Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Championship Pick

Tennessee Titans (11-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

Like the NFC Championship between the 49ers and the Packers, the AFC Championship is also a rematch of a regular season game, with the Titans and Chiefs meeting in Tennessee back in week 10. Few expected the Titans to win that game, as they were 6-point home underdogs, and even fewer expected that the Titans would go on to meet the Chiefs in a rematch in the AFC Championship. Even after their surprise win over the Chiefs, the Titans sat at just 5-5 and needed to win 4 of their next 6 games to qualify for the post-season as the 6th seed at 9-7. Overall, a Titans team that started the season 2-4 has won 9 of past 12 games, including huge upsets over the Patriots and the Ravens in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The offense has led the way for the Titans, as their defense has actually fallen from a 30.93% first down rate allowed in the first 6 games of the season, 4th in the NFL over that stretch, to a 36.90% first down rate allowed over the past 12 games, 3rd worst among playoff qualifiers, primarily due to injury absences by players like linemen Jurrell Casey (2 games) and Jeffery Simmons (7 games), linebacker Jayon Brown (4 games), edge rusher Cameron Wake (9 games), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (9 games) and Adoree Jackson (5 games). On offense, the Titans have gone from a 32.69% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, 26th in the NFL over that stretch, to a 41.44% first down rate in the past 12 games, 2nd among playoff qualifiers over that stretch. 

The turnaround coinciding with quarterback Marcus Mariota being benched for Ryan Tannehill is obvious, but running back Derrick Henry of course deserves a lot of credit as well. Tannehill’s play hasn’t been quite as good in the post-season thus far and it’s reasonable to expect that Tannehill, who led the league with a 117.5 QB rating in his 8th season in the league after previously maxing out with a 93.5 QB rating in 2016, will continue to fall back to earth a little bit going forward, but the way Henry is running right now is making up for it. Henry might not be quite as good going forward due solely to regression to the mean, but defenses are tired at this point in the season and Henry, who is very physical and tough to tackle, is taking advantage of it for the second season in a row. 

The Chiefs have also had a strong second half of the season, in fact not losing once in the 7 games since their week 10 loss in Tennessee. That loss was quarterback Pat Mahomes’ first game back from missing two and a half games with a knee injury and, even if he might not have been 100%, he was far from the reason for their loss, as the Chiefs had a 39.74% first down rate, but a 46.94% first down rate allowed. On the season, the Chiefs have a 43.41% first down rate with Mahomes on the field, including a 63.16% first down rate against the Texans last week that was the highest in the NFL for any team in a game this season. The Chiefs scored 51 despite converting just 2 third downs all game, which is just ridiculous.

Last week’s strong performance, which came after a week off for Mahomes and company, was part of a larger trend for the Chiefs offense, who rank first among playoff qualifiers with a 44.57% first down rate since their week 12 bye. Dealing with a variety of injuries, Mahomes hasn’t been at 100% even when on the field for most of the season, but he’s still become a more efficient quarterback in terms of ball security this season compared to his MVP season last year and he is arguably playing the best football of his career right now, looking very healthy after the Chiefs’ first round bye. He also has all of his weapons healthy around him, which hasn’t been the case for most of the season.

The Chiefs’ defense struggled in the first matchup, but that was an exception to the recent trend for their defense, which has allowed a 33.29% first down rate since week 7, 3rd among playoff qualifiers. That’s a massive shift for a team that allowed a league worst 42.20% first down rate last season and a 29th ranked 40.91% first down rate through the first 6 games of this season. Outside of the Tennessee game, the Chiefs defense has played consistently strong defense for several months. 

The Titans could have a good offense performance again this week in Kansas City though. They have a lot of offensive firepower and I don’t fully trust that the Chiefs defense has suddenly become a consistently strong unit. That’s especially true with the Chiefs defense not at full strength, missing safety Juan Thornhill and possibly defensive tackle Chris Jones. However, as good as those two players are, the Chiefs’ defense still performed well in their first game without them last week, allowing the Texans to move the chains at just a 33.33% first down rate, after finishing the regular season 8th with a 38.35% first down rate, so I wouldn’t expect the Titans to have as much offensive success in this matchup as they did in the first matchup even if Jones doesn’t play.

Speaking of Jones, he’s one of a few key players that are uncertain to play in this game, along with Titans linebacker Jayon Brown and Titans right tackle Jack Conklin. The uncertainty of that trio makes this game tough to pick, with the Chiefs currently favored by 7.5 points at home. Brown missed the first matchup and if he plays, their defense will be healthier than it’s been since their strong start to the season, which would go a long way towards their chances of slowing down Mahomes and company and keeping this game within a touchdown, but if Conklin were to miss this game it would be a huge blow to a Titans offensive line that has very healthy this season. Jones, meanwhile, is arguably the Chiefs’ best defensive player and has been a huge part of the Chiefs’ late season defensive turnaround. I’m tentatively taking the Chiefs, but for a no confidence pick. I’ll likely have an update when inactives are released and may actually end up betting on either side depending on injuries and line movement.

