We have two games left in the NFL playoffs on Sunday to decide the representatives for Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles.
What are the best bets for the AFC Championship Game and NFC Championship Game?
Our experts Adam Burke, Dave Tuley and Ben Brown of Pro Football Focus give their favorite plays for Sunday.
Lines from our VSiN NFL Odds page as of Thursday afternoon. Betting splits available here.
Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs (-7, 54.5)
DraftKings betting splits: 60% of bets on Chiefs, 75% of money on Chiefs
Burke: When the Chiefs and Bengals played in Week 17, one team adjusted at halftime and the other didn’t. Kansas City led 28-17 at half, but managed just three points in the second half as Cincinnati roared back for a 34-31 win and an AFC North Division title for the first time since 2015.
That first meeting featured 889 yards of offense, including 446 passing yards from Joe Burrow. The Chiefs had 7.1 yards per play and the Bengals had 7.5. It was an offensive showcase and bettors clearly have the same expectation for this game based on where the total has ended up.
Keep in mind, however, that last week’s Bills/Chiefs thriller was a 26-21 with under two minutes to play. Everything just went bonkers after that, as there were 25 points scored in the last 1:54 of regulation. If that doesn’t happen, this total is probably closer to the 51 or 51.5 that it opened to start the betting process.
The Bengals defense is undoubtedly stepping up in class after holding the Raiders and Titans to 35 combined points. However, Lou Anarumo has done a really good job with this unit and I’d expect the same here, especially after the second-half adjustments that were made in Week 17. Kansas City is hard to pin down, but teams have done it and the Bengals did it by holding the Chiefs to just three possessions in the second half.
These two offenses may move the football effectively, but we did see a lot of long, sustained drives in the first game, including six first downs by penalty for the Bengals to keep drives alive. This total is a lofty number for a game with these kinds of stakes, so I do like the under here.
I also believe that the Bengals are live at + 7. Coming into the playoffs, I thought that Cincinnati was the highest variance team in the AFC. They could lose to the Raiders, but could also beat any one of the other playoff teams. I still believe that to be true, especially because of Zac Taylor’s increased aggressiveness with the playcalling and downfield throws. I do think we see more of Joe Mixon in this game as a way to play a ball-control style, but the Bengals have been adept at making adjustments throughout the season.
My preferred bet is the under here, but I also like the Bengals getting a touchdown in a game that should be competitive throughout.
Picks: Under 54.5; Bengals + 7
Tuley: This line opened between Chiefs -6.5 and -7.5 on Sunday night and quickly settled at -7. I missed the + 7.5, but I’m waiting to bet the Bengals as it could come back; we’ve seen some books go to Chiefs -7 (-115) and even Chiefs -7 (-120) during the middle of the week. Before Sunday’s game, I saw advance lines of Chiefs -4 and -4.5 vs. the Bengals, and that’s where I put the number.I didn’t see anything in Kansas City’s 42-36 overtime win against the Bills to change my line. Of course, everyone was amazed with Mahomes coming through in the clutch and pulling out an amazing victory. I suspect that’s why so many people are jumping back on the Chiefs bandwagon. However, what caught my attention was that the Kansas City defense was sieve-like throughout the game.
Granted, a lot of the credit goes to Josh Allen and the Bills offense, but I have no doubt the Bengals’ trio of quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (and the rest of the supporting cast) will have similar success and keep the Bengals in the game until the end. Another thing a lot of people seem to be forgetting is that the Bengals just beat the Chiefs 34-31 as 3.5-point home underdogs in Week 17 when the Chiefs were still trying for the No. 1 seed. That has to count for something. I would be happy getting just over a field goal, so getting a full touchdown is added value, and if we get the hook at + 7.5 that would make it the best bet of the weekend.
Pick: Bengals + 7 (but waiting for + 7.5)
Brown: Burrow’s check-down throw last week to Samaje Perine glanced off his hands and into Amani Hooker's outstretched arms. It was the perfect example of an interception in the box score that shouldn't be labeled as a quarterback mistake.
It did snap Burrow’s five-game streak of finishing under his interception prop but ushered in an overcorrection in the market, as Burrow throwing zero interceptions has only been a plus price on two other occasions this season: against the Denver Broncos in Week 15 and when these two teams faced off in Week 17.
