Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) at Baltimore Ravens (2-0)

This is arguably the biggest game of the early season so far. Not only could it be an AFC Championship preview, but it could also decide the #1 seed in the AFC, as the winner would have a one game lead and the tiebreaker. That #1 seed is especially important under the new playoff format because, not only would the #1 seed host that eventual AFC Championship as usual, but also they would avoid playing on wild card weekend, which #2 seeds now have to do. In addition to the present implications of this game, this is also the third installment in what looks like it could be a long-time rivalry between the two best young quarterbacks in the game in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, who have won the last two MVP awards respectively.

The Chiefs are defending Super Bowl champions and won the previous two matchups between Mahomes and Jackson in 2018 and 2019, but despite that they are 3.5-point underdogs in Baltimore, where the Ravens won’t even have the benefit of normal homefield advantage. This line might not seem huge, but about 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less and this is the most points Patrick Mahomes has been given as an underdog since his 3rd career start back in week 2 of 2018 (Mahomes is 4-0-2 ATS all-time as an underdog). 

That being said, I actually like the Ravens in this one. These two teams haven’t met since week 3 of last season and the Ravens are a much more complete team now than they were in either of their previous two matchups, primarily due to Lamar Jackson’s continued emergence as a passer and the addition of top cornerback Marcus Peters on defense. The Ravens have won their last 10 meaningful regular season games by an average of 22.2 points per game and, while their home playoff loss to the Titans is a black mark on their recent record, that game largely swung on an highly uncharacteristic -3 turnover margin and 0 for 4 on 4th down by the Ravens. Even including that game, the Ravens have a ridiculous +12.39% first down rate differential in their last 11 meaningful games.

The Chiefs are on a strong run of their own, winning their last 11 games, including three playoff games, with a +7.90%% first down rate differential over that stretch, but that number is still significantly behind the Ravens’ recent run, even if strength of schedule is factored in. The Ravens also have the obvious edge in this early season, with a +11.09%% first down rate differential, compared to +2.19% for the Chiefs. 

My roster rankings also give the Ravens a 3-point edge, suggesting they should be favored by 4.5 or 5 points, even with the diminished homefield advantage. The Chiefs have some question marks on their offensive line and defense, while the Ravens are a more complete team overall. I wouldn’t recommend betting on this if only because it’s silly to ever bet against Mahomes as underdogs of this many points, but the Ravens have the edge on paper and it wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up winning more easily than most people expect.

Baltimore Ravens 34 Kansas City Chiefs 27

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -3.5

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (1-0) at Los Angeles Chargers (1-0)

The Chargers snuck out a close victory in Cincinnati last week, on the strength of a +2 turnover margin. That was certainly not the norm last season, as the Chargers finished with a 2-9 record in games decided by 8 points or less and had a league worst -17 turnover margin on the season. It’s not unexpected though, as turnover margin and close game record tend to be highly inconsistent year-to-year. Case in point, the Chargers were 6-1 in games decided by 8 or less and had a +1 turnover margin in 2018, with largely the same roster as 2019.

The Chargers only finished 5-11 last season, but they actually ranked 7th in the NFL in first down rate differential (not far behind their 2nd ranked finish in 2018), which bodes well for their chances in 2020, as first down rate is a much more predictive stat than turnover margin or close game record. I wouldn’t expect the Chargers to be as good this season in first down rate differential, downgrading from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor under center, and they haven’t started the season with better injury luck, losing stud safety Derwin James for the season after he missed 11 games last season, but Taylor is better than most give him credit for, now in an offense that fits his skillset well again, and the Chargers are getting healthier this week, as big off-season addition Trai Turner will make his debut at right guard after missing the opener, which should give this offense a boost.

The Chargers are running into a juggernaut in the Chiefs, but they played the Chiefs twice down the stretch last season when the Chiefs were hot and on their eventual Super Bowl run and the Chargers kept those games between 7 and 10 points and were even closer in first down rate differential at -2.12% and -1.75% respectively. This line gives them 9 points of cushion and they’ll also have one benefit that they didn’t have last season, which is that they won’t have to face a road crowd, something they always do against the Chiefs, regardless of where they play, even at home. In fact, with the Chargers able to pump in fake crowd noise, this team might have some real homefield advantage for the first time in years. 

The Chiefs are also in a tough spot, as they could easily look past the Chargers with a huge Monday night matchup in Baltimore on deck, while the Chargers have an easy game against the Panthers on deck. Underdogs are 76-38 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and all three of those conditions are almost definitely true here. I like the Chargers’ chances of keeping this close, especially with the Chiefs pretty banged up on defense with starting #1 cornerback Chavarius Ward and rotational defensive linemen Alex Okafor and Khalen Saunders out. This would be my Pick of the Week if I wasn’t terrified of the Chiefs.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Los Angeles Chargers 27

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +9

Confidence: High

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (0-0) at Kansas City Chiefs (0-0)

The 2020 NFL season is underway, with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs playing host to the Houston Texans, a team they defeated 51-31 in the AFC divisional round, en route to their Super Bowl victory. This season will be unlike any other, with pandemic restrictions significantly reducing stadium capacity, in many cases down to zero. In the MLB, we’ve seen next to no benefit to being the home team in front of an empty stadium, with the average MLB home team actually being outscored by 0.02 runs per game, when teams normally have an advantage of 0.15 runs per game at home. 

