Kansas City Chiefs 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Chiefs struck gold with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, selecting franchise quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It was a risky move at the time because, not only was Mahomes considered a raw prospect, but the Chiefs had to give up a pair of first round picks to acquire the pick they used on Mahomes and did so at a time in which they were coming off of three playoff appearances in four seasons with veteran quarterback Alex Smith, opting to take their quarterback of the future rather than using those draft picks to build around their existing quarterback to try to win right away.

Mahomes proved to be well worth the wait though, after Alex Smith was traded the following off-season, as Mahomes immediately won MVP in his first season as a starter and took the Chiefs to a 12-4 record and a play away from a Super Bowl appearance, despite a defense that ranked 28th in the NFL in efficiency. In Mahomes’ second season as a starter, the Chiefs’ defense was much improved and Mahomes led them all the way to a Super Bowl victory. 

Mahomes and the Chiefs followed that up with a similar season in 2020, actually improving their regular season record to 14-2 after going 12-4 the year prior, before ultimately losing in the Super Bowl when their offensive line injuries became too much for them. Last season, the Chiefs didn’t make it back to the Super Bowl, but won 12 games again, led the league in offensive efficiency, and only lost the AFC Championship game in overtime again after blowing a late lead. 

The Chiefs had to pay big to keep Mahomes long-term, signing him to a 10-year, 450 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago that shattered records at the time, but that could look like a steal a few years down the line. The extension hasn’t even technically started yet and already Mahomes’ contract is third in average annual value behind Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson and, while Mahomes is unlikely to play the entire 10-year contract without a new extension, that likely won’t come for at least 5-6 seasons and by that point Mahomes’ average annual salary might not even be in the top-10 at his position anymore, given the rising costs of locking up a franchise quarterback long-term.

I often bring up that since the start of the salary cap era in 1994, just 5 of 28 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback with a cap hit that was more than 11% of the salary cap and all of those quarterbacks are Hall of Fame caliber players, as a cautionary to teams paying non-elite quarterbacks elite quarterback money, because it’s very tough to surround a non-elite quarterback with enough talent to win with if that quarterback is taking a significant percentage of the cap. That doesn’t apply to Mahomes though, as he looks on his way to a Hall of Fame career, even only heading into his age 27 season.

In total, Mahomes has arguably had the greatest first four seasons as a starting quarterback ever, not only leading the Chiefs to consistent team success, but also consistently being one of the top individual quarterbacks in the league, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 8.10 YPA, 151 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions in 62 starts over the past four seasons. He’s actually coming off his worst season as a starter, with defenses adjusting to the Chiefs’ offense and taking away their deep passes more effectively, but he still finished with 66.3% completion, 7.35 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. Barring a fluke injury, I see no reason to expect Mahomes to drop off any time soon.

If Mahomes does suffer an unfortunate injury, he would be replaced with backup Chad Henne. Henne is best known for his play closing out a playoff victory over the Browns in 2020 after Mahomes suffered a concussion, but he’s made just one start in the past seven seasons, he has just a 76.2 career QB rating, and now he’s heading into his age 37 season, so it’s safe to say he would be a big liability if he had to play for an extended period of time. Mahomes has only ever missed two starts in his career though, so he hasn’t shown any propensity for getting injured and, assuming that remains the case in 2022, he should remain among the league’s best quarterbacks and an MVP candidate.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Even if Mahomes’ contract is a relatively great value for a player of his caliber, it still does hamper the Chiefs’ ability to keep talented players at other positions long-term and the first casualty of that came this off-season when the Chiefs traded Mahomes’ long-time #1 wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins for a first and second round pick, with Hill going into the final year of his contract and ultimately signing a 4-year, 120 million dollar extension with the Dolphins. 

Hill averaged 2.31 yards per route run since joining the Chiefs as a 5th round pick in 2016 and he’s had a 91/1294/11 slash line per 16 games since Mahomes’ first season as a starter in 2018, while finishing in the top-17 among wide receivers on PFF in all six seasons in the league, so he’ll obviously be missed, but Mahomes is a talented enough quarterback that he can overcome the loss of a key player like that. In fact, in four games without Hill in 2019, Mahomes averaged 8.97 yards per attempt with 8 touchdowns to 0 interceptions, while leading the Chiefs to a 3-1 record in their only extended action without Hill.

It’s a small sample size, but historically we’ve seen elite quarterbacks like Mahomes lose their top receiver and be fine without them, even if it caps the upside of the offense a little bit. Beyond that, the Hill trade made sense for a few other reasons. One was just the amount the draft capital they got back for Hill, picks 29, 50, and 121 in this year’s draft and a 4th and 6th round pick next year. Hill is also going into his age 28 season and, while I don’t expect him to suddenly fall off a cliff abilities wise, his new contract takes him through his age 32 season and wide receivers in their age 32 season are about 70% less likely to surpass 1000 yards receivers than a wide receiver in his age 27 season. Hill also might decline quicker than most receivers, given his reliance on his athleticism and speed.

The Mahomes/Hill connection also was less effective last season than it had been previously, resulting in 7.79 yards per target, after averaging 10.01 yards per target from 2018-2020. That was almost definitely the result of teams playing the Chiefs with two high safeties on more plays than ever in 2021, forcing Hill to become more of an underneath receiver, which led to Mahomes having the worst season of his career, at least in a relative sense. The Chiefs figured to continue seeing that kind of coverage against Hill going forward, neutralizing his blazing speed a little bit, so they decided to trade Hill at the peak of his value ahead of the final year of his contract and revamp Mahomes’ receiving corps without Hill.

The Chiefs did a pretty good job replacing Hill, signing Marquez Valdes-Scantling to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal, signing JuJu Smith-Schuster to a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal, and using a 2nd round pick on wide receiver Skyy Moore. The Chiefs also didn’t bring back Byron Pringle (42/568/5) and DeMarcus Robinson (25/264/3) this off-season, so this is a completely revamped group, with Mecole Hardman (59/693/2) being their only notable returning wide receiver. Hardman will compete for roles with the three newcomers.

Smith-Schuster is the most intriguing of the three new additions and has the most upside of the three in 2022. A 2nd round pick by the STeelers in 2017, Smith-Schuster burst onto the scene with slash lines of 58/917/7 and 111/1426/7 respectively in his first two seasons in the league, while averaging 2.12 yards per route run between the two seasons and finishing 24th and 15th among wide receivers on PFF. However, Smith-Schuster has seen that production drop off dramatically in the three seasons since, averaging just 1.30 yards per route run over that stretch.

One way to look at it was Smith-Schuster was able to play at a high level early in his career because he faced constant single teams opposite the Steelers’ actual #1 wide receiver Antonio Brown, but then Smith-Schuster couldn’t hold up against tougher coverage once Brown left. Another way to look at it is Smith-Schuster’s significant drop off in production coincided with an equally significant drop off in his quarterback play, with Ben Roethlisberger missing most of the 2019 season and then not nearly being the same upon his return in 2020 and 2021. 

