The Cleveland Browns got nearly everything they could’ve wanted in the Divisional Round. Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker left four points on the cutting table, misfiring on an early extra point and a can-of-corn field goal inside the red zone. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was noticeably bothered by a foot injury early on, then completely removed from the game halfway through the third quarter after taking a hit on a third-down option keeper that launched him straight into the concussion protocol. Chad Henne played the final 22 minutes of the game.
Despite these developments breaking in their favor, Cleveland still couldn’t quite pull the upset, and the Chiefs remain atop Super Bowl odds in online sports betting. The Browns’ upset bid finally crumbled as Henne converted a late fourth down on a gutsy call from Andy Reid.
Now, NFL fans will finally get the AFC showdown that’s been on a collision course for months now. Josh Allen and Buffalo will attempt to dethrone the reigning Super Bowl champs in Kansas City, with Mahomes’ official status still in question.
The only place to start when handicapping this weekend’s championship game is Mahomes. His status is central to betting on this game, regardless of which position you want to take.
As of Wednesday, Mahomes was listed as a limited participant in practice. Nothing is guaranteed, but the reigning Super Bowl MVP appears on track to clear concussion protocol by week’s end and suit up for game day.
I’m rarely a proponent of making assumptions in handicapping, but… let’s be honest. Mahomes is not going to be sitting this game out. Chad Henne has an only slightly better chance of starting this weekend’s game than I do. So in this particular case, I would operate under the assumption that Mahomes is going to play.
Once you do that, Kansas City -3 becomes an appealing position. A greater degree of quarterback certainty – even if Mahomes isn’t playing at 100 percent because of lingering physical issues – likely pushes this point spread into the four-to-six point range. That influx of public money would be a major departure from how the game has been bet so far this week, where a majority of tickets and money have stayed away from the Chiefs and their uncertain offense.
So, one smart way to bet this game? Take the Chiefs now, at KC -3. As the week inches closer to kickoff, you can come in on Buffalo late if/when the point spread draws closer to KC -7.
How about an actual X’s and O’s breakdown? Buffalo spent the second half of the regular season absolutely nuking teams, which has concealed the fact that its defense is good-not-great, and its offense is surprisingly one-dimensional. On the ground, the Bills give up 4.7 yards per rush, which is in league with Jacksonville and Tennessee. Their own run game averages 4.1 yards per rush – bottom 10 in the league, right behind the Jets – and generates only 102.8 total yards per game. This, despite the fact that Buffalo is consistently up big late in games when game flow would traditionally dictate a run-heavy diet.
Buffalo’s return to glory in 2020 rests squarely on the shoulders of a dynamic Josh Allen, who has come into his own as a legitimate top-10 NFL quarterback. It is distinctly possible that Allen and his impressive band of offensive playmakers could outrun Kansas City’s offense this weekend. And not to state the obvious, but this is an even more distinctly possible outcome in that hypothetically plausible scenario where Mahomes remains on the sideline at kickoff.
But as the Browns and others have underscored, the way to beat the reigning champs is to utilize a dynamic run game to pound the rock, keeping KC off the field and out of rhythm. That, and a red-zone offense that cashes in for seven instead of three, is the most likely recipe to beat Kansas City and earn one more game on February 7.
Buffalo edges out KC on red zone touchdown offense, finding pay dirt on 63 percent of its trips inside the 20 to the Chiefs’ 59. However, those percentage points probably aren’t enough to compensate for Buffalo’s inability to manufacture a genuine threat on the ground. It’s true that Buffalo’s offense finds ways to use the quick pass game as an extension of the ground game, but I’m not sure that will provide the schematic problems that a true between-the-tackles pounder would.
Kansas City, on the other hand, has plenty of offensive dynamism and will be able to run on Buffalo just fine. Henne’s potential presence would likely bring more defenders into the box, as Buffalo’s defense would challenge him to go out and win the game. But if you’ve landed in a situation where you’ve backed the Chiefs and Henne is in the game, you’re probably already in trouble, anyway.
When you consider the inherent early-week value that Mahomes status brings, plus the unfavorable matchup that Buffalo faces, the Chiefs are the side I’m willing to play. Because I don’t know how healthy Mahomes will be entering the game, I’m willing to wager much more on the Packers in the NFC Championship Game than this spot right here. But if you’re making me choose, I’m leaning toward the Chiefs, with the frenetic pace of play and constant dropbacks favoring the over, as well.
Predictions: Chiefs -3, Over 55.5
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Chase Kiddy is a writer for BetMGM and co-host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has also written for a number of print and online outlets, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, Daily News-Record, and HERO Sports. His first novel, Cave Paintings, is in development. Follow him on Twitter: @chaseakiddy.