Burrow was clean in that matchup, as he’s been all season after posting the fourth-lowest turnover-worthy play percentage in the NFL and by far the lowest negatively-graded throw percentage. Burrow hasn't posted a turnover-worthy throw since Week 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers – a distant seven games ago.
Sportsbooks seem to be overcorrecting to the Bengals trailing, but unlike most quarterbacks Burrow seems unfazed when playing from behind. PFF prices Burrow not throwing an interception as a greater than 50 percent proposition, making the plus price one of the best betting opportunities on Sunday. It’s heavily correlated with the Bengals covering the spread, but it seems like the rare proposition that can easily hit no matter what side of the game spread or total hit.
Pick: Joe Burrow Under 0.5 Interceptions (+ 110)
Brown: Patrick Mahomes' passing touchdowns come in bunches, as he bookended his season by finishing over his prop number over the first four weeks and in his six most recent games. The Chiefs offense's midseason lull feels like a distant memory, back when Mahomes finished over his touchdown prop only once from Weeks 5 through 14. Mahomes is now 11-of-19 on the season.
The reason Mahomes has finished over his touchdown prop so consistently is Andy Reid's playcalling near the goal line. Kansas City is the only team that posted over a 10 percent pass rate over expectation on plays within 20 yards of the goal line. The ball is consistently in Mahomes' hands, and he’s rewarded the Chiefs with drive-capping touchdowns throughout the playoffs.
The market direction on the total indicates a preference for points among bettors, as it’s all the way up to 54.5. One of the easiest ways to play this direction is with Mahomes going over 2.5 passing touchdowns at a plus price because it's almost a requirement for this game to go over.
It is also likely if the Chiefs cover and this game goes under the point total, making it an obvious opportunity to hit. The Bengals defense had some success slowing Mahomes in the second half of Week 17, but it was only after they switched to a quarters or Cover-3 soft coverage to take away everything over the top.
At home, Mahomes knows the Bengals need a costly turnover at an inopportune time to win, so dinking and dunking down the field should serve up an easy victory while padding the box score. The plus price will most likely be gone by kickoff, making it the perfect early-week betting opportunity.
Pick: Patrick Mahomes Over 2.5 Passing TDs (+ 116)
San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams (-3.5, 46)
DraftKings betting splits: 64% of bets on Rams, 61% of money on Rams
Burke: It appears as though there will be a lot of red and gold in the stands at SoFi Stadium once again, much like there was in Week 18. San Francisco fans took over Inglewood and forced the host Rams to use a silent snap count for long stretches of the matchup. With a berth in the Super Bowl on the line, 49ers fans should neutralize any home-field advantage and maybe even create one of their own.
DeMeco Ryans has neutralized the Rams in two games already this season. The 49ers defensive coordinator is getting some head-coaching interview requests, and deservedly so, as the Rams managed 5.1 YPP in a 31-10 loss earlier to San Francisco this season and just 4.1 YPP in the Week 18 collapse. The Rams even threw the ball 42 times against 10 rushing attempts in that blowout loss, which should have yielded a much higher yards per play mark.
Kyle Shanahan just seems to have Sean McVay’s number. He’s won six in a row and seven of 10 up to this point. Both of these coaches do have clear shortcomings with game management, though. McVay went into a shell way too early and coached arguably the worst second half of all time last week against the Buccaneers, which nearly cost his team the game. Shanahan has had his issues finishing off games as well. The most memorable, of course, was as the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. He’s had other blunders as a head coach, including some questionable decisions against the Cowboys during Wild-Card Weekend.
It is extremely hard to trust either one of these guys if this is a close game. Familiarity and the dropping total suggest that it will be close in the fourth quarter. At that point, I’d probably just be flipping a coin.
As a result, the total is where my interest lies and I agree with the money coming in on the under. As mentioned above, the Rams did not move the ball effectively in the two regular-season meetings. The 49ers have not really moved the ball effectively in either playoff game, as Jimmy Garoppolo is probably more injured than we know. The 49ers do run the ball with extreme efficiency, but it takes time off of the clock to do that.