Either way, Smith-Schuster is only going into his age 26 season and could easily benefit from a fresh start, but it especially helps matters that he’ll have elite quarterback play again. His recent injury history is a concern (16 games missed in the past 3 seasons) and the Chiefs are going to spread the ball around more in 2022, so Smith-Schuster won’t be a true #1 wide receiver, but he would be my pick to lead this wide receiver group in receiving yardage this season. He figures to be a steal on a cheap one-year contract. Rookie Skyy Moore also has upside, but it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to give them as a rookie, even if he could develop into an above average starter long-term. Moore will have a role in this offense, one that could grow as the season goes on, but I wouldn’t expect a huge rookie year contribution from him. 

Hardman will probably play ahead of Moore, having shown a lot of promise across the first three seasons of his career (1.68 yards per route run) and having finished second among Chiefs wide receivers in receiving yards last season. The Chiefs have been hesitant to give the 2019 2nd round pick every down snaps, but his target total has increased in every season in the league (41, 62, 83) and his skill set most closely resembles Tyreek Hill out of any of the Chiefs’ options and he’s only in his age 24 season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him have a career high in touches and targets with Hill gone.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling was my least favorite of the Chiefs’ off-season additions, just because I thought he was a little overpaid at 10 million annually, but he’s not a bad addition. Valdes-Scantling was never overly productive in Green Bay, despite playing with Aaron Rodgers, but he played a valuable role as a deep threat (17.5 yards per catch in his career) and can play that same role in Kansas City with Mahomes. 

Valdes-Scantling has only caught 49.7% of his career targets and has had problems with drops in the past, but he didn’t drop a single target last season and still averages 8.72 yards per target for his career, because of his big play ability. His career 1.37 yards per route run average is underwhelming considering the offense he played on, but that has jumped to 1.46 over the past two seasons and I would expect him to be around that in 2022 in a similar role with his new team. 

Tight end Travis Kelce will of course remain a fixture of this offense, especially with Hill gone. He probably won’t see an uptick in target share, just because he already had 134 targets (2nd in the NFL among tight ends) last season and because the Chiefs figure to spread the ball out to their wide receivers more. It’s also concerning that Kelce dropped off a little bit last season, especially since he is now heading into his age 33 season. Kelce still averaged 1.84 yards per route run and finished 4th among tight ends on PFF in overall grade last season, but for Kelce those were both his worst since 2015. Even at less than his best, Kelce is still one of the best tight ends in the league, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he dropped off even more in 2022 and his best days are probably behind him at this point.

The Chiefs don’t have a good long-term replacement for Kelce yet, with the closest thing they have being 2021 5th round pick Noah Gray, who struggled mightily on 289 snaps as a rookie, finishing 63rd out of 65 eligible tight ends on PFF. He was a decent blocker, but averaged a microscopic 0.27 yards per route run. He at least has upside though, which is not true of their other backup tight end option Blake Bell, a 7-year veteran with just 58 catches and a 0.85 yards per route run average in 97 career games, who saw 321 snaps for the Chiefs last season. 

Bell has developed into an above average blocker and will likely remain useful in that role in 2022, even in his age 31 season, but he gives them no receiving upside. This receiving corps doesn’t have the high end talent it used to, with Tyreek Hill gone and Travis Kelce on the decline seemingly, but this is also a deeper receiving corps than they’ve had in years and it’s one that Patrick Mahomes should continue to be highly effective with, even if this offense probably doesn’t have the same upside it used to.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

I mentioned the Chiefs’ offensive line was what held their offense back in their Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers during the 2020 season. The Chiefs underwent a complete overhaul of this group last off-season after that loss, with several big investments leading to five new starters upfront in 2021, and the results were impressive, a big part of why the Chiefs’ offense was able to be the most efficient in the league in the regular season in 2021.

In some ways, the Chiefs made a direct choice between improving the offensive line long-term and keeping Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs traded a first round pick in 2021 to get left tackle Orlando Brown from Baltimore and used a second round pick on University of Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey, draft picks they essentially got back in the Tyreek Hill trade. The Chiefs also gave left guard Joe Thuney a 5-year, 80 million dollar deal in free agency (3rd highest paid guard in average annual salary) and will need to pay a big price to keep the currently franchised Orlando Brown long-term, which made it very tough for the Chiefs to give Hill the money he wanted.

It’s probably a better use of resources for the Chiefs, as the three aforementioned linemen were all among the best in the league at their respective positions last season, with Brown finishing 30th among offensive tackles on PFF, Humphrey finishing 1st among centers, and Thuney finishing 8th among guards. They might not be quite as good in 2022, but they should all play at a high level again. Humphrey is relatively unproven, only in his second season, but he has a sky high upside long-term, while Brown and Thuney are both proven over multiple seasons, with Brown finishing in the top-30 among offensive tackles on PFF in 3 straight seasons and Thuney finishing in the top-14 among guards in 5 straight seasons. Thuney is in his age 30 season, which is a mild concern, but he hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off yet and Brown is still very much in his prime in his age 26 season.

The Chiefs also found a steal in the 6th round of last year’s draft, taking Trey Smith, who finished his rookie season as PFF’s 16th ranked guard as a rookie. Smith fell because of concerns about a medical condition, which could still be a concern long-term, but he didn’t show any ill-effects from it as a rookie and he could easily remain an above average starter, with the talent to be a first or second round pick aside from the medical concerns. Right tackle Lucas Niang completes this offensive line, with the 2020 3rd round pick returning to the starting lineup for the second straight season, after sitting out his rookie season during COVID. 

Niang was limited to 9 starts by injury in 2021, but when on the field, he proved to be an asset, earning middling grades from PFF as a starter. Niang still hasn’t played a lot in two seasons in the league, between opting out as a rookie and missing time with injury last season, but he still could remain at least a solid starter going forward and he has the upside to be even more than that. Niang could face competition from veteran Andrew Wylie, who was decent in Niang’s absence last season and generally has been a capable starter in five seasons in the league (42 starts), but Wyle will most likely be the swing tackle, giving them excellent depth at the position, while having the ability to move inside to guard if needed as well. 

The Chiefs also brought back former starting center Austin Reiter as a backup this off-season and, while he struggled in his lone season in Miami last season, finishing 39th among 41 eligible centers on PFF in 5 starts, and would undoubtedly be a big drop off from Humphrey if he had to fill in for him, but he wasn’t a bad starter for the Chiefs in 2019 and 2020, finishing 22nd among centers on PFF in 16 starts and 10th among centers on PFF in 12 starts respectively, so he’s a good reserve option too. With a talented starting five and good depth, this is one of the best offensive lines in the league.

