Eager's Football Friday - Conference Championships

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Happy Football Friday. 

The Divisional Round delivered, with the Packers and 49ers game going down to the wire after a competitive half game by the Texans against the Ravens, who eventually pulled away en route to a win as the AFC’s top seed. The Lions took care of business and will play in their first conference title game since January of 1992, while the Chiefs beat the Bills for the third consecutive time in the postseason, this time on the road, 27-24.  

Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week. Be sure to subscribe here for our FREE Playoff Preview. Our current projections are below:

The Conference Championship Round promises to be compelling, with the Ravens over a field goal favorite against Patrick Mahomes and company at the Bank, while the market is a little more bullish on the 49ers in the Bay, installing them as a touchdown favorite against Jared Goff, Dan Campbell, and the Lions. Our models, due to our priors, are a little more bullish on the Chiefs as underdogs than they are on the Lions, since we think the 49ers are the best team in the league. But this is the NFL, and anything can happen, which is why this is so fun.  

Let’s dig in. 

One Thing I’m Monitoring 

I’m monitoring how Buffalo is going to deal with their offseason.  

In 2021, the Bills loss to the Chiefs after holding a three-point lead with 13 seconds remaining was described to me by someone as “soul crushing”. To their everlasting credit, they came back the following year and were very close to earning the conference’s one seed in the playoffs. Instead, they lost to Cincinnati in the snow in the Divisional Round and struggled for much of an expectations-laden 2023 season, sputtering to 6-6 heading into the bye before surging to 12-6 and an AFC East division title and a home date with the Chiefs.  

We all know how that ended, with a three-point loss to the league’s best player, Patrick Mahomes, with Tyler Bass’ field goal going the way of Scott Norwood’s.  

And now we’re to their offseason, one where they are over $50 million dollars over the cap. Their second-biggest 2024 cap hit, Stefon Diggs, went the last 13 games of 2023 without a 100-yard game. Their third biggest, Von Miller, had no sacks in a recovery year from a 2022 ACL injury. Their fifth-biggest cap hit, cornerback Tre’Davious White, spent the last few months of the season on IR, as did the seventh-biggest one, Matt Milano.  

Their cap table isn’t full of trivial, cuttable contracts that they can get out of (like those present for the Los Angeles Chargers). Instead, to get out of this mess the Bills will have to convert base salary (some of it already guaranteed) and prorate, which for players already on the downswing of their career, will exacerbate the deficits between performance and pay.  

Sean McDermott, who is generally one of the better coaches in all of football, appears safe, but the 2023 season came at the expense of Ken Dorsey, who was replaced at offensive coordinator by Joe Brady, who actually oversaw a decrease in their offensive production (from 0.117 EPA/play, third, in weeks 1-10 to 0.092, sixth, in weeks 11-20). Defensively they have been failed by injuries and ineffective play when it’s mattered most, whether run by former coordinator Leslie Frazier or called by McDermott himself.  

Josh Allen will not win the league’s MVP award this year, but if he would have, I wouldn’t have been upset. The Bills finished the year rated third in my series success rate (the rate at which an offense turns one set of downs into another set of downs) over expected metric and fourth in my play-for-play measure of offensive performance. While he may turn the football over at a frustrating rate, these turnovers tend to be of relatively low value for the opposing team (hence why EPA is a better stat than passer rating). His value as a rusher is well understood, but his gravity – the fact that linebackers are stuck in the mud for fear of him keeping the ball – is one of the reasons that the Bills’ running game is second only to San Francisco in my rushing EPA prediction ratings. He’s been able to elevate an offense that has struggled behind Diggs for years, with encouraging signs from Khalil Shakir and Dalton Kincaid providing hope for the future.  

James Cook emerged as a bona fide NFL back while the offensive line was mostly middling, allowing Josh Allen to be pressured on 35.4% of drop backs (12th-most in football). Gabe Davis is likely to leave in free agency, and his last two years have been marred by inconsistency. Ed Oliver rewarded the Bills’ faith in him with a great season, generating a career high 72 pressures. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are a year older at safety, while White and Milano’s returns will be closely monitored. Christian Benford’s emergence at cornerback has curbed the failure of 2022 first-rounder Kaiir Elam. The Bills have nine draft picks in April, but just two in the first three rounds.  

With a great quarterback, a coach with established success, an aging, largely stagnant roster without much in the way of resources in need of a refresher, the 2024 Buffalo Bills will again be one of the more compelling outfits in the entire league. I know I’ll be watching.  

