Kansas City Chiefs 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

During the 2017 NFL Draft, the Chiefs made a bold decision that would redefine their franchise for years to come. With a team stuck in good, but not good enough mode, posting five straight winning seasons and making the post-season in four of those seasons, but only managing just one playoff win, the Chiefs decided the best way to upgrade their team was not to use their first round pick on a needed starter on defense, but to package that pick together with a future first round pick to move up to 10th overall to select promising, but raw quarterback Patrick Mahomes to give them a higher upside option under center long-term, with incumbent veteran Alex Smith personifying the good, but not good enough nature of this team.

It could have easily backfired given how much they were giving up to replace a serviceable starter with an unproven commodity and Mahomes didn’t see any meaningful action at all as a rookie, but Smith was traded after the 2017 season and Mahomes instantly became one of the best and most successful quarterbacks in the league. In his first season as a starter, he became just the 2nd quarterback in NFL history to have 5,000 passing yards and 50 passing touchdowns in the same season, winning the MVP for his efforts. 

His Chiefs came up just short in the 2018 AFC Championship, but it was still a remarkable finish for this team to win 12 games and make a conference championship with a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in first down rate allowed, a testament to the effectiveness of Mahomes and the Chiefs’ league best offense. In 2019, the Chiefs fell to 3rd in first down rate, but that was only because Mahomes missed two and a half games with a knee injury and upon his return he played probably the best stretch of football of his career, leading this team all the way to a Super Bowl victory this time, now supported by a defense pulling its weight by ranking 20th in first down rate allowed.

The 2020 season started as more of the same of 2019, but that changed as the season went on. However, that wasn’t really noticeable because the Chiefs kept winning, just by a lot less, with their final 7 regular season wins coming by 6 points or fewer. The Chiefs finished at 14-2 and with the #1 overall seed in the AFC, despite losing a meaningless week 17 game when their starters didn’t play, but they finished the season just 5th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential and their record was largely the result of a 8-1 record in one score games.

It may seem like an elite quarterback like Mahomes could consistently win a high percentage of one score games, but most elite quarterbacks are unable to do so for an extended period of time, including Mahomes himself, who was just 9-8 in one score games in the first two seasons of his career, so it was concerning to see the Chiefs’ margin of victory (which was 14.4 points per game in Mahomes’ starts prior to the second half of 2020) drop off so drastically. It was especially concerning because there was an obvious culprit, with stud right tackle Mitchell Schwartz going down for the season with injury week 6.

The Chiefs’ offensive line problems became even worse when Schwartz’s counterpart, talented left tackle Eric Fisher, tore his achilles in the AFC Championship. With guard Kelechi Osemele also out for the season, the Chiefs headed into the Super Bowl without their top-3 offensive linemen and it was glaringly obvious, with Mahomes on the run for most of a blowout 31-9 loss, being pressured on a ridiculous 55.4% of his dropbacks, while nursing a toe injury of his own that eventually required off-season surgery.

Simply put, Mahomes is a generational quarterback, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 8.39 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions in his first 3 seasons as a starter. However, even generational quarterbacks need the right pieces around them to win Super Bowls, as evidenced by poor defense doing the Chiefs in during 2018 and a poor offensive line doing them in last season. Mahomes should compete for multiple MVPs over the next decade and the Chiefs should be perennial Super Bowl contenders, but quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers have shown that doesn’t always result in many actual Super Bowl victories. 

The Chiefs’ ability to surround Mahomes with talent is also about to become a lot more complicated over the next decade, with Mahomes’ record breaking 10-year, 450 million dollar extension set to kick in after this season, representing a significant increase on his cost controlled rookie deal. With salary caps set to rise over the next decade and quarterback salaries always increasing, Mahomes’ deal will probably look like a relative steal in a few years, but there’s no denying that any way the Chiefs structure and restructure it, Mahomes is going to count for a significant portion of their cap for the next decade, some years more than others. 

In the salary cap era, just 7 of 27 Super Bowl winning quarterbacks accounted for more than 10% of their team’s cap and none have accounted for more than 14%. All of those Super Bowl winning quarterbacks are current or likely future Hall of Famers, with Eli Manning standing out as a possible exception in a group that includes Steve Young, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady, so, in that sense, the Chiefs paying that kind of money to Mahomes is a lot more justifiable than teams giving slightly less money to significantly lesser quarterbacks, but it goes to show how difficult it is to build a Super Bowl caliber roster when your quarterback takes up such a large percentage of the cap. The Chiefs should remain contenders in 2021, but I wouldn’t consider them favorites necessarily and certainly not clear favorites, despite their incredible starting quarterback.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Chiefs’ offensive line was obviously in bad shape after the Super Bowl and things looked to be getting worse when the Chiefs cut both Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, their injured long-term starting offensive tackles, but that proved to be part of a larger plan. The Chiefs saved 18.255 million in cap space by moving on from a pair of players over 30 and coming off of serious injuries and they then used most of their newly found cap space to sign top free agent guard Joe Thuney, who is going into his age 28 season and hasn’t missed a start in 5 seasons in the league. 

A 3rd round pick by the Patriots in 2016, Thuney has developed into one of the best guards in the league. After a solid rookie year, Thuney took a big step forward in his second season in the league and has finished in the top-14 among guards on PFF in all 4 seasons since, with his best season coming in a 5th ranked finish in 2019. As reliable as they come and still in the prime of his career, there is no reason to expect anything different from Thuney in 2021.

The Chiefs also re-signed Mike Remmers, an unspectacular, but serviceable starter who mostly held up as an injury replacement in 10 starts (9 at right tackle) last season, bringing him back on a 1-year, 3.3 million dollar deal. They also signed free agent center Austin Blythe and recently unretired Kyle Long to one-year deals worth 1 million and 1.5 million respectively. With Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who made 57 starts at right guard for the Chiefs from 2015-2019, also set to return after opting out of the 2020 season, the Chiefs seemed set at every position except for left tackle ahead of the draft. 

However, instead of drafting a left tackle as most expected, they swung a surprisingly pre-draft trade for Orlando Brown of the Ravens, in a swap of picks that saw the Chiefs send their first round pick to Baltimore. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Brown is still on his rookie deal, so it wasn’t hard for the Chiefs to fit his 3.384 million dollar salary under the cap, but he’s heading into the final year of his rookie deal and wants top left tackle money, which is why Baltimore decided to move on and get a significant draft pick haul while they could.

It makes for a complicated situation in the long-term because the Chiefs won’t want to let Brown leave for nothing after giving up a first round pick for him, but he’s yet to prove himself as a top left tackle, never finishing higher than 26th on PFF in a single season and playing better on the right side, where he made the first 32 starts of his career, than the left side, where he made the final 10 starts of last season in the absence of the injured Ronnie Stanley. Still, in the short-term, he’s an obvious upgrade for a team previously lacking a reliable left tackle and, only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he’s still capable of a higher level that he hasn’t shown yet.

After trading their first round pick for Brown, the Chiefs also added Creed Humphrey in the 2nd round for good measure, so an offensive line that once was a huge concern now looks like a strong group. Humphrey could potentially play guard as well, but he’s most likely to see action for the Chiefs at center, where he’ll compete with veteran free agent acquisition Austin Blythe, who can also play some guard. 