There is established sleep science that sleeping in a familiar bed leads to enhanced performance, so I wouldn’t say there will be no homefield advantage this season, especially with there being some fans in attendance in many markets, and with home teams having access to fake crowd noise to try to make life more difficult for opposing offenses, but it is clear that the standard three point advantage for homefield can’t be used this season. Instead, I would recommend something in the 1-1.5 point range, depending on whether or not limited fans are allowed.

They will be in this one, with up to 16,000 fans joining the Chiefs in celebrating their Super Bowl victory. Super Bowl winners normally do pretty well in their first game back, especially at home, going 10-4-1 ATS since 2004, but this line seems pretty inflated, favoring the Chiefs by 9.5 points. If the Chiefs defense plays like it did down the stretch last season, this line is justifiable, but their defensive talent is suspect outside of their top guys, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they regressed back to their early 2019 season form. I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Texans, who are in worse shape than they were last season, but there’s more value taking the points for pick ‘em purposes. You can read more in depth on both teams and others in my season previews.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Houston +9.5

Confidence: None

Kansas City Chiefs 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when the Chiefs taking Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft was controversial. Not only was Mahomes considered a boom or bust prospect, but remember the Chiefs were coming off of a 12-4 season and seemed to have a viable quarterback in place in Alex Smith and the two first round picks (#27 in 2017 and eventually #22 in 2018) they gave up to move up to take Mahomes at 10 could have been used on non-quarterbacks to add pieces to an already strong roster. 

It’s the kind of decision that could have badly backfired if they had selected a quarterback who didn’t pan out, but Mahomes has proven the Chiefs to be spectacularly right for taking a chance on him. Mahomes spent his rookie year on the bench behind Smith, only starting a meaningless week 17 game, and then the Chiefs traded Smith to the Redskins for a 3rd round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller and anointed Mahomes the starter for his second season in the league in 2018. 

All Mahomes did was win the MVP in his first season as a starter, joining Peyton Manning as the only quarterback in the 5,000 yard/50 touchdown club, while completing 66.0% of his passes for an average of 8.79 YPA and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked quarterback, only behind Drew Brees, who had almost a hundred fewer pass attempts. Overall, the Chiefs led the league with a 45.18% first down rate on the season, the highest single season mark in recent memory.

The Chiefs’ 2018 season ended in the AFC Championship game, but that was hardly Mahomes’ fault, as he got them within a defensive penalty of making the Super Bowl, despite being supported by a league worst defense that allowed a league leading 42.20% first down rate on the season. In 2019, with a better supporting cast, Mahomes was able to take this team all the way, giving him a regular season and a Super Bowl MVP in his first 2 seasons as a starter, the only quarterback in NFL history to do that.

The story is a little bit more up and down than that, as Mahomes dealt with leg injuries early in the 2019 season and at one point looked like he had suffered a potentially devastating knee injury during a week 7 game against the Broncos, but he ended up only missing two and a half games, returning in week 10 to take this team all the way. In fact, that knee injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as it allowed Mahomes to fully rest a lingering ankle injury that could have limited him all season if he didn’t rest it. 

In the last two games between injuring his ankle and going down with the knee injury, he had completed just 55.4% of his passes for an average of 8.03 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions and had led the Chiefs to a 40.36% first down rate, after a 45.34% first down rate in his previous 20 career starts prior to the ankle injury. Even at less than 100%, Mahomes is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but the Chiefs likely would not have won the Super Bowl if he remained limited for the rest of the season.

Upon Mahomes’ healthy return in week 10, the Chiefs lost their first game in close fashion to a Tennessee team that turned out to be better than they looked at the time, but then the Chiefs ripped off 9 straight wins en route to the Super Bowl, including 7 wins by double digits. Including the Tennessee loss, the Chiefs had a 43.06% first down rate in 10 games after Mahomes returned. Mahomes also earned PFF’s highest quarterback grade from week 10 on and was arguably better down the stretch last season than he was in his MVP season, which just shows the kind of player he can consistently be if he can stay healthy long-term.

