Cincinnati Bengals (12-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-5)
These two teams met in Cincinnati a few weeks ago, with the Bengals pulling the home upset as 4-point underdogs in a last second victory, coming back from 11 points down at halftime. This matchup is in Kansas City, but that is not the only reason the odds are against the Bengals repeating what they did last time, as teams are just 6-12 ATS as underdogs in the playoffs against a non-divisional opponent they beat as underdogs in the regular season.
The spreads oddsmakers set tend to be more accurate than public perception, so if they are making a team underdogs twice, it’s usually for a good reason and, in fact, odds makers seem to usually set the line too low for the rematch, likely intentionally, in hopes of trapping some bettors on the underdog. That seems to be the case here, as the Chiefs are a completely different level than the Bengals, even when you take into account that the Bengals beat the Chiefs previously.
The Bengals entered the post-season with one of the weakest strengths of schedule of any team in the league and, as a result, finished the regular season just 18th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is based on predictive metrics, yards per play and first down rate, and takes strength of schedule into account. The Bengals have won twice so far in the post-season, but beating the Titans and Raiders isn’t particularly impressive, especially when you consider that they were one-score games in which the Bengals lost the yards per play and first down rate battle and almost definitely would have lost the game if not for winning the turnover battle in both games by a combined +4, which is not a predictable metric that they can continue to depend on.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, are where they are, with a 14-5 record and hosting the AFC Championship, despite one of the toughest schedules in the league and despite just a +3 turnover margin (including playoffs). In fact, winning turnover margin by a significant margin has been about the only way to beat the Chiefs this year, as the Chiefs started 3-4 in large part due to a -10 turnover margin, but have won 11 of 12 since then (6-1 against playoff qualifiers) and have flipped their turnover margin to +13 over that stretch.
The Chiefs’ defense also has been a lot better since the start of the season, due to improved health, with key players like safety Tyrann Mathieu, cornerback Charvarius Ward, edge defender Frank Clark, and interior defender Chris Jones all missing time early in the season and returning, as well as the addition of edge defender Melvin Ingram in a mid-season trade. The Chiefs’ defense had some injury problems last week against the Bills, missing Mathieu and talented cornerback Rashad Fenton, but both are expected back this week.
The Chiefs defense still only ranks 28th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but they have been at least passable since their horrendous start and, despite their low ranked defense on the season, the Chiefs still rank 2nd in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, led by a top ranked offense and a 2nd ranked special teams. If their defense can be even a complementary unit, which it can when it’s healthy, the Chiefs are the best team in the league, which they are right now, about 10.5 points above average in my roster rankings, while the Bengals are just 2 points above average.
This line may seem high at seven, especially for a conference championship game, but conference championships tend to be blowouts actually at a higher rate than regular season games, with the average margin of victory being 12.48 points, as opposed to 11.62 points in the regular season. On top of that, favorites of 6 or more are 11-4 ATS in a conference championship game, with all fifteen winning straight up by an average of 15.4 points per game. Usually when the oddsmakers think a conference championship is uneven, they are actually understating it, which is what I think is the case here. I am very confident the Chiefs can cover the seven points and win by multiple scores.
Kansas City Chiefs 31 Cincinnati Bengals 20
Pick against the spread: Kansas CIty -7