The favorite: Chiefs. Andy Reid might not look any lighter, but he surely feels much different after getting the proverbial monkey off his back in February. His first Super Bowl win was his crowning achievement in his 21st year as a head coach, and he’s not done chasing titles with Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback. Reid, entering his eighth season in Kansas City, has dominated this division the last four years with a 22-2 record. An injury to Mahomes is one of the few things that could sidetrack the defending champions this season. At the Westgate SuperBook, the Chiefs are odds-on favorites (-450) to win the AFC West and 9-2 favorites (+ 450) to win the Super Bowl. Take your pick in the race for second place with the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders each listed at 10-1 odds. Denver probably pulled in the best draft class in the division, and Las Vegas appeared to make the most significant free-agent moves. The Chargers, who went 0-6 in division play, finally parted ways with quarterback Philip Rivers after 15 years. All three challengers are slowly closing the gap on the Chiefs, but it’s still a wide chasm as long as Mahomes stays healthy.
Live dog: Chargers. It’s understandable that many pundits have soured on the Chargers after they slipped to 5-11 last season. This team has a habit of losing close games and failing in the favorite’s role. Critics like to pick on coach Anthony Lynn, who deserves some blame. A quarterback change should be a good thing. The immobile, lame-armed Rivers threw 20 interceptions and took 34 sacks last season. Tyrod Taylor, who led Buffalo to the playoffs in 2018, is mobile and does not turn the ball over. He gives L.A. a better chance to win now and should start ahead of rookie Justin Herbert. Taylor is surrounded by playmakers and has one of the league’s top offensive lines. The defense should be improved. The Chargers finished 12-4 two years ago, and their -8 point differential in 2019 shows they are close to bouncing back.
Prop players. Raiders coach Jon Gruden has an old-school offensive philosophy based on a workhorse running back as the key to controlling the ball. That’s why he drafted RB Josh Jacobs in the first round in 2019, and the former Alabama star delivered 1,150 rushing yards as a rookie despite missing three games to injuries. Gruden wants Jacobs to touch the ball 20 to 25 times per game, which means he’ll get opportunities to put up big numbers. DraftKings is offering 20-1 odds on Jacobs to have the most rushing touchdowns in the league and 14-1 odds on Jacobs to lead the NFL in rushing yards. The idea is to look beyond Mahomes to find odds value in long shots. Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill, who might be the most explosive playmaker on the planet, is getting 14-1 odds to lead the league in receiving yards and is also 14-1 to lead in receiving touchdowns (both at DraftKings). The Chiefs’ speedster is worth a shot, with receiving TDs being the better bet.
Big games on the board
New Orleans at Las Vegas, Week 2: Drew Brees and the Saints hit the Strip for the first “Monday Night Football” game at Allegiant Stadium, which will be empty inside as fans tailgate under palm trees in the parking lot. The eerie scene aside, the underdog Raiders will get to test their strength against one of the NFC’s heavyweights.
Kansas City at Baltimore, Week 3: Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, the last two MVPs, meet in a Monday night matchup hyped as a possible AFC title game preview. The Chiefs could be in a rare underdog role.
Denver at New England, Week 5: The Broncos are viewed as a team on the rise, and the Patriots are predicted to take a fall. Is Denver quarterback Drew Lock up to the challenge against Bill Belichick’s defense?
Kansas City at Tampa Bay, Week 12: Mahomes and Tom Brady had a few memorable shootouts the last two seasons, and this will be another chapter in an epic QB matchup. The betting public will play this Over with a total in the high 50s.
Kansas City (Under 12 -120, South Point)
Sharp bettors often look to play the highest win totals Under, yet that strategy backfired for several years with Tom Brady’s New England Patriots. Similarly, it’s tough to find reasons to fade Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, another well-coached team with a strong defense to complement the league’s top quarterback.
