Usually, NFL fans can take a good guess at which teams will reach the Super Bowl. 2023 is the exception. This weekend is highlighted by two critical Conference Championship games: the Philadelphia Eagles vs. the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals vs. the Kansas City Chiefs. Can the Eagles, who are led by young and budding superstar Jalen Hurts, overcome the daunting and playoff-experienced 49ers? Will Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow beat his rival, Patrick Mahomes, and the Chiefs for the fourth consecutive playoff match-up? This NFL weekend is expected to have one of the highest viewership ratings in recent memory. With no team going into a surefire win, these games will have fans on the edge of their seats.
By Brad Gagnon; January 27, 2023
We’re on the verge of the NFL’s Conference Championship Sunday, and few are likely surprised by this year’s participants in the final four of professional football.
Sometimes that’s an indication that the first two playoff rounds were boring, and other times it still means that one heavily favored juggernaut remains the seemingly inevitable champion.
This year neither is true.
After a pair of wildly entertaining playoff weekends, the four teams left standing—the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC and the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers in the NFC—all ranked in the top six in the NFL in the win-loss column, in terms of point differential, and in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders.
They’ve all made Super Bowl appearances in the last six years. Three—the Bengals, Chiefs, and 49ers—were here last year at this time. The Chiefs are perennial AFC finalists. And three of the four teams still alive are quarterbacked by official 2022 MVP nominees (Joe Burrow for Cincinnati, Patrick Mahomes for Kansas City, and Jalen Hurts for Philadelphia).
In other words, there’s no David vs. Goliath this Sunday. We’re looking at two heavyweight bouts, with all four entries fully expecting to punch tickets to Super Bowl LVII.
As ESPN.com’s Mackenzie Kraemer points out, this marks just the third time in the Super Bowl era (along with 1982 and 1997) in which neither conference championship game has a team favored by at least a field goal. As of Thursday night, DraftKings had the Eagles laying 2.5 points at home against San Francisco, and the Chiefs had swung from small underdog to 1-point fave against the Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium.
This is also just the third time this century in which all four conference title game participants won at least 12 games during the regular season. And yes, there’s an extra game on the schedule these days, but the Chiefs, 49ers and Eagles all won more than 12 games anyway, and the Bengals won 12 in a 16-game schedule because their Week 17 meeting with the Buffalo Bills was canceled.
Of course, you could have two evenly matched semifinals and a lopsided final if one conference’s finalists are much stronger than the other’s, but that also isn’t the case here. DraftKings has nobody with better Super Bowl odds than +240 (Philly) or worse than +330 (San Francisco).
If you comb through the database at SportsOddsHistory.com, you’ll find that, since records of Super Bowl futures were first documented in 1976, at no other time have all four conference championship competitors entered that weekend with odds no better than +200 and no worse than +350.
That 1982 season with two extremely close title-game spreads had nobody higher than +260, but the Dallas Cowboys were pretty strong favorites at +120. And when neither game had a three-plus-point favorite in ’97, whoever won the NFC title game matchup between the 49ers and Green Bay Packers was going to be heavily favored to beat the winner of a Denver Broncos-Pittsburgh Steelers AFC title game meeting in the Super Bowl. (Interestingly, the 1997 NFC team did not win, and Dallas did not win it all in ’82 either.)
Regardless, based on historical comparisons, Sunday should be quite intense and entertaining, as should Super Bowl Sunday in about a fortnight’s time.
However, we’ve learned that nothing’s guaranteed regardless of circumstances in this league. And on that note, it’s worth noting that in those previous two conference title Sundays with no field-goal-or-higher spreads, the average margin of victory was 11.0 points.