Grade: A

Running Backs

After winning the Super Bowl, the Chiefs used the 32nd overall pick to upgrade their backfield, taking running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but he has been a disappointment thus far in his career, as often happens with first round running backs. Edwards-Helaire has missed time with injury in both seasons, playing 3 games and 7 games respectively in 2020 and 2021 and, even when on the field, he has neither established himself as a true feature back, nor has he been overly efficient. As a rookie, Edwards-Helaire averaged 13.9 carries per game and 4.2 targets per game, but he averaged just 4.44 yards per carry and 5.50 yards per target and, in his second season in the league, he saw even less usage, with 11.9 carries and 2.3 targets per game, while continuing to average just 4.34 yards per carry and 5.61 yards per target.

With Edwards-Helaire missing significant time, primary passing down back Darrel Williams actually led the Chiefs with 144 carries last season, as opposed to 119 for Edwards-Helaire, but 90 of those came in the seven games Edwards-Helaire missed and, though Williams was a decent pass catcher (1.30 yards per route run), he struggled as a runner, averaging just 3.88 YPC. Williams is also no longer with the team, but the Chiefs replaced him with Ronald Jones, who is probably even more of a threat to Edwards-Helaire’s early down role, as Jones has an average of 4.45 YPC on 488 carries in four seasons in the league.

In many ways, Jones is a similar back to Edwards-Helaire, an early down runner who provides minimal in passing situations (1.13 yards per route run for his career). Even if he’s a redundant player though, he was still worth signing on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal, as Edwards-Helaire has not seized the lead back job yet, despite every opportunity to do so, and so the Chiefs need competition for him for carries, as well as insurance in case he misses more time with injury. Jones is also a 2018 2nd round pick who is still only in his age 25 season, so he has plenty of talent and upside. How the carry split will work out remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was close to 50/50.

With both Edwards-Helaire and Jones not offering much on passing downs, the Chiefs’ primary passing down back figures to be Jerick McKinnon, who has been decent in that role in his career, averaging 1.28 yards per route run if you exclude his rookie season. He’s never been much of a runner though (4.05 YPC for his career) and he had his career detailed by a major knee injury, costing him all of 2018 and 2019 and limiting him to totals of just 114 touches and 25 touches over the past two seasons respectively. 

McKinnon is now in his age 30 season and probably won’t see a significantly bigger workload in 2022, but he won’t be needed much as a runner anyway and could give them 30-35 catches as their primary receiving back, with Jones and Edwards-Helaire also mixing in a little in passing situations. This isn’t a great backfield, but it’s a decent one at the very least and their two top lead backs both are young with upside.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

With the Chiefs’ offense ranking 1st in efficiency last season, their weakness was their defense, which regressed after solid seasons in 2019 and 2020 to finish 29th in defensive efficiency in 2021, more comparable to their defense in 2018. The Chiefs’ defense got better as the season went on though, a big part of why they won 9 of their final 10 regular season games after starting just 3-4. There are several reasons why they got better on defense in the second half of the season, including simply that defensive performance tends to be more inconsistent and unpredictive week-to-week than offensive performance, but one big reason was the addition of veteran edge defender Melvin Ingram in a trade with the Steelers.

Not only did Ingram play well in his own right (10.4% pressure rate, PFF’s 2nd ranked edge defender in run defense grade from week 9 on), but his addition allowed them to move Chris Jones back to the interior, which he played at a much higher level. Ingram did not re-sign with the Chiefs this off-season though, ahead of his age 33 season, so the Chiefs were once again in need of edge defender help, which they found in the first round of the draft, using one of their first round picks to select edge defender George Karlaftis. He’s a raw prospect who will likely have growing pains as a rookie, but he has a very high upside and should still be able to make an impact in year one.

The Chiefs are hoping Karlaftis can form a talented edge defender duo with Frank Clark, but that would require Clark to play at a level that he hasn’t played at consistently for the whole season since 2018, which was his final season in Seattle before the Chiefs sent a first and second round pick to for the right to extend him on a 5-year, 104 million dollar deal. Clark hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been worth that kind of money and draft compensation, earning mostly middling grades from PFF and totaling 18.5 sacks, 31 hits, and a 10.2% pressure rate, down from 33 sacks, 28 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in his final three seasons in Seattle.

Clark is also coming off arguably the worst season of his career. He wasn’t bad as a pass rusher, even though his position leading 4.5 sacks are not impressive, as he added 12 hits and a 10.8% pressure rate, but he struggled mightily against the run and finished as PFF’s 106th ranked edge defender out of 129 eligible in overall grade. Originally owed 19.5 million this season, Clark had to take a pay cut down to 9.175 million to stay on the roster. Even though he’s only in his age 29 season, a significant bounce back would be a surprise at this point.

Even with Karlaftis being added, there isn’t much depth at this position though, so both Clark and Karlaftis figure to play big snap counts, with Clark likely to be around the 657 snaps he played last season and Karlaftis possibly being around there as well, despite being raw, for lack of a better option. Michael Danna, a 2020 5th round pick, is their top returning reserve (534 snaps) and he’s a decent run stopper, but he hasn’t shown much at all as a pass rusher in his career (7.2% pressure rate) and is no guarantee to be any better in 2022. The Chiefs also have 2021 4th round pick Joshua Kaindoh, who is expected to take on a bigger role in year two, but he played just 46 snaps as a rookie and is a total unknown in a significant role. This is still an underwhelming position group with depth concerns.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned, the biggest impact that the mid-season addition of edge defender Melvin Ingram had was that it allowed Chris Jones to move to his natural position on the interior, where he finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked interior defender from week 9 on, after struggling by his standards to begin the season on the edge. That was a huge boost for an interior defender group where every other significant contributor finished the season with a below average grade from PFF.

That high level of play is nothing new for Jones either, as he finished in the top-8 among interior defenders on PFF in four straight seasons prior to last season. Also a solid run stopper, Jones excels as a pass rusher, with 49.5 sacks, 71 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate in 90 career games, despite primarily rushing from the interior, where it is much harder to consistently get to the quarterback. Still only in his age 28 season, with just 7 games missed in 6 seasons in the league, there is no reason to expect him to fall off in 2022. Having him on the interior for a full season should be a big benefit to this defense.

With Jones spending almost half the season on the edge, Jarran Reed led this position group with 711 snaps played last season and he’s no longer with the team, but he struggled mightily, finishing 122nd out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF and won’t be missed, especially with Jones expected to stay on the interior all season this year. Derrick Nnadi (449 snaps) and Tershawn Wharton (501 snaps) both return and should see similar roles, with Nnadi re-signing on a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal this off-season. Both Nnadi and Wharton finished below average overall on PFF in 2021, but both are at least decent in one aspect of the game, Nnadi as a run defender and Tershawn Wharton as a pass rusher, and they work pretty well in tandem together, with Wharton usually coming in for Nnadi in sub packages in passing situations.

