The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs is here, and many consider it to be the best weekend of professional football of the calendar year. There are four games that deserve your full, undivided attention, and I can’t wait to watch them. In this article, I’ll break down my best bets for the two games on Sunday. Let’s get to work.
Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills
When I looked ahead at the playoff bracket, I saw value in taking the Bengals to win the Super Bowl. I knew the Ravens would give them a fight last week, but they looked good for a quarter against the Bills previously and we know how successful they’ve been against the Chiefs. The odds were solid for them to make a run.
However, we’ve reached a breaking point for this team’s offensive line. The losses of La’el Collins and Alex Cappa on the right side were somewhat manageable, but on Sunday, left tackle Jonah Williams suffered a knee injury. As of Friday, Williams and Cappa still haven’t practiced, while Collins remains on Injured Reserve.
You might have heard the refrain of “well, the Bengals made it work with a bad offensive line last year,” and while that’s true, it wasn’t this bad. Right guard Hakeem Adeniji was the biggest issue as he was responsible for allowing 14 pressures and six sacks through that playoff run, per PFF. He’s now starting at right tackle.
At left tackle, we have Jackson Carman, who was a second-round pick in 2021 benched for fifth-round rookie Cordell Volson this season. The only starter on the offensive line who even has an average grade from PFF is center Ted Karras, but you’d love to have that player at one of the tackle spots.
The Bills’ defense is vulnerable against deep passes with safeties Micah Hyde and Damar Hamlin sidelined, but the Bengals can’t take advantage with their offensive line in that state. Joe Burrow attempted just one pass of 20+ yards against the Ravens and only used play-action on four dropbacks.
Meanwhile, Burrow was sacked six times and had an average time to throw of 2.54 seconds. He simply had no time in the pocket, and it’s difficult to survive like that long-term. That’s particularly true against the Bills’ defense that is perfectly comfortable sitting back in a two-high safety structure and forcing Burrow to make consistent throws underneath.
It would be great if the Bills still had a healthy Von Miller, but they’ve invested heavily in pass-rushers in recent drafts. Players like Gregory Rousseau, Boogie Basham, and A.J. Epenesa are on their rookie contracts. Now is their time to shine against this patchwork offensive line.
The Bengals also simply can’t run the ball right now. Over the last four weeks, they’ve averaged just 2.8 YPC and have surpassed 60 yards just once despite being in a positive game script in three of those four games. Joe Mixon’s inefficiency behind that demolished offensive line is creating massive issues as the Bengals can’t avoid long down and distance situations.
Cincinnati’s defense has also reached the point where it might be a bit overrated. They finished the regular season ranked 11th in DVOA and 8th in EPA, but more context is needed. The average quarterback they’ve faced has been ranked 26th in the EPA+CPOE index among passers with 100+ dropbacks.
The Bengals have played just two top-ten quarterbacks in EPA+CPOE all season – Patrick Mahomes, whose number they just seem to have, and Jacoby Brissett, who completed 77.2% of his passes against them and averaged 12.6 YPA.
Cincinnati’s best cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie, was lost for the season with an injury, and now they’re reliant on Eli Apple and rookie Cam Taylor-Britt starting on the boundary. That could be a recipe for disaster against Stefon Diggs. It would help if the team had more of a pass rush, but star edge Trey Hendrickson’s broken wrist has sapped some of his productivity.
The Bills haven’t looked great lately, and they have a lot they need to clean up. It starts with Josh Allen, who led the NFL with 30 combined interceptions and fumbles. That won’t fly as we get deeper into the postseason. However, even with that, he ranked fourth in EPA+CPOE, and his arm talent is otherworldly.
The Bengals were on their way to losing to the Ravens on Sunday. They weren’t scoring another point in that game with the state of their offensive line, and their defense was caving, allowing Tyler Huntley to drive down the field with mostly backup pass-catchers. They needed every ounce of Sam Hubbard’s ridiculous 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown to win that game.