After Kansas City ranked 24th in scoring defense in 2018, coach Andy Reid hired coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who shifted to a 4-3 scheme. The Chiefs jumped to No. 7 in scoring defense last season, when dramatic improvement was made in November and December. DT Chris Jones anchors the defensive line, and Tyrann Mathieu is an elite safety. Seldom does a Super Bowl champion return almost its entire offense and defense, yet that’s the case in K.C. The Chiefs went 12-4 in each of Mahomes’ two years as the starter, but it’s tougher to bet with optimism now because strange things will happen during this unpredictable 2020 season.
The road schedule poses some challenges with trips to Baltimore, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and New Orleans outside the division. Sure, the Chiefs will be favored in at least 13 games unless injuries sideline Mahomes, who turns 25 in September and is close to unstoppable. But the other teams in the division are gaining ground, and home-field advantage is less of a factor this season. The champs take one step back to 11-5.
Los Angeles Chargers (Over 8 -115, Circa)
It’s not easy to make a convincing case for the typically underachieving Chargers, who went 5-11 and failed to win a division game last season, but here’s the case: QB Philip Rivers is history, the offensive line is among the league’s best, TE Hunter Henry and WRs Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are big-time weapons, the defense will be significantly improved, the schedule is manageable and this was a 12-4 team two years ago.
Forget what happened last year, when Rivers was a negative play waiting to happen, this is not a rebuilding year. Tyrod Taylor is a mobile veteran who gives the Chargers a good shot to win now, and he’ll start at QB while rookie Justin Herbert waits. The defense is talented on all three levels. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are bookend rushers, rookie first-rounder Kenneth Murray upgrades the linebacker corps and the secondary is strong with corners Casey Hayward and Chris Harris and safety Derwin James, who missed 11 games last season.
The Chargers play the Bengals, Panthers, Jets, Dolphins and Jaguars in the first eight weeks, so they should avoid the type of slow start that was traditional with Rivers. It’s likely a make-or-break year for coach Anthony Lynn. This is definitely worth a bet Over the total if 7.5 is available anywhere.
Denver (Over 7.5 -115, PointsBet)
Vic Fangio’s first year as a head coach was a learning experience, which means he made costly game-management mistakes and Denver should have been better than its 7-9 record. Injuries were another setback, especially Bradley Chubb’s torn ACL in Week 4. Chubb and Von Miller are as good as it gets as a pair of outside linebackers. Fangio is a schematic wizard, and his defense could be a top-10 unit.
The questions start with second-year quarterback Drew Lock, who went 4-1 as the starter to earn general manager John Elway’s stamp of approval for the future. Elway’s top two draft picks were speed receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, who will line up with Courtland Sutton to give Lock a few big-play targets. Lock also can lean on tight end Noah Fant and running backs Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon. With an upgraded line, the offense has more scoring potential, if Lock is the real deal.
The Broncos and Chargers look to be a notch above the Raiders on paper, and it’s realistic for Denver to win eight or nine games. The Broncos are coming off three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1972, but the streak should end provided Elway has his QB decision right for the first time since signing Peyton Manning.
Las Vegas (Under 7.5 -125, Circa)
The stage is set for a quarterback switch in Las Vegas. Derek Carr should open the season as the starter, but it’s doubtful he will make it through a third losing season with coach Jon Gruden. During an abbreviated training camp, Gruden has raved about the mobility and moxie of Marcus Mariota, who was signed as a free agent for a reason. (Of course, Mariota was dumped by Tennessee for a reason, too, but Gruden sees himself as a QB-developing mad scientist.)
The Raiders open with a brutal six-game stretch — at Carolina, New Orleans, at New England, Buffalo, at Kansas City, Tampa Bay. If the team is 2-4, Gruden will be itching to change quarterbacks. And it’s not as if the rest of the schedule is soft, either.
Still, there is a lot to like on both sides of the ball. Carr has talented targets in tight end Darren Waller and wideouts Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow, rookie Henry Ruggs III and others, plus running back Josh Jacobs is a workhorse. General manager Mike Mayock has helped coordinator Paul Guenther make definite upgrades to the defense. The Raiders do appear to be on the rise, but they still have a way to go, and the boost in energy they hoped to get from sold-out crowds in Las Vegas won’t happen this season.