Wharton has a career 7.4% pressure rate in two seasons since going undrafted in 2020, but has struggled mightily against the run, especially in 2021, when he finished as PFF’s 133rd ranked interior defender out of 146 eligible in overall grade, despite his pass rush ability. Meanwhile, Nnadi has just a 5.2% career pressure rate, but finished in the 66th percentile or higher among interior defenders in run defense grade on PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league, prior to a down season in 2021. Only in his age 26 season, Nnadi was a 2nd round pick back in 2018 and has a good chance to bounce back as an early down run stuffer in 2022, with Wharton rotating in as a decent interior pass rusher in sub packages. 

The only addition the Chiefs made to this group this off-season was Taylor Stallworth, who joins the Chiefs as a free agent on a near minimum deal, after averaging just 249 snaps per season in four seasons in the league, with a career high of 331 in a season. He’s been okay in that role, with his best season coming last season, when he played that career high in snaps and finished in the 57th percentile among interior defenders on PFF in overall grade, especially providing value as a pass rusher, with 3 sacks, 10 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate in a limited role, but he finished 126th among 139 interior defenders on 253 snaps in 2020, so he’s not a proven player, and he figures to face competition from Khalen Saunders for reserve snaps. 

Saunders is a wild card who isn’t a lock for the final roster, but he could theoretically still have upside. He’s been limited to 521 snaps in three seasons in the league, in part by injuries that have limited him to 22 games total over that stretch, but he also hasn’t been terribly effective even when on the field and won’t be guaranteed a role in 2022. With a full season of Jones on the interior and Nnadi likely to bounce back as an above average run stopper, this group should be better than a year ago and Jones is an elite player who elevates an otherwise middling group by himself.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Along with the addition of Melvin Ingram, another reason why this defense got better as the season went on is that their linebacker play improved significantly. At the beginning of the season, 2020 2nd round pick Willie Gay missed the first four games of the season with injury, leaving raw rookie 2nd round pick Nick Bolton and mediocre veterans Ben Niemann and Anthony Hitchens as their top linebackers. In week 5, Gay returned, which coincided with an improvement by the rookie Bolton, and pushed Hitchens and Niemann into smaller roles, especially when Gay took on a bigger role after week 7 (39.3 snaps per game in week 7 on).

Gay wasn’t incredible or anything, but he held up pretty well against the run and in coverage and was a significant upgrade on Niemann and Hitchens, who ultimately finished the season 67th and 76th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF across 558 snaps and 597 snaps respectively. Bolton was actually probably their most impressive linebacker, even if he didn’t play in a lot of coverage situations, ranking as PFF’s 9th ranked overall off ball linebacker and their 5th ranked off ball linebacker in run defense grade in week 5 on (35.5 snaps per game). 

Hitchens and Niemann are no longer with the team, which isn’t really a problem, but it does mean they’ll be counting on the young guo of Gay and Bolton for much bigger roles this season, with depth concerns behind them. Both have a lot of upside and have shown a lot of promise on the field thus far in their careers, with Gay also flashing a lot of potential on 269 snaps as a rookie before last season’s solid performance, so it’s possible they could both break out as above average starters in an every down capacity or close to it, which would obviously make this a position of strength for the Chiefs, but they’re also a projection to a larger role and depth is a concern if either struggles or gets injured.

The Chiefs signed veteran Jermaine Carter in free agency and he will compete with 3rd round rookie Leo Chenal to be the third linebacker in base packages, coming off the field in sub packages for an extra defensive back. Carter struggled as an every down player with the Panthers in 2021, finishing 79th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on 852 snaps, but the 2018 5th round pick was better on snap counts of 261 and 284 in 2019 and 2020 respectively and might not play much more than that with the Chiefs, unless something happens to Gay or Bolton. Chenal, meanwhile, might be too raw to contribute as a rookie, but projects as a solid run stuffer long-term and could be useful as a base package player in year one. This isn’t a bad group, but they’re relying on a largely unproven young group, albeit one with a high upside.

Grade: B

Secondary

Another reason why their defense got better as the season went on is their secondary was healthier than it was to begin the season, with top safety Tyrann Mathieu missing week 1 and top cornerback Charvarius Ward missing weeks 3-6. Both of those players signed elsewhere this off-season though, so the Chiefs needed to replace them, as well as cornerback Mike Hughes, who only played 509 snaps in 17 games last season as a part-time player, but finished as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback across those snaps. 

Mathieu is being replaced in the starting lineup by free agent Justin Reid, who signed a 3-year, 31.5 million dollar deal this off-season. It’s a surprising amount of money for a player who has finished below average on PFF in back-to-back seasons, including a 91st ranked finish out of 98 eligible in 2021, falling off significantly after ranking 27th and 14th in his first two seasons in the league. Reid is only in his age 25 season though, so the Chiefs are betting on the 2019 3rd round pick having significant bounce back potential, now away from the Texans’ terrible defense. He might not be quite as good as he was in his first two seasons in the league, but I would expect him to have a good chance to at least be a solid starter in 2022.

The Chiefs also used a 2nd round pick on safety Bryan Cook, who could take over for Reid if Reid continued struggling in a significant way, but Cook was likely mostly drafted as a long-term replacement for their other starting safety Juan Thornhill, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2022. The Chiefs could also use three safety packages regularly to mask their lack of depth at linebacker, something they did somewhat frequently last season, when 3rd safety Daniel Sorensen played 699 snaps on the season. Sorensen was PFF’s 95th ranked safety out of 98 eligible last season though, so they should be able to use three safety sets more effectively this year, with Reid, Cook, and Thornhill. 

A 2nd round pick in 2019, Thornhill has mostly been a solid starter in his career, finishing 32nd among safeties on PFF in 2019 and 31st in 2021, though he did tear his ACL at the end of 2019, which seemed to limit him into 2020, when he fell to 84th out of 99 eligible safeties. Another year removed from that injury, without any other significant injury history and still in his prime in his age 27 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Thornhill had the best year of his career in 2021, but the Chiefs don’t seem to think they’ll be able to afford to keep him long-term.

To replace their two departed cornerbacks, the Chiefs used their other first round pick on cornerback Trent McDuffie and will also likely give a bigger role to 2019 6th round pick Rashad Fenton, who has shown a lot of promise as a part-time player the past two seasons, finishing 31st and 5th among cornerbacks on PFF the past two seasons respectively. The Chiefs also have 2020 4th round pick L’Jarius Sneed, who was solid on 918 snaps last season in his first season as a starter, after finishing 20th among cornerbacks across 410 snaps as a rookie. He figures to play a similar role as he did last year, playing the slot in sub packages and outside in base packages, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a step forward in year three. 