Guard is actually where Blythe had the best season of his career, finishing 10th among guards on PFF in 2018 in 16 starts, but he struggled mightily at the position to begin the 2019 season and was subsequently moved to center, where he fared better. He then continued that into 2020, when he finished 13th among centers on PFF. The 2016 7th round pick is a capable starting center, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pushed for his job by the rookie Humphrey.

Left tackle Orlando Brown and left guard Joe Thuney are the only ones locked into a role on this offensive line. Humphrey and Blythe are competing at center and could play guard if needed, but most likely they won’t be needed to. Not only is Thuney locked in on one side, but Long, Duvernay-Tardif, and Remmers are likely to compete for the right guard and right tackle spots, leaving Humphrey and Blythe as primarily options at center. 

Duvernay-Tardif is the only one of that aforementioned trio who likely isn’t an option to start at right tackle, with all of his career starts coming at right guard, but he might also be the most likely to secure a starting role, having made 57 starts for the Chiefs in the 5 seasons prior to opting out of last season. His best days are likely behind him though, as he struggled in 2019, earning the first below average grade from PFF of his career, after an injury plagued 2018 season in which he was limited to just 331 snaps. Now after a year off, Duvernay-Tardif is going into his age 30 season and is a shakier starting option than he was just a few years ago.

Long is also a shaky starting option, as he basically opted out of the 2020 season, retiring for a year after an injury plagued previous 4 seasons from 2016-2019, a stretch in which he made just 29 starts. Long had earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of his first six seasons in the league after being drafted in the 1st round by the Bears in 2015, but by the end of his injury plagued stretch, Long was a shell of his former self, finishing the 2019 season as PFF’s worst ranked guard on 250 snaps, leading to his temporary retirement. 

Long could be better this season, but only by default, as his best days are clearly behind him, now in his age 33 season. He’s not a bad option to have because he can play both right guard and right tackle and he didn’t cost the Chiefs all that much, but he would be tough to rely on as a starter. He’s also been significantly better at right guard than right tackle in his career, so, in order to be a starter, he would either have to displace the long-time starting Duvernay-Tardif or play out of position at right tackle.

Mike Remmers is probably the favorite to start at right tackle, where he wasn’t bad in Mitchell Schwartz’s absence last season, before the post-season. Remmers is experienced with 88 career starts (70 at tackle, 18 at guard) and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 7 seasons as a starter in his career, but he’s also never finished higher than 34th at his position and his age is becoming a concern, now going into his age 32 season. He could remain a capable starter in 2021, but he doesn’t come with much upside and it’s good the Chiefs have insurance for him. 

Overall, this is a deep and talented offensive line with seven starting options and they have good versatility as well, with multiple players having experience at multiple positions. They’re well positioned to have solid or better offensive line play this season, even when injuries inevitably hit. Early season continuity may be a concern with a unit consistently of mostly off-season additions, but they’ve done a great job re-tooling this offensive line on the fly this off-season, without significant financial flexibility.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

While the Chiefs did a good job of retooling the offensive line, it came at the expense of some other needs, including wide receiver. That’s not to say that the Chiefs weren’t smart to prioritize the offensive line, but it’s the reality for a team that will be working with increasingly fewer resources over the next few off-seasons. Sammy Watkins, who was their #2 receiver when healthy over the past three seasons, signed with the Ravens in free agency and the Chiefs didn’t replace him and instead will rely on inexperienced players like Mecole Hardman, DeMarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle, and possibly 5th round rookie Cornell Powell. 

Given that, the Chiefs figure to once again give heavy target shares to wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, who were targeted on a whopping 280 of Mahomes’ 588 regular season pass attempts last season, 47.6%, a number that could even increase this season with Watkins gone. Both Hill and Kelce are dynamic players who are among the best at their position, but the lack of a reliable third option is a concern and would especially become a concern if either Hill or Kelce were to miss time with injury.

Kelce hasn’t missed a game with injury since his rookie season in 2013, but that’s not a guarantee he stays healthy all season this year, especially with his age creeping up, now in his age 32 season. Kelce has shown no signs of slowing down, in fact posting a career best 105/1416/11 slash line last season, despite sitting out the Chiefs’ meaningless regular season finale. He has overall averaged a 102/1327/9 slash line in 3 seasons with Mahomes, a jump from an already impressive 77/975/6 average slash line in 4 seasons with Alex Smith, while finishing in the top-4 among tight ends on PFF in 5 straight seasons and 6 seasons overall. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his decline begin this season, given his age. 

Even if he’s not quite at his best, Kelce would still be one of the top few tight ends in the league, but it’s something to keep in mind, especially in a top heavy receiving corps that severely lacks tight end depth. Nick Keizer was 2nd on the team in tight end snaps with 302, but the 2018 undrafted free agent finished 80th out of 82 eligible tight ends on PFF in the first action of his career. Fellow 2018 undrafted free agent Deon Yelder played 194 snaps last season, but he’s been underwhelming across just 242 career snaps. 

The Chiefs also brought back Blake Bell, who finished 63rd out of 71 eligible tight ends as the Chiefs’ #2 tight end in 2019, before spending the 2020 season in Dallas. He has some experience, but he has never topped 398 snaps in a season or earned an above average grade in a season from PFF and now he heads into his age 30 season. The Chiefs desperately need Kelce to continue to stay healthy and to not decline significantly.

Top wide receiver Tyreek Hill has more of a recent injury history than Kelce, but he’s still only missed 5 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league and he also remains very much in his prime in only his age 27 season. Off-the-field concerns caused Hill to fall to the 5th round in 2016, but he flashed in part-time action as a rookie and has broken out as a #1 wide receiver in the four seasons since, posting a 75/1183/7 slash line in 15 games with Alex Smith in 2017 and averaging a 86/1345/13 slash line per 16 games in 3 seasons since Mahomes became the starter, serving as the perfect deep threat complement to the big armed Mahomes. Even including his rookie season, Hill has averaged at least 2.16 yards per route run and finished in the top-17 among wide receivers on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, making him among the most consistent #1 wide receivers in the league. I see no reason for that to change in 2021.

Of the Chiefs’ inexperienced pass catchers, Mecole Hardman has by far the best chance to breakout in a bigger role. A 2nd round pick in 2019 who profiled almost identically to Hill as a prospect aside from the off-the-field concerns, Hardman has yet to surpass 500 snaps in a season, but he’s shown promise with an average of 1.73 yards per route run and 16.4 yards per catch and, with the #2 wide receiver job in this explosive offense seemingly his to lose, he could easily break out with an impressive statistical year in his third season in the league. He may end up being one of those players whose raw stats are more impressive than his actual play, as someone who could get a big target share in an explosive offense that takes a lot of deep shots, but you could do worse as a #2 wide receiver and he comes with plenty of upside.