Mahomes’ injury also lined up with when this defense started playing better, which may be coincidence more than anything, but the Chiefs allowed a 34.36% first down rate in their final 10 regular games and their three post-season games, starting with that game against Denver, a drastic improvement from a 41.85% first down rate allowed in Mahomes’ previous 22 career regular season starts. All in all, the Chiefs had a +7.82% first down rate differential from Mahomes’ return in week 10 through the Super Bowl, so it’s not surprising they were able to go all the way. I’ll get into their defense later, but if they can be even serviceable on that side of the ball this season they should be very much in the mix to become the NFL’s first back-to-back champion since the 2003-2004 Patriots.

With Mahomes still only going into his age 25 season, there’s no question that he has the potential to be the best quarterback in the NFL for the next decade. The only question was how the Chiefs would keep him long-term and how much they’d have to pay to do so. There was speculation that the Chiefs would get creative with his contract structure and they certainly did, signing Mahomes to an unheard of 10-year extension that pays him 450 million in new money, with another 25 million available in incentives for Super Bowl appearances and MVPs. On top of that, because of the structure of the deal, the whole contract is functionally guaranteed.

Those are eye popping numbers, but the Chiefs were always going to have to break the bank to keep Mahomes long-term and it’s a more team friendly deal than you’d think because of the length and the way the cap has been going in recent years. Including the 2 years and 28 million remaining on his current rookie deal, it’s a 12-year deal in total that keeps him under team control through 2031. If you look at just the first 4 years of the extension, Mahomes is set to make 155.8 million in new money, 38.95 million annually, which is obviously a lot, but it’s not a bad value when you compare it to the 35 million, 33.5 million, and 32 million annually that Russell Wilson, Jared Goff, and Carson Wentz got annually on 4-year extensions, as those three are all older and not as good as Mahomes. Most estimates had a 4-year extension for Mahomes valued at 40 million annually this off-season, so in that sense the Chiefs got off easy.

After the first 4 years, Mahomes is set to take home 294.6 million in new money over 6 years, an average of 49 million annually, but that’s actually where the real value of this deal comes in. In just the past 6 seasons, the salary cap has increased 50% and the average salary of the highest paid quarterback (prior to Mahomes’ new deal) increased by 60% from 22 million to 35 million, so it’s conceivable that just 4 years into Mahomes’ extension, the highest paid quarterback could be making 55 million annually (a roughly 60% increase), making Mahomes’ 49 million dollars annually look like a bargain by comparison, with another 6 years to go on the deal. As much money as this is, the Chiefs almost definitely would have ended up paying him more over the next twelve years if they had signed him to a series of shorter term deals.

Anyway you look at it though, it’s a lot of money and a steep increase from his rookie deal, so there’s concern that the Chiefs won’t be able to keep talent around him long-term. That will definitely become a concern at some point, but the way this deal is structured, his cap hits are just 5.347 million and 24.807 million over the next two seasons respectively, so it won’t hamper them just yet. In fact, they managed to bring back the 2nd most snaps of any team in the league this off-season and have a good chance to repeat as a result. However, with Mahomes becoming the Chiefs 11th player making more than 8 million annually (169.9 million combined), something will have to give at some point, even if the cap keeps climbing like it has.

No team has won the Super Bowl since 1994 with more than 12.5% of the cap committed to the quarterback position and just 6 teams have won it over that stretch with a quarterback taking up more than 10% of the cap. Mahomes is set to count between a projected 12%-19% of the cap throughout most of his new contract, but if any quarterback is capable of being the exception it’s Mahomes. We’ve already seen him take a less than stellar supporting cast, including a terrible defense, to the brink of the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs obviously hope they never have to use their backup quarterback, especially since their backup is an underwhelming option in Chad Henne, who has just a 75.5 QB rating in his career in 53 starts and hasn’t made a start since 2014. Matt Moore wasn’t horrible last season in Mahomes’ absence last season, completing 59 of 91 for 659 yards and 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and if the Chiefs can convince him to come back for his age 36 season he’d probably be a better option than Henne. Either way, this team will go as Mahomes goes, so they’d be in a lot of trouble if they had to turn to a backup regardless of who it is.

Update: Moore has been re-signed.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As good as this offense was down the stretch last season, the Chiefs were still able to potentially add a new dimension to this unit when they used the 32nd overall pick on LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Chiefs didn’t have a bad running game last season, rushing for 4.18 YPC, 20th highest in the NFL, but that was primarily because teams couldn’t stack the box against the run, for fear of Mahomes beating them deep. They also had the 6th fewest carries in the league with 375 and that includes 43 carries by Mahomes himself, so running backs were really not a big part of this offense in 2019.

The Chiefs used to have a dominant feature back, using a 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Kareem Hunt, who not only played well on the ground, rushing for 2,151 yards and 15 touchdowns on 453 carries (4.75 YPC) in 27 games, but also was a big threat out of the backfield as a receiver, averaging a 47/494/6 slash line per 16 games. However, Hunt was kicked off the team in the middle of the 2018 season for disciplinary reasons. In his absence the Chiefs have turned to Damien Williams as their lead back and used both Williams and aged veteran LeSean McCoy in tandem together last season (111 carries and 101 carries respectively).