DeAndre Baker remains as a depth option, after flashing potential on 212 snaps last season. Baker was a first round pick by the Giants back in 2019, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 121st out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on 970 snaps as a rookie, and his career was derailed by off-the-field problems, getting cut by the Giants and barely playing for the Chiefs down the stretch (45 snaps) in 2020. Baker is still only in his age 25 season and, though he hasn’t proven much, he still has upside, so he’s a good reserve option to have. 

The Chiefs also acquired another reclamation projection this off-season, acquiring Lonnie Johnson from the Texans for a conditional 2024 7th round pick. Johnson originally came into the league with a lot of upside as a 2nd round pick with great physical tools, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing dead last among 135 eligible cornerbacks across 531 snaps. The Texans moved him to safety for his second season in the league and, when he earned a middling grade from PFF across 702 snaps it seemed like the Texans had found a position for him long-term. 

However, Johnson ended up struggling so much at safety in 2021, again finishing dead last at his position on PFF, that he was moved back to cornerback down the stretch in a futile attempt to get something out of him, before the Texans traded him for minimal compensation this off-season. Johnson is already in his age 27 season, so he’s running out of time to make good on his upside, so he’s nothing more than a pure flyer and is not guaranteed a role or even a roster spot, regardless of if he ends up at cornerback or safety. The Chiefs have lost some key players in this secondary from a year ago, but they did a good job replacing them and this still looks like a solid group overall.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Chiefs had great special teams play last season, ranking 3rd in special teams DVOA, which was a significant part of why they were successful as a team. That was nothing new for the Chiefs either, as they have finished in the top-10 eight times in nine seasons since Andy Reid’s first season in Kansas City, in large part due to the presence of special teams coordinator Dave Toub and the organization’s overall emphasis on having a good special teams unit. Toub also consistently coached high level special teams units in his 9 seasons with the Bears, prior to joining the Chiefs.

The Chiefs did lose a trio of players who all finished in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF last season, Armani Watts, Ben Niemann, and Dorian O’Daniel, in free agency this off-season, but they added Deon Bush, who was also in the top-50 last season, and they still have Noah Gray and Marcus Kemp, who were top-50 special teamers a year ago, so they still have a good group of core special teamers, even if they aren’t as good as a year ago. On top of that, they’ll bring back the same kicker Harrison Butker, the same punter Tommy Townshead, and, while they lost kick returner Byron Pringle, punt returner Mecole Hardman should be able to pull double duty and could even prove to be an upgrade. I would expect this to be at least a top-10 special teams unit again.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Chiefs’ offense will decline a little without Tyreek Hill and with tight end Travis Kelce getting up there in age, but they ranked 1st in offensive efficiency last season, so even if they decline, they should still remain one of the top offenses in the league. Meanwhile, their defense, which ranked 26th in efficiency last season, should be better this season, in part because defensive performance tends to be much less consistent and predictive long-term than offensive performance and in part because their defense got significantly in the second half of last season, after getting healthier and moving Chris Jones back to the interior. 

They probably won’t be any better than a middling defense, but they won’t need to be great to be a complementary enough unit to the Chiefs’ offense for this team to remain among the best in the league. The division rival Chargers have taken a big leap this off-season and look like one of the best teams in the league, which is a concern for the Chiefs, but even if they have to go back to the post-season as a wild card, they should remain a contender in the AFC. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC West

Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 AFC Championship Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (12-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-5)

These two teams met in Cincinnati a few weeks ago, with the Bengals pulling the home upset as 4-point underdogs in a last second victory, coming back from 11 points down at halftime. This matchup is in Kansas City, but that is not the only reason the odds are against the Bengals repeating what they did last time, as teams are just 6-12 ATS as underdogs in the playoffs against a non-divisional opponent they beat as underdogs in the regular season. 

The spreads oddsmakers set tend to be more accurate than public perception, so if they are making a team underdogs twice, it’s usually for a good reason and, in fact, odds makers seem to usually set the line too low for the rematch, likely intentionally, in hopes of trapping some bettors on the underdog. That seems to be the case here, as the Chiefs are a completely different level than the Bengals, even when you take into account that the Bengals beat the Chiefs previously. 

The Bengals entered the post-season with one of the weakest strengths of schedule of any team in the league and, as a result, finished the regular season just 18th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is based on predictive metrics, yards per play and first down rate, and takes strength of schedule into account. The Bengals have won twice so far in the post-season, but beating the Titans and Raiders isn’t particularly impressive, especially when you consider that they were one-score games in which the Bengals lost the yards per play and first down rate battle and almost definitely would have lost the game if not for winning the turnover battle in both games by a combined +4, which is not a predictable metric that they can continue to depend on. 

The Chiefs, meanwhile, are where they are, with a 14-5 record and hosting the AFC Championship, despite one of the toughest schedules in the league and despite just a +3 turnover margin (including playoffs). In fact, winning turnover margin by a significant margin has been about the only way to beat the Chiefs this year, as the Chiefs started 3-4 in large part due to a -10 turnover margin, but have won 11 of 12 since then (6-1 against playoff qualifiers) and have flipped their turnover margin to +13 over that stretch. 

The Chiefs’ defense also has been a lot better since the start of the season, due to improved health, with key players like safety Tyrann Mathieu, cornerback Charvarius Ward, edge defender Frank Clark, and interior defender Chris Jones all missing time early in the season and returning, as well as the addition of edge defender Melvin Ingram in a mid-season trade. The Chiefs’ defense had some injury problems last week against the Bills, missing Mathieu and talented cornerback Rashad Fenton, but both are expected back this week.

The Chiefs defense still only ranks 28th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but they have been at least passable since their horrendous start and, despite their low ranked defense on the season, the Chiefs still rank 2nd in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, led by a top ranked offense and a 2nd ranked special teams. If their defense can be even a complementary unit, which it can when it’s healthy, the Chiefs are the best team in the league, which they are right now, about 10.5 points above average in my roster rankings, while the Bengals are just 2 points above average.

This line may seem high at seven, especially for a conference championship game, but conference championships tend to be blowouts actually at a higher rate than regular season games, with the average margin of victory being 12.48 points, as opposed to 11.62 points in the regular season. On top of that, favorites of 6 or more are 11-4 ATS in a conference championship game, with all fifteen winning straight up by an average of 15.4 points per game. Usually when the oddsmakers think a conference championship is uneven, they are actually understating it, which is what I think is the case here. I am very confident the Chiefs can cover the seven points and win by multiple scores.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: Kansas CIty -7

Confidence: High

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Buffalo Bills (12-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)

These two teams met in Kansas City back in week 5, with the Bills pulling the upset on the road by a final score of 38-20, but that’s hardly a guarantee they will do so again. In fact, teams are just 46-59 ATS in the playoffs in a rematch of a regular season game against a non-divisional opponent, including just 1-6 ATS as road underdogs after winning as road underdogs in the first matchup. This is also a different Chiefs team than the first matchup, as the early season Chiefs were in the middle of a 3-4 start, but have since won 10 of 11 games, including a 5-1 record against playoff qualifiers.