Even if Hardman can step up as the #2 wide receiver, their depth behind him is pretty suspect. DeMarcus Robinson has gotten opportunity, as the 2016 4th round pick has averaged 426 routes run per season over the past 4 years, but he’s earned a below average grade from PFF in every season and has managed just 0.90 yards per route run in his career, despite incredible quarterback play. 2018 undrafted free agent Byron Pringle is the other realistic candidate for the #3 receiver job because the Chiefs seem to like him, but he’s barely played in his career, totaling just 383 snaps and his 1.46 yards per route run average is nothing to write home about either. This is a talented, but top heavy receiving corps that can’t afford an injury to their top-2 guys.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Chiefs also lack depth at the running back position and instead seem likely to rely on 2020 1st round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire in a larger capacity in his second season in the league. Edwards-Helaire was originally drafted to work in tandem with veteran Damien Williams, but he opted out of the 2020 season, leaving inexperienced 2018 undrafted free agent Darrel Williams as the #2 running back, at least until the Chiefs were able to sign veteran Le’Veon Bell when the Jets released him mid-season. Bell ate up 63 carries and limited Edwards-Helaire to 181 carries and 36 catches, but he wasn’t retained in free agency and Damien Williams was traded to the Bears upon return from his opt out, so Darrel Williams is currently the #2 back again, despite just 93 carries in his career, and Edwards-Helaire seems primed for a larger role.

Edwards-Helaire showed himself to be a good runner as a rookie, averaging 4.44 yards per carry with a 9th ranked 56% carry success rate and, while he benefited from defenses selling out to stop the pass, he still averaged 2.98 yards per carry after contact and earned PFF’s 21st highest run grade among running backs. However, one area he will need to improve if he is going to become a true featured back is as a receiver, as he averaged just 5.50 yards per target and 1.04 yards per route run last season, despite a dominant quarterback throwing him the ball. Even if he can become a featured back in 2021, Edwards-Helaire will still probably come off the field in some passing situations for Jerick McKinnon, a veteran who comes over from the 49ers as a free agent this off-season. 

McKinnon isn’t a candidate to get more than a few carries per game, as he was a mediocre runner in 4 seasons with the Vikings (4.03 YPC on a max of 159 carries in a season) even before missing all of his first two seasons with the 49ers with leg injuries in 2018 and 2019, which continued to limit him in a 2020 season in which he averaged 3.94 YPC on 81 carries. However, he’s a capable pass catcher who had a career best 51/421/2 in his final season with the Vikings in 2017 and continued to show something with a 33/253/1 slash line last season, although his 5.50 yards per target average left something to be desired. He’s a situational pass catching back only at this stage of his career, but he could still see action in a thin backfield. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chiefs add another cheap, capable running back to the mix at some point, given that it wouldn’t be that hard for them to do so inexpensively.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The biggest and most important need that the Chiefs didn’t address this off-season while prioritizing their offensive line is the defensive end position, where the Chiefs didn’t have a player other than Frank Clark with more than 3 sacks in the regular season. In total, the Chiefs managed just 32 sacks as a team last season, a below average total that is especially disappointing for a team that plays with many leads. That total was despite team sack leader Chris Jones being an interior pass rusher, further highlighting their issues at the edge defender position. 

Despite that, the Chiefs didn’t make a significant addition at the position aside from 4th round rookie Joshua Kaindoh and they actually lost a pair of players from last year’s group in Tanoh Kpassagnon (720 snaps) and Alex Okafor (283 snaps), who, while they didn’t play well, at least have starting experience. Kaindoh figures to have a good chance to earn a significant role as a rookie and, as of right now, it looks like 2020 5th round pick Michael Danna will be the starter opposite Clark, even though he was underwhelming in just 334 snaps as a rookie. 

The Chiefs also took a flyer on former Cowboys first round bust Taco Charlton, who has played for three different teams in just four seasons in the league and has played middling at best across an average of 322 snaps per season, including just 91 snaps last season for a Chiefs team that called him up off the practice squad mid season. Charlton isn’t that young anymore, now in his age 27 season, so it’s a long shot that he has serious untapped potential. The Chiefs will be counting on one or two of Danna, Charlton, and the rookie Kaindoh to surprise, otherwise they figure to once again get poor play at the position behind Frank Clark.

Even Frank Clark didn’t have a great season last season and, while he’s had some big post-season moments, his regular season play has been disappointing in two seasons with the Chiefs, given that the Chiefs gave up not only a first round pick to acquire him, but signed him to a 5-year, 104 million dollar deal that still ranks 6th in the NFL among edge defenders. A second round pick by the Seahawks in 2015, Clark had 32 sacks, 29 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in his final three seasons with Seattle, but he’s seen that drop off to 14 sacks, 19 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate in two seasons since joining the Chiefs, hampered by multiple nagging injuries. 

Never a particularly good run defender either, Clark hasn’t justified his salary thus far and could be entering a make or break season, owed a non-guaranteed 19.5 million in 2022 on a team that lacks long-term financial flexibility. Still only in his age 28 season, Clark is theoretically in the prime of his career and could bounce back, but that’s not a guarantee now three years removed from his career best 20th ranked finish among edge defenders on PFF in 2018. The Chiefs will need him to bounce back, at a position group that otherwise looks very thin and lacks proven players.

Grade: C

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned, the Chiefs are in a lot better shape on the interior. Chris Jones led the team in sacks last season and, while he had just 7.5 sacks, he added another 21 hits and a 13.6% pressure rate and he had 24.5 sacks combined in the previous 2 seasons, so last year’s relatively reduced sack total is mostly the result of bad luck and I would expect it to bounce back in 2021, with Jones still very much in his prime in his age 27 season. 

A 3rd round pick in 2016, Jones showed a lot of promise as a rookie and broke out as one of the top interior defensive linemen in the league in his second season in the league, finishing in the top-8 among interior defenders on PFF in 4 straight seasons since then. He’s been especially dominant as a pass rusher over the past 3 seasons with 32 sacks, 50 hits, and a 13.9% pressure rate, among the best in the league by an interior rusher, and I wouldn’t expect anything different from him in 2021.

The Chiefs also bring back Derrick Nnadi, who doesn’t get much pass rush, with just 1 sack and 1 hit and a 5.2% pressure rate in 3 seasons since the Chiefs took him in the 3rd round in 2018, but who excels against the run, improving in all three seasons in the league, culminating in a 8th ranked finish in run defense grade among interior defenders. Nnadi played just 460 snaps last season as almost exclusively a base package player and he’s never topped more than 598 snaps in a season, but the Chiefs improved their depth at the position this off-season by acquiring ex-Seahawk Jarran Reed, following his release by Seattle this off-season.

Reed’s release was the result of not being worth a 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, but, while he struggles against the run, he’s been an effective pass rusher over the past 4 seasons, with 20.5 sacks, 36 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate, earning him middling grades overall from PFF, despite his struggles against the run, so he could be a good addition for the Chiefs at the reduced 5.5 million dollar salary they signed him at. He and Nnadi complement each other well and will likely rotate frequently depending on the situation.

