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Here is the 2021 Pro Football Betting Guide preview for the AFC West.
THE FAVORITE: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
One team in this division is chasing a Super Bowl title, and the other three are in a race for second place. Kansas City is the odds-on favorite (-250) at DraftKings, and the Chiefs are probably not coming back to the pack as long as quarterback Patrick Mahomes stays healthy. The Chargers (9-2 odds), Broncos (6-1) and Raiders (22-1) are not exactly “The Three Stooges” in comparison with the dominant Chiefs, who finished 14-2 last year and won the AFC West by six games, the largest margin of any division in the league. An argument can be made that the gap is closing between Kansas City and the three contenders, with some evidence last season. Las Vegas, which finished second at 8-8, was a whisker from sweeping the Chiefs. Derek Carr and the Raiders won a 40-32 shootout in Kansas City. Mahomes and the Chiefs took the rematch 35-31 with a last-minute comeback in Las Vegas. The Chiefs needed overtime to defeat the Chargers 23-20 in Week 2 in Los Angeles. Justin Herbert and the Chargers won the rematch 38-21 in Week 17, when the score was a fluke because of Kansas City resting its starters. The Chiefs swept the Broncos, yet the December meeting was a six-point margin.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid has not had much to sweat in division play the last five years while compiling a 26-4 record. Reid did have a lot of work to do in the offseason, however, after Kansas City’s offensive line was overrun by the Tampa Bay defense in a 31-9 Super Bowl embarrassment. Reid will open the season with five new starters on a much-improved line, so expect Mahomes to trigger another high-scoring attack that features wideout Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. Several sharp bettors are buying futures stock in the Chargers, mostly due to the potential Herbert displayed as a rookie when he passed for 4,336 yards, the sixth-highest total in the NFL, and 31 touchdowns. Denver is banking on its defense and hoping Drew Lock develops into a winning quarterback. Las Vegas appears to have made significant improvements to one of the league’s worst defenses, but if not, Carr has the weapons to lead an explosive offense. The clock is ticking on Raiders coach Jon Gruden to produce a playoff appearance.
LIVE DOG: LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
A snake-bitten franchise caught a break when Justin Herbert slipped to the sixth pick in the 2020 draft. The former Oregon star had a remarkable rookie year while passing for 31 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. In Herbert’s first month as a starter, the Chargers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in narrow losses to Kansas City, Tampa Bay and New Orleans. The game-management miscues of coach Anthony Lynn were costly but should be a thing of the past. The clumsy Lynn was fired and replaced by Brandon Staley, who was viewed as a bright star on the Rams’ staff. The Chargers look strong on the offensive and defensive lines and must avoid the bad injury luck that has plagued this team for too long. Instead of taking a shot on the Chargers to stun the Chiefs and win the division, consider a bet on the Bolts to make the playoffs (+ 105 DraftKings, + 130 Westgate SuperBook).
PROP PLAY: DEREK CARR OVER 25.5 PASSING TOUCHDOWNS
The Raiders’ inability to reach the playoffs has turned Carr into an unfairly criticized and underrated quarterback. Carr attempted 517 passes and totaled 4,103 yards last season, when league MVP Aaron Rodgers of the Packers attempted 526 passes and totaled 4,299 yards. Carr finished with 27 touchdown passes, including a total of six in two games against the Chiefs. Darren Waller is an elite tight end and Henry Ruggs III and Hunter Renfrow lead a deep group of receivers, so Carr has playmakers who can produce touchdowns. He also has 17 games to top this relatively low prop total at DraftKings. Carr has been durable, missing only two games in his seven seasons as a starter
BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD
Baltimore at Las Vegas (Sept. 13)
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens roll into Las Vegas as 4.5-point favorites, but is the dog live? The Raiders picked on Drew Brees and upset the Saints last year in the first “Monday Night Football” game at Allegiant Stadium, where fans are finally allowed inside to create a true home-field advantage.
Kansas City at Baltimore (Sept. 19)
Mahomes’ marquee duel against Lamar Jackson went Mahomes’ way last year when the Chiefs won 34-20 at Baltimore in Week 3.
Las Vegas at Los Angeles Chargers (Oct. 4)
Both games went to the wire last season. The Raiders won by five points on the road before the Chargers took the rematch in overtime.
New England at Los Angeles Chargers (Oct. 31)
Herbert gets another shot at Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who humiliated the Chargers late last year in a 45-0 blowout in L.A.
Green Bay at Kansas City (Nov. 7)
Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers on a Monday night? No. This game deserves a big stage but was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon because of Rodgers’ uncertain future in the offseason.