The Chiefs’ turnaround has been driven by two things, a drastically improved turnover margin and a drastically improved defense. Through their first seven games of the season, the Chiefs had a turnover margin of -10, but turnover margin is not a very predictive metric so I would predict that any team that had that bad of a turnover margin stretch would soon seen improvement in that metric, especially a team like the Chiefs who have an elite quarterback, which is the only way to consistently win the turnover margin. Unsurprisingly, the Chiefs have a +14 turnover margin in the final ten games of the regular season, giving them a turnover margin of +4 on the season, after a +23 turnover margin across the first three seasons of Patrick Mahomes career as a starter.

Schedule adjusted efficiency is a metric based on yards per play and first down rate, which intentionally minimizes the impact of turnover margin, and, as a result, is more predictive than point differential. The Chiefs rank 3rd in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency on the season, led by a 1st ranked offense and a 3rd ranked special teams, and they are probably even better than that suggests, as they are still dragged down by a defense that ranks 28th, getting off to a horrible start before improving drastically in recent weeks.

The biggest reason for the Chiefs’ defensive turnaround is they have gotten much healthier since the beginning of the season, when key players like safety Tyrann Mathieu, edge defender Frank Clark, cornerback Charvarius Ward, and interior defender Chris Jones all missed time with injury, with the latter two missing the first matchup with the Bills. Even without Jones and Ward, that first matchup was closer than it seemed, as the game largely swung on the turnover margin, with the Bills winning by four and getting a return touchdown to make the margin of victory bigger than it would have been.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, despite all that I mentioned, this will still be a very tough matchup for the Chiefs, as the Bills led the NFL in point differential at +195, going 11-6 despite a 0-5 record in one score games, and then they destroyed the Patriots by 30 last week, en route to ranking first in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency by a wide margin, giving them about a 4.5-point edge over the Chiefs. 

The Bills aren’t fully healthy right now without top cornerback Tre’Davious White, and, if healthy, the Chiefs are the better team, but that may not be the case, as their best cornerback Rashad Fenton is questionable after not practicing all week, which would be a huge absence. If he plays, the Chiefs could be worth betting in this game, as overreaction to the Bills win last week and the public putting too much stock into the first matchup between these two teams has dropped this line to just 1.5, but they’re not bettable without Fenton and he seems more likely to be out than to play. This is a low confidence pick for now, but that could change.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Buffalo Bills 31

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -1.5

Confidence: Low

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)

In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, a predictive metric based on yards per play, first down rate, and strength of schedule, the Steelers are by far the worst team in the league to qualify for the post-season, finishing 30th, 16th, 17th, and 29th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency respectively. Given that, it’s unsurprising that they needed an 8-2-1 record in one score games to qualify for the final post-season spot in the AFC. 

They go to Kansas CIty as 12.5 point underdogs, which might seem like a lot, but it’s probably not high enough, as the Chiefs are arguably the best team in the league, with an offense that ranks 1st in schedule adjusted efficiency, a special teams that ranks 3rd, a defense that has much better than their 28th ranked schedule adjusted efficiency since getting healthy after a terrible start to a season, and a mixed efficiency that ranks 5th even with their underwhelming defensive rank. Given how far below average the Steelers were this season, my calculated line actually has the Chiefs favored by 17 points.

Big favorites tend to cover in the first round of the post-season anyway, as there tends to be a good reason why they are favored by that many points, with double digit favorites going 9-2 ATS over the past 30 seasons. Simply put, teams like the Steelers that many feel are not playoff caliber, usually tend not to be and get exposed very quickly. On top of that, there also tends to be more blowouts in general in the post-season, especially in the first round. 

While the percentage of games decided by 7 points or more in the first round of the playoffs (61.68%) is steady with the regular season percentage (62.34%), the percentage of games decided by 10 points or more jumps significantly in the first round of the post-season (52.34% vs. 48.52%) and the same is true of games decided by 14 points or more (39.25% vs. 35.33%). That is surprising when you consider that these are all games between playoff qualifiers, who should be more evenly matched than the league as a whole. 

This is likely because teams get desperate and start going for it on long 4th downs earlier in the game in the post-season in an attempt to save their season, leading to more games getting out of hand. Also better team tends to play their best football at the right time. That’s what I expect to happen here, so even at 12.5 I am confident in the Chiefs covering this spread. I wouldn’t make this a big play, but this one seems like an obvious blowout that, based on history, should not be overthought.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -12.5

Confidence: Medium

Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Denver Broncos (7-9)

The Broncos had the talent to be a playoff team this season, but they had more than an average amount of player absences, which kept them from reaching their potential. It started early in the season on defense, with their talented middle linebacker duo of AJ Johnson and Josey Jewell both suffering season-ending injuries that limited them to 6 games and 2 games respectively. Talented edge defender Bradley Chubb never suffered a season-ending injury, but he’s played just 6 games due to a variety of injuries, plus time missed with COVID. On top of that, starting cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Ronald Darby were limited to 10 games each. 

With a banged-up defense and the team looking unlikely to make a playoff push, the Broncos traded away Von Miller and his expiring contract at the trade deadline for draft picks, a smart move in the long-term, but another big loss for this defense. However, this team was still in the playoff mix at 7-6 before losing possibly their most important player, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, an unspectacular, but steady quarterback who was replaced by erratic backup Drew Lock, who has overseen the Broncos’ fall out of the playoff race at 7-9. 

Their offense was relatively healthy compared to the defense, aside from season ending injuries suffered by wide receiver KJ Hamler and right guard Graham Glasgow after three games and nine games respectively, as well as seven games missed by starting wide receiver Jerry Jeudy and three games each missed by starting offensive tackles Garret Bolles and Bobby Massie, but they couldn’t handle the loss of Bridgewater, which sunk the Broncos’ offense, leaving a depleted defense unable to pick up their slack.

Bridgewater remains out for what is now a meaningless week 18 game for the Broncos, aside from the opportunity to hurt the Chiefs’ playoff seeding, and the Broncos will be even more short-handed than they have been, with a trio of starters in the secondary, safety Kareem Jackson and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Patrick Surtain, expected out in this game. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are relatively healthy as a team and are overall one of the best teams in the league, with an offense that ranks 1st in schedule adjusted efficiency, a special teams that ranks 2nd, and a defense that has been much better since a terrible start to the season when they were missing key personnel and that is much more talented on paper than their 28th ranked defensive efficiency. 