Final Update: Conklin, Brown, and Jones are all active, though Jones could be very limited after barely practicing over the past couple weeks. This line has fallen to 7, perhaps due to Jones’ injury uncertainty, so I still like the Chiefs for a no confidence pick even if Jones might not be 100%.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Tennessee Titans 23

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -7

Confidence: None

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Houston Texans (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

These two teams met back in week 6, with the Texans pulling off the upset in Kansas City by score of 31-24. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Texans will pull the upset again this week though, or even keep this game close. Teams are 32-20 ATS over the past 30 years in the playoffs in a same-site rematch against a team that beat them in the regular season. Of those teams, 10 were favorites in the rematch and they outscored their opponents by 7.5 points as an average of 5-point favorites, covering 6 out of 10 times. 

That alone isn’t enough reason to pick the Chiefs, but the Chiefs are also in a completely different injury situation than they were in the first game. On offense, quarterback Pat Mahomes was playing at far less than 100% through injury and had his worst game of the season according to Pro Football Focus, top wide receiver Tyreek Hill played just half of the snaps in his return from injury, fellow wide receiver Sammy Watkins was out, and the side left of the offensive line, Eric Fisher and Andrew Wylie, was out as well. 

On defense, cornerback Kendall Fuller was playing through a broken thumb, defensive end Frank Clark was playing through a neck injury and, while the Chiefs did have safety Juan Thornhill and defensive ends Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah healthy back then, they did not have late-season addition defensive end Terrell Suggs, nor did they have injured defensive tackles Xavier Williams and Chris Jones, the latter of whom is one of the best players in the league at his position. Jones tweaked a calf injury at practice this week, but is still expected to play and even if he’s at less than 100% he could easily have a huge impact on the rematch.

Of course, having Mahomes healthy is also a pretty big deal. Mahomes was limping through an ankle injury back in week 6 and eventually ended up missing two games with a knee injury that he suffered the following week in Denver, but he returned in week 10 and has led the Chiefs to a 40.00% first down rate in 7 games since, 4th among playoff qualifiers over that stretch, and should be as close to 100% as he’s been all season after the first round bye. 

Mahomes’ injury might have actually ended up being a blessing in disguise for the Chiefs, as the Chiefs started playing much better defensively around the time he got hurt. It’s possible the Chiefs’ defense would have started to click around then even if Mahomes hadn’t gotten hurt and certainly the Chiefs’ improved health on defense is part of the reason for their improvement, but whatever the reason, the improvement has been very noticeable. Since week 7, they rank 3rd among playoff qualifiers in first down rate allowed at 33.28%, after ranking 29th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 40.91% through the first 6 games of the season. This is a much more complete Chiefs team than they were in the post-season last year, when they finished dead last in first down rate allowed at 42.20%.

Meanwhile, the Texans are going in the opposite direction injury wise, as right tackle Tytus Howard is out for the season, JJ Watt is playing at far less than 100% and coming off of an underwhelming performance in the playoff opener, and wide receiver Will Fuller is highly questionable and would be at risk of limited snaps or an in-game setback after missing much of the past couple months, including last week, and not getting in a full practice all this week. Since their week 10 bye, the Texans have a first down rate differential of just -3.50% (excluding the week 17 game in which they rested starters). 

Their struggles are in large part due to key players being injured or playing at less than 100%. Even at full strength though, the Texans weren’t a great team and they are the only playoff qualifier with a negative point differential at -7. They barely beat the Bills, arguably the worst playoff qualifier, in Houston last week. They might not be able to even keep it close this week in Kansas City. This line is high at -9.5, so there’s not enough here to bet on the Chiefs, but they should be the right side. If Jones ends up being out for the Chiefs, I will revisit this pick.

Update: Jones is surprisingly out for this game, unable to get the green light after his pre-game workout. That makes a huge impact on a Chiefs defense that is also missing talented rookie safety Thornhill. Despite that, this line has moved up to 10 in all places. This is a no confidence pick, but this should be a closer game with the Chiefs at less than 100% injury wise.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Houston +10

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (5-10) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)

The Chargers lost at home to the Raiders last week in a game that was embarrassing for multiple reasons. Not only did they lose to a team that entered the game 29th in first down rate differential, with 6 losses by 18 or more, but the crowd appeared to be somewhere around 95% Raiders fans, forcing the Chargers to regularly use silent counts at home. The Chargers’ lack of fans in Los Angeles is nothing new and they’ve struggled at home since moving in 2017 (7-15 ATS), so I’ve typically used 1 point for homefield advantage for the Chargers rather than the typical 2.5 or 3 points, but I’m starting to think the Chargers are actually a better team on the road than at home. 