Williams hasn’t been bad, rushing for 4.68 YPC on 161 carries in 27 games with the Chiefs, but he’s a 6-year veteran who has never topped 111 carries in a season and he has a career 4.19 YPC average, so he’s a very underwhelming lead back. Edwards-Helaire, meanwhile, profiles more similarly to Hunt as a player, as he’s not only a talented runner, but also he was the best pass catching running back in the draft. McCoy is no longer with the team and Damien Williams looks like the clear #2 back right now, so Edwards-Helaire should be a big part of this offense. How big of a part remains to be seen, as they still may want to keep Williams somewhat involved so they don’t overload the rookie, but Edwards-Helaire has feature back upside as a rookie and looks like an obvious upgrade at a position of need.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Aside from the upgrade at running back, the rest of this offense looks more or less the same as the one they won the Super Bowl with last season. Left guard Stefen Wisniewski is the only missing starter on offense and he’s a middling player who only made 2 regular season starts, so he won’t be hard to replace. The Chiefs will likely go back to Andrew Wylie, who began last season as the starting left guard before missing time with injury and eventually losing his job. Wylie went undrafted in 2017, but has earned a slightly above average grade from Pro Football Focus on 21 starts over the past two seasons, so he’s not a downgrade. 

The other option would be Mike Remmers, a veteran who can play both tackle and guard. Remmers was a solid starter in his prime and earned a middling grade from PFF last season in 14 starts at right tackle for the Giants, but he’s now going into his age 31 season and may end up as versatile depth more than anything. With Wisniewski and swing tackle Cameron Erving gone, the Chiefs needed to replenish depth upfront this off-season and they did just that with Remmers, even if he doesn’t end up beating out Wylie to start week 1.

Aside from that, the rest of this offensive line is the same as last year and they could possibly be better this season with better health. Left tackle Eric Fisher was the most notable absence, as he missed 8 games in the regular season and his replacement Cameron Erving finished 85th out of 87 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF last season. Fisher isn’t a spectacular player, but he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of the past 6 seasons (85 starts), maxing out at 24th in 2016, so having him in the lineup for 16 games or close to it would be significant.

Right guard Laurent Duvarney-Tardif also missed a couple games due to injury, but that’s been the norm for him, as he’s never started all 16 games in 6 seasons in the league. He played at a high level in 2017, finishing 19th among guards on PFF in 11 starts, but he’s otherwise been a middling starter in 57 career starts, so that year looks like an obvious outlier. Still in his age 29 season, Duvarney-Tardif should remain at least a capable starter when on the field, though he’s likely to miss time at some point if history is any indication.

Center Austin Reiter and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz were the only two Chiefs offensive lineman to make all 16 starts last season. Reiter was serviceable in his first full season as a starter, finishing 23rd out of 38 qualifying centers on PFF, after the 2015 7th round pick flashed on 333 snaps in the first 4 seasons as his career prior to last season, and, though he’s relatively unproven, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a comparable year in 2020.

Schwartz, meanwhile, is hands down their best offensive lineman and arguably the top right tackle in the whole league. Schwartz has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 8 seasons he’s been in the league, including three seasons in the top-15 among offensive tackles, He’s going into his age 31 season now, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down, setting and matching a career high 5th ranked finish at his position over the past two seasons respectively, and he has no injury history, missing just 6 snaps total in his entire career, including a 7,894 consecutive snap streak that ended last season. Even if he slows down a little bit, it would be a surprise if he wasn’t one of the best in the league at his position again. He leads an overall solid offensive line that should benefit from better health in 2020.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Chiefs could also benefit from better health in the receiving corps, as #1 wide receiver Tyreek Hill was limited to 563 snaps in 12 games by injuries last season. Hill still finished with a 58/860/7 slash line, as he was highly efficient on a per route run basis, ranking 4th in the NFL with 2.45 yards per route run. That’s largely par for the course for him, as he’s averaged 2.42 yards per route run in 4 seasons in the league. He’s also finished in the top-12 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in which he’s been a starter. Still only going into his age 26 season, if Hill can stay healthy all season with a healthy Mahomes in 2020, he should match or surpass his 87/1479/12 slash line from 2018 (4th in the NFL in receiving yards).

If Hill can stay healthy, the Chiefs should have a pair of thousand yard receivers in 2020, like they did in 2017 and 2018, with tight end Travis Kelce having surpassed that mark in four straight seasons. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Kelce had significant injury concerns coming out of the draft and missed his whole rookie season with injury, but he remarkably hasn’t missed a game due to injury in 6 seasons and he has had at least 862 receiving yards in each of those seasons, including 103/1336/10 and 97/1229/5 slash lines in two seasons with Mahomes. He’s not a great run blocker, but he can hold his own and has overall finished in the top-4 among tight ends on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons, including 4 straight seasons. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he has shown no signs of decline, he has no recent injury history, and, even if he does decline a little, he would still be one of the top tight ends in the league.

