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2021 Playoffs: Thoughts Before Conference Championships

Last weekend was full of ups and downs for me. Saturday was a remarkably bad day for me, starting with the Titans offense choking hard against a young Bengals club I clearly underestimated. The Packers losing to the 49ers wasn’t quite as shocking, but the manner in which they lost was…outrageous. In fact, the whole game was a mess with both teams producing dud performances on offense. San Francisco’s offense didn’t even find the end zone once, but the team still won thanks to an exceptionally strong performance from its defense as well as Green Bay shooting off its toes in the fourth quarter.

Sunday was beautiful though. I nailed both games, though the Chiefs game did give me some IBS towards the end. Kansas coughing up two touchdowns against a guy that hasn’t mounted a comeback in more than a year was unsettling. The worst part is that the Chiefs had multiple opportunities to close out drives on fourth down, but they let Josh Allen MacGyver his way toward conversions.

So one thing I learned - I truly undervalued offense. On top of that, I terribly overestimated Tennessee’s offensive potential. Todd Downing isn’t some ingenuous offensive mind - he’s an idiot. Forcing Derrick Henry to tote the rock for much of the game even though D’Onta Foreman was so much more productive in that same role is inadvisable. Not being able to move the ball forward one stinking yard on two successive downs is a fireable offense, period. On top of that, Tannehill just forcing balls late into tight windows ended up giving the Bengals three turnovers. Then again, when your offense isn’t adjusting to its strengths and insisting on doubling down on a losing strategy, your offense loses whatever charm and ingenuity powered it through some tough moments. Without a competent ground game and Tannehill not showing any inclination to run the ball, Tennessee’s offense was reduced to A.J. Brown (with some dash of Julio Jones). Not good. In that respect, Tennessee may have rolled into the postseason with the worst offense of the 14 playoff teams.

Anyway, let’s get to this. I feel much more confident analyzing these remaining teams now that I have two weeks worth of playoff data on them.

Bengals @ Chiefs (-7.5)

Am I the only one seriously wondering why the Chiefs are giving more than a touchdown here?

Forget the fact that the Bengals have beaten Kansas just a few weeks ago. Cincinnati is much more of a complete team than I initially thought, especially now that playoff experience isn’t much a concern any more. The Bengals actually have a more complete offense compared to Kansas City, given Burrow is an elite quarterback while Mahomes hasn’t been consistent enough to merit elite designation. Defensively, things are a bit of a wash given both teams have one truly dominant defensive lineman and another edge rusher in a sidekick role.

One can argue Kansas has a coaching advantage with the duo of Andy Reid and Steve Spagnuolo competing strategically against Zac Taylor and Lou Anarumo. But Anarumo actually impressed me last week with the way his defense was able to stunt Tennessee’s attempts to establish the ground game. Spags on the other hand has me questioning his competence given all the yards and points he let up against Josh Allen in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. I know Tyrann Matthieu being out with a concussion didn’t help him one bit, but it was still pretty shameful the way Allen marched his offense down the field on two separate lead-changing drives. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s consider coaching a wash too.

If Mahomes isn’t playing in elite form this Sunday, the Chiefs only have one definitive advantage over Cincinnati - home field advantage. Noticed I emphasized the word “definitive” in that last statement - Kansas has also proven itself capable of mounting comebacks whereas Cincinnati’s losses their season leave some reason for doubt. But given the poise they showed last week while Tennessee’s defense was bullying them relentlessly, it’s very possible the Bengals are more than capable of coming back should they fall behind drastically.

For Kansas to win decisively, Mahomes needs to be elite. I’m sure Chiefs backers are more hyped than ever on their quarterback’s potential given the way things unfolded against Buffalo, but I’m still not fully sold. His performance was too uneven early in the season - for him to really reform into a first-class passer would be damn near magical, thought not impossible. We’ve seen it done before with Nick Foles.

Still…give me the Bengals here, both against the spread and the moneyline. I’m on the underdog train here.

49ers @ Rams (-3.5)

I love the 49ers in this spot. It’s difficult for any one team to beat another team three times straight in the same season, but it’s been done several times over the past decade or so. Given the way San Francisco was able to physically dominate the Los Angeles at the line of scrimmage just a few weeks ago, I say we’ll see another one of those hat tricks this year.

How does Los Angeles adjust when the other team is just so physically dominant and maybe even more intellectually capable than them? For one thing, McVay will need to introduce concepts that hasn’t been featured much on film this year. Second, the defense will need to force some ugly turnovers from Jimmy G. Third, Matthew Stafford has to compose himself against this ferocious 49er front. His tendency to make regrettable decisions under pressure has screwed the team way too many times this season, especially against San Francisco

Can all these things be achieved? Sure, but the odds are incredibly remote. The reality is that Sean McVay isn’t known for changing things much, especially this late in the season. Perhaps a few gadget concepts will be introduced into the playbook, but these Rams prefer not to stray too far from their philosophy on both sides of the ball, even if doing so would help them tackle certain opponents better. Lacking that ability to adapt doesn’t serve them well here against objectively superior competition like the 49ers.

In the end, the Rams are a team facing an uphill battle here, despite the spread telling people otherwise. Give me the 49ers, both against the spread and the moneyline.