Reed addition leaves Tershawn Wharton, a 2020 undrafted free agent who actually finished his rookie season 2nd on the team in interior defenders snaps slightly ahead of Nnadi with 518, with an uncertain role going forward, especially with 2019 3rd round pick Khalen Saunders set to return from an injury that limited him to just 74 snaps in 3 games last season. Wharton wasn’t bad last season, but he could be upgraded on, which the Seahawks did by adding Reed, leaving Wharton to compete with Saunders for playing time. He may win that job, despite Saunders being a higher draft pick, but only because Saunders has yet to show anything across 377 career snaps, struggling as a rookie in limited action before last year’s injury plagued season. This is a deep group overall and it’s led by one of the best in the league at his position in Chris Jones.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Chiefs did address their linebacking corps this off-season, adding Missouri’s Nick Bolton in the 2nd round of the draft, a much needed move because this team lacked an every down linebacker last season, instead stringing together a group of capable run stuffers Damien Wilson and Anthony Hitchens, capable coverage linebacker Ben Niemann, and hybrid safety/linebacker Daniel Sorensen, who saw frequent action as a true linebacker in sub packages. In all, the group wasn’t terrible, but no one played more than 603 snaps and there was definitely room for improvement.

Bolton might not play every down as a rookie and could have growing pains even if he doesn’t, but the potential of him and last year’s 2nd round pick Willie Gay breathe some life into a group that has been mostly a liability for years. Gay was only limited to 269 snaps as a rookie, which was strange because he showed potential in an otherwise underwhelming group and earned the unit’s highest overall grade from PFF, both in overall grade and in coverage grade, but he easily could see a much bigger role in his 2nd season in the league.

Damien Wilson is no longer with the team, but Anthony Hitchens was retained, somewhat surprising, as the cap strapped Chiefs could have saved 6.5 million by moving on from a player who played just 603 snaps last season and struggled in coverage, but he remains and, assuming he isn’t a late cap casualty, he should remain in primarily a base package role and could easily see his playing time fall even more with Bolton being added and Gay likely receiving a larger role. The Chiefs like the veteran leadership of Hitchens, probably the main reason why he remains on the roster, but he’s struggled in coverage throughout his 7-year career, has only surpassed 700 snaps in a season once, and hasn’t earned an above average grade overall from PFF since 2017.

Ben Niemann and Daniel Sorensen are also underwhelming options if they have to continue seeing playing time in sub packages. Niemann isn’t bad in coverage, but he’s a 2018 undrafted free agent whose 499 snaps last season were a career high, and he struggled mightily against the run. Sorensen, meanwhile, has been adequate at best as a coverage linebacker in his career and is unlikely to suddenly get significantly better, now going into his age 31 season. This should be a better group this season, but they need their young players to step up for this group to be significantly improved and no longer be a liability.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Daniel Sorensen may also see some action at safety, but Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill are locked in as the starters. A second round pick by the Chiefs in 2019, Thornhill had an impressive rookie season, finishing as PFF’s 32nd ranked safety in 16 starts, but he tore his ACL in week 17 and, though he returned for week 1 in 2020, he did not seem to be the same player, finishing 84th among 99 eligible safeties and especially struggling in coverage. Now another year removed from the injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him bounce back and resume developing into an above average starter, although that can’t be considered a guarantee.

Mathieu also had a bit of a down year last year, in part due to giving up more big plays than normal, but he still finished an above average 49th among safeties on PFF, after ranking 21st in 2018 and 20th in 2019. A versatile joker type player who can play deep safety, in the box, and on the slot, Mathieu is still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and could easily bounce back in 2021 from his slightly down 2020 season. Both he and Thornhill look likely to be better in 2021 than 2020 and likely to be an above average starting safety duo once again, leaving Sorensen as a reserve safety and situational linebacker.

At cornerback, things are a lot less settled, primarily due to the loss of cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who was PFF’s 38th ranked cornerback last season. While Breeland was their only significant loss at the position and their top-3 returning cornerbacks all received average or better grades from PFF, Bashuad was their de facto #1 cornerback when in the lineup, playing 690 snaps in 11 games, while returning cornerbacks Charvarius Ward, Rashad Fenton, and L’Jarius Snead played just 782 snaps, 527 snaps, and 410 snaps respectively last season. Further complicating the situation, the Chiefs took flyers on a pair of recent first round picks in Mike Hughes and DeAndre Baker, who are likely to be in the mix for roles as well, so this is very much a position in flux.

Snead played the best of all the Chiefs’ cornerbacks last season, finishing 20th among cornerbacks, despite being only a 4th round rookie, but that came across just 410 snaps, so he’s very unproven and not necessarily a guarantee to translate that into a season long starting role. Fenton is a similar situation. The 2019 6th round pick is also inexperienced, having played just 693 career snaps, but he’s flashed a lot of promise on those limited snaps, including a 31st ranked finish among cornerbacks on 527 snaps last season. Like Snead, he has the upside to develop into a solid season long starter, but he’s a projection to a larger role.

With Breeland missing time with injury, Ward played the most snaps among the Chiefs’ cornerbacks last season with 782 and is the most experienced of the bunch this year. After making 29 starts over the past two seasons and largely holding up as a solid starter, he figures to be as close as to a lock to be a starter as the Chiefs have. The 2018 undrafted free agent hasn’t shown a high ceiling thus far in his career, but he’s still only going into his age 25 season and it’s possible that could change.

As much as the Chiefs’ returning cornerbacks are wild cards who are tough to predict, that’s especially true of the former first round picks Mike Hughes and DeAndre Baker, who the Chiefs took flyers on. Hughes was a first round pick in 2018 by the Vikings and showed some promise his rookie year, but he suffered a torn ACL week 6 and his career has been derailed ever since, as he has dealt with more injuries, has struggled when on the field, and has overall been limited to 917 snaps played in 24 games in 3 seasons in the league, leading Minnesota sending him to the Chiefs for a swap of late round picks this off-season. If he can stay healthy, Hughes theoretically still has upside in his age 24 season, but it might be a long shot that he doesn’t get hurt and becomes a capable starter.

Baker, meanwhile, was a first round pick of the Giants in 2019, but he followed up a miserable rookie season in which he finished 121st out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in 15 starts with an off-the-field incident that led to the Giants cutting ties with him last off-season after just one season. The Chiefs actually picked him up towards the end of last season after his charges were dropped, but he played just 45 snaps total before a leg injury ended his season. If he can stay out of further trouble and stay healthy, he also has theoretical upside in his age 24 season, but like Hughes he might be a long shot. The Chiefs cornerback group has upside, but a lot of uncertainty. This isn’t a bad secondary, but their cornerback situation gives them a high variance as a unit.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Chiefs are obviously one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl this season, but they may still be a little bit of an overrated team. They patched up the offensive line problems that caused many of their wins to be close calls in the regular season and that eventually caused their defeat in the Super Bowl, but it came at the expense of not addressing other needs at the offensive skill positions and on defense, not notably their lack of edge rushers. They’ll be contenders, but they’re not the favorites that many may view them as. I will have a final prediction for the Chiefs at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Kansas City Chiefs: Super Bowl LV Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-5) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (16-2) in Super Bowl LV

Tom Brady will be appearing in his 10th ever Super Bowl in Super Bowl 55, an incredible number that is double the next highest total and that is more than all of Brady’s Hall-of-Fame contemporaries combined. This one will be unique from all the others because he’ll be doing it with a new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in his first season with the team after two record breaking decades in New England. Brady is being given most of the credit, understandable if you just pay attention to team’s records, as the Buccaneers improved from 7 wins to 11 wins and a Super Bowl appearance, while New England fell from 12 wins to out of the playoffs with 7 wins, after Brady had made the post-season in 16 straight healthy seasons in New England. 

