The Primer: NFL Conference Championship Playoffs Edition (2022)
We’re still basking in the afterglow of perhaps the best weekend of playoff football in NFL history. The four games from the Divisional Round have been discussed breathlessly all week, so no more looking back. Instead, let’s turn our attention to Sunday’s conference championship games.
We’re down to four potential Super Bowl matchups:
We could get Bengals-49ers in a rematch of Super Bowls XVI and XXIII, both won by the 49ers. Joe Montana quarterbacked the 49ers in both of those games, twice breaking the hearts of Bengals fans.
We could get a Chiefs-49ers rematch of Super Bowl LIV two years ago, which the Chiefs won 31-20. Patrick Mahomes earned his first Super Bowl ring, outplaying the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo (who threw two interceptions).
We could get a Chiefs-Rams rematch of that classic 2018 game in which the Rams outdueled the Chiefs 54-51 in Los Angeles, with the two teams combining for 1,001 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Or we could get a Bengals-Rams rematch of … um, well, nothing particularly memorable. The two teams have met only 14 times in the Super Bowl era and five times in the new millennium.
This installment of the Primer is devoted primarily to DFS. A quick reminder:
Cash games are contests in which you try to beat half the field, whether it’s head-to-head against one other player or a game with a larger field.
GPPs are large contests with guaranteed prize pools.
(The prices listed here are for DraftKings contests.)
Let’s take a look at Championship Sunday.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Joe Burrow ($6,600): Joe Montana will forever be the original “Joe Cool,” but could we at least let Burrow borrow that nickname for a while? The Bengals’ second-year QB took nine sacks last Saturday but completed 28 of 37 passes for 348 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in a 19-16 road win over the Titans. Despite being under constant duress, Burrow completed 75.7% of his passes against Tennessee and averaged 9.4 yards per attempt. He now gets a rematch with a Chiefs defense he torched for 446 yards and four touchdowns in Week 17. Kansas City lost safety Tyrann Mathieu to a concussion early in their victory over the Bills last weekend, and CB Rashad Fenton was out with a back injury. Both are reportedly expected back for the AFC Championship game, but the Chiefs’ secondary was healthy in Week 17, and Burrow still picked it apart. The Bengals’ offensive line has to do a better job of keeping Burrow’s pocket clean. The Chiefs had the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL this season, but Kansas City has a better PFF pass-rushing grade for the season than Tennessee does. (The Chiefs sacked Burrow four times in Week 17.) The Bengals haven’t run the ball effectively in two months, and with Cincinnati a 7-point underdog this weekend, passing volume shouldn’t be an issue for Burrow. I’d prefer to pay the extra $800 for Patrick Mahomes in DraftKings contests, but Burrow is a fine DFS option, and it’s hard to argue with the strategy of stacking Burrow with one or more of the Cincinnati pass catchers.
Patrick Mahomes ($7,400): Remember all the “What’s wrong with Patrick Mahomes hand-wringing earlier in the season? He threw 10 interceptions in Kansas City’s first eight games as the team got off to a 4-4 start. Mahomes has thrown just four interceptions in the 11 games since. The Chiefs have gone 10-1 over that stretch and are now one game away from a third straight Super Bowl appearance. The one loss? It was to the Chiefs’ AFC Championship Game opponent, the Bengals, in Week 17. Mahomes completed 26 of 35 passes for 259 yards in that game with two touchdowns and no interceptions. That was a road game, and Mahomes will be at home this time. In eight career playoff games at Arrowhead Stadium, Mahomes has averaged 318.8 passing yards. He’s thrown 23 TD passes and just one interception in those eight games, leading the Chiefs to a 7-1 record. In playoff wins over the Steelers and Bills the last two weeks, Mahomes has thrown for 782 yards, eight touchdowns, and one interception, adding 98 rushing yards and one TD run. The Bengals’ pass defense ranks 24th in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) metric and 18th in opponent passer rating. This looks like a smash spot for an undeniably great quarterback at the height of his powers. Mahomes is by far the most expensive QB on the board this week, but he’s well worth the money.