Even with their underwhelming defensive efficiency, the Chiefs still rank 2nd in overall mixed efficiency, while the Broncos rank 22nd and are even worse than that now given all they are missing. Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of line value in the past week, with this line creeping up to Kansas City -11.5, despite the Chiefs’ last-second loss to the Bengals. My calculated line still favors the Chiefs by 14, but there isn’t enough here for the Chiefs to be bettable at this high number. One thing to keep an eye on is that both the Broncos’ kicker and punter are in COVID protocols and the Broncos have yet to sign a replacement for either. They do expect both players to clear before gametime, but if one doesn’t, it would leave the Broncos in a tough situation, one that might make the Chiefs’ bettable if this line doesn’t skyrocket. 

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -11.5

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)

The Bengals are in the driver’s seat in the AFC North right now, only needing to win one of their next two games to clinch the division, but they’re going to find it very difficult to get that win this week, with the Kansas City Chiefs coming to town. The Bengals point differential of 9th is +86 best in the NFL, but they have also faced the easiest schedule in the league in terms of opponents’ efficiency, which doesn’t even take into account that they played a skeleton crew Ravens team last week. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Bengals rank just 17th, 16th, and 7th respectively, while ranking 13th in overall mixed schedule adjusted efficiency. That schedule will be getting a lot tougher this week, as the Chiefs are arguably the best team in the league. 

The Chiefs got off to a slow start this season, sitting at 3-4 through the first seven games of the season, but their biggest problems were the turnover margin (-10 through the first 7 games of the season) and their horrendous defensive play. Since then, their defense has since gotten healthy (cornerback Charvarius Ward, safety Tyrann Mathieu, defensive end Frank Clark, and defensive tackle Chris Jones all missed time early in the season) and added edge defender Melvin Ingram in a key mid-season acquisition, which has led to a huge defensive improvement, while their turnover margin has predictably swung as well, as they have been at +13 in the eight games since their slow start.

Between the turnover margin and their much improved defensive efficiency, the Chiefs have won all eight games by an average of 17.0 points per game since their 3-4 start, leading to them now being all alone in the #1 seed in the AFC at 11-4, despite the fact that their offense has not been as healthy in recent weeks as it is now, with starting right tackle Lucas Niang, top wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and stud tight end Travis Kelce all back in the lineup. 

This line, favoring the Chiefs by five points on the road, might seem high, given that the Bengals are a division leader, but my calculated line is actually at 6, so I think this line is not high enough, as this is just such a step up in competition from most of the Bengals’ schedule. The Chiefs rank 2nd in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency, 2nd on special teams, and their defense (25th on the season) has been a complementary unit in recent weeks. There isn’t enough here to bet on the Chiefs, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes, in a rare battle of two relatively healthy teams this week.

Kansas City Chiefs 27 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -5

Confidence: Low

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-4)

I am not locking in a lot of bets this week until gameday morning because of COVID uncertainty, but this is one I want to lock in right now. The Chiefs are currently missing two of their most important players, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, as well as starting right tackle Lucas Niang, but it’s possible all three could be cleared before gametime and, even if some or all aren’t, I still think we are getting line value with the Chiefs at their current number, favored by 8.5 points over the Steelers. Even missing those three players, my calculated line favors the Chiefs by 12.5.

The Chiefs got off to a slow start this season, sitting at 3-4 through the first seven games of the season, but their biggest problems were the turnover margin (-10 through the first 7 games of the season) and their horrendous defensive play. However, their defense has since gotten healthy (cornerback Charvarius Ward, safety Tyrann Mathieu, defensive end Frank Clark, and defensive tackle Chris Jones all missed time early in the season) and added edge defender Melvin Ingram in a key mid-season acquisition, which has led to a huge defensive improvement, while their turnover margin has predictably swung as well, as they have been at +10 in the seven games since their slow start.

Between the turnover margin and their much improved defensive efficiency, the Chiefs have won all seven games by an average of 14.85 points per game since their 3-4 start, leading to them now being all alone in the #1 seed in the AFC at 10-4. Obviously the Chiefs’ offensive injuries hurt, but I have enough confidence in Patrick Mahomes even without his top weapons to still lead a strong offensive performance, while their defense should continue being a complementary unit. 

It also helps the Chiefs that they are playing a Steelers team that is nowhere near as good as their 7-6-1 record. While their six wins have come by just a combined 26 points, with none by more than one score, four of their six losses have come by multiple scores, with the only exceptions being games in which they still lost the first down rate and yards per play battles by 12.24% and 3.1 respectively against the Chargers and 2.22% and 1.4 respectively against the Vikings, which is more predictive than the final score. On the season, the Steelers rank just 28th, 20th, 20th, and 26th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, which are based on yards per play and first down rate differential. 

The Chiefs, meanwhile, rank 3rd in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, despite their injury plagued start to the season on defense. Even without Kelce and Hill, the Chiefs have a good chance to pick up their 7th multiscore win of the season and to hand the Steelers their 5th multiscore loss, and the possibility that one or both might still play makes this an even more intriguing bet. I am going to lock this in as my Pick of the Week now, given the uncertainty on the rest of this week’s schedule.

Kansas City Chiefs 30 Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -8.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (9-4) at Los Angeles Chargers (8-5)

These two teams met in Kansas City back in week 3, with the Chargers winning by a final score of 30-24. However, the Chiefs won the first down rate battle by 7.92% and only lost the game because they lost the turnover battle by 4, which is not a predictive metric. The Chiefs were also missing their top cornerback Charvarius Ward and their top edge defender Frank Clark, which hurt their defense significantly. That game was a microcosm of the Chiefs’ early season, as turnovers and injuries were a theme for the Chiefs across the first several weeks of the season. 

In addition to Ward and Clark missing time, top interior defender Chris Jones and top safety Tyrann Mathieu also missed time with injury early in the year, while their turnover margin through seven games sat at -10, en route to a 3-4 start. However, their defense has since gotten healthy and added edge defender Melvin Ingram in a key mid-season acquisition, which has led to what was one of the worst defenses in the league in the beginning of the season now becoming one of the better defenses in the league in recent weeks.

That has propelled the Chiefs to a 6-game winning streak, a stretch during which their turnover margin has been +10, evening out their margin on the season. The Chiefs’ offense has actually struggled relative to their typical performance over their winning streak, coinciding with offensive line injuries, but they got right tackle Lucas Niang back last week, meaning they had their preferred starting five healthy on the offensive line for the first time in weeks, and it showed in a 48-9 rout of the Raiders. If their offense bounces back to their typical form with a healthy offensive line and their defense continues to be a complementary unit, the Chiefs are going to be very tough for anyone to beat and could easily be considered the top team in the league and the Super Bowl favorite, despite their slow start.

