Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans: 2021 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (11-7) at Tennessee Titans (12-5)

The Titans finished with tied for the best record in the AFC and won the AFC’s #1 seed on tiebreakers, but they overall did not have as impressive of a season as some other teams in the AFC. Their 12-5 record is supported by a 6-2 record in one-score games and their +65 point differential ranks just 11th in the NFL, despite the fact that they have a +4 margin in return touchdowns, giving them an extra 28 points. Return touchdown margin is not predictive week-to-week, especially since the Titans finished with a -3 turnover margin, and, if not for those four return touchdowns, the Titans would rank just 13th in point differential at +37. 

The Bengals, meanwhile, rank 8th with a +84 point differential, despite having a worse record than the Titans. If you include their playoff victory over the Raiders and exclude their week 18 loss to the Browns where they rested their starters, that point differential becomes +96. Despite that, the Bengals are underdogs of 3.5 points here in Tennessee, which is more significant than you might think, with about 1 in 4 games decided by 3 points or fewer. 

That line expects the Titans to be significantly better than they have been in the regular season, as a result of their improved health on offense. The Titans’ offense had significant injury issues in the second half of the season, but wide receivers AJ Brown (three games missed) and Julio Jones (four games missed) and offensive linemen Rodger Saffold (two games), Taylor Lewan (two games), and Nate Davis (three games) have all returned after missing time, while feature back Derrick Henry (ten games) is expected to rejoin the lineup this week to complete this offense.

However, even at full health, I don’t have the Titans worth being favored by this many points over the Bengals, as they had just a +32 point differential through eight games before Henry and company went down. On top of that, there is no guarantee that Henry is at full strength in his first game back. We’re not getting a lot of line value with the Bengals, but my calculated line has the Titans favored by just 2 points, so the Bengals definitely have a good chance to cover this spread. There isn’t quite enough here for the Titans to be worth betting, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Update: It looks like Henry will split carries with Dont’a Foreman if he plays, which drops my calculated line a little to 1.5, while simultaneously this line has moved up to 4. I think there is enough here for a bet on Cincinnati, who were the better team in the regular season in all of the more predictive metrics, including schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, in which they held a 2.5-point edge. Even if the Titans are healthier, it’s hard to get this line all the way up to 4, especially since the Bengals still hold the edge in my roster rankings even with the Titans’ offense close to full strength, as Joe Burrow has shown significant improvement as the season has gone on and, now with his knee injury clearly in the rear review, has broken out as a legitimate top level quarterback.

Tennessee Titans 24 Cincinnati Bengals 23

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +4

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills: 2021 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

New England Patriots (10-7) at Buffalo Bills (11-6)

These two teams are pretty similar, as they have solid records, but even more impressive point differentials, with the Bills ranking 1st at +194 and the Patriots ranking 3rd at +159. That carries over to efficiency rating, which is more predictive week-to-week, as the Bills rank 7th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 1st in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, while the Patriots rank 5th in both metrics, having played a slightly tougher schedule with a better winning percentage against playoff qualifiers. Neither team has fared well against playoff qualifiers though, mostly accumulating their impressive point differentials against sub .500 teams.

One of the wins against playoff qualifiers that each team has came at the expense of the other, with these two teams splitting the season series and each winning on the opposing team’s homefield. There is more of a tendency to discount the Patriots’ win in Buffalo because it came in tough conditions in a game in which the Patriots kept the ball on the ground almost every play and relied on their defense to stop a more traditional Bills offense, but the season long stats suggest these two teams are even enough that a season series split would make sense and, though the Bills’ win came by more points, they only outgained the Patriots by about a tenth of a yard per play across the two matchups.

Despite the Bills only being slightly better than the Patriots at best, this line, favoring them by 4 points at home, suggests they are a noticeably better team, with homefield advantage only counting for about 1.5 points in recent years and about 30% of games being decided by 4 points or fewer historically. My calculated line has the Bills favored by 2, so we’re getting significant line value with the Patriots, crossing the key number of three, which decides about 1 in 6 games. 

