Good Morning, Bolts From the Blue!
AFC: Kansas City Chiefs vs Baltimore Ravens
Patrick Mahomes might hold the most mind blowing playoff record of all time; he has reached the AFC conference title game in all six seasons he has been the starting quarterback. Imagine being his poor division rivals. However this season has been a different tale, Andy Reid’s men lost six regular season games and ended up having to win a playoff game on the road for the first time in the Mahomes era. Their usually insurmountable offense has seen a sharp decline this season slipping from 30.1 ppg (points per game) over the last five years, all the way down to 21.8 ppg which ranks as 15th in the league. Yet they find themselves one win away from a Super Bowl once again but this time it is thanks to Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. The mad scientist affectionately known as ‘Spags’ has been able to limit teams to 17.3 ppg thanks to his innovative use of two high coverages which has made the most out of having the potentially the best secondary in the league with Justin Reid, Mike Edwards, L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie.
Despite the Chiefs playing on conference championship weekend once again, there is a significant change in the status quo this year. The Chiefs will be playing as underdogs for the first time since the 2018 season as DraftKings Sportsbook have them as 3.5-point outsiders. That is, in part, a sign of where the Chiefs are this time around, but it is more of a testament to just how good the Baltimore Ravens have been in basically every metric available to measure success. In my opinion John Harbaugh has put together the most well balanced team the league has seen since Tom Brady was wearing Patriot blue. This is also in part to his excellent coordinator appointments, Todd Monken and Mike Macdonald may both only be in their first few years in Maryland however they have head coach interview requests for every spot available thanks to the sheer dominance both their units have displayed throughout the 2023 season.
Todd Monken took a mid tier offense that was scoring 20.4 ppg with only 178 passing yards per game to an elite unit that put up 28.7 ppg with 214 passing yards per game. Lamar Jackson has silenced all doubters by showing his talents as a pocket passer in Monken’s system, his statistics could have been even better if the Ravens had not been protecting leads in almost every fourth quarter. A good chunk of Lamar’s increased production has been without his favorite target as Mark Andrews has sat out since November 16th however it did allow rookie Zay Flowers and sophomore Isaiah Likely to step up in his absence. Between them they have allowed Monken’s offense to evolve even further with their dynamic after the catch abilities. The spine of Mike Macdonald’s vaunted defense is as strong as any in the league; Justin Madubuike, Roquan Smith and Kyle Hamilton make life miserable for opposing offensive coordinators as there isn’t an area of the field you can consistently attack.
So will Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and Travis Kelce be able to best the Ravens’ between the hashes or will they be forced to push the ball outside to a lackluster set of receivers? In my opinion I think they Chiefs will seriously struggle to get to 20 points, in their divisional round win over the Buffalo Bills they were able to toy with a decimated linebacker corps through play action and running the ball using zone concepts to attack the edges. This will not be able to be repeated as the Ravens are elite in both these areas. When the Ravens have the ball they will be able to stick to what they know and use their power ground game which the Chiefs have been susceptible to all season. The turnover battle also leans massively in Baltimore’s direction as they led the league with a differential of +12 whereas the Chiefs finished joint third worst with -11. For the Chiefs to even stand a chance they need to play clean football as they are facing one of the best special teams in the league that can put you in brutal spots with one of the best kickers of all time for the cherry on top.
All the evidence tells me to go for the Ravens to cover the 3.5-point spread at -110 and I’d even be tempted to go for an alternative spread of 6.5 at +131. I’m also a fan of attacking the total of 44.5 with an under bet at -110 as I am not convinced the Ravens’ passing game will have much success beyond the occasional play action shot.
