NFL Division – It’s taken 19.5 weeks, but we’ve finally cut the chaff out of the 2022 NFL season. The last six remaining teams are the top six teams in DVOA – all killers, no filler. With all due respect to the Jaguars and Giants, the NFL season has been pared down to the best of the best. That doesn’t always happen! Gate crashers happen all the time! It’s kind of refreshing that there’s only the best of the best here.
That being said, we can’t send six teams to the conference championships; That’s not how numbers work. We still have two games to go today to get into the last four – and on paper at least they should be more competitive than Saturday’s games. No more #1 seeds taking on misfits; We have four of the top Super Bowl contenders today with trips to the conference championships at stake.
We won’t lie; there will be an odd atmosphere when the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals lock down the field just three weeks after Damar Hamlin’s collapse; you can’t get through without being reminded of what happened that Monday night. Losing a matchup of this caliber was way down the list of things to worry about, but it was is Nice to see two of the top three teams in the conference deciding things on the field. Which field should that actually be on? Well, we’ll get to that in a moment. There aren’t nearly as many weird feelings watching the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys lock in for a record-breaking ninth playoff game, a matchup that was so hotly anticipated that… oops, looks like the Clock expired This one. We’ll come back to that soon too.
And we’ll be following today’s fixtures live in a special Playoff edition of the Football Outsiders Liveblog! Since we’re live, you can join the discussion too! Join the conversation either in the comments section of this article or by tagging it on Twitter @FBOutsiders or @BryKnoor on our brand new Discord server where some of your favorite writers will hang out and react live.
Here we go!
Early Game Preview: Bengals at Bills
The Bengals have one legitimate complaint and one illegitimate complaint as they travel to Buffalo as a road team in this game.
The NFL covered contingencies for a Chiefs-Bills AFC championship, and they covered contingencies for a Bengals-Ravens wildcard game. However, they gave the Bengals no contingencies for this matchup and the location actually depended on the outcome of the canceled Bengals-Bills game. Had the Bengals won that game, they would have been the two seeds, not the Bills. That game would be in Cincinnati, not Buffalo. And the NFL just shrugged and let it play as it is. It would be one thing if they did that for everyone, but the fact that the NFL bends the rules two but not circumstances three is a little awkward, at best. The Bengals are being punished for doing the right thing and not forcing Buffalo to play or concede the Week 17 matchup. Not difficult punished, mind you; Home field advantage isn’t what it used to be. But they can at least take some justifiable offense at having to go to New York.
Don’t fret that the NFL is already selling tickets to the Bills Chiefs game in Atlanta, no matter what Joe Mixon thinks. They sold Arrowhead for Chiefs-Bengals tickets and tickets in Cincinnati for Bengals-Jaguars. It’s just a logistical thing.
In our stats preview, Cale Clinton asks the $64,000 question – will Josh Allen avoid errors against Cincinnati? As he points out, Allen is one of the best quarterbacks in all of football…but also one who’s occasionally prone to outrageously awkward mistakes; Red zone clutch interventions killing the Bills. Allen is simultaneously the number one reason Buffalo can win… and the number one reason Buffalo can lose. In any case, be prepared for offensive fireworks. But public opinion seems to be turning to the Bills, with the pregame line falling to Buffalo -6.
Late Game Preview: Cowboys at 49ers
Well, that’s more like it! The Cowboys we saw against the Buccaneers were the team we expected; the one that can take on any other team in the league and poses a real threat to the Super Bowl. We just didn’t see this team week-to-week as Dallas fans worried about their chances against the top teams in the league because of flat games against the Packers, Giants, Texans, Jaguars, and Commanders in the back half of the season . But against Tampa, Dallas controlled the game from start to finish. Looking almost untouchable, Dak Prescott avoided the interceptions that have been a millstone around his neck since returning from injury and led Dallas to DVOA’s fourth-best passing day of the entire season. They looked like they could beat anyone.
However, to advance, they must beat the team that had it third party-DVOA’s best day of the season last week as Brock Purdy and the 49ers turned a tight game at halftime into a thumping win over the Seahawks. Say what you will about Purdy’s results versus his game quality; The 49ers have barely missed a beat despite being only their third quarterback of the season. San Francisco is going on an 11-game winning streak and looked pretty much unstoppable in the second half of the season.
If the Cowboys live up to their potential, they can absolutely win this game, even as four-point underdogs. As our stat preview shows, Dallas is primed to attack both the 49ers’ weakness in covering deep passes and Purdy’s penchant for evading the pressure. We’ll have to see if that Dallas team actually shows up this afternoon, or if San Francisco can pull off a dozen straight wins and pot their ticket to Philadelphia.