Joe Mixon ($6,800): Mixon is the priciest RB on the board this week by $900, and the case for paying up is pretty simple: volume and touchdowns. Mixon has averaged 18.8 touches a game this season, playoffs included and has scored 17 touchdowns in 18 games. As a bonus, Mixon has been used as a pass-catcher more frequently of late, with 17 catches on 20 targets over his last three games. The case against? Well, Mixon hasn’t topped 65 rushing yards or averaged 4.0 yards per carry in a game since Week 12. The Bengals’ running game hasn’t been effective without offensive tackle Riley Reiff (ankle), who last played in Week 14 and is on IR. Mixon faces a Chiefs run defense that yielded 4.8 yards per carry and was average at best during the regular season but has turned things up a notch for the playoffs. Kansas City held Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris to 12-29-0 rushing in the wild card round and Buffalo’s Devin Singletary to 10-26-1 in the divisional round. (Harris and Singletary had a combined 6-24-0 receiving in those two games.) I’m out on Mixon at this price. I’d rather spend up at WR and TE.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire ($5,300): Sidelined by a shoulder injury since Week 17, Edwards-Helaire returned to action last week and had 7-60-0 rushing and 1-9-0 receiving. He was out-snapped by Jerick McKinnon 53-23, but CEH was far more effective in the running game, and there’s a good chance we’ll see a more equal division of labor in the AFC Championship Game now that Edwards-Helaire has demonstrated his fitness. The Chiefs face a Cincinnati defense that held Titans RB Derrick Henry to 20-62-1 rushing last week in his much-anticipated return from a foot injury (though the Bengals did allow Titans backup D’Onta Foreman to break off a 45-yard run). The Bengals allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards during the regular season, but their run defense ranks just 13th in DVOA. With McKinnon likely to see more work on passing downs and perhaps more work overall, I prefer him as a cheaper alternative to CEH, so I’m not going to have Edwards-Helaire in any of my lineups this weekend.
Jerick McKinnon ($5,100): Clyde-Edwards-Helaire returned from a shoulder injury last week, though McKinnon played 53 snaps, and CEH played only 23 snaps. It’s possible that the Chiefs could ramp up Edwards-Helaire’s usage this week since he was more effective than McKinnon on the ground last week against the Bills, with 7-60-0 rushing vs. 10-24-0 for McKinnon. It’s also possible that Darrel Williams could be back from a toe injury, though he seems to have fallen to No. 3 on the depth chart. McKinnon has 27-109-0 rushing and 14-161-2 receiving over his last three games. Even if CEH gets more work in the running game this weekend, McKinnon figures to play most of the snaps on passing downs. The Bengals allowed the fifth-most receptions (108) and the sixth-most receiving yards (769) to running backs during the regular season. McKinnon is a good value at an affordable price.
Ja’Marr Chase ($6,700): When the Bengals played the Chiefs in Week 17, Chase erupted for 11-266-3 on 12 targets, with TD catches of 72, 69, and 18 yards. Chase had 5-109-0 against the Titans last week and has gone over 100 yards in four of his last five games. The one miss was a meaningless Week 18 game in which he played only five snaps. The Chiefs have a good group of cornerbacks led by former undrafted free agent Charvarius Ward. But Chase is already one of the NFL’s best receivers as a rookie, and I think he’s a better DraftKings value than the slightly more expensive Deebo Samuel and Tyreek Hill.
Tee Higgins ($5,700): Higgins had a team-high nine targets in the Bengals’ road win over the Titans last Saturday and finished with 7-96-0. A $5,700 price tag is tempting for a receiver who posted 74-1,091-6 over 14 regular-season games, but it’s getting harder and harder to take the discount on Higgins rather than just paying up for Chase, who’s been virtually uncoverable for the last month. I can understand eschewing Chase for Higgins in an effort to separate yourself from the pack in GPPs. Higgins could certainly have a big day against a Chiefs pass defense that ranks 23rd in DVOA. He had 3-62-0 on five targets in the Bengals’ Week 17 win over the Chiefs, with Chase going off for 266 yards and three touchdowns in that game. As good as Higgins is, I’d prefer to ride with Chase this week.
Tyler Boyd ($4,200): Boyd’s streak of four consecutive games with a TD catch ended last week with a quiet 2-17-0 performance against the Titans on only three targets. Although he’s been a very good slot receiver for four years now, Boyd has become a third wheel in the Bengals’ passing game. He’s averaged 5.7 targets a game this season, and he’s seen six or fewer targets in each of his last six games. Boyd had a tricky matchup this week against Chiefs slot corner L’Jarius Snead. When he faced Kansas City in Week 17, Boyd had 4-36-1 on six targets. The odds of getting a big yardage game from Boyd aren’t very good, but he gets at least a handful of targets every week, and he defenses sometimes fail to account for him while focusing on Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Among the inexpensive receivers on the slate this weekend, Boyd isn’t a bad value.
