Indianapolis Colts (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
The Chiefs finished with the best record in the AFC, while the Colts snuck into the playoffs as the 6th seed on the NFL’s final weekend, but statistically the Colts have been the better of these two teams this season, ranking 5th in first down rate at +4.56%, while the Chiefs rank 9th at +2.98%. Not only do they have a significant edge in first downs (+56 on the year, as opposed to -35 for the Chiefs), but they also have a league leading +19 offensive touchdown margin, even better than Kansas City’s +17 offensive touchdown margin.
That’s even more impressive considering how slow the Colts started. After week 6, they sat at 1-5 and ranked just 18th in first down rate differential at -1.47%, but since then they lead the NFL in first down rate differential at +9.02% and they’ve won 10 of 11 games, including last week’s first round victory over the Texans. They have several young players who have gotten better as the season has gone on and their injury situation has improved significantly as well, as they are close to full strength right now, after they were arguably the best injury plagued team in the league to start the season. Andrew Luck has also gotten better as the year has gone along in his first year back from shoulder surgery, with arguably the best team he’s ever had around him.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction a little bit, starting out hot and then declining in recent weeks. The offense has remained strong, leading the league with a first down rate of 43.34% since week 10, but that’s down from an otherworldly 46.65% prior to week 10 and their defense has not gotten any better, allowing a first down rate of 42.21% since week 10 and a first down rate of 42.19% prior to week 10. They were expecting to get safety Eric Berry back from injury at some point, but he only played limited snaps in a few games down the stretch and seems to be shut down again, missing week 17 and barely practicing this week after the bye.
They may get a boost on offense with wide receiver Sammy Watkins possibly returning after missing all but a few snaps over the past 7 games, but he didn’t get in a full practice this week and would likely be less than 100% and at risk of an in-game setback even if he plays through his recurring foot problems. The loss of Watkins and running back Kareem Hunt (released for off-the-field issues with 5 games left in the season) are part of the reason why the offense slowed down a little down the stretch.
Without those two, even as talented as Pat Mahomes is, he’s had issues keeping pace with what his defense is allowing. They played 3 of their final 7 games against the Cardinals or Raiders, two of the worst teams in the league, and in their other 4 games they either lost or went to overtime. Granted, those four games were against the Seahawks, Chargers, Ravens, and Rams and the Chiefs were competitive in all 4 games, but the Colts are a tough test too and the you’d have to go back to the Chiefs’ 10-point week 1 victory over the Chargers to find a game the Chiefs have played against a top tier team like the Colts in which they would have covered this 5.5-point spread.
At the very least, these two teams are even right now, in which case the Chiefs should be favored by just 3 points at home, but there’s an argument to be made that the Colts are the better of these two teams at the moment, despite what their records say. The Colts also have the edge in quarterback experience, with Luck making his 8th career playoff start and Mahomes in his first. First time playoff starting quarterbacks are just 6-21 ATS at home since 2002, unless they’re facing another first time playoff starter.
We’ve already seen Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, and Mitch Trubisky lose straight up as home favorites in their first career playoff start. Mahomes is on another level talent wise and it helps that he has an experienced coach in Andy Reid (even if Reid is just 11-13 with one Super Bowl appearance in 13 playoff trips), but the other three quarterbacks also had much stronger defenses supporting them and, even if Mahomes does pull out the win, he won’t necessarily cover this 5.5-point spread. I love the Colts’ chances of covering and I think they have a decent shot at pulling off the straight up upset as well.
Indianapolis Colts 31 Kansas City Chiefs 30 Upset Pick +195
Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +5.5