The Chiefs will be without interior defender Chris Jones this week due to COVID protocols, but the Chargers will be missing left tackle Rashawn Slater for the same reason and the talented rookie is playing so well that his absence almost cancels out the absence of the Chiefs’ dominant interior defender. This game is in Los Angeles, after the last matchup was in Kansas City, but it barely matters, given the Chargers lack of homefield advantage in Los Angeles, where they are 14-21 ATS at home since moving in 2017, as opposed to 22-14 ATS on the road. The Chiefs, in particular, have seen very friendly crowds in Los Angeles in their visits, which has helped them win all three of their matchups against the Chargers in Los Angeles, by an average of nine points per game.

The Chargers are a solid team, but, with the absences of Jones and Slater taken into account, the Chiefs are still significantly better than them and should be favored by significantly more than just a field goal on the road in a place where they will be greeted by a friendly crowd and where they have had no problem winning in the past. My calculated line has the Chiefs favored by 6.5 points, having a 7.5-point edge in my roster rankings, while the Chargers get just one point for homefield advantage. The Chiefs are worth at least a small bet at -3 and, depending on the status of questionable Charger defensive backs Derwin James and Asante Samuel, I might increase this play. I also want to make sure neither team will have any further COVID absences before possibly making this a higher confidence pick.

Update: I want to increase this bet. Derwin James is playing, which would have been the bigger absence, but Asante Samuel is out and, the bigger deal, is that the Chiefs have had no further key players test positive for COVID, which will be a concern up until gametime in every game this week. With both teams missing one key player each with COVID, the Chiefs have a significant edge over a team they could have easily beaten earlier this year if not for some fluky turnovers and that was despite the Chargers being the significantly healthier team in that matchup, which is not the case this time around.

Kansas City Chiefs 30 Los Angeles Chargers 23

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -3

Confidence: High

Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (6-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)

The Raiders are 6-6, but their margin of victory in their six wins is just 7.0 points per game, as opposed to a margin of defeat of 13.3 points per game in their six losses, leading to the Raiders having a point differential that is worse than their record at -38. That normally suggests that the Raiders are not as good as their record, but the Raiders have also significantly underperformed on third and fourth downs on both sides of the ball, which tends to even out in the long run. 

The Raiders rank 16th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 9th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but just 30th in third down conversion percentage, 24th in fourth down conversion percentage, 20th in third down conversion percentage allowed, and 26th in fourth down conversion percentage allowed. Those metrics figure to improve going forward, allowing the Raiders to be more competitive in their games than their point differential would suggest. Most casual bettors can see their point differential easily, but the fact that they are likely to improve on key downs going forward is not as easily seen and, as a result, the Raiders have become slightly underrated.

Unfortunately for the Raiders, they have a very tough matchup this week, going into Kansas City to face the Chiefs. Some wrote the Chiefs off after their 3-4 start, but their defense was always likely to improve significantly when they got healthier, while their turnover issues were highly likely to stop. That’s exactly what has happened as their defense has not just gotten healthy, but also has added key edge defender Melvin Ingram from the Steelers, and, as a result, has gone from being one of the worst defenses in the league to start the season to one of the best in the best few weeks, while their turnover margin, -11 through their first eight games, has jumped to +6 over their past four games. 

That has led to the Chiefs winning five straight games to put themselves very much in the mix for the top seed in the AFC at 8-4 and it’s possible we haven’t seen their best play as a team yet, as their offense has not been as good in recent weeks, with the defense largely carrying the team. If their offense can return to form, that will make this team even more dangerous and, with the return of right tackle Lucas Niang giving them a healthy offensive line for the first time in several weeks, it’s very possible we could see their offense take a step forward this week. As crazy as it sounds, despite their record and winning streak, the Chiefs still seem a little underrated, as they easily could be considered the Super Bowl favorite at this point, given their track record.

The Chiefs do have another game in a few days, as they’ll play the Chargers in a key divisional game on Thursday Night Football next week, and favorites cover at just a 41.7% rate before Thursday Night Football, but the Chiefs are also in their third straight home game, a 55.2% cover spot all-time, which cancels the other trend out somewhat. My calculated line is exactly where this line is, favoring the Chiefs by 9.5 points, so we’re also not getting any line value with either side. As a result of that and the lack of a situational trend edge, it’s very hard to be confident in either side in this game, but I am taking the Chiefs for pick ‘em purposes purely because I’d rather not go against them right now, even if the Raiders are also an underrated team. If this line was 10, I would probably be on the Raiders though; that’s how close this one is for me. 

Kansas City Chiefs 27 Las Vegas Raiders 17

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -9.5

Confidence: None

Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 Week 13 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (6-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)

Many people wrote the Chiefs off when they got off to a 3-4 start, but there were always reasons to expect they would turn around. For one, the Chiefs started the season with the arguably toughest schedule in the league. They also struggled mightily in the turnover margin, starting the season with a -11 turnover margin through their first eight games. Turnover margins are highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis and common sense suggested that the Chiefs, with one of the top quarterbacks in the league, would not continue to rank among the league worst in turnover margin, especially since so many of their interceptions came off tipped passes. 

On top of that, the Chiefs’ offense was still moving the ball as well as they ever had, with their defense dragging down the team’s performance significantly, as they were arguably the worst in the league to begin the season. Defense is the less predictive side of the ball, however, and the Chiefs had significant injury issues on that side of the ball early in the season, with safety Tyrann Mathieu, edge defender Frank Clark, interior defender Chris Jones, and cornerback Charvarius Ward all missing time. 

Their defense is now healthy, with all four of those players in the lineup, as well as a key mid-season addition in Melvin Ingram. The Chiefs’ turnover margin has also stabilized (+4 their past three games) and now they get to an easier part of their schedule as well. The Chiefs are on a 4-game winning streak and, looking at their remainder of their schedule, it’s possible they don’t lose a game the rest of the way if they stay healthy and play turnover neutral football. 

Even if they do lose another game, I don’t expect it to be this one, at home, coming out of a bye week, against a mediocre Broncos team. Denver is 6-5, but three of their wins were against terrible teams early in the season, when the Broncos were a lot healthier. In total, they are missing edge defender Von Miller, middle linebackers Josey Jewell and AJ Johnson, right guard Graham Glasgow, running back Melvin Gordon, and slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, who all began the season as key contributors for this team. Even including their solid start, the Broncos rank just 21st, 4th, 29th, and 20th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency on the season.

The Chiefs, on the other hand, rank 1st on offense and 2nd on special teams, with their 31st ranked defense being much improved in recent weeks, but having their rank dragged down by how terrible they were to begin the season. If their defense can even be an average unit the rest of the way, the Chiefs are among the toughest teams in the league and should still be considered the favorites to come out of the AFC. My calculated line has the Chiefs as 12.5-point favorites, so we’re getting value with the Chiefs at -9.5. It also helps that Andy Reid has been one of the best coaches in NFL history when given extra time, going 34-21 ATS in week one games and games following bye weeks in his career. This is my top pick this week.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Denver Broncos 20

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -9.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week