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Championship Sunday mismatches: One potential advantage for Bengals, Chiefs, 49ers, Rams

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @cfrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

After one of the most epic weekends in football history, Championship Sunday is upon us. And this weekend – featuring bouts between the Bengals and Chiefs in the AFC and the 49ers and Rams in the NFC -- only projects to be less exciting because there are only half as many games as there were in the exhilarating Divisional Round.

With so many storylines and lenses to filter these showdowns through, I turned to my models to cut through all the noise and identify what truly matters. Below you'll find one key potential mismatch favoring each team that could heavily influence the outcome of these conference title contests:

  • WHERE: GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Mo.)
  • WHEN: 3 p.m. ET | CBS

One mismatch in the Chiefs' favor: Travis Kelce vs. Bengals linebackers

In the Chiefs' and Bengals' Week 17 matchup, Kelce caught five of seven targets for just 25 yards, his second-lowest total in a game all season (though he did add a TD). Cincinnati linebacker Logan Wilson, meanwhile, might be my pick for the most underrated Bengal. So why did I identify this as a mismatch that favors the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game? Because Cincinnati will still have to prioritize stopping Kelce (the first player since at least 1950 with 90-plus receiving yards in five consecutive playoff games), and that will change the shape of the Bengals' defense. Plus, Kansas City has added reliable and productive layers to its offense. Even if the Bengals manage to slow Kelce and Tyreek Hill (in their Week 17 win, the Bengals held Hill to six catches for 40 yards on 10 targets, one of just two times all year that Hill was targeted 10-plus times and finished with fewer than 50 yards), the attention paid to the pair of pass-catchers will create space elsewhere for players like Byron Pringle, Mecole Hardman and Jerick McKinnon. And while the Chiefs did not do a good job of adapting their offensive game plan in the second half of that Week 17 showdown (Kansas City posted three points and 50 net passing yards after halftime), that failure is an outlier, especially when you broaden the scope to include all games in any season with Patrick Mahomes at QB and Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy coaching, and I am willing to say it is unlikely to happen again.

Kansas City has been more effective at exploiting this advantage lately, especially on shorter, higher-probability passes closer to the line of scrimmage. Pringle has three TDs on passes of fewer than 10 air yards in the Chiefs' past seven games, generating a 129.2 passer rating on such throws over that time (second best in the NFL in that span, among those with 20-plus targets). McKinnon and Hardman are two of four players with 100-plus yards on passes behind the line of scrimmage since Week 14, and McKinnon is the only player with two touchdowns on such passes in that span.


One mismatch in the Bengals' favor: Joe Mixon in the flat

In the Bengals' December upset of the Chiefs, Ja'Marr Chase set a single-game NFL rookie record with 266 receiving yards, and he scored touchdowns on three of his 11 catches, including a 72-yarder. To stop Chase (who set another rookie record with eight touchdown catches of 20-plus air yards this season) and the other Cincinnati pass-catchers, the Chiefs could look to schemes that rely on rushing with fewer defenders and focus on lowering the probability of passes being caught (and limiting yards after the catch). Joe Burrow has been sacked at the third-highest rate this year, including the playoffs (9.5%). But he also plays well under pressure, posting the best completion percentage (62.6%), yards per attempt figure (9.3) and completion probability over expected (plus-7.1) under pressure, as well as the third-best passer rating in such scenarios (91.4), per Next Gen Stats. The Chiefs, meanwhile, rank 23rd in sack rate (5.3%) and 17th in pressure (27.2%) since Week 9.

So what's the next chess move? If Burrow faces situations like two-safety shells, he could turn to intermediate passes, given that he's been the best in the NFL in every metric on passes of 10-19 air yards since Week 7, including passer rating (154.4). Further, Burrow could continue to feed Joe Mixon. Over his past four games, the running back has amassed 23 receptions, 189 receiving yards and a touchdown, and 11 of those receptions came on flat routes. 