However, that is far from the whole story and ignores the reasons why Brady headed south in the first place. The Patriots won 12 games last year, but Brady and the offense weren’t the primary reason they won those games, as the Patriots had a dominant defense, but an offensive supporting cast that left a lot to be desired, especially in the receiving corps and especially down the stretch as injuries mounted. The Patriots’ defense led the league in first down rate allowed by a mile, but their offense ranked just 21st in first down rate, their lowest finish since before Brady arrived.

The Patriots didn’t make any major upgrades to their receiving corps last off-season, so it’s likely the Patriots’ 2020 offense would have resembled their 2019 offense if they had kept Brady, rather than the 2020 Buccaneers’ offense, which has a much better receiving corps. That still would have been enough for the Patriots to make the post-season had their defense continued playing at a high level like in 2019, but the Patriots’ defense is where they had by far their biggest dropoff from 2019 to 2020, finishing the 2020 season ranked 23rd in first down rate allowed. 

Given how much their defense fell off, it’s very likely the Patriots would not have made the playoffs even if they had kept Brady and, by some metrics, the Patriots were better offensively in 2020 with Cam Newton leading a run based attack than they were in 2019 when they relied primarily on an ineffective aerial attack with Brady throwing to arguably the worst receiving corps in the league. The 2019 Patriots ran a league leading 1,126 plays because their defense kept getting them the ball back so often, 115 more plays than they ran in 2020, but the 2019 Patriots only managed 6 more first downs than the 2020 Patriots and they averaged fewer yards per play as well, 5.3 vs. 5.2. 

The Patriots have gotten a lot of criticism for not bringing back Brady, but that would have required at least matching a fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million dollar contract for a 43-44 year old quarterback who might not have even gotten them back to the post-season in the first year of the deal. For a team that needs to rebuild and reload, that kind of contract could have set them back a year or two. The contract obviously has worked out for the Buccaneers, but it’s kind of comparing apples to oranges, because the Buccaneers are built to win now much more than the Patriots and were right to be aggressive to try to capitalize on that.

Brady, of course, likely recognized the two teams were heading into opposite directions, which is why he made the decision he did. For all the talk about how Tom Brady is back in the Super Bowl because of what he did as a player this season, what Brady did this off-season as a scout probably has more to do with him being back here than anything. The Buccaneers were not widely discussed as a potential destination for Brady last off-season, but I put them at the top of my list for Brady last February and, while I wasn’t expecting Brady to actually leave New England, it was easy for me to see why he picked the Buccaneers when he picked them. 

The Buccaneers won just 7 games in 2019, but they finished 9th in first down rate differential, suggesting they were better than their record. They also had a massive need at quarterback after years of subpar play from Jameis Winston, they were well coached, going into the second season of the Bruce Arians regime, and they got a lot better down the stretch in 2019, particularly on defense, leading to the Buccaneers winning 6 of their last 9 games, with the exceptions being a loss to the division leading Saints and two losses by less than a score in games in which Winston threw at least one pick six. Tampa Bay’s loaded receiving corps was the main draw, but this was a talented roster overall, beyond their pass catchers and, after Brady brought his friends Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski along for the ride, Tampa Bay suddenly became legitimate contenders.

Brady, for his part, played at an above average level and was obviously a massive upgrade over the backup caliber Jameis Winston, but Brady is not the same player he was in his prime or even a few years ago when he could single handedly elevate a team with an underwhelming supporting cast to the league’s highest stage, likely part of the reason why Brady looked for a better football situation to spend the twilight of his career last off-season. Focusing too much on Brady overlooks the talented players and coaches (including defensive coordinator Todd Bowles) that the Buccaneers have throughout their roster and throughout their staff, which is a huge part of the reason why the Buccaneers are where they are.

For Brady, being in the Super Bowl is nothing new, but what is relatively new is that he won’t be favored, with the Buccaneers listed as 3.5 point underdogs. Brady led the historic upset as massive underdogs in his first Super Bowl appearance back in Super Bowl 36, but he’s been favored in each of the past 8, covering in just 3 of them. Brady and the Buccaneers being underdogs has everything to do with the team on the other side, as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are defending Super Bowl Champions and have been presumptive Super Bowl favorites all season, having lost just one meaningful game. 

For Mahomes, this is his second straight Super Bowl appearance and, in 3 seasons as the starter, he’s lost just once in the post-season, in 8 appearances. His one loss was to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship, one of four matchups between these two quarterbacks in just the 3 seasons that Mahomes has been the starter. The 4th matchup was earlier this season when the Chiefs won by a field goal in Tampa Bay in a matchup that previewed the Super Bowl, both in matchup and in location, with the Buccaneers being fortunate enough to be the first team ever to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. 

The common narrative is that the Chiefs dominated that game and the Buccaneers came back in garbage time, but the Buccaneers’ score to cut it to a field goal came with over four minutes left on the clock and two timeouts left for Tampa Bay, so those were hardly meaningless possessions. A better way to think of that game is that both teams dominated a single quarter (the Chiefs in the 1st jumping out to a 17-0 lead and the Buccaneers in the 4th cutting it from 27-10 to 27-24), but that the Chiefs played slightly better overall. How much better overall may be very slight though, as the Chiefs only won the first down rate battle by just 0.66% and actually had slightly fewer yards per play (7.6 vs. 7.5). 

Winning close games was a big part of the story of the Chiefs’ season this year, as they snuck out 8 of their 14 wins by 6 points or fewer, including several against teams much worse than the Buccaneers. Overall, the Buccaneers actually had the edge in point differential (+137 vs. +111), DVOA (33.7% vs. 25.2%), and schedule adjusted first down rate differential (4.25% vs. 3.36%) on the season and, even though they won 3 fewer games, they had significantly more double digit wins (8 vs. 5). Wins by larger totals tend to be predictive of future winning at a much higher rate than close victories. 

Some ignore that most of the Chiefs wins have been close because the Chiefs have Mahomes and they assume that quarterbacks of his caliber can consistently win close games. Even ignoring the obvious fact that even the most elite quarterbacks couldn’t consistently win 88.9% of their one score games like Mahomes did this season, there isn’t much evidence of elite quarterbacks even consistently winning close games at a significantly higher than average rate. Entering this season, Mahomes was just 9-8 in one score games in his career, as dominant as he was in his first two seasons in the league. In fact, the only quarterback who has seemed to be able to consistently win close games is the quarterback on the other sideline, who is a remarkable 94-44 in his career in one score games. 

In addition to his dominance in one score games, Brady has somehow been even more dominant in tough games like this. Not only is Brady 33-11 in the post-season, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win. Overall in his career, Brady is 56-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 44-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 42-13 straight up record in those games. 