Las Vegas at Dallas (Nov. 25)
Brent Musburger will be more hyped than usual to call this matchup on Thanksgiving. As a side note, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was a major proponent of moving the Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
It’s no secret why so many sharp bettors are gravitating toward the Chargers. Justin Herbert’s rookie season showed he can quickly develop into one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. Herbert led a season-ending four-game winning streak that lifted the Chargers to 7-9, which could have been much better if not for coach Anthony Lynn’s head-scratching moves and so many blown leads. Lynn is gone, replaced by former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, and that move alone is a major upgrade. Herbert became the starter in Week 2, and the immediate result was an overtime loss to the Chiefs. His ability to play even up with Patrick Mahomes was no fluke. The Chargers also squandered opportunities to beat Tom Brady and Drew Brees on the road in Herbert’s first month. He finished with 31 touchdown passes in 15 games, and his 4,336 passing yards ranked sixth in the league.
Herbert could be another victim of the so-called sophomore slump, but it’s more likely he will continue to improve. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are big-play receivers, and running back Austin Ekeler is another dangerous target in the passing attack. The Chargers’ front office realized what it has in Herbert and beefed up the offensive line by signing veteran center Corey Linsley and drafting left tackle Rashawn Slater from Northwestern in the first round.
The Rams led the league in scoring defense with Staley as coordinator. He does not have Aaron Donald as the anchor in the middle of the line, but Joey Bosa and Kenneth Murray Jr. will lead a defense that looks impressive on paper. Injuries always seem to sidetrack the Chargers, and keeping Bosa and safety Derwin James healthy will be critical. James was a star as a rookie yet played in only five games the last two years and missed all of 2020 with a knee injury that was a devastating setback.
It remains to be seen how Staley will handle being a first-time head coach. He hired Joe Lombardi, who was the Saints’ quarterbacks coach, as offensive coordinator. Staley is taking over a team that has found mind-boggling ways to lose close games in recent years. The Chargers are traditional underachievers who lost six games by seven points or fewer last year, letting a 17-point lead get away in the second half at Tampa Bay and blowing a 10-point lead at New Orleans, where Herbert passed for four touchdowns with no interceptions yet walked off as the loser.
The schedule has no soft spots in September, October or November, so forecasting a 10-win season is a lot to ask. An optimist would be wiser to bet on the Chargers to make the playoffs, a prop that pays + 130 at the Westgate SuperBook and at + 105 DraftKings. Herbert can be better, but the team might not show much progress in the win column, so a 9-8 finish would be a positive result.
A quarterback competition between veteran Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock has been the main event of the preseason after Denver’s interest in a trade for Aaron Rodgers grabbed the early offseason headlines. Bettors who raced to grab Super Bowl futures odds on the Broncos were duped by the Aaron Rodgers reports. This team is not any sort of title contender, but Denver has the potential to be the second-best team in the AFC West if the quarterback situation turns out to be positive.
DraftKings lists Lock as the -200 favorite to be the Week 1 starter, with Bridgewater at + 140. Lock went 4-1 as the starter in his second year to earn general manager John Elway’s stamp of approval for the future, but Lock’s 4-9 record last year raised red flags and Elway relinquished the general manager role to George Paton. Is Lock the future? The Broncos need to find the answer. Bridgewater might be the more consistent, reliable option, yet Lock’s potential is intriguing.
The offense should be in good shape. Even the Elway critics must admit he drafted well at positions other than quarterback. Elway’s top two picks in 2020, speed receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, complement Courtland Sutton to give Lock or Bridgewater a few playmakers. Tight end Noah Fant is another weapon, and Javonte Williams, a rookie second-round pick, and Melvin Gordon have the talent to make the ground attack productive. The Broncos have some concerns on the offensive line, but most teams do.
The defense should take a big leap forward after an injury-riddled season ended with Denver allowing 27.9 points per game. Outside linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb can be a powerful duo if they can stay on the field. Miller returns after missing all of last season with a foot injury. The secondary is probably the best in the division. The Broncos drafted cornerback Patrick Surtain II in the first round and signed Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby as free agents. Justin Simmons is the highest-paid safety in the league. Vic Fangio is a brilliant defensive strategist, but he has yet to show he can handle the game-management responsibilities of a head coach. Fangio, 12-20 in two years, appears miscast in his current role and is best suited as a defensive coordinator.
A soft early schedule could help. The Broncos open with road games against the Giants and Jaguars before hosting the Jets in Week 3. In Fangio’s first year, Denver opened 0-4. His second year started 0-3. Another losing September would be a problem. The Broncos do host the Eagles, Lions and Bengals in the season’s second half, so it’s not hard to find a handful of wins on the schedule. But nine? Probably not.
The optimism begins with the defense, where Denver has the personnel to be elite with Fangio calling the shots. But with quarterback concerns looming and Fangio managing the clock, looking Under the win total of 8.5 seems the smart decision.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
After scrambling for four quarters in a futile Super Bowl performance, Patrick Mahomes appeared exhausted and mortal. The stunningly one-sided loss to underdog Tampa Bay recalled some lyrics from singer Howie Day: “Even the best fall down sometimes, even the stars refuse to shine.” Of course, the Chiefs’ super-sized disaster in February, a 31-9 whipping, was not the fault of the NFL’s most talented quarterback. With the Kansas City offensive line riddled by injuries, coach Andy Reid made no adjustments and found no answers. Mahomes, who’s sometimes unstoppable, had no chance to shine.
