SharpClarke's Best NFL Conference Championship Bet: SF @ PHI Matchup Spotlight

Jan 25, 2023
Best NFL Conference Championship Bet: SF @ PHI

At this point in the season, you won't find an edge in the numbers. All the stats, all the data, all the matchups—they've been put into every model that exists and the market has agreed on the price of the game. In the NFC, the market has agreed the Philadelphia Eagles should be favored by 2.5-to-3 points at home against the San Francisco 49ers. Based on my model for evaluating effectiveness over the course of the season and trending recently, this number is exactly correct. Many other bettors agree. But every now and then, the numbers miss something fundamental. I believe that's the case here, and I am backing it up with one of my biggest bets of the season on the 49ers. Let's dive in.


The Angle

Most people take it for granted that the Eagles have an elite offense. But what if that is not true? There is a chance the Eagles' offense has merely benefitted from a historically easy schedule and beat up on a slate of teams that could not penetrate their stout offensive line, setting up a disproportionate ratio of favorable situations. And they capitalized. If that's the case, they now go up against the NFL's premier defense in the 49ers and could be in for a rude awakening that dramatically alters the quality of their play on offense.

Jalen Hurts and the Eagles run an offense that performs at a significantly higher level when they are in control of the game. They run the ball well and set up their best passing opportunities when defenses must account for the run game and leave single-coverage opportunities for A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith downfield. With ample time in the pocket, Hurts is allowed to process slowly and take the time to comfortably hit the deep shots downfield. When it works, it really works.

The data backs this up. In his career, Hurts has averaged +0.141 EPA/dropback while his team has a 50% or greater chance to win the game but only +0.036 EPA/dropback while his team has a lower than 50% chance to win the game. This is a huge gap. Of course, it makes sense a quarterback would be more efficient with the lead than playing from behind because it correlates with playing easier opponents and prior success in that game. But what stands out is that even relative to other quarterbacks, Hurts' splits are massive.

I looked at the numbers for every quarterback with at least 1,200 dropbacks since 2018 and a positive EPA/play in either situation (likely to win or likely to lose). Of the 35 quarterbacks who fit the data set, Hurts ranked 31st out of 35 in relative efficiency when expected to lose versus when expected to win. His gap (0.105 EPA/play) was notably bigger than the average gap (0.043 EPA/play) or median gap (0.036 EPA/play). In fact, when Hurts faces a negative situation, he is 33rd out of 35 quarterbacks in success rate. He is tied with Baker Mayfield and the only quarterback with a lower success rate when expected to lose is Sam Darnold.

But those are career numbers. If you're reading this critically (which I appreciate), you are wondering how much that has changed in 2022, with the addition of A.J. Brown and Hurts playing at a so-called "MVP level." The fact is, it has barely changed at all. His numbers when expected to lose are actually slightly worse this season (0.023 EPA/play) than in 2021 (0.027 EPA/play). Granted, his numbers when expected to win have taken a small jump (0.165 EPA/play this season compared to 0.119 EPA/play last season). These numbers are actually very similar.

What has changed is that Hurts has gone from facing one of the highest rates of negative situations last year (63.6% of his dropbacks) to, by far, the lowest rate I have seen since I started doing this research (19.8%). So, without actually changing his situational efficiency much, his overall numbers improved by virtue of playing in winning situations more frequently. Again, as a player and team with a massive split in efficiency between expected winning situations and expected losing situations, a shift in situations this drastic can have a drastic impact on the overall numbers without many indications that are materially better.

This is particularly important given the context of the Eagles' schedule. They played the AFC South, which might have been the worst division in football, the NFC North, with no real Super Bowl contenders to speak of, the Cardinals, Steelers, Saints, who all missed the playoffs, and their division. The division included the fraudulent Giants, who lucked into some wins early on but never ranked higher than 20th in my efficiency ratings, a Commanders team whose only signature win came against the Eagles (which would be a very circular argument to suggest this made them good), and the Cowboys (only once with Hurts). In that game, the Eagles struggled on offense but won against backup Cooper Rush.

You can't criticize a team for not playing anyone. They can only beat the opponents they face, and the Eagles did a fantastic job. But when the team has such a strong split in efficiency based on the quality of the opponent and situation, an easy schedule becomes that much more important in correctly analyzing the team. The 49ers have the best defense in the NFL by a wide margin, and that's including a stretch of games earlier this season where they played with cluster injuries on defense, including Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, Jimmie Ward, Dre Greenlaw, and Samson Ebukam. All of those guys are healthy now.