Three is the amount the Bills were favored by in the matchup between these two teams in Buffalo earlier this season, which I thought was too high at the time, and now I think it’s an overreaction to the Patriots’ slow finish to the season that this line has shifted even higher to four, as the Patriots won the yards per play and first down rate battle in two of their three losses to end the season, with the exception being their home loss to the Bills. The Patriots are worth a bet at +4 and I am hoping for +4.5 before gametime for potentially a bigger bet.

Update: This line has moved up to 4.5. The Patriots will be without left tackle Isaiah Wynn, but I wasn’t expecting him to play and his absence isn’t that big of a deal because they can move Trent Brown to left tackle and insert Michael Onwenu at right tackle, where he has had a lot of success when called upon over the past two seasons. Cornerback Jalen Mills being out might be a bigger deal because they are thinner at that position, but I was also expecting him to be out and the Bills have questionable cornerback depth as well, since losing top cornerback Tre’Davious White a few weeks ago. I am going to increase this bet.

Buffalo Bills 24 New England Patriots 23

Pick against the spread: New England +4.5

Confidence: High

Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (10-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)

I don’t normally lock games in this early in the week and this is especially risky given the NFL’s COVID protocols, but neither of these teams has any significant questionable players according to the early practice report and like the Raiders enough as 6-point underdogs that I want to take the risk and lock it in early because sharp action is likely to drop this line throughout the week (it started at 6.5 yesterday). At first glance, the Bengals might seem like an obvious choice, as they beat the Raiders by 19 in Las Vegas earlier this season and, despite their identical records, the Bengals also have a significant edge in point differential at 84 vs -65, with the Raiders going 7-2 in one-score games, including 4-0 in overtime. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

While the Bengals may have won by a score of 32-13 in the first matchup, the Raiders outgained the Bengals by 1.80 yards per play. The reason for that is the same problems the Raiders had for much of the season, as they lost the turnover battle by one and performed poorly on third down on both sides of the ball, allowing the Bengals to convert 8 of 16, while converting just 1 of 7. On the season, the Raiders have the 27th ranked turnover margin in the league at -9, while ranking 22nd in third down conversion percentage and 15th in third down conversion percentage allowed, which is in large part to blame for their 23rd ranked point differential.

Fortunately for the Raiders, turnover margin is not predictive week-to-week, nor is underperforming on third downs, which the Raiders are, as they actually rank 15th on offense and 8th on defense in schedule adjusted efficiency, a metric based on yards per play and first down rate differential, much more metric predictives week-to-week. The Bengals, meanwhile, rank just 16th on offense, 20th on defense, and 18th in mixed efficiency, behind the 9th ranked Raiders. 

This game is in Cincinnati, but homefield advantage is only worth a couple points at most now and could actually work against the Bengals for spread purposes, as home favorites are 6-16 ATS since 2002 when making their first career playoff start, which Joe Burrow is. Even if they don’t win this game outright, the Raiders should keep this game close and my calculated line has the Bengals as just 2.5-point favorites. I would still like the Raiders at +5.5, but I want to lock in 6 before I can’t anymore.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Las Vegas Raiders 23

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas +6

Confidence: High

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Cleveland Browns (7-9)

This could have been an exciting divisional matchup between two young quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow, but the Bengals pulled the upset on the Chiefs last week, clinching the division and eliminating the Browns from playoff contention even before the Browns’ eventual loss in Pittsburgh, and, with the Browns season over, quarterback Baker Mayfield has been shut down for the season with his myriad of injuries, while the Bengals will also be without quarterback Joe Burrow, as he is being rested with a knee injury, with the Bengals’ chances of climbing into a top-2 seed in the AFC are minimal.

Burrow will be joined on the sidelines by feature back Joe Mixon, who is in COVID protocols, while a trio of talented starters, safety Vonn Bell, starting left guard Quinton Spain, and defensive end Trey Hendrickson, are also in COVID protocols. On top of that, interior defender DJ Reader could be rested with an injury to get 100% for the Bengals’ playoff game next week and, overall, it doesn’t seem like the Bengals are trying that hard to win this game, leading to the Browns becoming 6-point favorites.

It’s possible some of the aforementioned players could play and it’s unclear what would happen with the line if that happened, but the Browns also might not be trying too hard to win this game, which could become important, as most of their secondary (cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Troy Hill and Greedy Williams and safeties John Johnson and Ronnie Harrison) are legitimately questionable and could be held out of a meaningless game when they might otherwise play. 

