (from -3 to -2.5) might seem negligible. But in the history of the NFL, 12.7% of games have been decided by exactly three points.

    So that shift from -3 to -2.5 is significant. A three-point Philly win was a push on Monday. Now it’s a win if you pick the Eagles and a loss if you take the 49ers.

    The market knows why it did this. The Eagles are at home against a 49ers backfield that, as of Friday morning, still hadn’t been healthy enough to practice this week. Meanwhile, Jake Elliott has hit 16 of his last 17 field-goal attempts. Philly’s elite pass defense should be able to contain Brock Purdy, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle.

    And yet, I’m not deterred. I went with San Francisco at +3 a few days ago. Unless Christian McCaffrey is somehow inactive or officially limited, I’m sticking with San Francisco at +2.5. (And frankly, if McCaffrey sits, the Eagles probably will jump to nine- or even 10-point favorites, so this could all be moot.)

    No team has yielded fewer passing yards than Philadelphia, and no team has racked up more sacks. But passing isn’t the most direct path to a mini-Niners upset. Instead, McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell (assuming they’ll be good to go) could combine for 30+ touches, with Purdy dumping off to his backfield 8-10 times. We might also see more Samuel runs against a defense yielding 4.6 yards per carry.

    MORE: Thursday 49ers vs. Eagles Injury Report

    The rest will be up to San Francisco’s vaunted defense, which has stepped up in the last six quarters, yielding only 18 points while forcing four turnovers.

    How will the Eagles adjust to the 49ers’ elite defense, which is yielding a league-best 3.4 yards per carry? The challenge for Philly is that they make their living on the ground. They’re third in rushing attempts and No. 1 in rushing scores with 32. For context, the No. 2 team has only 24 rushing touchdowns.

    I expect San Francisco to force the Eagles to win through the air, while Philadelphia firmly sticks with a run-friendly game plan for as long as possible. To me, there are no obvious answers. But the major questions are (a) whether Philly’s pass rush can rattle Purdy, and (b) whether the 49ers’ run defense will force Jalen Hurts to play like a near-elite pocket passer — something he isn’t — at least not yet.

    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

    Tom Brady and Peyton Manning faced off four times in the AFC Championship Game. Manning won the final three meetings — once with the Colts and twice with the Broncos.

    Brady was 8-1 in AFC title games versus other quarterbacks. But with Super Bowl appearances on the line, he met his match three times against another all-time great.

    MORE: PFN Betting Guide

    Sunday will mark the fifth straight AFC title game for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. All five have been at home. In a strange coincidence — connecting one generation to the next — KC lost its first Conference Championship during this run to Brady’s Patriots. Two years later, the budding franchise lost in the Super Bowl to Brady’s Buccaneers.

    And last year brought more disappointment, with a shocking loss to the upstart Bengals, which barely eked into the postseason at 10-7 (thanks in large part to an incredible comeback and last-second field goal versus these same Chiefs in Week 17).

    Cincy was a seven-point underdog in last year’s AFC title game. The Chiefs’ final three home wins during the regular season — two versus eventual playoff teams — were by a combined score of 106-28. So yeah, they were ready.

    A year later, questions (doubts?) are growing. KC’s favored by a point because they’re at home. If this were in Cincinnati, assuredly, the Bengals would be favored by more. After all, the Bengals have beaten them three times in less than 13 months. Their defense has improved in the interim, while the Chiefs’ D — particularly with respect to points surrendered — is deeply subpar.

    Mahomes vs. Joe Burrow might be an early version of last generation’s Brady vs. Manning. The Chiefs have dominated, but one ring doesn’t make them a dynasty. And the Bengals have only one Super Bowl appearance. There’s still time for both teams — both stellar QBs — to grow into perennial powerhouses.

    For now, we’re left with two teams that can rack up yards on the ground and through the air. The Bengals’ defense arguably is better, but the counterweight is that their offensive line is far worse. Only Brady has had less time to throw than Burrow this season.

    When these teams last met in Week 13, Joe Mixon was sidelined. But that didn’t stop the Bengals from employing a run-heavy offense, with Samaje Perine (21 carries) and Burrow (11 carries) controlling the time of possession on 4.8 ypc, limiting Burrow to only one sack. If Cincinnati can replicate that strategy on Sunday, they could be tough to beat.

    Of course, I expect the Chiefs to make adjustments. They often do. That’s why they’re playing in their fifth straight AFC Championship.

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

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