Betting on the NFL is difficult. Scratch that, betting successfully on the NFL is difficult. If it was easy, sportsbooks wouldn’t last long. Good handicappers can grind out a week-to-week profit by being selective and opportunistic. However, during the playoffs, things get even harder. Instead of a full slate of 16 games to pick through, we get a max of four, which means each one is deeply scrutinized.
While it is tempting to lay a boatload of points with New England this week (given what they did to Houston in the regular season) or back a hot team like Green Bay, there is only one good play during the NFL Divisional Round: the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Case for the Chiefs
The Chiefs fit a near-perfect criteria for astute bettors: they are very good without being popular. That combination ensures you always get the right side of the line. The public wants to bet on Pittsburgh and its high-flying offense as a small dog. That’s not a supernatural reaction. We just watched the Steelers impressively dispose of the Dolphins with their stars shining. But, if you take KC< you get a rested team which is both playing at home and laying less than a field goal. Home-field is worth a field goal on its own, maybe more at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the toughest places in the league for visiting teams. The current line suggests the Steelers would be a favorite on a neutral site. That is simply incorrect. The Chiefs are the better team, their Week 4 shellacking notwithstanding.
Those who bet casually prefer to look at stars rather than full rosters. Stars tend to play offense, not defense. The three biggest names playing in the game will be Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. While they’re unquestionably the three best offensive players involved, the two teams rushed for almost exactly the same number of yards this year, and Pittsburgh (24.9 PPG) barely outscored KC (24.3 PPG). While the Steelers passing game was almost 30 yards a game better, the two team’s posted nearly identical passer ratings. Pittsburgh is marginally better on offense.
Cornerback Marcus Peters, safety Eric Berry, and edge rusher Justin Houston are just as good at their jobs, and are just as important to the outcome of the game, as Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown. Peters is a shutdown corner; Berry is not only a constant presence in the secondary, but someone that can turn a game on one play; Houston practically lives in the backfield. The Chiefs allowed fewer than 20 points per game this year and led the NFL with 33 takeaways. The Steelers forced ten fewer turnovers and yielded about a point a game more than the Chiefs. Kansas City has more ability to force big plays and, down-in-down-out, are tougher than Pittsburgh on defense.
Neither team kicks a ton of field goals, though both hit at a strong percentage. The Chiefs’ Cairo Santos is dependable if not deadly (31/35 on the year, including 2/2 from 50-plus). His three missed extra points cause some concern.
Pittsburgh changed kickers during the season, and Robbie Gould has made his first ten field-goal tries. However, none were from deep, and he has missed three extra points, as well.
Neither team punted the ball well this year, with Kansas City’s Dustin Colquitt among the worst in the NFL.
In the return game, both squads are strong, but the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill is a huge weapon that the Steelers can’t match. Hill returned two punts and one kickoff for scores this season and the rookie speedster is such a threat that Pittsburgh might employ some unorthodox punting strategies just to keep the ball out of his hands. That will hurt the Steelers from a yardage standpoint, but limit Hill’s ability for a scoring play.
The Chiefs get the edge on special teams because of Hill.
The best argument you can make for Pittsburgh is that they have a slightly better offense and more (successful) postseason experience. If they hadn’t played last week – and if Roethlisberger wasn’t in a boot after that game – I could get behind the Steelers as a small road favorite. But they did play last week (in bad weather) and Roethlisberger got dinged up, all while KC was at home resting. With this game at Arrowhead, there is no justification for the Chiefs to be laying less than a field goal. (I haven’t even touched on Andy Reid’s record after a bye, which is equally strong in the postseason.)
The Chiefs are the lone value play in the Divisional Playoffs.
Image: public domain.