The Chargers have to deal with opposing crowds regardless of where they play, but that’s to be expected on the road. It has to be demoralizing to deal with that on your own home field. Overall, they are 7-9 straight up at home over the past 2 seasons and 10-5 on the road, the 4th best road winning percentage over that time period. At the very least, all Chargers games should be considered neutral site games going forward and I’ve considered actually taking away a point from their calculated line at home and giving them a point on the road, for psychological reasons.

The Chargers really seemed to not give much effort last week in a meaningless game where the home crowd was supporting the visitor, but I would expect a better effort this week on the road against a tough Kansas City team that is playing for playoff seeding. Given that, we’re getting good line value with the Chargers as 9-point road underdogs this week. The Chiefs have somewhat quietly been a very complete football team since getting Patrick Mahomes back from injury, allowing a 32.67% first down rate in their past 9 games (6th in the NFL over that stretch) and moving the chains at a 42.12% rate in games started and finished by Mahomes, but the Chargers have played much better than their record suggests, even without any homefield advantage.

On the season, they rank 5th in first down rate differential at +4.16% and have a positive point differential at +2, with all but one of their losses coming by a touchdown or less and the only exception being a game in which they lost the turnover battle by 6. Turnovers have killed them overall this season, as they rank last in the NFL with a -16 turnover margin, but turnover margins are highly unpredictable, so the Chargers aren’t necessarily going to lose the turnover battle in this game just because they’ve struggled with turnovers all season. In fact, teams with a turnover margin of -10 or worse over a 5-game stretch, like the Chargers, have an average turnover margin of just -0.1 in their next game and, as a result, cover at a 55% rate. Those are somewhat arbitrary endpoints, but the fact remains that there’s next to no correlation week-to-week between turnover margins. 

The Chargers are also healthier now than they’ve been most of the season, especially with stud safety Derwin James returning a few weeks ago. Even with the Chiefs being relatively healthy themselves and ranking 4th in my roster rankings this week, I still only have the Chargers 5 points behind them and, given that I’m treating all Chargers games as neutral site games, that gives us a calculated line of Kansas City -5.

I was hoping this line would be double digits after the results of last week’s games, but oddsmakers likely know that sharps would be all over the Chargers at +10 or higher, so I don’t expect this line to go there. Even at +9, I like the Chargers a lot. Even with the injury and turnover problems they’ve had, they’ve been competitive in most of their games and I wouldn’t expect this one to be any different, even as well as the Chiefs have played in recent weeks.

Kansas City Chiefs 24 Los Angeles Chargers 19

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +9

Confidence: High

Kansas City Chiefs at Chicago Bears: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) at Chicago Bears (7-7)

The now 7-7 Bears were officially eliminated from playoff contention with their loss to the Packers in Green Bay last week, a big disappointment for a team that went 12-4 a year ago. The Bears’ disappointing season isn’t a huge surprise though. They had the easiest schedule in the NFL last season and lost a pair of key defenders in free agency (safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Bryce Callahan) and their defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to the Broncos, a big blow to a defense that led the NFL in first down rate allowed by more than 2% last season. Their defense has still been strong, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed at 32.64%, but they’ve been more than 2% worse than last year’s dominant unit, while their offense has fallen to 27th in first down rate at 31.86%, struggling mightily against a tougher slate of defenses than last season.

That being said, I think we are getting some line value with the Bears as 6-point home underdogs against the Chiefs. This line suggests the Bears would be 11-point underdogs in Kansas City, but the Bears were just 4-point underdogs in Green Bay last week and held their own, with a chance to tie the game on the final drive. Their offense is a major problem, but their defense is still one of the best in the NFL, especially with stud defensive end Akiem Hicks back healthy. I have this line calculated at Chicago +3, so we’re getting good line value with them at +6. I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Bears because they could be flat after being eliminated from the post-season last week, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Final Update: Hicks was ruled out on Saturday despite getting a full practice in on Friday. This line has moved to a full touchdown to compensate, but I’m dropping this down to a no confidence pick. Hicks didn’t suffer a setback in his return against the Packers last week and would almost definitely be playing if the Bears hadn’t been eliminated, but the Bears are understandably being cautious with him. That could effect the psyche of this whole team in a meaningless game and cause some players to give less than 100%, even in a nationally televised game. That more than the actual football impact of Hicks not being on the field is why I’m dropping this to a no confidence pick.

Kansas City Chiefs 26 Chicago Bears 20

Pick against the spread: Chicago +7

Confidence: None

Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (5-8) at Kansas City Chiefs (9-4)

Last week, the Broncos were 9-point underdogs in Houston against a Texans team that was likely to have a let down performance after a huge win over the Patriots the week before. With a defense that has consistently ranked in the top-8 in first down rate allowed all season and a promising new quarterback under center in Drew Lock, the Broncos seemed like a smart bet last week. Ultimately, they exceeded everyone’s expectations, getting a convincing win on the road against a team in first place in their division.

