Early Super Bowl LVI and LVII Props
NFL Conference Championship - Walkthrough is not looking past the Cincinnati Bengals—we swear we are not—but how are AFC teams supposed to keep up with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills over the next five years?
Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for the 4K, 5G, PS5 generation: bigger, bolder, faster and—in the thrills-per-minute sense, not the historic sense—better. Neither quarterback is going away anytime soon. The Chiefs have won the first two playoff rounds, just as Brady often got the better of Peyton, but the Bills are sure to win their share of coin tosses (hush) in the future. How can the rest of the conference possibly keep up?
The Bengals? Yep, they can do it. They just need to select an offensive lineman in the first round of the 2022 draft. And an offensive lineman in the second round. And…
The Chargers? Justin Herbert belongs in the chat. Just draft a run defender in the first round, a run defender in the second … maybe throw a tight end in there, too.
The Ravens? Maybe, though 2019 recedes a little further into memory every year.
The Patriots? Maybe. But if anyone but Bill Belichick showed up with "Caretaker quarterback, running, and defense!" as a solution to the Chiefs-Bills problem, he'd be laughed out of the conversation in five nanoseconds.
The Browns or Titans? What did we just say about caretaker quarterbacks, running, and defense?
The Colts? Their caretaker quarterback leaves the front gate open for the biker gang, which may be why Jim Irsay is now producing back-of-the-limo spoken-word poetry.
Anyone else? Hello? Maybe? Not this year, not next year, not on a realistic timetable as any of the other AFC teams are currently constructed.
Don't look to the NFC to save you, either. Tom Brady's going to be sleeping on the couch if he plays another year. The Packers are sending kissy-face texts to Aaron Rodgers, who is not responding. The Rams could win a Super Bowl this year and have the bank foreclose on them next year. Sean Payton has visions of a VIP tent at Augusta and sportfishing the Gulf of Mexico dancing in his head. The Cowboys? Let's not dignify that with a response until Payton boats a few marlin.
The conference storylines have played out this way for my entire lifetime, and I am an old dude. The NFC gets mini-empires grinding against each other as they rise and fall. The AFC is defined by quarterback duels, usually one-on-one with occasional interlopers: Mahomes-Allen as Brady-Manning, Burrow as unproblematic Ben Roethlisberger, Herbert filling Philip Rivers' shoes a little too comfortably. Long ago, it was John Elway versus Jim Kelly for the right to lose the Super Bowl while Dan Marino set the passing records. Mahomes vs. Allen looks like the latest iteration of a long tradition.
The Bengals may throw ice water on this Bills-Chiefs future fantasy on Sunday, at least temporarily. But let's check the DraftKings opening lines for next year's Super Bowl winner (as of Wednesday morning):
|DraftKings Odds for Super Bowl LVII|
Those Buccaneers odds will plummet the next time Gisele grants an interview to Paris Match. Otherwise, the house is thinking what we're thinking. The Bengals are having a fun run. The Mac Jones story was cute. But the future belongs to the Chiefs and Bills.
Heck, if I were a Bills fan, I would place a 2022 wager at these odds now. And if I were a Cowboys fan, I would invest in a nice safe savings bond.
Prop Watch: Super Bowl LVI MVP Odds
That's right: you can avoid the last-minute rush, place your wager for Super Bowl MVP right now, and get much better odds than you will get next week!
Let's look at the favorites:
|Super Bowl LVI MVP Odds|
Not to look past the Bengals—we swear we are not—but Jimmy Garoppolo has better Super Bowl MVP odds than Joe Burrow. That's the inevitable result of the 49ers having a greater probability of an upset on Sunday than the Bengals.
Imagine actually wagering on Garoppolo to win a Super Bowl MVP award two games out. I would need about +8 billion to be interested. Fortunately, the house provides 49ers believers with Deebo, Kittle, and Mitchell as plausible alternatives: if the 49ers win the Super Bowl, one of them must do something incredibly cool. (Nick Bosa is at +8000.)
Since the 2000 season, quarterbacks have won 13 Super Bowl MVP awards, including Mahomes in 2019. Four defenders have won the award: Von Miller in 2015, Malcolm Smith for the 2013 Seahawks, Dexter Jackson for the 2002 Buccaneers, and Ray Lewis in 2000. Four wide receivers have been honored: Julian Edelman in 2018, Santonio Holmes for the 2008 Steelers, Hines Ward for the 2005 Steelers, and Deion Branch for the 2004 Patriots. The results illustrate that voters will choose a receiver who has a big game over even his famous quarterback in some circumstances, and that a defender can win with a multi-sack or multi-pick performance. (Or, in Lewis' case, if he's the superstar and the whole defense dominated). As such, Deebo, Kupp, Tyreek, Chase, and Donald are all reasonable wager options.