One Thing I’m Buying 

I’m buying the Brian Callahan hire for the Tennessee Titans. 

This one was a surprise for many, including me. For my money, the veteran coaches like Bill Belichick, Jim Harbaugh, Dan Quinn, and possibly Raheem Morris (who will be returning to Atlanta as Head Coach), were going to get their looks, and the two leading first-timers were going to be Mike Macdonald and Ben Johnson. Maybe because Macdonald and Johnson’s teams are still playing, in large part due to their brilliance, Callahan’s hire has gotten out ahead of Macdonald’s and Johnson’s, should they even happen.  

However, make no mistake, this is a good football coach. The Bengals offensive coordinator since 2019, Callahan helped develop Joe Burrow into one of the league’s best quarterbacks and help bring the Bengals offense to two straight AFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. He was also able to do this with one of the least talented offensive lines in the game. With the Titans trying to develop 2022 draft pick Malik Willis and especially 2023 draft pick Will Levis, also behind one of the worst lines in football, Callahan’s ability in this department will come in very handy. 

But, most importantly, Tennessee has atrophied talent-wise overall, especially offensively in recent seasons, and must deal with the pending free agency of their best offensive player, running back Derrick Henry. Thus, what Callahan showed in 2023 might be what projects the most positively into this new role. The Bengals, despite dealing with a Burrow calf injury for much of the first part of the season and a season-ending Burrow wrist injury for the second part of it, had a series success rate above expected at a rate that was the seventh best predictively at season’s end. This was with Jake Browning at quarterback, Orlando Brown struggling at left tackle, and two star wide receivers in and out of the lineup with injury. During the early evaluation phase of Callahan’s career as the Titans coach, they will need to be able to function with less-than-ideal talent, which is exactly what was done in Cincinnati at the tail end of 2023. All these traits landed Callahan high in our proprietary model we use to consult for coaching searches.  

Mike Vrabel did a fine job for much of his time in Nashville, but it was time for Ran Carthon and company to move on. Callahan, an underrated candidate during the process, may just be the guy to turn around a team that just two years ago was the one seed in the AFC. 

One Thing I’m Selling 

I’m selling the same time horizon for the Jim Harbaugh Chargers as the Jim Harbaugh 49ers. 

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean I’m doubting the Jim Harbaugh Chargers.  

But we have to get one thing clear. The 2010 49ers were a good team, as laid out here: 

Mike Singletary, who was given the 49ers head coaching job after a 5-4 record as an interim head coach in 2008, struggled to get a winning season out of that roster and was fired prior to the 2011 season. Jim Harbaugh took over, drafted Missouri edge player Aldon Smith in the first round, and the rest was history.  

This Chargers team is further away from serious contention than just an Aldon Smith type draft pick. They are not in as dire straits as the Bills, as they can cut a bunch of these players, but they are more than $45 million over the cap: 

One of the bigger myths of the last few years is that the Chargers were underachieving with one of the best rosters in the league. While there may have been times when that was more true, it hasn’t been in a while, and isn’t now. Once some combination of Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen and/or Michael Williams, and Corey Linsley through retirement give them the cap relief they need, they will be reduced to Justin Herbert, Derwin James, Rashawn Slater, Jim Harbaugh, and a fairly desolate roster in a division with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. In Harbaugh’s first season as a head coach, he was entering a division whose defending champ was 7-9.  

It took Harbaugh some time to build the University of Michigan into the program it became, and given the brand of smashmouth football he prefers, it stands to reason he’s going to start up front, which is usually not a one-year fix. Offensive linemen in the draft, where the Chargers pick fifth and there are prospects like Joe Alt and Olumuyiwa Fashanu, often take a year or two to develop into functional NFL starters, and the bolts don’t have enough cap space to supplement all that much in free agency. 

Justin Herbert is a phenomenal quarterback who has proven to be just slightly below the tier of the top quarterbacks, which may only be Patrick Mahomes, or Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and maybe Joe Burrow, that can elevate the play of those around him even when it is at league replacement levels. Thus, the answer to the question of when the Chargers will be good will be the same as to when they get more than minimal support around Herbert, both up front and on the perimeter with 2023 first-rounder Quentin Johnston.  

Jim Harbaugh is a phenomenal coach with a proven track record of success at both the NFL and NCAA level. Thus, the optimism that Chargers fans feel this week upon his arrival is warranted. However, the time horizon for his success will likely mirror that of his Michigan tenure rather than his San Francisco one.  

 

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