This week, the Broncos are in a similar situation in Kansas City against a Chiefs team that is likely to have a let down performance after a huge win over the Patriots last week, and yet, despite last week’s strong performance, the Broncos are still 10-point underdogs. The Chiefs are better than the Texans, but not by much, especially with Patrick Mahomes playing at less than 100% through a hand injury. 

Drew Lock is unlikely to be as good as he was last week every week, but he definitely has the most upside of any quarterback who has started for the Broncos this season and, even with poor quarterback play for most of the season, the Broncos still rank 20th on the season in first down rate differential at -1.14%, thanks to a defense that ranks 6th with a 32.97% first down rate allowed. With Lock under center, this team could easily continue playing spoiler going forward.

I don’t think the Broncos are necessarily going to win straight up convincingly again this week or that they’re even going to win at all, but I have this line calculated at Kansas City -7, so we’re getting good line value with the visitor, even before any situational factors are taken into account. While the Chiefs could give less than their best effort after a huge win, the Broncos should be fully focused, with arguably their easiest game of the season on deck, a home game against the Lions, in which they are expected to be 6.5-point home favorites. Double digit underdogs are 65-44 ATS since 2002 before being favorites, including 43-25 ATS before being favorites of 3 or more. The Broncos should be able to keep this game close and, without an obvious other option, they are my Pick of the Week this week.

Kansas City Chiefs 23 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Denver +10

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) at New England Patriots (10-2)

The Patriots lost their second game of the season in Houston last week, but that’s not concerning for a few reasons. For one, close to half their team was dealing with the flu, which put them at a significant disadvantage. Two, the issues with their passing game were more communication related than talent related, suggesting this passing game will get better with time. Three, the Patriots have been prone to these clunker games on the road in recent years. Last year, they lost on the road to five teams that didn’t qualify for the post-season, including three losses by 11 points or more, and they still won the Super Bowl. They haven’t had quite the same thing happen this year, with their only other previous loss coming in Baltimore, where no one has had much success in recent weeks, but they’re definitely more comfortable playing at home.

Their home dominance really dates back two decades to the start of the Tom Brady era, as Brady has a ridiculous 86.3% winning percentage at home and is 47-18 ATS when not favored by 7 points or more. For two decades, the Patriots have been basically an automatic bet at home when they aren’t big favorites. They’ve also basically been an automatic bet off of a loss, going 51-27 ATS off of a loss since Belichick’s first season in 2000, including 43-13 ATS when not favored by 7 points or fewer. History suggests the Patriots are very likely to bounce back at home this week.

We’re also getting good line value with New England. With the Patriots’ loss last week, this line has shifted from New England -4 on the early line last week to New England -3 this week, a significant shift considering 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal. This line more or less suggests these two teams are about even, but I have the Patriots a few points better, as the Chiefs still have significant problems on defense, ranking 27th in first down rate differential at 37.80%. Getting line value with the Patriots in an automatic bet spot makes this an easy choice. Even in a week where I like a lot of different games, the Patriots are my Pick of the Week.

New England Patriots 31 Kansas City Chiefs 23

Pick against the spread: New England -3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (6-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)

The Raiders are 6-5 and are very much in the mix for a playoff spot, but all of the Raiders’ wins have come by 8 points or fewer, while most of their losses have been blowouts, with the exception of a 3-point loss in Houston. As a result, they have a point differential of -56 that ranks 25th in the NFL and a first down rate differential of -5.26% that ranks 27th in the NFL. Last week, they arguably hit their lowest point of the season, getting blown out in New York by the Jets in a 34-3 loss.

That being said, I actually kind of like the Raiders this week because I think they’ll view this as a much bigger game than the Chiefs will. The Chiefs already blew out the Raiders earlier this season and they have a much tougher game on deck in New England, a game in which they will almost definitely be underdogs, so they might not bring their best effort. Favorites of 10 or more are just 65-86 ATS before being underdogs since 2002. Meanwhile, the Raiders are coming off of an embarrassing loss (probably in part because they were looking forward to this matchup) and now have an opportunity to not only gain a game in the standings on the division leader, but also to make a statement to the rest of the league with a signature win.

I wouldn’t go crazy with this bet because of the Raiders’ tendency to get blown out, but 11 points gives us a good cushion and the Chiefs actually have just two wins by more than 5 points at home in the past calendar year (a 10-game span), primarily due to a very underwhelming defense (27th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 38.01%) that is easy to get garbage time yards against. A likely more focused Raiders team should be able to keep this game close, similar to their game against the Texans earlier this season.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Oakland Raiders 27

Pick against the spread: Oakland +11

Confidence: Medium