No running back has won Super Bowl MVP since Terrell Davis in 1997. Mitchell is the only non-committee back in the Final Four, and he's an unlikely choice. No tight end has ever won, nor has any specialist. Super Bowl LIII would have been Rob Gronkowski's chance to win: he caught six passes for 87 yards in a defensive duel, with two huge catches on the lone Patriots touchdown drive, and he blocked like a madman all game. The voters chose Edelman instead. (I would have chosen punter Ryan Allen for pinning the Rams at the 6-, 2-, and 7-yard lines in a 13-3 game, but I'm a weirdo). Kelce or Kittle would have to really stand out to earn MVP notice.
Lovers of gonzo props and wacky storylines can wager on Odell Beckham at +5000 (Twitter would achieve sentience and take over society), Von Miller at +5000 (two-time Super Bowl MVP!), Jessie Bates at +10000 (his Dexter Jackson moment), or Sony Michel at +15000 (the Rams take a 10-0 first-quarter lead and Michel runs 30 times for 120 yards to mulch the clock).
In summary, you can get Mahomes at +175 and Stafford at +350 right now, and the odds won't nearly be as tasty if they actually reach the Super Bowl. Not to look past the Bengals—we swear we are not—but both plays have their merits if you feel strongly about the Chiefs or, possibly, the Rams.
Sony, Darrell, and Darrel
'Tis the season to worry about running backs.
Los Angeles Rams running back Darrell Henderson finished 12th in the NFL in DVOA and 14th with 123 DYAR in the regular season, despite playing just 12 games. Henderson has been out since Week 16 with an MCL injury but was designated to return from injured reserve before the Buccaneers game. Sony Michel, a painter's van in a league full of hotrods and Sherman tanks, finished 27th in DVOA, just a tick above average. Cam Akers, a back who looks versatile and dynamic on tape, fumbled twice against the Bucs: once at the goal line and once while trying to run out the clock (which is supposed to be Michel's job, anyway).
The difference between an outstanding running back and a mediocre one is extremely marginal, as every Football Outsiders reader knows. But conference championship games and Super Bowls often come down to extremely marginal advantages. The Rams could not run against the Buccaneers, and it nearly cost them the game. Similarly, Derrick Henry appeared sluggish against the Bengals, failing to convert in two short-yardage situations, and it's one of the reasons we aren't talking about the Titans anymore. In the Final Four, everything matters.
Henderson is the quickest of the three Rams backs. He has the most receiving value, though the Rams don't use their backs in the receiving game much anymore. He's a steady pass protector when called upon. The Rams may need their three-headed backfield against a 49ers run defense which ranked second in the NFL in DVOA. Three extra yards on a screen pass or a fresh-legged Michel in the fourth quarter could be the margin of victory.
Over in Kansas City, Jerick McKinnon has stepped up in a huge, unexpected way in the postseason: 11-135-1 receiving, 22-85 rushing through two games. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has returned and finished second among running backs in DYAR last weekend, fueled in large part by two 20-plus-yard runs.
Edwards-Helaire appears to be more effective when rotated with a back who can handle more of the receiving chores. Darrel Williams disappeared after fumbling an exchange with Mecole Hardman on one of those derpy Chiefs trick plays against the Steelers and has not been seen since. It's reportedly a toe injury—Andy Reid doesn't doghouse his players that vindictively—and Williams could return on Sunday to give the Chiefs their own three-headed backfield. Williams finished second to Cordarrelle Patterson in receiving DYAR for running backs this season: again, this is not a case of replaceable parts, because we are at the granular level where 5 yards of YAC could determine who wins the Super Bowl.
Ironically, the one team that doesn't have a three-headed backfield is the one that rode one to the Super Bowl a few years ago. The 49ers have relied on Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel as a one-two backfield punch since Mitchell's return from injury in Week 17. Even Kyle Juszczyk was not getting carries until he surprised the Packers twice last week. Deebo is delightful, Mitchell has had a fine season, but a moonlighting all-purpose guy and a sixth-round rookie aren't an ideal backfield pairing at playoff crunch time, especially for the one team that can in no way count on its quarterback.
We're not looking past the Bengals—we swear we aren't—but Joe Mixon ranked 32nd in DVOA this year, in part because of Cincinnati's shaky offensive line, and we are pretty sure that his backup is Stanford Jennings.
Leaderboard of the Week: Times Sacked in a Single Postseason
Not to look past the Bengals—you're tired of the gag by now—but Joe Burrow has already been sacked 11 times this postseason. That ties him with Eli Manning in 2011, Deshaun Watson in 2019, and Wade Wilson in 1988 for eighth on the single-postseason sack list.
Here's the list:
|Most Sacks in a Single Postseason|
Yes, that list is a Deadpool sandwich. And no, the Marvel character Wade "Deadpool" Wilson is not named after the Vikings quarterback, at least not directly. He's directly named after Slade "Deathstroke" Wilson, an established and popular DC character when Deadpool made his 1991 debut.