If the Browns’ secondary plays and the Bengals’ questionable players don’t, we are getting line value with the Browns at -6, as my calculated line would be Cleveland -9 in that scenario, but depending on who plays for the Bengals and who is out for the Browns, that line could drop as low as Cleveland -3.5, so I can’t be confident at all in either side. I am taking the Browns for now, but that could easily change, as could this line.

Cleveland Browns 20 Cincinnati Bengals 13

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -6

Confidence: None

Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)

The Bengals are in the driver’s seat in the AFC North right now, only needing to win one of their next two games to clinch the division, but they’re going to find it very difficult to get that win this week, with the Kansas City Chiefs coming to town. The Bengals point differential of 9th is +86 best in the NFL, but they have also faced the easiest schedule in the league in terms of opponents’ efficiency, which doesn’t even take into account that they played a skeleton crew Ravens team last week. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Bengals rank just 17th, 16th, and 7th respectively, while ranking 13th in overall mixed schedule adjusted efficiency. That schedule will be getting a lot tougher this week, as the Chiefs are arguably the best team in the league. 

The Chiefs got off to a slow start this season, sitting at 3-4 through the first seven games of the season, but their biggest problems were the turnover margin (-10 through the first 7 games of the season) and their horrendous defensive play. Since then, their defense has since gotten healthy (cornerback Charvarius Ward, safety Tyrann Mathieu, defensive end Frank Clark, and defensive tackle Chris Jones all missed time early in the season) and added edge defender Melvin Ingram in a key mid-season acquisition, which has led to a huge defensive improvement, while their turnover margin has predictably swung as well, as they have been at +13 in the eight games since their slow start.

Between the turnover margin and their much improved defensive efficiency, the Chiefs have won all eight games by an average of 17.0 points per game since their 3-4 start, leading to them now being all alone in the #1 seed in the AFC at 11-4, despite the fact that their offense has not been as healthy in recent weeks as it is now, with starting right tackle Lucas Niang, top wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and stud tight end Travis Kelce all back in the lineup. 

This line, favoring the Chiefs by five points on the road, might seem high, given that the Bengals are a division leader, but my calculated line is actually at 6, so I think this line is not high enough, as this is just such a step up in competition from most of the Bengals’ schedule. The Chiefs rank 2nd in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency, 2nd on special teams, and their defense (25th on the season) has been a complementary unit in recent weeks. There isn’t enough here to bet on the Chiefs, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes, in a rare battle of two relatively healthy teams this week.

Kansas City Chiefs 27 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -5

Confidence: Low

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (8-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-6)

Earlier in the week, the Ravens looked like an intriguing bet. These two teams met in Baltimore earlier this year, with the Bengals pulling the upset, but that doesn’t always mean that the Bengals will be able to win even easier now that they are at home in the rematch. Divisional road underdogs cover at a 42.1% rate in a same season, regular season rematch against a team that previously pulled the upset against them as road underdogs earlier in the season. Not only do they cover at a high rate, but they also pull upsets at a high rate, winning almost at a 50% clip as underdogs of less than a touchdown.

The Bengals’ win in Baltimore earlier this season came in blowout fashion, with a final score of 41-17, but it wasn’t as lopsided as the final score suggests, as it was close for most of the game before the Ravens were forced to go for it on several 4th downs late (1 of 4 in the game) and failed. In terms of first down rate differential, the Bengals held the edge by just 1.52%, which is more predictive than anything on a week-to-week basis.

The Ravens were always likely to be without starting quarterback Lamar Jackson in this game, set to miss his second straight game with an ankle injury, but backup Tyler Huntley has been impressive enough that I would have been willing to bet on them with the right line. Unfortunately, Huntley will now miss this game as well, leaving third string Josh Johnson to start, just a few weeks after joining the team. The line has shifted up to favoring the Bengals by a touchdown, but we’re not getting any line value with them at that new number with a third string quarterback under center, especially given the rest of the Ravens’ absences.

Many of the Ravens’ absences have been out for an extended period of time, but, in total, they will be without their two best quarterbacks, their two best running backs (Gus Edwards and JK Dobbins), a pair of offensive line starters (Ronnie Stanley and Ben Powers), their two top cornerbacks (Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters), one starting safety (DeShon Elliott), a key reserve in the secondary (Jimmy Smith), and at least two expected starters in the front seven (Justin Houston and Derek Wolfe) and potentially a third, with Calais Campbell questionable to return from a one-game absence. 