As an underdog, Brady is 28-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 21 of 30 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers went 4-1 ATS as underdogs and against teams with a better record than theirs this season, including their 3-point loss as 3.5-point underdogs against the Chiefs earlier this season and their wins over the Saints and Packers in their past two games. 

It will take a lot more than just Tom Brady to win this game, but the Buccaneers have it, with arguably the most well-rounded roster in the league and a better overall team than the Chiefs, who may have the passing game stars, but have questions on defense and on the offensive line, particularly with the Chiefs now being without both of their starting offensive tackles, Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, who are one of the best duos in the league when healthy. This offensive line was already not the same since losing Schwartz in week 8, a 11-game stretch in which they’ve won by more than 6 points just twice and Fisher going down in the Chiefs’ last game in the AFC Championship makes things much worse. 

The Chiefs have done a good job of rebuilding their offensive line on the fly this season, but they figure to be overmatched against a tough Tampa Bay front. I like the Buccaneers to pull the upset straight up and, even if they can’t, they should be able to keep it close, especially in what will be something of a home game for the Buccaneers. About 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer and the Chiefs haven’t blown out most of their opponents this season. The Buccaneers seem like a relatively safe bet against the spread and a great value on the money line.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: High

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 AFC Championship Pick

Buffalo Bills (15-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (15-2)

The long awaited news has come that Patrick Mahomes will be able to play in this game and be 100%, despite being knocked out of last week’s win with a concussion. The betting public obviously likes that, shooting this line up to Kansas City -3.5, but Mahomes doesn’t solve all of the Chiefs’ problems and the Chiefs are still overpriced for a team that hasn’t covered a spread since week 8, despite winning their last 11 games started by Mahomes. 

Of those 11 wins, their last 8 have all come by 6 points or fewer, including a 5-point win over the Browns last week. The Chiefs were obviously doing better in that game before Mahomes got hurt, but they were up just 9 points as 10-point favorites when Mahomes left and that was despite a missed personal foul penalty that would have nullified a goal line fumble that became a touchback and a turnover rather than a likely Browns touchdown.

The Chiefs still have a great offense, but they haven’t been quite as dominant this season, particularly in the second half of the season, with key right tackle Mitchell Schwartz out due to injury from week 7 on, a big part of the reason why they have been failing to blow teams out in recent weeks. Overall, the Chiefs actually finished 2nd in first down rate expected this year, behind their opponents this week the Buffalo Bills, who also have the edge on the Chiefs in points per game. That is true even if you exclude the Chiefs’ meaningless week 17 loss. 

The Chiefs also have concerns on defense, where they rank 20th in first down rate over expected at +0.88%. The Bills haven’t fared well on that side of the ball either, ranking 22nd at +0.91%, but even with that they’re still ahead of the Chiefs in first down rate differential, ranking 4th at +3.39%, while the Chiefs rank 6th at +2.75%. The Bills also have played a lot better in recent weeks defensively, primarily due to improved health in their linebacking corps, leading to them winning their last 8 games straight by 17 points per game. In fact, excluding a week 10 loss in Arizona on a Hail Mary, the Bills have won 11 straight games and have won by fewer than 6 points just twice, a more impressive streak than the Chiefs’ recent streak because the Bills have blown out most of their opponents. 

The Chiefs will have the benefit of some fans in the stands in this game at home and, in a playoff atmosphere, the Chiefs could have something resembling normal home field advantage, but I have the Bills as the slightly better team and have them calculated as just 1.5-point underdogs, so we’re getting great line value, passing the key number of a field goal at Buffalo +3.5. Even if the Bills can’t pull off the road upset, I like their chances of keeping it close, as 1 in 4 of games are decided by 3 points or fewer (including 1 in 6 by exactly 3) and the Chiefs have won only half of their last 8 games by more than a field goal, with their other margins of victory being 4, 5, 6, and 6. This should be a close game either way, so I love getting more than a field goal with the Bills.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Buffalo Bills 33

Pick against the spread: Buffalo +3.5

Confidence: High

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Cleveland Browns (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

After the Browns’ upset victory in Pittsburgh last weekend, I was expecting them to open as 7 or 7.5-point underdogs in Kansas City this week. When they opened as 10-point underdogs, I was surprised, leading to me locking this line in early, and I am even more surprised it hasn’t moved off that number since. I knew the Chiefs were a team the books could inflate the line on, but this is more than I was expecting. 

The Chiefs are defending Super Bowl Champions and only lost one meaningful game all season, but they weren’t the dominant team their record suggests they were in the regular season, especially down the stretch, when their last seven wins all came by one score or loss, with the Chiefs failing to cover the spread in any of those games. Some of that was due to garbage time, but, considering this line is as high as it is, garbage time, and the possibility of a backdoor cover even if this game isn’t close throughout, is very relevant to this pick.

Even dating back to earlier this season, the Chiefs have just five double digit wins all year, with three of them coming against teams that finished 5-11 or worse and one of them coming against a Patriots team that was starting a backup quarterback. Their week 3 win over the Ravens was their only double digit win over a capable opponent this season, so I don’t know why the Chiefs would be expected to blow out the Browns, especially since the Chiefs have not played as well since that early season matchup with the Ravens. The main reason for that is the absence of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, a massive blow to this offense that hasn’t gotten enough discussion.

The general narrative is that Patrick Mahomes and the skill position players on this offense are so good that the Chiefs’ offense is invincible, but the Chiefs actually finished the season 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate behind the Buffalo Bills, who were ahead of them by a pretty decent margin (+4.71 vs. +3.65%), and the Chiefs were noticeably worse after Schwartz went down in week 6, leading to many of their close late season contests. All of this is true even if you ignore the Chiefs’ week 17 performance when they rested their stars in a meaningless game. 

The Chiefs’ defense has always been somewhat shaky and finished this season 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected at -0.88%, and, as good as Mahomes and his skill position players are, the Chiefs’ concerns on the offensive line and on defense can’t be ignored as they head into the post-season. They’re obvious a top Super Bowl contender, but they’re far from a lock to even make it back to the big game. Their 6th ranked finish in schedule adjusted first down rate differential also shows them to be an obvious contender, but not the juggernaut the general public seems to think they are and the oddsmakers have priced them as.

Let’s take advantage of that with the 10-point underdog Browns. The Browns may not cover this spread if they play like they did last week, when they won by 11, but were largely gifted the game by the Steelers committing 5 turnovers (the Chiefs had 16 giveaways all season) and lost the first down rate battle by 9.71%. However, the Browns are getting reinforcements, with stud left guard Joel Bitonio and top cornerback Denzel Ward returning to give the Browns a boost on both sides of the ball. The Browns aren’t quite at 100% right now with right tackle Jack Conklin questionable and likely to play at less than full strength with a hamstring injury and key defensive end Olivier Vernon out for the season, but compared to earlier this season, the Browns are much healthier. 

Stud running back Nick Chubb (4 games missed), key right guard Wyatt Teller (5 games), #1 wide receiver Jarvis Landry (1 game), starting left tackle Jedrick Wills (1 game), dominant left guard Joel Bitonio (1 game), starting tight end Austin Hooper (3 games), edge defender Myles Garrett (2 games), top cornerback Denzel Ward (5 games), starting cornerback Kevin Johnson (4 games), and safety Ronnie Harrison (5 games) have all missed time with injury and are all expected to play this week, for the first time together since early this season. That also doesn’t include a rib injury to quarterback Baker Mayfield that slowed him significantly earlier this season that he is well past at this point.

