New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 AFC Championship Pick

New England Patriots (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

The Patriots won in convincing fashion at home over a strong Chargers team last week, wrapping up an undefeated 9-0 home record, but now they have to go on the road (where they are 3-5) and travel to Kansas City for the AFC Championship game. The common narrative seems to be that they will continue to struggle on the road and, as a result, they are underdogs in a game started by Tom Brady for the first time since week 13 of the 2014 season.

The statistical difference between the Patriots at home and on the road has been very significant this season, beyond even what the records show. At home, 7 of those 9 wins came by double digits, with the only exceptions coming against the Texans and the Chiefs, a pair of AFC division winners. They have a first down rate differential of +9.65% at home. For comparison, the Bears finished 1st in first down rate differential on the season at +6.64%. On the road, however, they have a first down rate differential of -5.29%. For comparison, that would have ranked 29th in the NFL over the course of the season, most comparable to the Washington Redskins.

Fortunately for them, home/road differentials tend to be random more than anything. Over the past 30 seasons, teams with a home winning percentage of more than 90% and a road winning percentage under 50% are 40-36 straight up on the road in week 11 or later and are 21-12 ATS as road underdogs. The Patriots have been incredible at home since 2001, going 141-26 straight up, but they are also 99-49 on the road, including 24-15 ATS and 20-19 straight up as road underdogs. Any time you’re getting points with the Patriots, even against the most dominant of teams, they are worth a bet, as they tend to rise to the occasion against tough opponents, going a ridiculous 38-13 straight up against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including 7-2 in the post-season.

The Chiefs have been a dominant team on offense this season, finishing the regular season by far #1 in first down rate at 45.18% (Rams are 2nd at 43.05%), but they’ve been far from dominant on defense. They finished the season ranked 24th in points per game allowed at 26.3 and were even worse in first down rate allowed at 42.20%, worst in the NFL. Against playoff qualifiers, their defensive numbers were downright ugly, as they allowed 36.0 points per game and a ridiculous 46.54% first down rate in 6 regular season games against playoff qualifiers (2-4).

The strength of this defense is its pass rush, which led the league in sacks, led by edge rushers Dee Ford (13 sacks) and Justin Houston (9 sacks) and interior rusher Chris Jones (15.5 sacks). Combined with their explosive offense, their pass rush has allowed them to dominant weaker opponents. They go up big early with their offense, forcing their opponents to pass more than they’d like (most pass attempts against in the league), which allows their pass rushers to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. That same formula hasn’t worked as well against tougher opponents, who have been able to exploit their weaknesses against running games and quick passing games. The Patriots both rode of those to victory last week, so it’s not hard to imagine them following a similar formula this week in Kansas City.

The big exception to the Chiefs’ defensive struggles this season came against the Colts last week, in a game in which the Chiefs held the Colts to a 30.19% first down rate in a blowout 31-13 win. However, when you look at their whole season, last week’s performance looks like a fluke, especially when you consider there wasn’t any personnel change that was made between last week’s game and a month ago, when they allowed 67 points combined in a 2-game stretch against the Chargers and Seahawks.

The one player who could boost this defense is Eric Berry, who is expected to play through a heel injury this week, after sitting out the previous 2 games, but he’s played just 99 snaps since week 1 of 2017, so it’s unclear how much having him active will benefit the Chiefs. Unless the Chiefs suddenly became a different defense overnight or Eric Berry can somehow return to Pro Bowl form by Sunday, I like the Patriots’ chances of pulling the upset and they’re a great bet if you can get the full field goal.

New England Patriots 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: New England +3

Confidence: High

Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 AFC Divisional Round Pick

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

Confidence: High

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (4-11) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)

The Chiefs just need to win this game to clinch homefield advantage throughout the AFC, but they’re limping into the post-season a little bit, losing 3 of their past 5 games after a 10-1 starts. Those losses have come against the Rams, Chargers, and Seahawks and all 3 losses came by a touchdown or less in games the Chiefs could have easily won, but those are the kinds of teams they’re going to have to beat if they’re going to make a deep playoff run.