The Bengals, meanwhile, are one of the relatively healthiest teams in the league, in total missing talented interior defender DJ Reader, starting right tackle Riley Reiff, and top linebacker Logan Wilson, but no one else of note. We were still getting some line value with the Ravens earlier in the week when Huntley was likely to play, but with Johnson under center now and the line only moving up to a touchdown, we aren’t getting any line value with them at all, as this is exactly where my calculated line is. 

I am still taking the Ravens for pick ‘em purposes, but only because they should be in a good spot in this rematch, even with that, this is a no confidence pick and could easily end up as a push. I may bump this up to low confidence if Campbell plays, but it would be hard to bet on the Ravens confidently in their current state and if Campbell doesn’t play I might switch to a no confidence pick on the Bengals. That’s how close this one is for me.

Update: Campbell is active, which is huge news for an otherwise skeleton crew defense. I am increasing the confidence slightly on this.

Cincinnati Bengals 23 Baltimore Ravens 17

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +7

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) at Denver Broncos (7-6)

These two teams are pretty similar. Both teams are 7-6 and in the playoff mix a year after finishing well below .500 and both teams have point differentials that are better than their records, with the Bengals at +61 and the Broncos at +47. However, both teams have also faced among the easiest schedules in the league. In schedule adjusted efficiency, the Bengals rank 21st, 17th, and 15th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively, while the Broncos rank 18th, 5th, and 29th and have a slight edge in mixed efficiency, ranking 17th, about a point ahead of the 19th ranked Bengals.

My roster rankings still have the Bengals about a point better though, mostly due to the Bengals’ significant edge at the quarterback position. The Broncos have performed about evenly with the Bengals, despite their significant quarterback disadvantage, but my roster rankings suggest they have overachieved to do so. The Bengals have a pair of significant absences in this game, missing starting right tackle Riley Reiff and top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, but the Broncos are shorthanded as well, missing a pair of key front seven players Malik Reed and Dre’mont Jones, as well as talented right guard Graham Glasgow.

The line, favoring the Broncos by a full field goal at home, suggests they are the slightly better team, but I think it’s the other way around, so we’re getting some line value with the Bengals, who I have calculated as just 1-point underdogs. It’s not enough to bet on the Bengals confidently and I still have the Broncos winning straight up, but the Bengals should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes as these two teams are no worse than even and this line suggests the Broncos are the slightly better team.

Denver Broncos 27 Cincinnati Bengals 26

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3

Confidence: Low

San Francisco 49ers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (6-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)

I have thought the 49ers are underrated for weeks, as their 6-6 record is not reflective of how they have performed in more predictive metrics, ranking 7th, 8th, 22nd, and 7th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency. However, it seems like the general public has become aware that the 49ers are better than their record and now is ignoring some key injury absences, including some new ones just in the past week.

The 49ers will get top linebacker Fred Warner back from injury this week, but they will now be without top cornerback Emmanuel Mosley, after already losing their previous top cornerback Jason Verrett for the season, as well as feature back Elijah Mitchell, after already losing their previous feature back Raheem Mostert for the season. On top of that, top wide receiver Deebo Samuel could miss his second straight game, right tackle Mike McGlinchey remains out, and would-be key contributors on defense like Javon Kinlaw, Dre Greenlaw, and Maurice Hurst remain out as well. 

Despite that, the 49ers are 1.5-point favorites in Cincinnati. For comparison, the Chargers were 3-point underdogs last week. The Chargers did win that game convincingly, but the Bengals were also without a pair of starting offensive linemen, right tackle Riley Reiff and center Trey Hopkins, who will both be back this week. I can’t bet the Bengals confidently, because the 49ers are still better than their 6-6 record, while the Bengals are likely worse than their 7-5 record, as they have faced an easy schedule, but the Bengals are in the better spot and should be the pick for pick ‘em purposes, as teams in their third straight home game like the Bengals cover the spread at a 55.2% rate. If Samuel plays, I would likely drop all confidence, but this is a low confidence pick of the Bengals for now.