The market moved aggressively towards the Bills early in the week, pushing the opening line from -3.5 to -5.5, and I agree with the movement. Buffalo’s raucous home crowd will fuel their pass rush against this overmatched offensive line. I believe in Allen’s ability to clean up the turnover issues enough to push the Bills to a dominant home win here.
Best Bet: Bills -5.5 (play to -6.5)
Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
Hindsight is 20/20, but transparency is important, and I’ll be honest – I bet on the Buccaneers against the Cowboys on Monday. I overrated the last few weeks for a Dallas team that clearly had its eyes on Tampa and underestimated the entire season’s body of work that both teams had displayed.
No more. The Cowboys belong on this stage, and they may be poised for an outright upset over the 49ers on Sunday. The Niners are the hottest team in the NFL on the heels of an 11-game win streak, but context is important here. Brock Purdy, who is everyone’s darling quarterback right now, is skating on thin ice lately.
Purdy ranks tenth in EPA+CPOE and leads the NFL in passer rating. However, the Cowboys will be by far the best defense he’s faced. Dallas ranks second in both DVOA and EPA. Purdy has faced one defense that ranks top ten in either, and the defenses he’s faced average out as the 20th-ranked in both.
Of course, much of Purdy’s success has nothing to do with him and is entirely dependent on the absurd cast of skill position talent that this team has assembled. Seriously, it might be the best group of offensive skill players I’ve personally seen (I’m 23, for what it’s worth). However, there are inklings of Purdy being on the precipice of a clunker.
Purdy has only been under pressure on 69 dropbacks, which is a small sample size, but his completion rate drops from 66% to 50% when he’s under pressure. He has -1 EPA or worse on 33% of his dropbacks, which is ranked 29th out of 39 qualified quarterbacks, and the Niners’ offensive line ranks 19th in pressure rate allowed with Purdy under center.
The Cowboys have the best pass rush unit in the NFL, and while Micah Parsons is individually excellent, it’s also thanks to Dan Quinn’s impressive coaching. He won’t be overly aggressive in blitzing in this game, but he’ll give Purdy all sorts of different looks with pass rushers coming from all over the field.
Purdy ranks just 30th in completion percentage over expectation among 42 qualified passers, and that lack of accuracy will be a problem when he’s under pressure more often. That pressure will shake his confidence in a way that it hasn’t been yet, and I have questions about how he will respond.
The San Francisco defense is also somewhat of a question mark. Their advanced metrics paint them as the best in the NFL, but further context is once again needed. During the 11 game win streak, the quarterbacks they’ve faced average out as the 23rd-best in the NFL by EPA+CPOE. Dak Prescott ranks fourth in that regard.
Prescott was excellent last week. Tampa’s defense certainly didn’t play well and the lack of pass rush was a huge issue for them, but he deserves credit as well. Prescott’s 28.7 EPA was the seventh-most in a single playoff game since 1999, and his success on play-action will be a huge part of this game.
The 49ers are vulnerable against deep passes as they rank 24th in DYAR against passes of 15+ yards downfield per Football Outsiders. Their secondary play has been suspect at times, and Charvarius Ward, who I figured to be the strongest piece of the unit, got absolutely torched by DK Metcalf last week.
San Francisco will shut down the Dallas run game as they allow just 0.9 yards before contact per attempt, the third-lowest in the NFL, but Prescott should have success against this secondary so long as he has enough time in the pocket to deliver throws downfield. I trust Kellen Moore to find ways to make that happen.
The 49ers played two teams during the regular season with a point differential. The Chiefs were at +127 and the Seahawks were at +6. Kansas City, for what its worth, beat them 44-23. The Cowboys, meanwhile, had a point differential of +125 and are far more battle-tested both in their division and out.
It’s worth noting that the Cowboys are playing their fourth straight road game and haven’t been in Dallas in almost a month. That’s not ideal, but this isn’t the time of year to make excuses. This game could truly go either way, and I see strong value in taking the points with the underdog here. I have some Super Bowl future action on the Niners, and I added some on the Cowboys, as I see the winner of this game advancing to the Super Bowl.
Best Bet: Cowboys +4 (play to +3.5)