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Sunday's Best

Divisional Round Marquee Matchup

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: January 22, 2022, 11:42 am ET

The Cincinnati Bengals have been a surprising success story this season.  As a result of their stellar play down the stretch, from Joe Burrow, they are the talk of the town.

When I ask people what is it about the Bengals that excites them & makes them most want to bet the Bengals over the Titans, it comes back to 3 things:

1. Joe Burrow
2. Ja’Marr Chase
3. Their win over the Chiefs

That win over the Chiefs was massive in most people’s eyes.  It was vital to “cement” the Bengals as a good team this year.

Why?

Well for starters, they played in the AFC North during a huge down year.  All of those teams, the Steelers, Browns and Ravens, were shells of themselves in prior years.  So the division wasn’t nearly as healthy or good.  The Bengals were the lone team that was.

Second, look at what this team did every time they had to step up in class:

Take a look at when they played any team that ranked top-15 in total efficiency:

Week 5 – lost to the Packers 25-22
Week 9 – lost to the Browns 41-16
Week 13 – lost to the Chargers 41-22
Week 14 – lost to the 49ers 26-23

Literally all their wins came against teams that ranked bottom half of the NFL in total efficiency.

Then came their 34-31 win over the Chiefs.  And that was the final factor.  They won the AFC North with that game.  They finally beat a team that was not bottom-half in overall efficiency.

But looking at that game, you’d be surprised at the final score.

The Chiefs had more trips to the red zone, more third down efficiency, the same number of first downs but double the number of penalties called against them.

The Bengals received 6 first downs via penalty… the Chiefs had just 1.

Play success:  Chiefs 66%, Bengals 48%

Play EPA:  Chiefs +0.21, Bengals +0.16

The Chiefs led by two touchdowns multiple times in the game, 21-7 and 28-14.  The largest Bengals lead was by 3 points.  The bottom line was, while that is a great win due to the final score, I’d argue it was a false final and the better team that day lost the game.  That was a once-in-a-season performance from Chase and Burrow, and is something unlikely to be repeated this year.

But that performance cemented the public sentiment that the Bengals are legit contenders.  

What we’re now looking at is one of the trendiest underdogs of the season.  They’re a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky team that’s exciting, and lovable.

Call them a FUNderdog, emphasis on the FUN.  And they’re going up against one of the most disrespected #1 seeds in recent memory.  

And the problem with going up against the Titans is that they love to run the ball (4th most run-heavy team in the NFL) and they’re good at it:  

The Titans are a top-15 run offense despite playing without their #1 RB most of the season and despite playing the #1 toughest schedule of run defenses.

Meanwhile, the Bengals have played 9 games against top-15 run offenses this year.  But if you toss the Ravens, whose run efficiency is almost entirely derived from their QB, and the final game of the year that they lost when they were resting players, they’ve played 6 games against “traditional” top-15 run offenses this year.  

They are 1-5 in those games

Lost 25-22 vs GB
Lost 34-31 vs NYJ
Lost 41-16 vs CLE
Lost 41-22 vs LAC
Lost 23-26 vs SF
Won 34-31 vs KC

They allowed an average of 33 points scored in these games.

On early down runs, they allowed 5.3 YPC and +0.10 EPA/att.

Additionally, one thing the Titans have done extremely well is to score in the red zone.

Even without Derrick Henry, the Titans are scoring TDs on 64% of their red zone possessions, tied for 5th best in the NFL.  In their last 3 games, that’s up to 89%.

The Bengals defense has played the NFL’s 6th easiest schedule of red zone offenses.

In the games they played red zone offenses that ranked top-15 when they played, they:

Lost to the Chargers 41-22 and allowed 24 first half points
Lost to the Packers 25-22 and allowed 16 first half points
Lost to the 49ers 26-23 and allowed 17 first half points
Beat the Chiefs 34-31 and allowed 28 first half points

All of these teams have good offenses, the key is the Titans need to get out early and score, and it seem like they should have success in the red zone when given chances.

What I love about the return of Derrick Henry isn’t his efficiency per say, it’s what his presence will make the Bengals respect and account for.

I’d like to see nothing more than the Titans align in heavy personnel on the very first snap of the game, but come out and use deep play action and target AJ Brown off of it.

The Titans use play action on 30% of dropbacks, the 8th most in the NFL.

The Bengals are the NFL’s worst defense vs play action.  They allow 10.5 YPA and allow a league worst 22% of play action passes to go for 20+ yards.

The Bengals defense, with injuries to Larry Ogunjobi and Mike Daniels, should struggle to stop the Titans run game.  And they’re likely to struggle vs Ryan Tannehill off of play action.
 

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.