The Chiefs will go into this season with an entirely new offensive front, highlighted by the additions of left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and left guard Joe Thuney. If the line holds up, Mahomes should have a good shot to reach his third straight Super Bowl. DraftKings lists the Chiefs as odds-on favorites (-250) to win the AFC West and 5-2 favorites to win the conference.
Tampa Bay’s physical defensive front exposed Kansas City’s biggest weakness, and now the line problems have been addressed with convincing answers. It’s tough to bet against Mahomes, who finished last season with 38 touchdown passes and six interceptions in 15 games. If he plays all 17 games, Mahomes might approach or surpass his 2018 totals of 5,097 passing yards and 50 touchdowns. Tyreek Hill’s blazing speed and strength make him arguably the toughest wide receiver in the league to contain. Travis Kelce is still an elite tight end. Second-year running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire will figure more prominently in the passing attack. The offense has depth at every position and few concerns.
The Chiefs finished last season No. 1 in total offense at 415.8 yards per game, sixth in scoring offense at 29.6 points per game and tied for 10th in scoring defense at 22.6 ppg. Versatile safety Tyrann Mathieu is the leader of the defense and can do it all. Kansas City needs more production from defensive linemen Chris Jones and Frank Clark, whose production was disappointing last year. After their Super Bowl-winning season, the Chiefs took a step back on defense, and for evidence look no further than their two games against the Raiders, who scored a total of 71 points and got six touchdown passes from Derek Carr.
Betting the highest win totals Under is a typical strategy for the sharpest bettors, but it backfired last year when Kansas City went 14-2 to go Over 11.5. The Chiefs were 6-0 in games decided by four points or fewer, and maybe regression will set in this year in close games. Maybe not. The schedule sets up some high hurdles with road games at Baltimore, Tennessee and Washington outside the division. The Chiefs host Buffalo, Cleveland, Dallas, Green Bay and Pittsburgh. If Mahomes avoids injuries, Kansas City might be an underdog in only one or two games all season.
The other three teams in the division look improved, but optimism is always the theme of the offseason. The Chargers, Broncos and Raiders still have a big gap to close and much to prove. Do not bet the mortgage on the Chiefs going 12-5 or worse. A Mahomes injury is about the only thing that could prevent this team from winning the division.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
In the fourth year of his 10-year, $100 million contract, coach Jon Gruden is looking to continue the Raiders’ upward trend. In 2018 and ’19 in Oakland, the Raiders finished 4-12 and 7-9, respectively, moving up from last to third in the AFC West. Last year, the franchise’s first in Las Vegas, the Raiders went 8-8 and placed second in the division. The next step is a long one, considering Kansas City won the division by six games. Gruden’s most realistic goals are a winning record and a playoff appearance, not necessarily knocking the Chiefs out of the top spot. DraftKings has posted the Raiders as 22-1 long shots in the division and a + 350 proposition to make the playoffs.
It’s probably better to bet on Las Vegas to top low expectations and play Over seven wins at DraftKings, which offers the lowest number in the market, with 7.5 posted at most other books. The new 17-game schedule has all AFC teams playing nine home games this season, and the Raiders should be home favorites against the Bears, Bengals and Eagles before Thanksgiving. With fans finally allowed to attend games in Las Vegas, the Raiders will get to experience a true home-field advantage with electric crowds. The Raiders went 2-6 at home and 6-2 on the road last season, and while a repeat of that road record is unrealistic, this team appears to have enough to win eight games or get over .500.
Derek Carr is entrenched as the starting quarterback, not looking over his shoulder at Marcus Mariota warming up on the sideline. Gruden might not have been completely sold on Carr in recent years, but he has warmed up to the veteran. Carr is off a year in which he passed for 27 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He put the team in position to sweep the Chiefs, passing for six touchdowns and leading the way to 71 points in a split of two games. The Raiders’ rebuilt offensive line remains a question mark. Gruden prefers a power running attack that sets up the pass, and Josh Jacobs is a workhorse runner who has topped 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Tight end Darren Waller, who made 107 receptions for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns last season, is a lethal weapon. The offense would benefit greatly if speed wideout Henry Ruggs III bounces back from a disappointing rookie year. Ruggs was drafted in the first round to be the Raiders’ version of Tyreek Hill — and so far there’s no comparison.
Defensive breakdowns caused Las Vegas to come up short in its bid to sweep Kansas City. The Raiders ranked 30th in scoring defense by allowing 29.9 points per game, so Gruden made a switch at defensive coordinator, hiring Gus Bradley. The defense produced only 15 turnovers and 21 sacks, including 14.5 sacks from the front four. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue should be a strong addition to the pass rush, with Ngakoue leading a group that includes Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell and Solomon Thomas.
It’s too soon to call Gruden a big-money bust, yet pressure is mounting on the $100 million man and general manager Mike Mayock to develop a winning team. The Raiders appear capable of winning at least eight games, and that’s a contrarian opinion.