If the 49ers' defense can stop the run and force Hurts and company into obvious passing situations where the run game is taken off the table, they could put the Eagles in uncomfortable situations. From there, with a relentless pass rush and swarming gang tackles on the short throws, the Eagles' offense may clam up entirely. The only time Hurts has faced a pass rush of this caliber this year was against the Cowboys, a game in which his longest completion of the day went for 22 yards and he was sacked four times on 29 dropbacks. I expect something similar here if Hurts cannot repeatedly get outside the pocket and use the 49ers' defensive aggressiveness against them.

If you've made it this far, you might be wondering why I don't apply the same analysis to San Francisco. Haven't they also faced an easy schedule and don't they also rely on the run game to strengthen the pass game? I'm glad you asked. Brock Purdy has actually been more efficient in situations where the 49ers are expected to lose than he has been with the lead. Granted, it's a very small sample size, but he has averaged 0.332 EPA/play when expected to lose and 0.254 EPA/play when expected to win. The only players with a significant reverse split like this (performing better when in negative situations) are Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert.

Now, I'm not suggesting Purdy is Mahomes or Herbert. His small sample size of data is skewed by dropped interceptions and other favorable plays. But it's significant when placed in the context of the 49ers with Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo. Under Garoppolo, the 49ers average 0.157 EPA/play when expected to win and 0.170 EPA/play when expected to lose. Purdy has picked up the reins of an offense that has always done well in difficult spots. This is why they make the playoffs and have deep runs almost every year, including a near-win in the Super Bowl. Not only that, but Purdy is playing with a set of weapons that is better than anything Garoppolo has played with in his career. With a healthy Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk, and Trent Williams, this offense is as good as it's ever been outside the quarterback position.

Most importantly, the data shows they are not at a disadvantage against the best teams. The Eagles' defense has put up great numbers this year (not nearly as good as the 49ers), but they have also faced a really easy schedule of opposing offenses (see above). Even if the Eagles' defense is good, the 49ers can score against good defenses. The teams that have caused the Eagles the most trouble this year have been the ones with the best offensive scheme and offensive line (the Lions scored 35, the Cowboys 40, and the Packers scored 33). The 49ers fit that category, and Shanahan will have a game plan that will make use of the plethora of weapons at his disposal.

The 49ers had some easy matchups too but faced Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, the Dolphins with Tua Tagovailoa, Geno Smith, Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, and the Rams twice before Matthew Stafford and company got hurt. Putting up more impressive numbers against better offenses is significant, and they pass the eye test as well with the aggressiveness they play with on defense. Basically, the primary angle here definitely favors the 49ers, although it is fair to at least consider how it might go both ways. For that reason, both defenses might win this game.

Historical Analysis

If this angle is legitimate, and there is actually value this late in the season on an NFL side, then there should be some kind of evidence for it. So, let's do a recent historical study on playoff teams that fit a similar mold. Since 2018, there have been 18 instances where a playoff team has featured a quarterback that had lower than 0.075 EPA/dropback over the course of the season when expected to lose. Here is how each playoff run went, ordered by how drastic the split is between passing efficiency when expected to win vs. passing efficiency when expected to lose:

Mitch Trubisky (CHI) (2020)
Splits: -0.014 v. +0.258 (-0.272)
-Lost 21-9 as an 11-point underdog v. NO (#8 Off, #4 Def)

Kirk Cousins (MIN) (2019)
Splits: +0.049 v. +0.313 (-0.264)
-Won 26-20 as a 7.5-point underdog v. NO (#4 Off, #10 Def)
-Lost 27-10 as a 7-point underdog v. SF (#5 Off, #2 Def)

Drew Brees (NO) (2019)
Splits: +0.067 v. +0.304 (-0.237)
-Lost 26-20 as a 7.5-point favorite v. MIN (#9 Off, #2 Def)

Dak Prescott (DAL) (2018)
Splits: -0.076 v. +0.146 (-0.222)
-Won 24-22 as a 2.5-point favorite v. SEA (#6 Off, #13 Def)
-Lost 30-22 as a 7.5-point underdog v. LAR (#3 Off, #12 Def)