Their offense has still been dominant, but the losses have piled up, with right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and wide receiver Sammy Watkins still injured and Kareem Hunt no longer on the team because of off-the-field issues, and their defense has continued to struggle, even with safety Eric Berry returning from injury. Berry has not nearly been 100% and may not even play in this game after sitting out practice on Friday. They’re expected to get top cornerback Kendall Fuller back from a one week absence this week, but he might not be 100% either. The Raiders have played better football of late, so this line is a little high at 14.

That being said, I wouldn’t take the Raiders with any confidence this week. This is a big game for them, playing spoiler against a tough division rival, but they still might not bring their best effort after winning an emotional game at home against the Broncos last week, in likely their final home game in Oakland. The Chiefs’ defense is terrible and the Raiders could easily get a backdoor cover late even if the Chiefs otherwise dominate the game, but we’re not getting enough line value for this to be anything higher than a no confidence pick.

Kansas City Chiefs 33 Oakland Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: Oakland +14

Confidence: None

Kansas City Chiefs at Seattle Seahawks: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (11-3) at Seattle Seahawks (8-6)

Earlier in the week, the Chiefs seemed like the clear pick. The Seahawks have a solid record at 8-6 and have been playing better offensively in recent weeks, but their defense has had trouble getting off the field this season. They’ve played the 2nd fewest defensive snaps in the league, as a result of the offense going 11 of 14 on 4th down on the season and only turning over the ball 10 times, fewest in the NFL, but 4th down percentages and turnovers tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so they won’t always be able to depend on that making life easier for their defense and they rank just 26th in first down rate allowed at 38.51%.

However, the Seahawks could be getting a huge boost defensively this week, with the return of outside linebacker KJ Wright from injury. Bobby Wagner is the linebacker that gets all the attention on this defense, but Wright is arguably the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the league when healthy. Lingering knee issues have limited him to just 133 underwhelming snaps in 3 games this season, a big part of why they’ve struggled defensively, especially since replacement Austin Calitro has been horrendous this season. It’s tough to know if Wright is at 100% or if he’ll play his full snaps, but his return should be a boost for this defense.

Despite that, this line didn’t really shift to adjust for his return, opening at Kansas CIty -2.5 and only falling to Kansas City -2, really insignificant line movement. With Wright in the lineup, I have this line calculated at Kansas CIty -2.5, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Chiefs, but not nearly enough to take them with any sort of confidence this week. I think the most likely outcome in this game is a Kansas City win by a field goal, which would cover this spread, but this was one of the toughest games of the week for me to decide on because the Seahawks could easily pull this upset at home.

Kansas City Chiefs 30 Seattle Seahawks 27

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -2

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (10-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-2)

These two teams met all the way back in week 1, with the Chiefs winning 38-28 in Los Angeles. That game swung on a few plays though, despite it being a 10-point game, as the Chargers turned the ball over twice and allowed a punt return touchdown (still the Chiefs’ only special teams touchdown of the season). The Chargers actually won the first down rate battle by 6.83%, picking up a first down or touchdown on 48.65% of offensive plays, as opposed to 41.92% for the Chiefs.

They could easily do so again this week and, if they do, they have a good chance to pull the upset. This game is in Kansas City, but the atmosphere won’t be much different, as Chiefs fans filled the Chargers’ stadium week 1, as most visiting fanbases do. Lacking homefield advantage in Los Angeles, the Chargers are 6-0 straight up (5-1 ATS) with an average margin of victory of 10.2 points per game in 6 games outside of Los Angeles this season. That is a trend that dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 34-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012.

Divisional road underdogs typically do well in this spot anyway, as teams are 70-43 ATS since 2002 as divisional road underdogs against a team that previously beat them as home favorites earlier in the season. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are in a terrible spot on a short week after going to overtime with the Ravens last week. Understandably teams are just 6-26 ATS on a short week on a Thursday night after an overtime game in the past 30 years.

I considered making this my Pick of the Week, but didn’t for a couple reasons. One is injury uncertainty. The Chiefs are pretty banged up on offense, missing left guard Cam Erving, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and running back Spencer Ware, who is only starting because Kareem Hunt got kicked off the team, but their defense could be getting a big boost with Eric Berry returning from injury. I say “could” because it’s tough to know what kind of shape he’s going to be in for his first game in 15 months, after missing 28 straight games over the past 2 seasons with injury. He may not even play full snaps this week. On top of that, #1 receiver Tyreek Hill barely practiced this week with a foot injury.