One mismatch in the Rams' favor: Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. vs. 49ers secondary

Against man coverage, Kupp has generated a passer rating when targeted of 150.4 while racking up 715 receiving yards, both tops in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Of those 715 yards, 100 came against the Niners (on six targets), who allowed 15 TDs with zero picks in man coverage all season (though they did use man coverage at the fifth-lowest rate, 20.3 percent, in the NFL). But the mismatch does not end there. Per NGS, Kupp earned 1,470 receiving yards from the slot this season, a whopping 409 more than the next closest player in any season since NGS began tracking, in 2016. San Francisco, meanwhile, has allowed a 102.6 passer rating to slot receivers this season (including the playoffs), ranking 21st in the NFL. Kupp has thrived in the slot against the Niners specifically, averaging 94.5 yards per game from the slot in the Rams' two games with San Francisco. (Kupp averaged 75.4 yards from the slot against all other opponents.) 

As for Beckham, who was signed prior to Week 10, he didn't register much production against the Niners this season, logging just two catches for 18 yards in each game. He also hasn't been a reliable deep option for QB Matthew Stafford (Beckham has generated a 10.0 completion percentage on deep attempts in Los Angeles, with one TD, three INTs and a 43.3 passer rating). But he has been incredibly valuable on short and intermediate passes, generating a 73.3 percent completion rate, five TDs, zero picks and a passer rating of 134.3, the highest of any WR on the team. And his production has ticked up significantly over the past two games, as has the subsequent attention paid by defenders, meaning he figures to stretch the Niners' defensive backs (who are seen by my model as the worst group of DBs remaining) even thinner.

One mismatch in the 49ers' favor: Generating effective pressure without blitzing (complemented by a knack for executing quick passes on offense)

Compare Stafford's production this season when the Niners blitzed him to his production when they didn't:

  • FACING BLITZ: 158.1 passer rating, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 88.9 completion percentage, 20 percent pressure rate.
  • NOT FACING BLITZ: 61.3 passer rating, 2 TDs, 4 INTs, 60.9 completion percentage, 31.4 percent pressure rate.

The Niners lead the NFL in 2021 with a 30.5 percent pressure rate when rushing four or fewer (including playoffs). With Los Angeles' O-line banged up, the Niners' ability to keep pressuring Stafford through all four quarters will shape this game -- especially because of the Niners' complementary ability to execute quick, effective passes on offense that exploit physical mismatches at the linebacker and safety level.

Against the Rams' imposing pass rush, Kyle Shanahan has drawn up a quicker passing game plan for Jimmy Garoppolo. When facing Los Angeles this season, Jimmy G's average time to throw was 2.37 seconds, while 62.7 percent of his throws were quick passes -- and he was under pressure on just 21.8 percent of dropbacks. Against all other opponents in 2021, his average time to throw was 2.71 seconds, while just 44 percent of his throws were quick passes, and he was pressured on 25.7 percent of dropbacks. And the Niners have had more success on quick passes against the Rams than other opponents have. Against San Francisco, the Rams faced quick passes on 61.5 percent of throws with 6.3 air yards per attempt while allowing 9.1 passing yards on average and a 110.3 passer rating. Against all other opponents, the Rams faced quick passes on 52.3 percent of attempts, allowing 4.0 air yards per attempt, an average of 6.3 yards per throw and a 93.5 passer rating. It's not like Garoppolo leans on play-action against L.A. While he has excelled with play-action in general, generating the best completion percentage (75.4) and most yards per attempt (10.5) on play-action passes against all opponents in the NFL during the regular season, his numbers when not using play-action against the Rams, going back to 2019, (73.5 completion percentage, 8.8 yards per attempt, 4.4 completion percentage over expectation) are much better than they are against all other opponents (65.3 percent completion rate, 7.4 yards per attempt, -1.1 CPOE).

Here's how this all works together: It's not just quick-release passes that matter, it’s also about what kinds of passes those are and to whom they are going (ahem -- Deebo Samuel, who ranks fifth in the NFL this season, including playoffs, in receiving yards on quick passes with 639, is a huge factor here). In San Francisco's Week 18 comeback, the Rams' defense did not adjust to the Niners' halftime offensive adjustments, and then their defense kept consistent pressure with four, which resulted in their OT triumph, pointing to another potential advantage against a Rams defense that was similarly slow to respond to the Bucs' halftime offensive adjustments last week.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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