Can you trust Burrow, Stafford in conference title debuts?
After one of the best weekends of playoff football we've ever seen, we'll be treated to more spectacle this weekend as two quarterbacks each make their first start in a conference championship game.
Neither is new to firsts this postseason. Joe Burrow has already led the Bengals to their first playoff win in 31 years and first AFC title game since 1988; Matthew Stafford famously won his first career playoff game in the wild-card round, then handed Tom Brady his first playoff loss since joining the Buccaneers two summers ago.
Both quarterbacks will make their first semifinal start Sunday, with the Rams (-3.5) hosting the 49ers and the Bengals (+7) facing the Chiefs. Neither signal-caller had won a postseason contest until two weeks ago, and both will be making their conference title debuts against former Super Bowl starters. Can bettors trust either to show up in the biggest games of their pro careers?
Burrow faces uphill battle
As evidenced by Sunday's epic duel in Kansas City, the AFC remains the conference of elite quarterback play - but it hasn't been friendly to newcomers.
Since the NFL changed its postseason format in 2002, 11 quarterbacks have reached the AFC title game for the first time. Not one managed to win his conference championship debut, with the group combining for an 0-11 record straight up and a 2-9 record against the spread - all while losing by an average of 13.2 points. Nine of them lost by at least nine points, a trend that would spell an ATS loss for the Bengals if it holds.
|2020||Josh Allen||Bills (+3) at Chiefs||24-38||L||L|
|2019||Ryan Tannehill||Titans (+7.5) at Chiefs||24-35||L||L|
|2018||Patrick Mahomes||Chiefs (-3) vs. Patriots||31-37||L||L|
|2017||Blake Bortles||Jaguars (+7.5) at Patriots||20-24||W||L|
|2014||Andrew Luck||Colts (+7) at Patriots||7-45||L||L|
|2009||Mark Sanchez||Jets (+8.5) at Colts||17-30||L||L|
|2008||Joe Flacco||Ravens (+6) at Steelers||14-23||L||L|
|2007||Philip Rivers||Chargers (+14.5) at Patriots||12-21||W||L|
|2005||Jake Plummer||Broncos (-3.5) vs. Steelers||17-34||L||L|
|2004||Ben Roethlisberger||Steelers (+3) vs. Patriots||27-41||L||L|
|2003||Peyton Manning||Colts (+4) vs. Patriots||14-24||L||L|
As shown by the results above, the caliber of quarterback has scarcely mattered on this stage. A year ago, Josh Allen was the MVP runner-up before wilting in the AFC title game; Peyton Manning (2003) and Patrick Mahomes (2018) both won MVP honors ahead of their losses.
It's not as if these 11 quarterbacks played above the results, either. They averaged just 227.7 yards in their semifinal debuts with a combined 14 passing touchdowns, 18 interceptions, five fumbles, and 26 sacks allowed. Only two of them completed more than 60% of their passes, and only Mahomes led his team to 30 points or more.
Burrow's inexperience in this spot is an added concern. Six of those 11 quarterbacks reached the AFC title game within their first three NFL seasons; they went 0-6 straight up/ATS with a -15.7 scoring differential, and all six turned the ball over at least once in those losses.
Of course, all 11 of those QBs were thwarted by Brady, Manning, Mahomes, or Ben Roethlisberger, who have combined to win 17 of the last 18 AFC championships. Those four have been particularly fierce against first-timers, posting a combined 9-2 ATS record on this stage compared to a 7-9 ATS record in all other semifinal spots.
That's bad news for Burrow, who will duel Mahomes on Sunday. The Bengals passer got the best of the Chiefs star in Week 17, but even that could be concerning: Mahomes is 5-2 ATS in playoff rematches - including 2-0 ATS this year - with both losses coming against Brady.
Stafford's path has promise
It's been an entirely different story in the NFC, where first-time starters are in vogue in conference title games - even without elite statistics to support them.
Nineteen quarterbacks have made their semifinal debuts in the last 20 years, though 10 of them have faced another such starter in that spot. Isolate the nine first-time starters who faced playoff veterans in the conference championship, and the results are stark:
|2019||Jimmy Garoppolo||49ers (-8.5) vs. Packers||37-20||W||W|
|2018||Jared Goff||Rams (+3) at Saints||26-23||W||W|
|2013||Russell Wilson||Seahawks (-4) vs. 49ers||23-17||W||W|
|2011||Alex Smith||49ers (-2) vs. Giants||17-20||L||L|
|2007||Eli Manning||Giants (+7) at Packers||23-20||W||W|
|2005||Matt Hasselbeck||Seahawks (-4) vs. Panthers||34-14||W||W|
|2004||Michael Vick||Falcons (+6) at Eagles||10-27||L||L|
|2003||Jake Delhomme||Panthers (+4.5) at Eagles||14-3||W||W|
|2002||Brad Johnson||Buccaneers (+3.5) at Eagles||27-10||W||W|
These nine quarterbacks combined for a stellar 7-2 ATS/SU record in their first conference title starts, winning by 11 points per game in those seven victories. Surprisingly, they found success despite averaging a mere 194.6 yards with a conservative 8-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
It's not as if this crop of signal-callers hasn't faced its fair share of elite quarterbacks - Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre come to mind - but the NFC's top quarterbacks haven't been a buzzsaw like the AFC's quartet of future Hall of Famers. The nine passers listed above also benefitted from playing for superior teams, sheltering their inexperience behind a game-manager approach.
Four of the nine quarterbacks were favored in their semifinal debuts (3-1 ATS) despite facing more seasoned passers. That was largely because of defense, as the nine teams that deployed first-time starters in the conference title game allowed an average of 17.1 points. Only five of those QBs threw for more than 200 yards; all five won SU/ATS.
That could be the story again this weekend, with Stafford leading the favored Rams against the division-rival 49ers. Los Angeles' defense has struggled in two games versus San Francisco this season, but Stafford has been anything but a game-manager in his first two playoff wins. He's also going against Jimmy Garoppolo, who's among the least prolific passers to face an inexperienced starter in this spot.
Can you trust Burrow, Stafford?
There's always risk betting on a quarterback entering new territory in the postseason - especially against an opposing passer with Super Bowl experience. That said, Burrow and Stafford face dramatically different tests this weekend, with one catching points from a former MVP and the other favored against a familiar foe.
History suggests a much friendlier outlook for Stafford, who's surrounded by talent on a stacked team. Burrow, meanwhile, will likely need a Herculean effort to break Mahomes' stranglehold on the AFC.
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