The Chargers, meanwhile, might be getting star running back Melvin Gordon back from injury, but if he’s out again, they’ll also be down to their 3rd string running back. They have some injuries on defense as well, with cornerback Trevor Williams, defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget, and middle linebacker Denzel Perryman all on the sidelines, but they’ve also gotten stud defensive end Joey Bosa back recently, giving them a dominant duo of Melvin Ingram and Bosa at defensive end, which has masked some of their issues at other positions like defensive tackle and linebacker. Their secondary is also playing at a high level, led by #1 cornerback Casey Hayward, dominant slot cornerback Desmond King, and stud rookie safety Derwin James.

The second reason I didn’t want to make this my Pick of the Week is the Chargers’ recent track record against the Chiefs. I normally don’t make too much of a team “having another team’s number” because the NFL changes so much and there usually isn’t a large enough sample size to make that claim, but the Chiefs have had the same head coach and defensive coordinator since 2013 and Philip Rivers is 2-9 against them, with 9 straight losses. That being said, he could easily exorcise those demons this week against a banged up Chiefs team that’s going to be exhausted on a short week and I like getting more than a field goal if the Chargers can’t pull the upset.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Kansas City Chiefs 23 Upset Pick +160

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +3.5

Confidence: High

Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (7-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-2)

The Chiefs are in a very tough spot this week, as they have to turn around and play their biggest remaining regular season game next week against the Chargers on Thursday Night Football. Favorites typically struggle before a short week anyway, going 55-73 ATS since 2012, but that should especially be the case in this one, as I can’t imagine the Chiefs aren’t spending some time on the Chargers this week. On the other side, the Ravens are distraction free, with only a home game against the Buccaneers on deck.

I wish I trusted Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson more in this kind of game though. If the Ravens were starting a healthy Joe Flacco, I’d bet them just because I know what to expect from him, but Jackson’s 3-0 record has come against a pretty easy schedule and I just don’t know what to expect from him in a game where he’ll have to be more aggressive as a passer to keep pace with an explosive Kansas City offense.

Kansas City’s defense has not been very good this year, but they could get Eric Berry back this week finally and even against an underwhelming defense it’s easy for young quarterbacks to make mistakes if they feel like they need to keep up with an offensive juggernaut. I’m taking Baltimore and hoping their defense can keep it close against a Kansas City team that probably won’t bring their best effort this week, but I wouldn’t recommend betting on this with the line under a touchdown.

Kansas City Chiefs 27 Baltimore Ravens 23

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +6.5

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (9-2) at Oakland Raiders (2-9)

Earlier this week, I liked the Chiefs a lot in this one. The line was high, with Kansas City being favored by 15.5 points on the road, but this is a matchup of arguably the best and arguably the worst team in the league and the Chiefs are also in a great spot. While they don’t have any upcoming distractions, with only a home game against the Ravens on deck, the Raiders follow this game up with another tough game, hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers. Favorites of 7+ are 58-35 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 7+ again, while underdogs of 7+ are 29-47 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs of 7+ again. Combining the two, favorites of 7+ are 13-4 ATS since 2014 before being 7+ point favorites again, when their opponent will next be 7+ point underdogs again.

The Chiefs are also coming out of a bye. Not only is Andy Reid great off of a regular season bye in his career, 13-6 ATS as a head coach, but road favorites of 4+ are 32-8 ATS since 2002 after a bye, including a ridiculous 12-1 ATS against divisional opponents. Fully rested, the Chiefs looked likely to be fully focused, with no upcoming distractions on the schedule, while the Raiders were in a tough spot with back-to-back tough home games.

However, I’m no longer sure that the Chiefs will be fully focused this week, given the Kareem Hunt situation. Hunt is somewhat replaceable on the field, as new starting running back Spencer Ware is an experienced lead back, and the line shifted from -15.5 to -14 to compensate for Hunt getting kicked off the team, but I’m concerned about the psychological effect of losing a key player like that late in the week. I may change my mind and end up bumping this up to a medium confidence pick, especially if the line slips down to -13.5, but for now this is a low confidence pick.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Oakland Raiders 17

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -14

Confidence: Low