In the biggest game of the season for both teams, the 5-3 Raiders host the 5-4 Chiefs on Sunday Night Football. It doesn’t get much better than this. All four teams in the AFC West have 5 wins and all four teams (outside of maybe the Broncos) genuinely view themselves as the best team in the division. The winner of this game can go a long way towards proving that. But these two teams come into the game on vastly different trajectories. The Chiefs were preseason Super Bowl favorites and the Raiders were uniformly expected to be the worst team in the division. If you look at pedigree, coaching, quarterback, and talent, it’s tough not to say the Chiefs are the vastly better team. But if you look at how these teams have actually performed on the field in 2021 so far, that’s a tough argument to make. Derek Carr and the Raiders always play their best football against the Chiefs, so Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will need to fix their recent issues in this game to secure the crucial win and avoid looking at the AFC playoff picture from the outside looking in.
My ratings, based only on 2021 season performance, have Kansas City as the slightly better team, but the gap is more than offset by home field advantage. My numbers suggest the game should be essentially a pick ’em.
Baseline: LV by 0.81.
The KC Offense
Early in the season I was extremely high on this offense. They marched down the field with ease, like the Chiefs have for the last three years. They shot themselves in the foot several times with some high variance turnovers that were not predictive of poor performance. I wasn’t worried. This changed starting with the Bills game. They have genuinely struggled to move the ball. Travis Kelce looks like he’s lost a step. This is a major concern because he has always been the go-to player for Mahomes when defenses take away the big play. In past years, if you put two high safeties deep and rushed four, Mahomes would pepper Kelce for 7-10 yard gains until you got out of it. This has not happened in 2021, and so defenses have not had to adjust.
Given that defenses have been successful stopping Kansas City with coverage and rushing four, the Raiders are ideally suited for this matchup. They exert pressure at the league’s fifth-highest rate yet blitz less than any team in the NFL. It’s almost like they designed their defense to stop the Chiefs. They have played consistently well all year, particularly against the pass. Kansas City will get Clyde Edwards-Helaire back, and this could not have come at a better time. They will need to run the ball and they will need to run the ball successfully here. If they cannot run the ball, the Raiders will not have to adjust and it will be another long day for this offense. But if they can run the ball and force the Raiders down towards the line of scrimmage, there is a chance the Chiefs get back on track here.
But I wouldn’t count on it. Edwards-Helaire is an inconsistent runner. He can churn out tough yards but does not punish defenses for leaving gaps. I think the Raiders will be happy to give him some yards and focus on stopping the pass. They will force the Chiefs to play their best football, and there is simply no reason to think they can play their best football right now. Andy Reid will have to pull out all of his tricks, and Mahomes will have to play his best football and hope his receivers stop dropping passes and fumbling the ball. It’s never comfortable betting against Mahomes, because he is still the best player in the NFL. But he is in a true slump, and this is a tough spot.
Projection: KC offense will likely perform below expectation.
The LV Offense
The Chiefs defense has quietly been playing much better football of late. The early perception was that this defense is a historically bad defense, and that was fairly accurate early on. But they were struggling with injuries to key players, forcing other players out of position, and they faced several difficult matchups against the Browns, Ravens, Chargers, and Bills in their first five games. But outside of a disaster against Tennessee, they have gotten back on track with aggressiveness, capitalizing on opponent mistakes.
This chart shows the Chiefs’ defensive performance relative to each offense it has faced so far this season.
But this is not a good matchup for the Chiefs defense either. As you can see, three of the Chiefs’ four worst performances came against Cleveland, Baltimore, and Tennessee. These three teams are built to run the ball and capitalize on efficient downfield passing in key spots. The way you beat this defense is by playing sound football, diagnosing blitzes accurately, and avoiding mistakes. Teams that struggle against Kansas City are inconsistent teams that cannot run a methodical offense (like Washington with Heinicke, the Giants with Daniel Jones, and the Packers with Jordan Love).
Derek Carr is a smart, experienced quarterback who makes few mistakes. He plays his best football when the team can run the ball and stay ahead of the chains. The Raiders should be able to run the ball here and that is bad news for Kansas City. Carr also excels at making high-leverage throws on third downs, particularly in big games. Expect Waller, Renfrow, and Edwards to come up with huge catches when it matters most. Public perception is unfairly low on the Chiefs defense, but that is offset specifically in this matchup, which projects to be a tough one for the Chiefs.
Projection: LV offense will meet or slightly exceed expectations.
The Game Flow
The Raiders are going to hold the ball as much as possible. I think they’ll be able to churn out long drives and limit possessions in the game. On defense they will force Kansas City to do the same. There is a good chance we see each team touch the ball only 3-4 times each half, and it’s likely to come down to which team can convert in the red zone and avoid costly mistakes. If one team does take an early lead, the other team is very live for a comeback. We saw fireworks in both matchups last year and we could see the same here.
It pains me to write this sentence as a Chiefs fan, because this is a huge game: the Raiders should win this game outright. They are the team that is more likely to play sound, consistent football and get in the end zone. I think they stay one step ahead of the Chiefs throughout the game, and take a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs will make it interesting but ultimately cannot make key stops on third down as the Raiders salt away the victory, 27-24.
There are several ways to play this matchup. I’ve been waiting for a LV +3, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. If it does, it’ll likely be (-115) or (-120). So I’m no longer waiting. I’m playing LV +2.5 (-104) (4u) (FD). The money line (+124) also has value, but this is the kind of game where a 1-2 point win is within the range of outcomes. Alternatively, if you like teasers, LV +8.5 makes for one of the best teaser legs of the season in my opinion. The Chiefs are extremely unlikely to win by margin. As for the Total, given my predicted game flow and how the KC defense is underrated, I like Under 52.
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