Tyreek Hill ($7,000): A heel injury and a bout with COVID-19 led to reduced snaps and reduced effectiveness for Hill at times late in the season, but we saw peak Tyreek last Sunday against the Bills. He finished with 11-150-1 on 13 targets, showing off his one-of-a-kind acceleration on his 64-yard TD catch with 1:02 left in regulation. You know the deal with Hill: He’s going to have some monster games, and he’s going to have some quiet games. Hill had 6-40-0 on 10 targets when he faced the Bengals in Week 16, but his numbers could have been much better if he’d managed to haul in what probably should have been a 65-yard TD pass just before halftime. Hill isn’t my favorite WR value on the board this week, but I can certainly understand the urge to roster him in a game where the Chiefs have a lofty implied point.
Byron Pringle ($4,300): Pringle has established himself as the Chiefs’ No. 2 receiver over the last month. He’s had 24-232-5 over his last five games and has been Kansas City’s top TD scorer over that stretch. The price is certainly right for a receiver who’s seen seven or more targets in each of his last three games and is getting those targets from an elite quarterback. Pringle is my favorite value among the inexpensive receivers on this week’s card.
Mecole Hardman ($4,000): Hardman’s blazing speed gives him enticing splash-play capability, as we saw last week with his 25-yard TD run and a 26-yard catch against the Bills. But Hardman is an inconsistent contributor. He’s seen five targets or fewer in nine of his last 10 games, and while he usually gets a rushing attempt or two most weeks, he certainly isn’t the sort of difference-maker in the running game that Deebo Samuel has been for the 49ers. I’d rather pay the extra $300 for Byron Pringle.
Demarcus Robinson ($3,800): Robinson plays more than half the Chiefs’ offensive snaps most week but rarely has much of an impact. He hadn’t topped 50 receiving yards in a game all season before turning in 4-76-0 against the Steelers in the wild-card round. Robinson has three TD catches this season, and one of them came in a 2-33-1 performance against the Bengals in Week 17. There’s just not a compelling reason to go fishing in this pond.
C.J. Uzomah ($3,400): I suppose there’s a case to be made for going cheap at tight end this week with Uzomah, particularly as a way to separate yourself from the pack in GPPs. Uzomah has had 13-135-1 on 14 targets in Cincinnati’s two playoff games. He had 4-32-0 against the Chiefs in Week 17. If you want to use Uzomah in a GPP, fine. I don’t think he’s a good play in cash games.
Travis Kelce ($6,500): Kelce has scored 11 touchdowns this season (playoffs included), and he’s found the end zone six times in his last five games. He opened the postseason with a 5-108-1 performance against the Steelers in the wild card round and dropped 8-96-1 on the Bills last week, with a 25-yard catch to set up Kansas City’s game-tying field goal at the end of regulation and an acrobatic 8-yard TD catch in overtime to win the game. Kelce had 5-25-1 against the Bengals in Week 17, but his low yardage total in that game seems like a fluke when you consider that the Bengals yielded 96-1,083-8 to tight ends during the regular season. That’s the fourth-highest reception total and fifth-highest yardage total allowed to tight ends. Kelce almost seems like a mandatory play at $6,500.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Los Angeles Rams
Jimmy Garoppolo ($5,400): Garoppolo ended the regular season with a pair of 300-yard outings, but in two playoff games, he’s averaged 151.5 passing yards and has thrown zero TD passes and two interceptions. In fairness to Jimmy G, he’s been dealing with a chipped bone in his right thumb and a sprained right shoulder. There just isn’t much appeal here for DFS contests. The 49ers have a run-heavy offense, and they’re facing a Rams defense that ranks fifth in opponent passer rating and sixth in DVOA. The Rams were one of four teams with more interceptions than TD passes allowed during the regular season. The first time Garoppolo faced the Rams in the regular season, he completed 15 of 19 passes for 182 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 31-10 49ers victory in Week 10 – the sort of tidy, efficient performance the 49ers would love to get from Jimmy G. on Sunday. In a Week 18 road game against the Rams, Garoppolo completed 23 of 32 passes for 316 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in San Francisco’s 27-24 overtime victory. There just isn’t enough upside with Garoppolo to warrant this sort of a cost-cutting maneuver at quarterback.
