Exploiting the Matchups: Conference Championship Round

Exploiting the Matchups: Conference Championship Round

This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.

If you like underdogs, this isn't your week. Three of four conference finalists are repeats from last year, and the fourth held the best record in either conference for much of the season. All four won at least 12 games and outscored their opponents by an average of at least six points per game.

We're looking at two games with spreads south of a field goal, though it might've been otherwise if not for Patrick Mahomes' high-ankle sprain last week. Mahomes was a full practice participant Wednesday and thus stands to play, but his speed and agility will be affected and his confidence or throwing power might be too (TBD). As such, the difference between our "favorites" and "underdogs" this week is borderline negligible.

Bengals at Chiefs — 3:00 p.m. ET 

Bengals IT: 24.25 (3rd)

Chiefs IT: 24.25 (2nd)

Bengals Key Injuries: LT Jonah Williams (knee) + RG Alex Cappa (ankle)

Chiefs Key Injuries: WR Mecole Hardman (pelvis) + RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (IR - ankle)

Williams and Cappa both missed another practice Wednesday and thus seem likely to sit out another week. Hardman, on the other hand, returned to practice Wednesday as a limited participant, marking his first official participation since Jan. 5. The other question mark for KC is CEH, who could be activated from IR at any point through Saturday afternoon. Andy Reid said it's a possibility, though we don't know if Edwards-Helaire's activation would amount to much of a role.

If you like underdogs, this isn't your week. Three of four conference finalists are repeats from last year, and the fourth held the best record in either conference for much of the season. All four won at least 12 games and outscored their opponents by an average of at least six points per game.

We're looking at two games with spreads south of a field goal, though it might've been otherwise if not for Patrick Mahomes' high-ankle sprain last week. Mahomes was a full practice participant Wednesday and thus stands to play, but his speed and agility will be affected and his confidence or throwing power might be too (TBD). As such, the difference between our "favorites" and "underdogs" this week is borderline negligible.

Bengals at Chiefs — 3:00 p.m. ET 

Bengals IT: 24.25 (3rd)

Chiefs IT: 24.25 (2nd)

Bengals Key Injuries: LT Jonah Williams (knee) + RG Alex Cappa (ankle)

Chiefs Key Injuries: WR Mecole Hardman (pelvis) + RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (IR - ankle)

Williams and Cappa both missed another practice Wednesday and thus seem likely to sit out another week. Hardman, on the other hand, returned to practice Wednesday as a limited participant, marking his first official participation since Jan. 5. The other question mark for KC is CEH, who could be activated from IR at any point through Saturday afternoon. Andy Reid said it's a possibility, though we don't know if Edwards-Helaire's activation would amount to much of a role.

     

Biggest Mismatch: DL Chris Jones >>> Bengals O-line

Cincinnati's struggles against top interior pass rushers date back to last postseason when Tennessee's Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry combined for 4.5 sacks and Aaron Donald got a pair in the Super Bowl. The Bengals signed Cappa, C Ted Karras and RT La'El Collins (IR - knee) to address the problem, but it appears Karras will be the only one of the three suited up Sunday.

Karras will be flanked on the left by rookie seventh-round pick Cordell Volson, who grades 67th of PFF's 78 qualified centers, and then on the right by Texans cast-off Max Scharping, a 2019 second-round pick who has never graded among the top 50 guards and has an even worse grade than Volson in limited action this season. Guard pairings don't get much worse, at least not among playoff teams.

Jones, meanwhile, has averaged at least a half sack per game six years running, including a career-high-tying 15.5 in the 2022 regular season. The Bengals held him without a sack earlier this year after doing the same in the playoffs last season, but Jones did have a pair of sacks in the December 2021 matchup and should find similar results this weekend.

      

Best Fantasy Play: WR Tee Higgins

While he hasn't done much of late, Higgins has the relative matchup advantage this Sunday against a Chiefs defense that only has two quality corners. Both of them, Trent McDuffie and L'Jarius Sneed, have spent a bunch of time in the slot this year, while rookie seventh-round pick Jaylen Watson has often been tasked with guarding the opponent's second-best perimeter threat since his promotion to the starting lineup.

Watson has been excellent by the standards of a rookie seventh-rounder, especially of late, but Higgins is still the far better player in all likelihood. You could perhaps say the same of Chase and Sneed, but that's just how it is for Chase. And in terms of building lineups/teams, Higgins will always be the cheaper of Cincy's top two receivers.

     

49ers at Eagles — 6:30 p.m. ET 

49ers IT: 22 (4th)

Eagles IT: 24.5 (1st)

49ers Key Injuries: RBs Christian McCaffrey (calf) & Elijah Mitchell (groin) + WR Deebo Samuel (ankle)

Eagles Key Injuries: CB Avonte Maddox (toe)

Maddox was out for a month with a toe injury, finally returning to a limited practice this Wednesday. That doesn't mean the slot corner will play, but he's at least given himself a chance. The Niners, meanwhile, expect all of McCaffrey, Mitchel and Samuel to play. The latter was a limited practice participant Wednesday, while the two RBs were held out.

    

Biggest Mismatch: None

This isn't just me being lazy, at least not consciously. These are two great, well-rounded teams, and nearly every big-name player is facing one of his tougher matchups of the season. The San Francisco secondary does have one potential weak link in CB Deommodore Lenoir, but he's played much better lately (including a pick last week) and could spend a lot of the night guarding Quez Watkins. The 49ers' cornerback use has been somewhat unpredictable/confusing in terms of how/where the top guys line up. Philadelphia's hasn't been, but that's because they have two shutdown guys outside. Brandon Aiyuk is one of the guys on my 'no' list this week.

     

Best Fantasy Play: TE George Kittle

It's mostly nitpicking to point out weaknesses on either of these defenses, as both finished Top 5 in yards allowed, turnovers and a slew of other stats. The Eagles, however, are merely average at safety and linebacker, making up for it with an excellent CB group and impressive D-line.

The 49ers will find ways to get Samuel away from top corners James Bradberry and Avonte Maddox, but it's even easier to do that with a tight end, especially in obvious passing situations. Samuel inevitably will need to run a bunch of his routes outside against the big boys, and he might be playing through a bit of discomfort in his ankle on top of that. Given Aiyuk's matchup outside and the McCaffrey/Mitchell timeshare/injury situation, Kittle looks like the best fantasy play from San Francisco this week.

     

The Workshop 🔨

     

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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