The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Best bets for the NFL’s conference championship games

The prediction for Joe Burrow's Bengals against the Chiefs? Points. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

The NFL’s final four teams are set, and it is shaping up to be a fantastic Sunday. After a weekend of upsets where the lone favorite to advance prevailed in one of the most exciting playoff games in sports history, we’re left with two surprising yet intriguing championship games.

If history is any guide, the underdogs might be done advancing, but they could still line the pockets of bettors. Since 2002, when the NFL expanded to 32 teams, underdogs are 12-26 straight up in this round, but their cover rate isn’t terrible against the spread (17-21). In fact, favorites have covered the spread by an average of one point in the conference championship games over the past 19 seasons, giving some hope for those backing the underdogs at the betting window.

Picks are against the consensus point spreads as of Tuesday night.

Best bets record this season: 22-15.

Inside the wildest two minutes of the NFL season

Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs (-7)

Pick: Over 54.5 points, playable up to 55

These teams met in Week 17, and the Bengals walked away with a 34-31 victory. Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow and his team’s offense scored 20 more points than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each play. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs scored 17 more points than expected. The Bengals also earned a first down or scored a touchdown on over 85 percent of the series, the same as the Chiefs.

If forced to pick a side, I’d lean Bengals +7, but the real value is in the total, which opened at 51½ and was bet up two points within minutes. The Chiefs and Bengals combined for 65 points in the regular season matchup (the total was 51½ in that game, too) and rank No. 1 and No. 11 in the NFL in points scored per drive.

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams (-3½)

Pick: San Francisco 49ers +3½ -115

San Francisco outplayed Los Angeles in both regular season matchups, resulting in a combined series success rate (the rate at which a team, starting on first down, earns a new first down or scores a touchdown on that series) of 78 percent compared with 67 percent for the Rams in those games. Los Angeles and San Francisco rank No. 5 and No. 6 respectively in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) metric, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent — another testament to how close these teams are in ability.

Rams drop ticket policy aimed at restricting sales outside of Los Angeles

There are other factors in San Francisco’s favor. The 49ers get a rest advantage, having played Saturday before the Rams played Sunday afternoon, and the 49ers’ trip to SoFi Stadium is easy coming from Northern California, limiting any home-field advantage the Rams might enjoy. Not to mention the expected influx of 49ers fans at this game, which the Rams initially tried to prevent by limiting ticket sales.

If you want to back the 49ers, I would do it sooner rather than later because I think this spread tightens a bit and goes under the key number of three. If it does, you may be better served taking the 49ers money line because of the low probability of the game ending with a one- or two-point margin. If the line moves to +3, a fair-value money line is +130 based on how often teams getting three points in the spread win straight up, and if it drops to +2½, a fair-value money line is +108.

There is also a prop bet in this game worth exploring. As of Wednesday morning, FanDuel was offering Jimmy Garoppolo over 222.5 passing yards at -114. Projections from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus forecast Garoppolo will have an average of 260 passing yards against the Rams. Those estimates infer a price of -330 for over 222.5 passing yards, a huge discrepancy that makes this an attractive proposition.