Lombardi: NFL Conference Championship Weekend Preview


Jeffrey Yass is the managing director of the Susquehanna International Group, an options trading company he started with money he earned from being a high-level tournament poker player.  Yass went to Binghamton University for mathematics. He attempted to earn a graduate degree from New York University before the poker urge forced him to abandon his financial career plan.  Today, Yass still uses his poker strategy when making decisions for Susquehanna.  His foundational belief centers on this quote: “The biggest risk is that you have a losing strategy when you think you have a winning one.”   Being realistically optimistic guards against making this mistake.  We all need to be realistic this week when breaking down the conference championship games starting with the Bengals and the Chiefs. 

There must be something about the Jaguars and Patrick Mahomes ankles as the two don’t seem to work well together.   According to Chiefs coach Andy Reid, this isn’t the first time his quarterback will play on a high ankle sprain.  In the 2019 season opener, fittingly against the Jags, Mahomes sprained his ankle—worse than he did on Saturday afternoon—and Mahomes played the Week 2 game against the Raiders and threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns.  Mahomes did all his damage in the second quarter, scoring 28 points, and Reid, who knew Mahomes was injured, still called 44 passes and only 22 running plays in their 28-10 rout.  If Mahomes plays like that on a bad ankle, watch out Cincinnati. 


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The bettors don’t believe Reid.  The line opened with the Chiefs as a 1.5-point favorite and currently has the Bengals as a 1.5-point favorite, clearly, an indication bettors believe Mahomes won’t be himself.  This guessing game will go on all week.  The line will move back and forth like a Pete Sampras tennis match, volleying between the Chiefs and Bengals as unreliable information hits our Twitter feeds.  For us as handicappers and for the Bengals, we need to borrow from Yass and not assume whether Mahomes is healthy or not.  We must bet the game as if Mahomes is a full go—then make “in-game” adjustments. 



One of the biggest mistakes I make when handicapping games occurs when I assume something out of my control to be true. I thought the snow, wind and cold would hinder Miami’s quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in Buffalo back in December, and guess what?  No snow, no wind and mildly cold. I assumed the rain would slow down the track in Santa Clara for the Seattle/San Francisco game. Guess what?  No rain until the fourth and the field was perfect.  This week in Buffalo, we were told the weather would be fine, and had a reporter on our show Sunday morning from the stadium, proclaiming the weather was perfect.  Guess what?  It wasn’t.  As the old saying goes, when you assume you make an ass out of you and me.  No more assumptions for me.  I believe Mahomes will play, I believe Mahomes will play well enough, and I believe the Chiefs’ offense will move the ball.  I’m not ready to believe who will win, though. I need more time and study. 

With the betting line being so tight, it’s highly doubtful the spread will matter.  The last three games have all been won by the Bengals, and each game was decided by three points.  One assumption we can make that will become true is this line will never reach three for either side.  It will move back and forth and always stay under the magic number of three.  Picking the winner is going to be the right play. 

If you are Lou Anarumo, the defensive coordinator for the Bengals, it’s business as usual.  He needs to tell his team to ignore the noise and pay no attention to the 24-hour Mahomes ankle updates.  Anarumo needs to make his defensive plan with a total belief he will get the best Mahomes has to offer and have a secondary plan based on how the game flows from watching Mahomes move.  Then he needs to prepare himself, not his team, for backup quarterback Chad Henne if he enters the game—something Jags defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell never considered.  For Anarumo and the Bengals to win this game, they must follow Yass’s advice and avoid believing they have a winning strategy. They need to be realistically optimistic.  And we as bettors need to do the same. 

The Eagles/49ers matchup does not offer any potential injuries to sway the line.  Yes, there will be talk about quarterback Jalen Hurts shoulder and him not being 100 percent.  Yet, no one at this point of the season is 100 percent. It’s a game that features strength on strength, as both teams have dominating defensive lines, both teams love to play from in front and both teams rely on their running game to help their play action passing game.  These two teams mirror one another in their team-building approach, yet they differ in how they move the football.  The Eagles are a 6-back attack, with Hurts being a vital part of the run game, and the 49ers are a zone stretch team using many different looks and personnel groupings to create the right matchup. 

The winner of this game will be decided in two ways.  The first in the trenches as this game is all about who can gain control of the line of scrimmage—a throwback style of game that will be entertaining.  The second will involve the coaching chess match and the “in-game” adjustments each team will need to install.  This is a classic battle with two talented teams playing at the highest level, and the staff which has the best plan to start and then adjusts in-game will be the winner.  Handicapping the coaches is going to be critical and will take most of this week watching the tape.  This game will be high-level chess on grass, and each move will matter. 

I am so excited to break down these games so check back each day as all our shows will provide the best betting information available.  And one last reminder, ignore the Mahomes injury news.  It doesn’t matter.