The Chiefs also have good depth in the receiving corps. Most thought #2 wide receiver Sammy Watkins and his 14 million dollar non-guaranteed salary were gone this off-season, but the Chiefs were able to come to an agreement to bring him back for 9 million. Watkins never developed into the #1 receiver it looked like he would be, after going #4 overall pick in 2014 and putting up a 60/1047/9 slash line in just 13 games in 2015, as a series of injuries have seemingly sapped his explosiveness and limited him to a 54/754/5 slash line per 16 games over the past four seasons, with no full 16-game seasons played since his rookie year, but he’s still a solid #2 wide receiver who has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league and who is still only going into his age 27 season. He’s almost a guarantee to miss time at some point, but he should be an asset while on the field.

With Watkins and Hill both missing time last season, DeMarcus Robinson played 735 snaps, but he was highly ineffective given the offense he played in, totalling just a 32/449/4 slash line and averaging just 0.96 yards per route run. Robinson is a good athlete who went in the 4th round in 2016 and he’s still only in his age 26 season, but he should have averaged more than 0.87 yards per route run in his career, given the offense he has played on. There was some speculation that Robinson could get a big contract somewhere this off-season based on upside, but that speculation never made much sense and Robinson ended up having to take a 1-year, 2.2975 million dollar deal back in Kansas City. 

It’s very possible Robinson won’t be any higher than 4th on the depth chart this season, as 2019 2nd round pick Mecole Hardman flashed on 471 rookie year snaps and seems to have earned a bigger role, especially if Robinson is his only real competition. Hardman finished with a 26/538/6 slash line on 41 targets (13.1 yards per target), while averaging 1.84 yards per route run as well. The speedster is a perfect fit for this vertical offense and, while he might not be quite as efficient in a bigger role in 2020, he still has a chance to put up good production even as the 4th or 5th option in the passing game.

The Chiefs also upgraded at the #2 tight end spot this off-season, signing Ricky Seals-Jones to replace Blake Bell, who finished 65th out of 73 qualifying tight ends on PFF on 398 snaps last season. Seals-Jones isn’t much of a blocker, but he’s averaged a decent 1.29 yards per route run in three seasons in the league. He won’t get much playing time or many targets behind Travis Kelce, but he’s a better fit for the #2 tight end role than Bell was. This is a deep and talented receiving corps overall.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

One key player whose days with the team could be numbered after the Mahomes extension is interior defender Chris Jones, who remains unsigned long-term after being slapped with a 16.126 million dollar franchise tag. Jones wants upwards of 20 million annually on a long-term deal, something he could get if he hit the open market, as he’s finished in the top-8 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, has totalled 31 sacks, 33 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate over that stretch, and is still only going into his age 26 season. However, the Chiefs really don’t have the flexibility to add another big deal long-term. Jones has recently said he won’t play for the Chiefs without a new deal and, while he has plenty of financial incentive to not actually sit out the season, it’s possible the Chiefs end up having to explore a trade for him before the season starts if they don’t want to meet his asking price. 

If they do end up trading him, they may end up settling for less than they could have gotten had they moved him earlier in the off-season. Considering the Colts gave up the 13rd overall pick to acquire DeForest Buckner from the 49ers and gave him 21 million annually on a long-term extension, the Chiefs probably could have gotten a similar deal had they been willing to move Jones before the draft. Now at the very least the Chiefs wouldn’t get an asset that could help until 2021 if they moved Jones and it’s debatable if they could even still get a first at this point in the off-season, with the Chiefs running out of time to reach an extension.

Obviously the ideal would be to keep him for at least one more year on the franchise tag, as they have to cap space to do so and don’t have anyone close to being able to replace him at the defensive tackle position. Derrick Nnadi was the other starter and played 598 snaps total. He was adequate against the run, but got no pass rush, with 1 sack, no hits, and a 6.1% pressure rate on the season. The 2018 3rd round pick also had a similar year on 448 snaps as a rookie prior to last season. He may take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee and it’s very possible he never develops as a pass rusher and his ceiling is as an above average situational run stuffer.