Matthew Stafford ($6,300): Stafford threw for a season-high 366 yards in the Rams’ roller-coaster 30-27 win over the Buccaneers, setting up the game-winning field goal with a 44-yard bomb to Cooper Kupp in the final minute. It was the eighth time that Stafford has cleared 300 yards this season, and he’s thrown multiple TD passes in four straight. Stafford and the Rams will face a familiar foe in the NFC Championship Game, butting heads with the 49ers for the third time this season. The 49ers won the first two matchups. In Week 10, Stafford completed 26 of 41 passes for 243 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in a 31-10 loss. In Week 18, he completed 21 of 32 passes for 238 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in a 27-24 overtime loss. San Francisco has a suspect group of cornerbacks, but the 49ers mitigate some of their coverage issues with their ability to consistently generate pressure with a four-man pass rush. The Niners sacked Stafford seven times this season, with five of those sacks coming in Week 18. There’s some contrarian appeal here, but both of the quarterbacks in the AFC Championship Game are better values.
Elijah Mitchell ($5,900): Mitchell had logged 21 or more carries in six consecutive games before going into Green Bay last Saturday and getting “only” 17 carries. He finished with 17-53-0 rushing and 3-18-0 receiving. It was his worst yardage output since Week 5, but that’s not overly concerning given the frigid weather conditions and a Green Bey defensive gameplan that seemed focused on stopping the San Francisco running game. Mitchell figures to be in line for heavy usage this week vs. the Rams, but Los Angeles has done a good job against Mitchell in two previous encounters. Mitchell had 27-91-0 rushing against the Rams in Week 10 and 21-85-0 against them in Week 18. He didn’t see a target in either game. Although the Rams have one of the better run defenses in the league and have had success against Mitchell this season, he’s still one of the better RB values on the board due to the likelihood that he’ll see at least 18-20 touches.
Cam Akers ($5,000): The triumph of Akers’ performance against the Cardinals in the wild-card round could have been overshadowed by Akers’ two lost fumbles against the Buccaneers in the divisional round if the Rams hadn’t been able to squeeze out a 30-27 win in a game they seemed hell-bent on giving away. After rolling up 95 yards from scrimmage and having a couple of big plays negated by penalties against Arizona, Akers was held to 24-48-0 rushing and 3-20-0 receiving against a Buccaneers run defense that gave up a league-low 1,083 rushing yards to RBs during the regular season. Akers gets another tough draw this weekend against a 49ers’ run defense that held the Packers to 67 rushing yards last week, with 31 of those yards coming on Green Bay’s first two drives. The 49ers’ run defense ranks second in DVOA and limited opposing RBs to 3.6 yards per carry during the regular season. What gives Akers DFS appeal is his workload. Akers made his season debut in the regular-season finale against the 49ers, playing 13 snaps and getting eight touches. In two playoff games, he’s played 90 snaps and has gotten 45 touches. At such a low price, Akers is arguably the best RB value on the board this week despite the difficult matchup.
Sony Michel ($4,600): From Week 13 to Week 18, Michel averaged 53.3 snaps and 23.2 touches a game. Last week against the Buccaneers, Michel played 14 snaps and had three touches. This is Akers’ backfield again, and Michel makes little sense in DraftKings contests at a price that hasn’t been discounted nearly enough.
Deebo Samuel ($7,200): When Deebo walked off the field following the 49ers’ Week 18 win over the Rams waving an imaginary broom and chanting, “Sweep, sweep,” he probably wasn’t imagining that the two teams would meet for a third time in the playoffs. The Rams are no doubt aware of Deebo’s housekeeping celebration and would surely like to get revenge, but are they capable of keeping Deebo under wraps? He had 5-36-1 rushing and 5-97-1 receiving in his first meeting with the Rams, 8-45-1 rushing, and 4-95-0 receiving in the second meeting. The Packers managed to minimize the Deebo damage last Saturday, holding him to 10-39-0 rushing and 3-44-0 receiving. Deebo took a helmet to the knee in that game and appeared to be in pain for much of the second half, but he’s expected to be fine for Sunday. There are some attractive WR options on this weekend’s slate, and Deebo is a potential lineup anchor. He’s not cheap but based on his success against the Rams this weekend, it would be silly to say he’s overpriced. The nice thing about Deebo is that his versatility and his movement around the formation should prevent him from ending up in the coverage of Rams CB Jalen Ramsey on a big percentage of his snaps.