We saw McVay get very conservative with his playcalling late in the regular season, including a high dose of carries for Sony Michel. Cam Akers was the bell cow last week, but his proverbial milk went sour with just 48 yards on 24 carries and two very costly fumbles. My guess is that McVay goes back to Michel and also puts the reins back on Matthew Stafford, who exceeded 300 passing yards for just the second time in eight games and had 38 pass attempts for the first time since Thanksgiving Weekend.
I’m not really seeing Michel rushing attempts props, but I’ll have something on that over the weekend in the newsletter. For now, it’ll just be the under for me, but I’ll be looking for additional prop betting opportunities as well.
Pick: Under 46
Tuley: This line opened Rams -4 in Las Vegas the Westgate SuperBook and locals giant Stations Casinos but -3.5 at most other books. After dipping to Rams -3 (-120) at several books, the line has mostly settled at Rams -3.5 + 100 (even money) with the 49ers + 3.5 but most books charging additional juice at -120. I made this line only Rams -1 based on all the stats from the entire season, as I’m not sure we should be giving the Rams anything for home-field advantage (especially as it’s possible that 49er fans will take over SoFi Stadium like they did in Week 18).
Just like the Bengals being an underdog despite beating the Chiefs in their prior meeting, the 49ers swept the Rams 31-10 in San Francisco and 27-24 in L.A. and have won the last six meetings. They have the Rams’ number just like they have had the Packers’ number.
The Rams’ Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp are getting all the accolades while tons of people continue to knock 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo, yet the Rams’ offensive average of 28.4 points per game is barely better than the 49ers’ 28 PPG. The 49ers are also more explosive with wide receiver Deebo Samuel pulling double duty running the ball out of the backfield, which also leads to single coverage for tight end George Kittle and the other San Francisco receivers. The 49ers defense is also playing well, but this simply comes back to those recent head-to-head victories this season. I think this number is too high.
Pick: 49ers + 3.5
Brown: Brandon Aiyuk continues to fall in and out of favor in the 49ers offense, fluctuating between reasonable usage and being a complete afterthought on a weekly basis. The weather dictated the 49ers' passing performance last week, but Aiyuk only saw one target in another forgettable game. Aiyuk rarely leaves the field but is, at best, the third pass-catching option in this run-heavy 49ers offense.
Aiyuk’s most recent performance against this Rams defense was the only time he’s finished over 100 receiving yards this season, but the Week 10 matchup provided an example on the opposite end of the spectrum. He’s lined up against Jalen Ramsey on a third of his snaps, as Ramsey is focused on Deebo Samuel when the do-it-all receiver is split out wide. This could be a reason to not fade Aiyuk, but he hasn’t been overly successful against Darious Williams' single coverage, either.
San Francisco is also the healthiest its been at the wide receiver position in quite some time, as Mohamed Sanu is expected to be activated off of injured reserve this week. He won’t cut into Aiyuk’s routes run but will add another pass-catcher to the target share pecking order. With Aiyuk running clear-out routes over the top, he will have a difficult time seeing enough target volume to finish over 3.5 receptions. The plus price offering makes this one of the best betting opportunities in the conference championship round.
Pick: Brandon Aiyuk Under 3.5 Receptions (+ 109)
Brown: In two games against the 49ers this season, Kupp’s stat lines have been: 11 receptions for 122 yards and seven receptions for 118 yards. It’s a great matchup for the NFL’s most productive receiver, as evidenced by his excellent 94.1 matchup advantage over the 49ers cornerbacks, according to PFF’s WR/CB matchup tool. He’s been one of the Rams' lone bright spots in their two games against San Francisco, and the expectation is that will continue on Sunday. The 49ers' defensive strengths should enable Kupp to accrue a heightened target volume, which bodes well for a player who already led the NFL in that category this season.
San Francisco now has the 13th-best PFF coverage grade this season but drops to 27th when a wide receiver is targeted. The 49ers' coverage outside of the hash marks is one of the weakest in the NFL, and it’s exacerbated on plays where they fail to register pressure. PFF’s betting model points towards betting the over here. The only way the Rams are going to hold up their end of that bargain is if Kupp registers another double-digit target game. He is the only receiver this year with over 150 targets in addition to a catchable ball and first read target percentage over 75 percent. Not only is the usage there, but the efficiency doesn’t slip up given the high volume, making Kupp the perfect target to once again roll with on Sunday.
Pick: Cooper Kupp Over 7.5 Receptions (-152)