The Chiefs also used a 2nd round pick in 2019 on an interior defender in Khalen Saunders, but he didn’t show much on 303 rookie year snaps. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but even in that case I wouldn’t expect him to be more than a solid rotational player. Saunders particularly struggled as a pass rusher, with just a 2.0% pressure rate on the season, so the Chiefs used oversized defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon (6-7 289) inside somewhat frequently in passing situations, but he struggled as well. He may have to play that role again though, for lack of a better option. The Chiefs have some young talent at this position, but Chris Jones elevates the position group by himself and if they had to trade him before the season begins, this would become a big position of weakness.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

Tanoh Kpassagnon also saw significant snaps at the edge defender position, especially down the stretch, playing 691 snaps total, but he earned below average grades from Pro Football Focus as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher. The reason he had to play significant snaps down the stretch is because both Alex Okafor (42.1 snaps per game) and Emmanuel Ogbah (41.0 snaps per game) suffered season ending injuries. Ogbah is no longer with the team, but Okafor returns from injury, as does 2018 2nd round Breeland Speaks, who missed all of 2019 with injury. Those three will compete for snaps on the edge, with Frank Clark locked into an every down role (51.8 snaps per game) at one spot.

Clark is obviously the best of the bunch, though he did struggle to begin last season due to a neck injury. From week 11 on, he was PFF’s 40th ranked edge defender and totalled 4 sacks in 6 games with a 12.2% pressure rate. That’s much more in line with what he did in his three prior seasons, when he earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons (career best 20th in 2018) and had a 12.7% pressure rate with 33 sacks in 47 games. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, Clark should continue being an above average starter in 2019 if he’s healthy. The Chiefs probably overpaid by giving up a first and second round draft pick to acquire him and give him a 5-year, 104 million dollar extension, money that could have been better spent on Chris Jones, but if they can keep both Clark and Jones for 2020, they should be a strong inside/outside pass rush duo.

The rest of this group is questionable. Speaks came into the league with a lot of upside as the 46th overall pick in 2018, but his long-term projection is more questionable now after he struggled on 475 snaps as a rookie and then missed all of 2019 with a knee injury. Kpassagnon also went in the 2nd round, back in 2017, but he struggled in the first significant action of his career in 2019 and is no guarantee to get better. 

Okafor is the veteran of the bunch and has some history of success, finishing 28th among edge defenders on PFF on 486 snaps in 2017 and 38th on 658 snaps in 2018, but he struggled mightily last season, finishing 114th out of 118 qualifying edge defenders on 421 snaps before the injury, and he’s been very inconsistent throughout his career. Injuries are also not new for him, as he’s missed 34 games and suffered three season ending injuries in 7 seasons in the league. He has some bounce back potential, but, like the rest of this group aside from Clark, he’s not a reliable option.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Chiefs’ linebackers were their worst position group last season. Of the 5 players who played any significant snaps for them, only Reggie Ragland, a situational run stuffer who played 235 snaps total, earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus, and he’s no longer with the team. The Chiefs addressed this position in the second round with Willie Gay and he could easily play a significant role, even though he’s still a raw rookie. Damien Wilson (709 snaps), Anthony Hitchens (699 snaps), and Ben Niemann (400 snaps) were their top-3 linebackers last season in terms of snaps played and, even though all three struggled and are underwhelming options, they should all be in the mix for roles again in what looks like a weak group again.

Hitchens is the most proven option, as he earned an above average grade from PFF as a rotational player in 2016 and 2017, but he’s also finished below average in his other 4 of 6 seasons in the league and he’s really only their most proven option by default. Wilson was a first year starter last year, never topping 321 snaps in 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he wasn’t even good as a reserve, so it’s hard to see him ever developing into a capable starter at this point. 

Niemann, meanwhile, is a 2018 undrafted free agent who barely played as a rookie before struggling in a larger role in 2019. With the unproven rookie Gay as their only potentially good coverage option, the Chiefs could frequently use three safeties in sub packages, with one lining up near the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, something they did somewhat frequently last season. Linebacker looks likely to be a position of weakness again.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The biggest reason for the Chiefs’ defensive turnaround last season was their safety play, as not only is safety a position where the Chiefs go three deep in sub packages, but they also have one of the better safety duos in the league as their starters in base packages. That wasn’t the case at all in 2018, when their horrendous defense had probably the worst safety play in the league, but the Chiefs fixed the problem quickly by signing Tyrann Mathieu to a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal and using a second round pick on Juan Thornhill last off-season. Together, they made all 16 starts and finished 21st and 33rd respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus.

Mathieu’s career has been a winding road since entering the league as a 3rd round draft pick in 2013. He appeared to be on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2013 and 2015 respectively, finishing 9th and 1st respectively at his position on PFF in those two seasons, but both seasons ended with a torn ACL and he wasn’t nearly as good in injury plagued seasons in 2014 (428 snaps) and 2016 (561 snaps). 

He played all 16 games in 2017, but wasn’t as good as he had been previously, so the Cardinals released him ahead of the 4 years and 42.5 million remaining on his 5-year, 62.5 million dollar extension. However, he’s bounced back pretty well over the past two seasons, finishing 20th among safeties in 2018 on a one-year deal with the Texans and then 21st last season in his first year in Kansas City. Perhaps most importantly, he’s stayed healthy, playing all 48 games over the past 3 seasons. 