Brandon Aiyuk ($5,000): Aiyuk was a nonfactor against the Packers last weekend, failing to catch a pass and drawing only one target on a frigid night in Green Bay. But in his four previous games, Aiyuk had amassed 19-307-1 on 24 targets. In his Week 10 meeting with the Rams, Aiyuk had 3-26-0, but he had his only 100-yard game of the season in the Week 18 rematch, going for 6-107-0. The Rams’ pass defense has been efficient this season, yet they allowed the third-most receptions (240) and the fourth most receiving yards (2,950) to wide receivers during the regular season. I don’t mind Aiyuk as a dart throw in GPPs, but his floor isn’t stable enough for consideration in cash games.
Jauan Jennings ($3,200): The last time Jennings faced the Rams, he had 6-94-2 against them in Week 18. That performance coupled with his bargain-basement price will make him a popular cost-cutting option. I won’t quibble with the people who want to throw him into their last lineup spot, but just realize that the big game against the Rams was the only time all season that Jennings has caught more than three passes.
Cooper Kupp ($8,800): Kupp’s magical season just keeps getting better and better. He had nine catches for a season-high 183 yards against the Buccaneers last week, hauling in a 20-yard pass and a 44-yard pass in the final minute of the game to set up the Rams’ game-winning field goal. Kupp also hauled in a bomb for a 70-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. He’s been tough on the 49ers this season, with 11-122-0 against them in Week 10 and 7-118-1 against them in Week 18. Niners CB K’Waun Williams figures to be Kupp’s primary defender on Sunday. Williams didn’t play in the 49ers’ Week 18 win over the Rams. PFF grades Williams 52nd among 122 graded cornerbacks, but he’s allowed an 80% catch rate on throws into his coverage this season. Even at $8,800, Kupp is the top WR value on the board. I imagine a lot of people will start their cash game lineups with Kupp and Travis Kelce and go from there.
Odell Beckham ($5,100): OBJ has scored six touchdowns in 10 games with the Rams, He didn’t score one last week, but he was busy nonetheless, with six catches for 69 yards. Beckham is averaging 3.7 catches and 42.8 yards a game with the Rams, but it’s the TD potential that gives him appeal. The Rams’ Week 10 game against the 49ers was Beckham’s first with the team, and he had 2-18-0 on only 15 snaps. In Week 18, he once again had 2-18-0, but this time on 51 snaps. OBJ is a decent cost-cutting play, though we haven’t seen much reason to hope for a big yardage game out of him.
Van Jefferson ($3,900): Jefferson has seen just seven targets over his last three games and is averaging 3.3 targets a game over the Rams’ last seven contests. Jefferson had 41-679-6 receiving over the first 14 weeks of the regular season, but he’s become an afterthought in the L.A. offense. Still, Jefferson played 65 snaps against the Buccaneers last weekend, and the price is right. He’s a reasonable budget play.
George Kittle ($5,000): After a four-game stretch in which he had only 9-78-0 on 15 targets, Kittle sort of got back on track with a 4-63-0 performance against the Packers, but his stat line would have looked a lot prettier if not for a concentration drop on a pass that probably should have gone for about 25 yards. In two games against the Rams this season, Kittle has had 5-50-1 and 5-10-0. He’s $1,500 cheaper than Kelce this week, and getting a player as good as Kittle at this price seems like a steal. But Kittle hasn’t scored a touchdown in six games and has averaged 28.2 yards over his last five games. There’s always upside with Kittle, but the floor here isn’t as sturdy as usual.
Tyler Higbee ($3,700): Higbee scored five touchdowns during the regular season, and three of them came against the 49ers. He had 3-20-1 receiving against the Niners in Week 10 and 6-55-2 against them in Week 18. The 49ers gave up only six TD catches to tight ends during the regular season. San Francisco allowed the fifth-fewest receptions to TEs (65) and the third-fewest receiving yards (582). The matchup isn’t as appealing as Higbee’s TD total vs. the Rams would suggest, but Higbee has averaged 6.7 targets, 4.2 catches, and 42.7 yards per game since the start of November, so he’s been consistently involved in the offense. I don’t plan to have him in any of my lineups this weekend, but there’s at least a reasonable case to be made for Higbee.