Update: It sounds like Deebo Samuel is playing, so this is going to be a no confidence pick.

San Francisco 49ers 24 Cincinnati Bengals 23

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +1.5

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 13 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (6-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (7-4)

Typically, the rule of thumb with Chargers games is to pick them when they are on the road and pick against them when they are at home. Since moving to Los Angeles, the Chargers have frequently had to play in front of crowds at home that primarily favor the road team, leading to them underperforming the spread at home, but then being underrated when they go on the road. In total, they are 21-14 ATS on the road, as opposed to 13-22 ATS at home.

The Chargers lost last week in Denver, but they were missing a key offensive lineman, Matt Feiler, and he will be back this week. Meanwhile, the Bengals could be down a pair of offensive lineman for the first time this season, with both center Trey Hopkins and right tackle Riley Reiff likely to be out after not practicing this week. The Bengals have the better record at 7-4, as opposed to 6-5 for the Chargers, and they have a much better point differential (+83 vs. -20), but they have also faced a much easier schedule, as the Bengals have faced one of the weakest schedules in the league and the Chargers have faced one of the toughest. 

In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Bengals rank 22nd, 18th, 7th, on offense, defense, and special teams respectively, while the Chargers rank 4th, 19th, and 32nd, while holding the edge in mixed efficiency rank, 14th compared to 18th for the Bengals. Despite being the better team and the healthier team, the Chargers are getting a field goal in this game, even though they normally don’t have much trouble going on the road, as they are used to playing in front of hostile crowds even at home. This isn’t a big play, but I like the Chargers against the spread and on the money line.

Los Angeles Chargers 27 Cincinnati Bengals 26 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +3

Confidence: Medium

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 12 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)

I have bet against the Steelers frequently this season, as I have considered them overrated throughout. They went 12-4 a year ago, but they were not as good as their record, winning a lot of close games against an easy schedule. They were also carried by a dominant defense, which seemed unlikely to be able to keep up that level of play because of off-season losses and the overall relatively non-predictive nature of defensive performance, when compared to offensive performance. This season, the Steelers have started 5-4-1, but they are once again worse than their record. 

While all of the Steelers’ wins have come by one score, three of their four losses were by multiple scores, with the only exception being a game against the Chargers last week in which the Steelers lost despite winning the turnover battle and blocking a punt, which led to the Steelers cutting into what was a 14-point 4th quarter lead. Overall, the Chargers won the first down rate by 12.24% and the yards per play battle by 3.1 yards per play, both substantial amounts. 

The Steelers’ offense has continued to struggle, ranking 26th in schedule adjusted efficiency, while their defense has fallen off significantly, ranking 23rd in schedule adjusted efficiency, as injuries have hit them harder than expected. Only their 15th ranked special teams is a passable unit and special teams is the least predictive of the three phases. Overall, they rank just 26th in mixed efficiency, which is much worse than their record would suggest.

That being said, I am going to take the Steelers this week, for a few reasons. For one, they are getting significantly healthier on defense, at least compared to a week ago, with edge defender TJ Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick both set to return from short absences and cornerback Joe Haden seeming likely to join them after a short absence as well. The Steelers’ are still missing a pair of key defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, the latter of whom has not played all season, but they won’t be as short-handed as they were a week ago.

The Steelers are also in a good spot this week, as divisional road underdogs in a regular season rematch of a game in which the Steelers lost as home favorites, dropping their week three matchup in Pittsburgh against the Bengals by a final score of 24-10 as 3-point favorites. Teams tend to get revenge in this spot, or at least exceed expectations, covering at a 57.5% rate historically. On top of that, the Bengals are also an overrated team, as their 6-4 record has come against one of the easiest schedules in the league. 

In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Bengals rank 25th, 19th, 9th respectively on offense, defense, and special teams and, overall, they rank 23rd in mixed efficiency. That’s still better than the Steelers and this line, which favors the Bengals by 3.5 points at home, is fair, but when you add in that the Steelers are in a better spot, they look like the right side. This is a no confidence pick because we’re actually getting a little bit of line value with the Bengals, but the Steelers are the pick for pick ‘em purposes because of the spot they are in.

Cincinnati Bengals 23 Pittsburgh Steelers 20

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +3.5

Confidence: None