Still in his age 28 season, Mathieu should remain at least an above average safety for several more years if he can continue avoiding injury. Thornhill has his own injury concerns, coming off of a torn ACL suffered in week 17, which complicates his projection for 2020, but he could easily remain an above average starter and continue getting better long-term. So far everything seems to have gone well with his recovery, as he’s reportedly considered likely to be ready for week 1, roughly 8 months after the injury. The Chiefs also still have veteran Daniel Sorensen, who has struggled when he’s had to play every down in his career, but was capable in a sub package role last season (563 snaps), primarily playing as a coverage linebacker.

At cornerback, the Chiefs have to replace Kendall Fuller, their only real off-season loss (4-year, 40 million dollar deal from the Redskins this off-season). Fuller was an underwhelming player last season though and was only playing a part-time role down the stretch, while expected replacement Rashad Fenton flashed a lot of potential on 166 rookie year snaps. Fenton is still obviously a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was comparable to Fuller, who finished 78th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF.

Fenton could end up as high as 2nd on the depth chart coming into the season, which would guarantee him an every down role. His primary competition for that job would be veteran Bashaud Breeland, although Breeland is facing potential discipline for an off-the-field incident and could be sidelined to begin the season anyway. Breeland has generally been a solid starter throughout his career (77 starts), but he’s coming off of a terrible season in which he finished 122nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF in 15 starts. Still only in his age 28 season, Breeland has some bounce back potential whenever he’s allowed to play, but he’s obviously a shaky option. While he’s absent, the Chiefs would likely turn to 4th round rookie L’Jarius Sneed, who is expected to be the #4 cornerback.

Chavarius Ward is the nominal #1 cornerback of this group, largely by default, as Ward was solid in his first significant action last (16 starts), but likely lacks #1 cornerback upside, as a former undrafted free agent (2018). He finished 39th among cornerbacks on PFF last season, which isn’t bad, but there’s no guarantee he’s even that good again. The Chiefs talented safeties mask their cornerback problems a little bit, but this secondary has obvious concerns at corner.

Grade: B

Conclusion

There’s no question the Chiefs will have a dominant offense this season and for the foreseeable future as long as Mahomes is under center. The question is if their defense is closer to the unit that struggled to begin last season or the one that played well down the stretch during their Super Bowl run. If it’s the latter, the Chiefs should be considered favorites to repeat. If it’s the former, the Chiefs should still be in the mix, but not as the favorites. I tend to side with the latter more because, outside of Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark, and Chris Jones (who may get dealt before the start of the season), this is a pretty underwhelming group, but there’s no doubt this is one of the top few teams in the league any way you look at it.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Chiefs lost Damien Williams and Laurent Duvarney-Tardif to opt outs and will be without Bashaud Breeland and Mike Pennel to start the season due to suspension. This is still one of the top teams in the AFC, but a repeat is far from a guarantee.

Projection: 11-5 (1st in AFC West)

San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs: Super Bowl LIV Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (14-4) vs. San Francisco 49ers (15-3) in Super Bowl LIV

The more hyped matchup in this game is the matchup between the Chiefs’ offense and the 49ers’ defense and rightfully so, as they are the top offense and defense in the league in my opinion. Neither unit finished the regular season first in the league in first down rate (or first down rate allowed), but regular season injuries played a big part in that. The Chiefs managed to finish in 2nd in first down rate at 40.53%, despite 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes missing two and a half games with injury and playing at less than 100% in several others. They also had injuries on their offensive line, most notably left tackle Eric Fisher (8 games), and they were without top wide receiver Tyreek Hill for a big chunk of the first half of the season. 

The Chiefs’ offense was able to tread water when Mahomes was out, but they’ve unsurprisingly been much better with Mahomes in the lineup, even playing at less than 100%. With backup Matt Moore in the lineup, the Chiefs had a 32.47% first down rate, as opposed to 43.86% with Mahomes, which would have led the NFL by a pretty wide margin over the Ravens (41.73%). The Chiefs’ offense has been especially good down the stretch with Mahomes getting closer to full strength, with a 45.39% rate in their past 7 games. It might seem like that’s an unsustainable high rate, but they had a 45.18% first down rate last season across 16 games with Mahomes healthy.

They’ve been even better offensively in two post-season games, as the first round bye seems to have done Mahomes a world of good. They’ve picked up 56 first downs and scored 12 offensive touchdowns on 121 snaps, a ridiculous 56.20% rate, including a 63.16% first down rate in their win over the Texans, the highest single game mark in the league this season. For comparison, the Chargers had the best single game mark in the regular season with a 56.90% first down rate in a 45-10 week 14 win in Jacksonville. The Chiefs have maintained that level of play for two weeks in the playoffs.

