NFL Underdogs: NFL Picks, and Predictions For the Conference Championship Round

Cincinnati made a statement over the weekend, upsetting the Bills on the road. The Bengals will look to do the same on Sunday in a rematch of last year's AFC Championship. Read more in Jason Logan's NFL Underdogs column for Conference Championship weekend.

Last Updated: Jan 29, 2023 8:48 AM ET Read Time: 4 min

When it comes to Championship Sunday in the NFL playoffs, the term “underdog” is a pretty loose title. 

Sure, the point spread usually sits in favor of one side, but if you’ve made it this far, you aren’t the traditional underdog we’ve been betting on all NFL season.

Case in point: the Cincinnati Bengals, who are just one win away from reaching the Super Bowl for the second straight year.

NFL odds saw the Bengals open as high as 3-point pups at Kansas City on Sunday and jumped the fence to favorites on Monday morning, only to come back around as underdogs here on Wednesday.

Where it goes before kickoff on Sunday night is anyone’s guess, but I’m grabbing the points with Cincy for my NFL Underdogs picks and predictions in the AFC Championship Game.

NFL picks against the spread for Conference Championship Round

Click on each pick to jump to the full analysis.

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Patrick Mahomes’ bum ankle has sent the spread for the AFC title game on a wild ride. Kansas City hit the board anywhere from -1 to -3 on Sunday night, and by Monday morning, the Chiefs were 1.5-point home underdogs for just the fifth time since Mahomes broke out in 2018.

That spread climbed as high as +2.5 before sharps and pro betting groups grabbed Kansas City and the points on Tuesday night, dropping the line to Bengals -1. Those groups likely had good info on Mahomes' status heading into Wednesday, as the MVP candidate suddenly was good to go for practice. 

That respected action and positive update on Mahomes has the AFC title game line coming back to Kansas City, with some spots now dealing the Chiefs as big as 1.5-point home chalk. 

Getting Cincinnati with the hook at +1.5 means a lot to me, considering those betting groups grabbed the points with the Chiefs and not the moneyline, which was as high as +120 before those respected releases. Is that saying that the AFC Championship will be decided by one point? If so, I’m playing it safe.

Mahomes’ mobility on that sprained ankle is the million-dollar question. If he is hobbled, it likely balances out the comparison between him and Joe Burrow, who’s playing about as good as a quarterback could play right now.

Burrow has the better playmakers around him as well. And it’s not just Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd who can do damage, but a Cincinnati rushing attack of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine that can chip away at a Chiefs defense that is susceptible to the run. 

Effectively running the football delivered gut punches to the Buffalo defense in the Divisional Round, as it seemed Cincy’s ball carries were constantly bruising for extra yards after contact and racked up 13 rushing first downs, helping the Bengals dominate possession for 33:54.

Kansas City’s defense turned up the intensity as the playoffs drew near, but while the pass rush and secondary stepped up, the run stop leaves much to be desired. The Chiefs sit 21st in EPA allowed per handoff since losing at Cincinnati in Week 13 — a game in which the Bengals rushed for 152 yards on 34 carries without Mixon and ate up over 32 minutes in TOP.

Jacksonville amassed 144 yards on the ground on only 19 carries versus Kansas City in the Divisional Round but had to scale back the run calls in the second half as it trailed by 10 points entering the fourth quarter. The Bengals can not only poke this soft spot in the KC defense but also keep the Chiefs' vaunted pass rush honest and protect a makeshift offensive line missing key bodies.

And as good as the Cincinnati offense has looked during its 10-game winning streak, the defense has been just as instrumental, sitting No. 10 in Defensive DVOA during this run, according to Football Outsiders.

The Bengals' stop unit has a star-studded defensive line that can create pressure with the front four and stymie the ground game. At the same time, the secondary doesn’t make life easy on would-be receivers, allowing the lowest completion percentage in the league. They limited Mahomes to 16-for-27 completions and 233 yards with one touchdown in Week 14 and now face a less-than-healthy KC quarterback.

If this spread sticks and the Chiefs close as favorites below a field goal for the AFC Championship, they trend into dangerous territory as far as postseason point spreads are concerned. Since 2010, favorites of less than -3 are just 10-14 straight up and 8-15-1 against the spread, including those short home faves going a dismal 5-10 SU and 4-11 ATS.    

PICK: Bengals +1.5 (-125 at 888Sport)

Last week: 1-1 ATS -0.13 units (Risking 1 unit per play)
Season: 26-29 ATS -2.94 units (Risking 1 unit per play)

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