One thing I want to focus on is this theory I’m putting forth regarding teams facing each other again in the postseason shortly after having met sometime towards the tail end of the regular season. The thesis here is that those teams that perform worse than expected in those regular season affairs then tend to exceed expectations in playoff rematches. We’ve saw this happen with Baltimore against Cincinnati, New York against Minnesota, and Philadelphia against New York. It can be argued that Seattle belongs on this list as well, so long as you go by yardage instead of score.
We saw this before in the past, most notably with the Chargers stunning the Ravens in the wild card round back in 2018, the Rams rallying to a late victory against the 49ers last year in the conference round, and Baltimore upsetting the Broncos in 2012 en route to the Super Bowl. But we’ve also seen instances when this theory didn’t carry much water - for example, the Patriots were embarrassed by the Bills in the wild card round last year, even after losing to them in pretty decisive fashion just a few weeks prior. So more work is needed to tailor the theory into something far more predictive of future outcomes - we cannot just assume rematches always lead to better results from the loser. Some teams simply aren’t built to improve upon their past performances. So why is that?
The past couple years, we’ve seen the Patriots and the Steelers contradict this theory in their matches against the Bills and the Browns respectively. What’s especially bizarre is that both organizations are led by head coaches known for their steely demeanor and discipline. Is it possible Bill Belichick is showing his age and Mike Tomlin is burned out in Pittsburgh? Maybe. At least Tomlin has a credible excuse - he was trotting out the corpse of Ben Roethlisberger to helm his offense at the time. Cleveland was able to build a ridiculous lead by capitalizing on Ben’s mistakes early in the game. As for New England, it’s been alleged that their defense is way too old to keep up with the younger talent in the league. More specifically, their most critical players can no longer cover the breadth of the field as quickly as before. Buffalo simply took advantage of this major flaw through crossing routes and smartly crafted rushing plays incorporating the quarterback.
So not sure where to go here or what this may imply about the upcoming duel between Cincinnati and Kansas City this weekend. While this theory holds sway the majority of the teams, exceptions do exist, proving that further caveats need to be defined here before this rule can be properly leveraged in the future.
EDIT: Looking back at the set of matches between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, I don’t think that’s an exception after all. In the regular season match, the Steelers actually covered the spread and nearly won the game outright as double-digit underdogs. So if anything, Cleveland underwhelming in the regular season only to dominate in the postseason contest reinforces the theory.
SECOND EDIT: Remember the Giants back in 2011.
Philadelphia and San Francisco may have been a much closer game had Brock Purdy not been injured early and the referees not favor the Eagles as much. Once it became obvious that these referees weren’t giving San Francisco the leeway needed to be physical in coverage, the 49ers lost some teeth on defense. Combined with a nonexistent passing game, this contest was over in the second quarter.
Kansas seems to have adjusted well after losing to Cincinnati in the regular season. The defense has managed to rack up three sacks so far against Joe Burrow on his first six snaps. Pretty shocking to see this vaunted Bengals offense play so pathetically.
So Cincinnati finally shored up its holes in pass protection midway through the game, although things naturally fell apart in the fourth quarter where it matters most. Chris Jones was sensational. The Chiefs were much more comfortable blitzing Burrow too and sending defensive backs down closer to the line of scrimmage to take out any outlet throws. The fact that Burrow kept getting hit and sacked so much today was testament to their excellent game planning.
Would Cincinnati have won if injuries didn’t rob them of key trench players? Probably. Missing three starting offensive linemen really depressed their ground game - Mixon couldn’t chew off much yardage on his rushes. Furthermore, it’s clear to me Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard are nowhere close to peak form coming off late season injuries. Hendrickson in particular had virtually no impact on this game. It would have been much better starting Joseph Ossai in his place. I noticed Hubbard a few times, but he failed to make a meaningful impact on any single play. Without either of their star pass rushers playing at full potential, Mahomes was far too comfortable operating from the pocket.
If there’s one thing that’s evident though, it’s that having played the Bengals just several weeks prior really helped the Chiefs. Kansas came out with a defensive game plan that prevented Burrow and company from gaining any sort of rhythm on offense. All their points came through painstaking effort that simply couldn’t be sustained once the contest went into the fourth quarter. So let this be definitive proof that recent rematches taking place in the postseason favor the loser from the first match, period.
All these factors played a role in helping Kansas City overcome their limitations on offense and take home the AFC championship.