Mahomes didn’t quite have the same regular season in 2019 as he did in 2018, but he did cut down his giveaways significantly (1.0% interception rate vs. 2.1% in 2018), despite playing banged up, and now fully healthy, he’s arguably playing the best football he’s ever played, still somehow only in his 36th professional start. With another week off before the Super Bowl, expect a nearly unstoppable level of play from Mahomes.

I say nearly unstoppable because if any defense can at least slow him down and keep the Chiefs to a manageable point total it’s this 49ers defense. They finished “just” 6th in the NFL with a 32.95% first down rate allowed in the regular season, but like the Chiefs’ offense not finishing first in first down rate, that was largely due to injuries. Through the first 7 games of the season, the 49ers had a ridiculous 24.67% first down rate allowed. By comparison, the Patriots led the NFL with a 29.64% first down rate on the season and no other team was below 32.43%. Unfortunately, top linebacker Kwon Alexander went down in the 49ers 8th game of the season in week 9 and missed the rest of the regular season, while dominant edge rusher Ford played just 73 snaps after week 9. 

The 49ers faced a relatively easily schedule during those first 7 games, but still allowed a first down rate that was more than 10% below what would have been expected based on competition. With Ford and Alexander back for the 49ers’ two playoff games, the 49ers have held the Vikings and Packers to a combined 31.07% first down rate, though there was a pretty drastic difference between the Vikings’ 7 first down performance and the Packers’ 21 first down performance, even if most of the Packers success came with the game out of hand. Ford and Alexander haven’t even been at full strength or played a full snap count and should be closer to 100% after the extra week off before the Super Bowl. With those two back, the 49ers are dominant in all 3 levels of the defense and lack an obvious weakness for the Chiefs to exploit. 

As exciting as it will be to see the Chiefs’ offense square off against the 49ers’ defense, the matchup that may end up deciding this game is the matchup between the 49ers’ offense and the Chiefs’ defense. The 49ers’ aren’t known for their offense the way the Chiefs are, but they still finished the regular season with a 9th ranked 38.24% first down rate and that rate is even higher since acquiring Emmanuel Sanders during week 8, as they have a 39.94% first down rate since then, which would have been 3rd in the NFL this season. With Sanders coming in and rookie Debbo Samuels coming on in the second half of the season, the 49ers have a lot more aerial firepower now than they did at the start of the season and they also have offensive tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey healthy after they missed time in the regular season.

The Chiefs’ defense, meanwhile, is probably more known for negative things than positive things, but that hasn’t been the case in recent weeks, as they have a 33.77% first down rate allowed since week 7. However, that comes after a 40.91% first down rate allowed in the first 6 games of the season and a league worst 42.20% first down rate allowed last season. Overall, the Chiefs finished just 19th with a 36.34% first down rate allowed this season. The question that I think will decide this game is which version of the Chiefs’ defense is for real, the strong unit they’ve been in recent weeks, the weak unit they were for all of last season and early this season, or somewhere in between. 

On paper, they seem more similar to the unit that struggled early in the season, as outside of obvious stars like Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Tyrann Mathieu, this is a pretty underwhelming unit, especially with talented rookie safety Juan Thornhill out for the season. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has gotten them to play much better than the sum of their parts in recent weeks, but even a little regression to their early season habits from the Chiefs’ defense could lose them the game, with the 49ers being strong on both sides of the ball. 

In particular, the Chiefs could have trouble with the 49ers’ run heavy offense because their run defense is significantly worse than their pass defense. They were able to handle the run heavy Titans in the AFC Championship, but that was largely because they were able to get a lead and force the Titans out of their gameplan. The 49ers are a more complete team and this should be a close game either way, so I wouldn’t expect them to be forced out of their game plan at any point in this game.

Ultimately, this seems like a matchup between a team with a better quarterback and a team with a better overall roster, which is often the case in Super Bowls. Mahomes is the kind of quarterback who can take over a game by himself because he can make plays other guys can’t, but historically speaking the team with the better regular season quarterback actually loses the Super Bowl more often than not. All-time, the quarterback with a higher regular season adjusted YPA wins just 37.7% of the time, including an 0-9 record in the past 9 Super Bowls.

That alone isn’t a reason to pick the 49ers, but it suggests that historically a better team will beat a team with a better quarterback. Mahomes is historically on a different level than most quarterbacks, even among quarterbacks appearing in the Super Bowl, and the Chiefs’ defense could continue to perform at a high level within Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme, so I wouldn’t bet on the 49ers if this was a random week 9 game, but they’re worth at least a small bet in the final game of the season.

San Francisco 49ers 26 Kansas City Chiefs 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Championship Pick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Tennessee Titans 23

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -7

Confidence: None

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Houston +10

Confidence: None

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas City Chiefs 24 Los Angeles Chargers 19

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +9

Confidence: High

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas City Chiefs 26 Chicago Bears 20

Pick against the spread: Chicago +7

Confidence: None

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas City Chiefs 23 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Denver +10

Confidence: Pick of the Week