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Why the Cincinnati Bengals making the playoffs is the best long-shot bet on the board

Outsized gains drive sports bettors to continue taking long-shot bets in the hopes of quickly growing their betting bankroll. Some look for big payoffs by parlaying numerous events into one bet.

Others search for long odd markets where the implied probability is a few percentage points lower than their expected-outcome models. One such bet still exists in the NFL futures market: the Cincinnati Bengals to make the playoffs. Right now, their implied probability at odds of +625 is 13.8%.

With our latest simulation pegging their odds almost 10 percentage points higher, we had to dive into why this was the best long-shot bet still on the NFL board.

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The Joe Burrow Effect

Our college-to-pro projections are on trial with Joe Burrow. Simply put, we have never seen a prospect do what Burrow did in his final college season. His PFF grades in situations that are stable when projecting college-to-pro performance are off the charts. His 94.8 passing grade from a clean pocket is the second-highest mark a player has earned during the PFF college era. And he had the highest accuracy percentage from a clean pocket among all FBS quarterbacks last year.

Turning your new team into a playoff contender as a rookie signal-caller is a rare feat. It is even rarer for the No. 1 overall pick to do so, considering the assumed roster makeup that results in a team securing that top selection in the first place. There is precedence for this scenario, though, as Andrew Luck led a former 2-14 Indianapolis Colts squad to 11 wins in his rookie season. Burrow is often mentioned in the same rare air as Luck was as a prospect. After what Burrow accomplished at LSU last season, it is definitely within the realm of possibility to see him pull off this feat in Year 1. He will need to turn around the worst offense from 2019 per our opponent-adjusted grades. However, injuries did play some role in the sudden drop off of the Bengals' offense.

Wide Receiver Room

Things were off from the get-go for the Bengals in 2019 after star wide receiver A.J. Green suffered a ligament injury in training camp. What was first expected to be a minor procedure ended up keeping Green out for all of the 2019 season. To earn the first overall pick, things have to go sideways for a team. The Bengals are no different, but the reassuring part is that their best players who couldn’t contribute in 2019 should be back to full strength for 2020. Perennially underrated, Green ranks 10th all-time in PFF wins above replacement (WAR) generated per total snaps played. He is playing 2020 on the franchise tag with much to prove if he wants another lucrative NFL contract.

Indianapolis Colts cornerback Quincy Wilson (31) is called for pass interference as Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18) tries to make a catch in the second quarter during the Week 1 NFL game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The blessing in disguise for the Bengals last season is that Green's injury gave younger receivers a chance to show off their abilities. Tyler Boyd had already bested Green in WAR during Green’s injury-shortened 2018 campaign. That season, Boyd ranked 11th in WAR generated among wide receivers despite playing the second-fewest snaps of a receiver in the top 20. His performance in 2019 was by all measurements a step backward — his receiving grade dropped 13.5 points, he doubled his total number of drops and he lost two fumbles. His quarterback situation should improve along with the talent of the receivers around him. If he returns to his prior form, the Bengals will have one of the top receiving tandems in the NFL.

John Ross has flashed exceptional play, but — for all intents and purposes — is quickly heading toward a bust label. The 2020 season will be his last chance to show his staying power in Cincinnati. Still, his speed is rare and he makes for the perfect third or fourth receiver in this offense. Auden Tate benefited the most from the extended playing time afforded to him. The former seventh-round pick posted an above-average PFF receiving grade in 2019 while averaging an average depth of target (DOT) of 12.8 yards. Ross and Tate are polar opposites on the athletic receiving spectrum, but their downfield abilities complement this wide receiver room well.

Questions Linger on Defense

The Bengals' defense couldn’t slow anyone down in the passing game in 2019. Overall, the unit posted a 51.0 coverage grade that ranked 26th last season. The Bengals signed veteran free agents to cheap contracts to bolster their secondary. The main question in the secondary will be the play of William Jackson, who was tremendous in his first two seasons before crumbling along with the rest of the team last season. If he plays closer to his above-average coverage grade in his first two seasons, then the Bengals should experience a quick turnaround in their secondary.

Dec 8, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham (13) catches the ball as he runs out of bounds as Cincinnati Bengals cornerback William Jackson (22) covers him during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Beckham was out of bounds when he gained control of the ball resulting in an incomplete pass. Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals' pass rush returns key players who helped them to the sixth-best pressure percentage in the NFL last year. Both Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap consistently sit among league leaders at their respective positions in pressures generated. Where this pass rush unit struggled in 2019 was the ability to generate quick pressure. On throws in 2.5 seconds or less, the Bengals had just the 18th-best pressure rate along with the third-worst coverage grade. Not being able to maintain adequate coverage on throws under 2.5 seconds rips defenses apart. The Bengals coverage unit has to make strides in this area in 2020 — otherwise, it could be staring down numerous shootout games this season.

AFC Conference is Top-Heavy

The NFL has opened up the floodgates by adding an additional team to each conference's playoff race. It already felt like a crapshoot trying to predict which teams would sneak into the playoff picture through the sixth spot. Adding an additional spot means we should see even more turnover between teams entering or exiting the playoff picture in subsequent seasons. Right now, the AFC has the two most exciting young quarterbacks in the NFL. Outside of Kansas City and Baltimore, the situation for regression to hit a number of 2019 AFC playoff teams seems apparent.

Cam Newton is on a mission to prove doubters wrong, but expecting him to step in for Tom Brady seamlessly and carry a less-than-impressive Patriots squad to the playoffs is dicey given current market odds. If the assumption is that only one team from the AFC East wanders into the playoffs, then the three wildcard playoff positions come down to six teams. Both Kansas City and Baltimore should win their respective divisions, leaving just the AFC South and the AFC East up for grabs. Whoever falls short between the Titans, Colts and Texans should be in the running for wild card positions. The Bengals have the opportunity to play all four teams from the AFC South, which will go a long way toward determining the pecking order of teams finishing in the middle of the pack in the AFC.

Despite PFF’s feelings toward Drew Lock, the Broncos still have the roster makeup to compete in the wildcard race, as well. Outside of Baltimore, the range of outcomes for teams in the AFC North has to be the widest of any division. Ben Roethlisberger could win Comeback Player of the Year. He could also continue the Steelers' tailspin towards a rebuild. The Browns are entering a make-or-break year with Baker Mayfield. New coach Kevin Stefanski has excelled at getting the most out of the quarterback position. How the Bengals fare in their head-to-head matchups against the Browns will help determine both of those squads' playoff chances.

Conclusion

The Bengals making the playoffs is a long-shot bet, with the odds stacked against a complete turnaround from the No. 1 overall pick. However, there is enough talent on this roster — with playmakers at all of the key offensive and defensive positions — for them to make a significant leap in Burrow’s first season. Burrow is a historic prospect in his own right, so the talent around him serves to only bolster his 2020 outlook. And while the AFC might have the two best teams in the NFL in Baltimore and Kansas City, questions linger for all of the remaining playoff contenders. Given the current odds listed, the Bengals are the perfect long-shot bet to make to complete your offseason portfolio before the season begins.

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