The Browns rank just 25th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential on the season at -1.53%, but they’re noticeably better on offense, ranking 11th in first down rate over expected at 1.17%, which is the significantly more predictive side of the ball, and a lot of their bad performances were earlier this season when they were not as healthy as they are now. My calculated line has the Chiefs favored by just 5 points, so I love the Browns at +10. Even if this isn’t a close game throughout, they have a great shot at a backdoor cover in garbage time, but I expect this game to be as competitive as the Chiefs’ recent games have been.

Kansas City Chiefs 38 Cleveland Browns 34

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +10

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (6-9) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-1)

The Chiefs have locked up the #1 seed in the AFC and will be resting key starters in this one to avoid catastrophic injuries ahead of what the Chiefs hope will be a 2nd straight Super Bowl run. The Chargers will not be resting starters, but it may be tough to tell the difference, with all of the key players the Chargers will be without in this matchup. In addition to some long-term absences, the Chargers will be missing top wide receiver Keenan Allen, top tight end Hunter Henry, talented right tackle Bryan Bulaga, their top-3 defensive ends Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Uchenna Nwosu, top cornerback Casey Hayward, and top safety Rayshawn Jenkins. 

The Chargers’ injuries on defense are especially a big deal, as they have played significantly better on that side of the ball this season, ranking 10th in first down rate allowed over expected at -0.90%, as opposed to 24th in first down rate over expected on offense at -1.40%. The absence of their top-3 defensive ends is particularly concerning, as that was a position of significant strength that is now a significant weakness. In their current state, I have the Chargers just 28th in my roster rankings.

The Chargers have played a lot of close games even when healthier (12 of 15 games decided by one score), don’t have a single win over a winning team, and their only two wins by more than a field goal came by 6 against the Jets and by 10 against the Jaguars, arguably the two worst teams in the league, so I’m skeptical that they’re going to win by more than 4 points on the road over the Chiefs backups and cover this spread when they are missing as many players as they are missing. I don’t feel like betting on a team that isn’t taking this game seriously, but the Chiefs should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes because this line is too high in favor of a depleted Chargers team.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Kansas City Chiefs 23

Pick against the spread: Kansas City +4

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-10) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-1)

Several weeks ago, I said that the rule of thumb with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs was to pick them unless there’s a good reason not to, citing their 28-15-2 ATS record in games in which Mahomes has started in his career, including 18-7 ATS even after Mahomes won the MVP in 2018, as their defense had been noticeably improved since 2018. Since then, the Chiefs have continued winning, but somehow they haven’t managed to not cover the spread in any of their past 6 games, making them the only team in the past 30 seasons to win 6 straight games and not cover the spread in any of them. None of their wins have been blowouts either, with those 6 wins coming by a combined 24 points and none of them coming by more than 6 points.

Mahomes and the offense have not been the problem, as, while they have fallen behind the Bills by a significant amount in first down rate over expected (+4.89% vs. +3.87%), that has more to do with how the Bills’ offense has played in recent weeks against top level defenses than anything to do with the Chiefs’ offense. However, the Chiefs’ defense has struggled and now ranks 18th in the NFL in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.55%. The Chiefs’ defense has been very inconsistent throughout Mahomes’ tenure as the starter, essentially single handedly keeping the Chiefs and their record setting offense out of the Super Bowl in Mahomes’ first season as the starter, but then being the complementary unit needed to go all the way last season. 

Defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent week-to-week than offensive performance anyway, so the Chiefs’ defense could certainly swing back the other way, but they’re also no better than a middling group in my roster rankings, so it’s definitely a concern for this team. The general consensus is this Chiefs team is borderline unbeatable, but I don’t think they’re balanced enough for that to be the case, even if they are rightfully the Super Bowl favorites right now. In fact, their underwhelming defense drags them down to “only” 3rd in both schedule adjusted first down rate differential and in my roster rankings, so, while they’re obviously a great team, I think they’ve been a little overrated.

Even with their recent non-covers, the Chiefs remain overrated as 10.5 point home favorites over the Falcons. Some of their recent non-covers are as a result of opponents scoring garbage time touchdowns, but when a line is 10.5, garbage time touchdowns that lead to a backdoor cover is definitely something that needs to be considered and I think there’s a great chance that could happen this week, even if the game isn’t close throughout.

The Falcons shouldn’t be trusted to win anything, now having blown the same amount of games in which they had a 95% chance to win (four) as they have actual wins, but they can definitely keep a game like this close. Their 10 losses have come by a combined 67 points (6.7 points per game) and just three of them have come by multiple scores. If they had held on to win in even some of those improbable losses, the Falcons could easily be a .500 team right now and their point differential of +2 is right in line with a .500 team. The Falcons are slightly worse than that in schedule adjusted first down rate differential because of an underwhelming schedule, but their 22nd ranked differential of -1.05% is still significantly better than their record would suggest. My calculated line is Kansas City -8.5, so we’re not getting a ton of line value, but I like the Falcons’ chances of keeping this one close, enough to bet on it.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +10.5

Confidence: Medium

Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (12-1) at New Orleans Saints (10-3)

The Saints lost last week in big upset fashion, losing as 8-point road favorites in Philadelphia, ending a 9 game winning streak in the process. I don’t really hold that against them though, as the Eagles have a solid defense and got better quarterback play from new starter Jalen Hurts, while the Saints were caught off guard, facing a sub-.500 team with an unfamiliar quarterback under center, the game before this huge game against the defending Super Bowl champs. The Saints should be much more focused this week and will likely prove last week was largely a fluke, as is usually the case after big upsets like that, as teams cover at a 60.5% rate historically after a loss as road favorites of 7 points or more.

Even with last week’s loss included, the Saints still sit at 10-3 and have really rebounded from their slow 1-2 start, as they typically do, going 4-17-1 ATS since 2010 in weeks 1 and 2 and 91-58-7 ATS in week 3-17. Making that even more impressive is the fact that they really haven’t been healthy all season. They lost #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas in week 1, followed shortly after by some defensive starters and they haven’t been at full strength since.

Their defensive starters later returned and the Saints’ defense has been on fire since, while Thomas returned as well a few weeks later, but in his first game back, quarterback Drew Brees got hurt and went on to miss the next 4 and a half games. Brees is back this week, but, at the same time, they will be without Thomas again, as the fates seem to be coinciding to make sure one of the most accomplished pass catching duos in the league barely gets to play together this season.

Even with Thomas out, I still like the Saints’ bounce back chances, as they really haven’t been healthy all season and have still managed to be very effective, not just in the win/loss column, but also ranking 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.43%. That lines up with my roster rankings, which have the Saints ranked 4th even without Thomas. At their best, the Saints are probably the best team in the league and, though we may never actually see them at full strength, they still have enough talent on both sides of the ball to still be one of the top teams in the league, even when missing key players.