I always found it odd that no one at Marvel checked or cared that creator Rob Liefeld gave his new antihero the same name as an NFL quarterback who had been to the playoffs several times in that era. It would be like watching the new Spider-Man movie and seeing some dude fly in with a sword and declaim, "Lo, it is I: the mighty Ryan Tannehill!" Of course, most comic characters didn't occupy a central place in popular culture back then. Ripping the other comics company off, on the other hand, was standard practice, as was not being able to draw feet.
Who were we talking about again? Oh yeah: the Bengals.
If you had to hazard a guess, you might think that the quarterbacks above Burrow on the sack list all got through their first playoff game or two unscathed before slamming into a Steel Curtain or such in an eight-sack blowout. Some did just that. But others took a more Burrow-like path by surviving their big-sack game and moving on, all the way to the Super Bowl in a few cases:
Roger Staubach endured five sacks at the hands of The Purple People Eaters in a first-round victory over the Vikings (Carl Eller had three sacks in the game). The Cowboys then held the 1970s version of the Rams' Fearsome Foursome sackless in the NFC Championship Game before taking a seven-sack beating from L.C. Greenwood (four) and the Steel Curtain Steelers in a Super Bowl X defeat.
(OK, wait, timeout: Burrow has now endured one less sack than a guy who faced the Purple People Eaters, Fearsome Foursome, and Steel Curtain in the mid-1970s, when defenses were allowed to commit international human rights violations. Do you get why I am so confident that the Bengals won't be moving on?)
Bart Starr took just one sack from the OG Fearsome Foursome in the 1967 playoffs, then eight more from the Cowboys (three from Jethro Pugh) in a chilly NFL Championship Game you may have heard tales about. The AFL Champion Raiders got to him three more times.
Jim Plunkett was the first quarterback to go from the wild-card round to the Super Bowl, spreading his sacks across four games. He endured six sacks from the Chargers in the AFC Championship Game. We don't talk about Super Bowl XV around here.
We also don't talk about Donovan McNabb's four-sack, three-interception meltdown against the Panthers in the 2003 NFC Championship Game around here. But we do talk about McNabb's survival of an eight-sack evening against the Packers the previous week. Remember fourth-and-26? The Packers were doing dumb stuff in the playoffs long before Aaron Rodgers showed up.
Steve Fuller was Jim McMahon's very busy stunt double for several years. He took five sacks against Washington in the first round, but Joe Theismann took seven sacks at the hands of Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, and others; that's just what Bears football was like in the 1980s. But poor Fuller got sacked eight times in the next round by a 49ers defense led by Fred Dean and Gary Johnson.
The Bills sacked Len Dawson eight times in the 1966 AFL Championship Game, but the Chiefs blew them out 31-7. The Chiefs went 12-2-1 that year, the Bills 9-5-1, but the Bills hosted the game because the AFL alternated the host site each year by division back then. (But tell me more about how we need to take overtime rules to the Supreme Court.) The sacks are rarely talked about when old-timers reflect back on the game, perhaps because the Bills fumbled the opening kickoff and went downhill from there, perhaps because "sacks" had not even entered the vernacular yet. Anyway, tack on five more Dawson sacks from the Lombardi Packers in the first Super Bowl.
Wade Wilson, who spent years trading Vikings starts with Tommy Kramer, relieved the injured Kramer against the newly formed Dome Patrol Saints and took four sacks in a blowout win. The 49ers produced just two sacks the next week. Then came Dave Butz, Dexter Manley, and Washington, who sacked Wilson eight times on their way to the Super Bowl.
As the leaderboard indicates, Wilson went on to 11 more sacks in the 1988 playoffs. The Vikings, a team still alternating between two journeymen at quarterback, decided they were one player away from the Super Bowl and traded half of the state of Minnesota to the Cowboys for Herschel Walker. The rest is history.
So Burrow is just three sacks short of an all-time record. Four sacks would also place him among the top 50 in career postseason sacks. Nine more sacks—let's say four in an upset on Sunday, then five in the Super Bowl—would give Burrow 20 postseason sacks, tying him for 35th with Ron Jaworski (one of the most sacked humans in history), Craig Morton, Cam Newton, and Fran Tarkenton, a scrambler who played 11 postseason games in the grimdark 1970s, many of them against defenses with nicknames.
For the record, Patrick Mahomes ranks 29th all time with 23 postseason sacks. Matthew Stafford is not on the list because he rarely reached the playoffs. Jimmy Garoppolo is not on the list because he is rarely allowed to throw in the playoffs. Tom Brady holds the all-time record with 79 postseason sacks. For obvious reasons, this is a pretty good list to climb. Staubach, forever dodging the Vikings, Rams, and Steelers, ranks a distant second.
The good news is that Burrow is at least in semi-elite company. The all-time single-postseason sack list is full of Hall of Famers and near-Hall of Famers, with a few Wilsons and Fullers sprinkled in. Both a team and its quarterback have to do a lot right to keep advancing in the playoffs while getting knocked around so much. If the Bengals cannot advance this week, they should at least be able to make quick upgrades and take the next step like the 2004 Eagles and 1984 Bears did.
Just don't trade for Herschel Walker, guys.