Aaron Rodgers (GB) (2019)
Splits: +0.017 v. +0.216 (-0.199)
-Won 28-23 as a 4.5-point favorite v. SEA (#12 Off, #19 Def)
​-Lost 37-20 as an 8-point underdog v. SF (#5 Off, #2 Def)

Dak Prescott (DAL) (2022)
Splits: +0.012 v. +0.203 (-0.191)
-Won 31-14 as a 3-point favorite v. TB (#20 Off, #11 Def)
-Lost 19-12 as a 4-point underdog v. SF (#4 Off, #1 Def)

Jalen Hurts (PHI) (2022)
Splits: +0.023 v. +0.163 (-0.120)
-Won 38-7 as an 8-point favorite v. NYG (#9 Off, #28 Def)
-TBD as a 2.5-point favorite v. SF (#4 Off, #1 Def)

Carson Wentz (PHI) (2019)
Splits: +0.022 v. +0.135 (-0.113)
-Lost 17-9 as a 1-point favorite v. SEA (#12 Off, #19 Def)

Nick Foles (CHI) (2018)
Splits: +0.163 v. +0.051 (-0.112)
-Lost 16-15 as a 6.5-point favorite to PHI (#17 Off, #14 Def)

Ryan Tannehill (TEN) (2021)
Splits: +0.027 v. +0.127 (-0.100)
-Lost 19-16 as a 4-point favorite v. CIN (#11 Off, #11 Def)

Josh Allen (BUF) (2019)
Splits: -0.005 v. +0.082 (-0.087)
-Lost 22-19 as a 2.5-point underdog v. HOU (#8 Off, #23 Def)

Jalen Hurts (PHI) (2021)
Splits: +0.052 v. +0.119 (-0.067)
-Lost 31-15 as an 8.5-point underdog v. TB (#1 Off, #5 Def)

Tom Brady (NE) (2019)
Splits: +0.035 v. +0.095 (-0.060)
-Lost 20-13 as a 4.5-point favorite v. TEN (#6 Off, #15 Def)

Jared Goff (LAR) (2020)
Splits: +0.008 v. +0.051 (-0.043)
-Won 30-20 as a 3-point underdog v. SEA (#7 Off, #18 Def)
-Lost 32-18 as a 7-point underdog v. GB (#1 Off, #12 Def)

Derek Carr (LV) (2021)
Splits: +0.072 v. +0.102 (-0.030)
-Lost 26-19 as a 5.5-point underdog v. CIN (#11 Off, #11 Def)

Tom Brady (TB) (2022)
Splits: +0.061 v. +0.060 (+0.001)
-Lost 31-14 as a 3-point underdog v. DAL (#3 Off, #10 Def)

Justin Herbert (LAC) (2022)
Splits: +0.074 v. +0.021 (+0.053)
-Lost 31-30 as a 2.5-point favorite v. JAC (#8 Off, #12 Def)

Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) (2021)
Splits: -0.002 v. -0.067 (+0.065)
-Lost 42-21 as a 12.5-point underdog v. KC (#2 Off, #23 Def)


When you take out the two instances where two quarterbacks fitting the criteria played against each other, teams that fit the criteria have gone 3-16 against the spread and 4-15 straight up in that span. The three wins against the spread came against teams ranked 18th, 19th, and 28th in defensive efficiency on the season, including the Eagles' domination of the Giants last week. Overall, when facing teams in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, these teams are 0-6 against the spread. The 49ers are first in defensive efficiency this season.


The 49ers come out aggressively on defense and methodically on offense. The Eagles get some tough yards with good offensive line play but can't sustain drives as the 49ers build a lead before halftime, around 17-3. In the second half, things get uglier for the Eagles and they are unable to right the ship.

Final Score Prediction: SF 31-10

Best Bets

If I didn't already have 49ers' NFC futures (which I do), then I would play the 49ers' Moneyline. But I am also laddering alternate spreads with the 49ers, at the below prices. I think there is material upside for a big 49ers' win that exceeds the implied odds of each of these bets:

If you enjoyed this matchup breakdown, you can access all my picks with detailed write-ups for every play with a Betting Subscription. Sign up using the Promo Code SharpClarke for 10% off and get every bet I make in real-time. For the most up-to-date picks check out my Twitter and subscribe to our Discord. This sheet from Dan Rivera tracks all my betting picks (and those from the rest of the betting staff) on the year. Just click on the tab with my name on it for the results.

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