Kansas City Chiefs (0-0) at New England Patriots (0-0)
These teams finished with the two best records in the AFC last season and earned the AFC’s top-2 seeds, but the Chiefs were not as good as their 12-4 record suggested. Six of their 12 wins came by 8 points or fewer and many of them were decided by a turnover or a return touchdown going in the Chiefs’ favor. They finished last season with a +7 return touchdown margin and a +16 turnover margin, both best in the NFL. Unfortunately, turnover margin tends to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. On average, a team that has a +15 turnover margin or better posts a turnover margin on average 12 points worse the following season and wins an average of 3 fewer games. If they don’t win the turnover battle as much, it’ll be tough for them to match the 5 defensive touchdowns they had last season.
If the Chiefs want to match or come close to last year’s 12 wins, they’ll have to win the first down battle more consistently because they won’t be able to rely on takeaways and return touchdowns as much. Unfortunately, the Chiefs had 37 fewer first downs than their opponents last season, scored just one more offensive touchdown than their opponents, and finished 24th in first down rate differential. Their opponents picked up first downs at a 1.04% higher rate than they did. There’s a reason why the Steelers were able to come into Kansas City and beat them in their first playoff game after the bye.
The Patriots, meanwhile, had 57 more first downs and 24 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents last season and finished 2nd in first down rate differential, en route to winning their 5th Super Bowl. Many believe the Patriots will repeat this season, as they were able to win last year without Rob Gronkowski, who returns from injury, and they add wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore this off-season. The Patriots took a hit when they lost #2 receiver Julian Edelman for the season and have also lost Rob Ninkovich (retirement), Shea McClellin, Cyrus Jones, and Derek Rivers over the past few weeks, leaving them thin at the slot cornerback and edge rusher positions.
The Patriots are still one of the best teams in the league though and the Chiefs enter this game with their own injury issues, losing running back Spencer Ware for the season and edge rusher Tamba Hali for at least the first half of the season. New England has the obvious talent edge and defending Super Bowl champs have had a good week 1 track record in recent years (8-1-1 ATS at home on Thursday night over the last 10 instances). This line is pretty steep at 9, so I can’t take the Patriots with confidence, but they should be able to open the season with a double digit victory.
New England Patriots 31 Kansas City Chiefs 20
Pick against the spread: New England -9