The Chiefs are obviously a high level team, but even they shouldn’t be getting a field goal on the road in New Orleans, as these two teams aren’t far apart in my rankings, even with the Saints missing Thomas. The Saints have minimal homefield advantage this season with limited attendance in the stands, but, even still, I have this line calculated at New Orleans -1, so we’re getting great line value with the Saints. 

I normally don’t pick against the Chiefs unless I have a good reason to (28-20-2 ATS with Patrick Mahomes), but you could say the same thing about picking against the Saints after the first few weeks of the season, so I have no concerns betting big against the Chiefs this week. In fact, without a better option, this is going to be my Pick of the Week. The money line at +140 is also a smart play as this line is really off and should probably favor the Saints, even if only a little bit.

New Orleans Saints 35 Kansas City Chiefs 33 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Kansas City Chiefs at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) at Miami Dolphins (8-4)

The Dolphins are 8-4, but they’ve faced one of the easier schedules in the league, with half of their wins coming against the three teams (Bengals, Jaguars, and Jets) who rank in the bottom-3 in schedule adjusted first down rate differential. They’ve also benefited significantly from opponents missing field goals, something almost entirely out of a team’s control, as their 57.14% opponents field goal percentage is lowest in the league by a wide margin over the 2nd ranked Ravens (65.00%) and an even wider margin over the 3rd ranked team (76.19%).

That third ranked team is the Chiefs, but there’s a wider gap between them and the Dolphins than there is between them and the last ranked Bills. It’s also hard to argue that opponents missing field goals is the reason why the Chiefs are 11-1 right now, as they rank 4th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.10% and have been incredibly dominant on offense once again, ranking 1st in first down rate over expected at +4.37%. Their defense ranks just 23rd in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.27%, but defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance and, if the Chiefs get even a middling defensive performance, they’re near impossible to beat because of how good their offense is consistently almost every week. 

It’s safe to say the Dolphins schedule is getting a lot tougher with the Chiefs coming to town, a problem since they’ve only been a middling team when you strip away the benefit they’ve gotten from their schedule and from opponents missing field goals, as they rank just 17th in first down rate differential at +0.19% and even that may be outplaying their talent level, as they rank just 25th in my roster rankings. Unfortunately, we’re not getting the line value I’d need to bet on the Chiefs, as the general public seems to have a pretty good idea that there is a big talent gap between these two teams, with this line favoring the Chiefs by 7, exactly where I have this line calculated. I’m still taking the Chiefs for pick ‘em purposes because the general rule of thumb is to pick Mahomes unless you have a good reason not to (28-19-2 ATS in his career, including 18-11 ATS after winning his MVP), but I would need a better line for this to be worth betting.

Kansas City Chiefs 26 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -7

Confidence: Low

Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (4-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-1)

When these two teams met in week 7, the Chiefs won with ease by a final score of 43-16, but the Broncos played close in first down rate, only losing by 1.75%. The Chiefs’ big win was primarily because of a +3 turnover margin (+5 if you include the Broncos 0 for 2 on 4th down) and two return touchdowns, including a kickoff return touchdown, as the Broncos’ defense held the Chiefs to a 33.33% first down rate that is their 2nd lowest mark of the season and 4.60% behind their league leading season average of 37.93%. This is nothing new for a Broncos defense that ranks 3rd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.01%. I expect a closer game this time around, as the primary reasons why this was a blowout last team were things that tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis.

My calculated line is Kansas City -10 and the Broncos should be the much more focused team as well. In fact, after being embarrassed by the Chiefs earlier this season and being embarrassed by the NFL and having to play without a quarterback last week against the Saints, I think the Broncos are viewing this Sunday Night Football game as their Super Bowl, especially since they haven’t beaten the Chiefs in years. The Chiefs, meanwhile, probably won’t be fully focused for a team they already blew out when they have a more important conference game against the Dolphins next week and are coming off of back-to-back big close wins against the Buccaneers and Raiders. 

The Chiefs should still be able to win, perhaps easily, but with this line at 13.5, we have plenty of cushion. Pat Mahomes is 28-18-2 ATS in his career (including 18-10 ATS after his MVP season), so you always need really good reasons to bet against him, and I am not sure there is quite enough here, but if this line moves up to two full touchdowns, I may reconsider. Either way, the Broncos should be the pick for pick ‘em purposes as their defense could easily keep the Chiefs in check as much as you can and keep this game relatively close.

Kansas City Chiefs 27 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Denver +13.5

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4)

The Buccaneers lost at home to the Rams on Monday Night Football last week and the general opinion seems to be that the sky is falling in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers were already home field goal underdogs against the Chiefs on the early line last week, but their loss to the Rams has pushed this line to 3.5, which is significant, given that 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, including 1 in 6 games by exactly a field goal.

That seems to be an overreaction, as the Buccaneers were in a terrible spot last week and still were competitive with a Rams team that is a borderline Super Bowl contender. The Buccaneers were in a look ahead spot ahead of this huge game against the Chiefs and were also an east coast team playing a west coast team at night, which is a very tough spot. I expect much better focus and effort this week from a Buccaneers team that is still one of the top teams in the league.

The Buccaneers’ defense hasn’t been quite as good since losing Vita Vea for the season and they’ll also be without starting cornerback Jamel Dean for the first time this season this week, but they’re still one of the best defenses in the league, while their offense has improved since getting Chris Godwin (4 games missed to injury) and Antonio Brown (8 games missed to suspended) into the mix. Overall, they still rank first in the NFL in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +5.13%, with three of their four losses coming to fellow top-3 ranked teams (Saints x2 and Rams), and they rank 3rd in my roster rankings as well.

The Buccaneers could be without left tackle Donovan Smith this week due to injury, but that isn’t a big deal because they can slide talented rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs to the left side and because they are likely getting back guard Ali Marpet from a 3-game absence and he’s a higher caliber offensive lineman. Tom Brady isn’t playing quite as well as he did in his prime, but he’s playing well enough and has enough talent around him for this to be a high level team. They shouldn’t be 3.5-point home underdogs against anyone, even against another high level team like the Chiefs.

Speaking of Brady, I would especially expect a much better performance from him this week, as this is the kind of spot where he has always played his best historically. His record off of a loss is famous at this point, but his ATS record off of a loss is even more incredible at 45-22 ATS and that becomes 21-3 ATS if you look only at instances where Brady is an underdog or favorite of fewer than 3 points, which is the case here. Brady is also a ridiculous 39-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including 28-9 ATS in week 5 or later (when records are more likely to be indicative of talent level). 

Those numbers were primarily accumulated in New England with Bill Belichick and Brady is now in his age 43 season, but it stands to reason that Brady still will be at his best when his back is up against the wall (he’s 3-0 ATS off a loss this season and 1-0 ATS against a team with a better record), even if that best isn’t quite what it was in his prime. I would expect this to be a close game either way, even if the Buccaneers can’t pull the upset, so I love getting +3.5. I locked this at +3.5 earlier this week, but that number is still available as the sharps haven’t pounded this game like I expected they would, so you can still get this number if you missed it. This is my Pick of the Week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 33 Kansas City Chiefs 31 Upset Pick +160

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week