Cincinnati Bengals vs. Los Angeles Rams: Super Bowl LVI Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (13-7) vs. Los Angeles Rams (15-5) in Super Bowl LVI

The Bengals have had an improbable run to the Super Bowl, maybe even more so than most people realize. Not only have they pulled upsets over higher seeded teams in their last two playoff wins to qualify for the Super Bowl as a 4-seed, after entering the season with the worst odds in their division, but all three of their wins have come by one score with two of the wins coming on the last play and, most importantly, they have actually lost the first down rate and yards per play battle by all three games, with their +5 turnover margin across the three games being the primary driver of their close victories. 

Unfortunately for the Bengals, yards per play and first down rate tend to be significantly more predictive of future winning than winning percentage or point differential, while turnover margin is highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. The Bengals, for example, had an even turnover margin in the regular season, despite facing one of the easiest schedules in the league. They weren’t particularly good in first down rate or yards per play in the regular season either, ranking 18th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is based on first down rate and yards per play. That was the 3rd worst among 14 playoff qualifiers.

It’s possible the Bengals could continue beating the odds, but it’s unlikely and I would bet against it, especially against a team like the Rams, who have legitimately been one of the best teams in the league this season. They rank 9th, 6th, 5th, and 3rd in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, making them probably the most well-balanced team in the league. When you factor in that they’ll at least have some homefield advantage with this game being in Los Angeles, I have the Rams calculated as at least 7 point favorites, so we’re getting significant line value with them at -4.

Los Angeles Rams 27 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: Los Angeles -4

Confidence: High

Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 AFC Championship Pick

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

Confidence: High

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 predictive metrics 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