NFC: Detroit Lions vs San Francisco 49ers
Here we are ladies and gentlemen, the pinnacle of sporting narratives is upon us as we are going to be witness to a David vs Goliath.... wait no this is more like Rocky vs Ivan Drago. The plucky working class underdog who dragged themselves up from the canvas to find themselves winning matchups very few ever thought possible through sheer force of will, before nearing the summit of the sport to face the icy cold opponent that was seemingly built in a lab for the sole purpose of not only winning any fight but dominate through impossible combinations of technically brilliance and athletic prowess. I mean could the NFL even script a better story for the NFC title game?
Dan Campbell’s Lions are a true sporting fairytale going from 3-13-1 only two years ago, to being within one win of a Super Bowl berth. They reached this lofty height by winning their divisional round game over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the same style as most of their statement wins have come this season. Their offense continuously won through both the air and on the ground with their defense smothering the run but being open all across the secondary. Ben Johnson, the Lions’ in demand offensive coordinator, has been able to dictate how defenses set up all season long with his intricate use of unique personnel and formations amalgamations that are very hard to prepare for. Aaron Glenn’s defense is an enigma because whilst they have allowed the fifth most yards through the air, the fourth most redzone scores and the sixth most passing touchdowns, they still manage to have an impact thanks to their stellar run defense and an ability to come up with big plays in key moments.
The opponents standing in their way are the imperious San Francisco 49ers who have been emphatically dominant when healthy. Steve Wilks’ defense features some elite players at all three levels and whilst their simplistic scheme isn’t too hard to game plan around, it isn’t easy to score on. Fred Warner, Nick Bosa, Chase Young and Charvarius Ward have been given license to tee off and attack their matchups and it works as they have limited teams to under 18 points a game. Kyle Shanahan’s offense has rounded into a finely balanced scheme that can beat you every which way; if their explosive lateral movement run game doesn’t beat you, their wide receivers can and if those are covered then their tight ends can do damage. It’s truly a pick-your-poison style task to take on this offense and come out the other side still standing.
So how do the Lions even approach beating this apex predator of a team? How do they overcome the odds and usurp a team that looks to have them on the ropes? Do they wait for a moment to strike, carefully limiting them to point scoring jabs? or do they get inside their reach and take the fight to them knowing you might not outlast the inevitable pain? With the Lions’ backing themselves to be tough enough to withstand the onslaught, that is precisely what they must do to win this game. When they don’t have the ball, the Lions’ strength is in their run front and that’s where you want to force the 49ers to beat you, this actually compliments Aaron Glenn’s nickel package which has been their best grouping, so they need go light and fast to try and keep up with the lateral movements of Shanahan’s zone run game. When they do have the ball they need to steer clear of their tendency to work out of 12 personnel as the 49ers excel against this grouping due to their elite off ball linebackers, so it would be a great game to pivot to some of their lesser used packages like two back looks that could maximize the talents of David Montgomery and rookie Jahmyr Gibbs.
Unfortunately I can’t say I believe in this fairytale no matter how much I want it to come true. The 49ers’ gap exchange zone run game is a nightmare to defend and the Lions have been inconsistent against this concept, particularly inside zone. I expect this is where the 49ers will attack early but another area I am confident Shanahan will target is Cameron Sutton’s corner back spot. In last year’s Wild Card game against the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers bombarded Tariq Woolen’s area repeatedly over the first few drives after spotting a weakness and it set them up for a runaway victory. Sutton allowed a shocking 147 yards in their divisional round game where Mike Evans walked all over him so if they see this matchup in the same way as Tariq Woolen, it could be a long night for the former Pittsburgh Steeler.
I am talking about one side of the ball a lot more than the other because I think if the Lions can’t come up with answers to slow down Brock Purdy, Christian McCaffrey, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle (and that’s if Deebo Samuel isn’t able to go) then it won’t matter what their explosive offense can achieve. Therefore I am going to pick the Niners to win moneyline at -310, them to also cover the 7-point spread at -108 and (my lock of the day) the over 51 total points at -110.
Here is how the BFTB staff sees Divisional Round breaking down:
What do you think, BFTB? Are any of you placing bets on the second week of the playoffs?