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Youmans: Mahomes mystery puts oddsmakers in bind

It’s generally easy for oddsmakers to post lines on most NFL games. The numbers are typically airtight, unlike in college football. A quarterback injury always adds a degree of difficulty. An injury to Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes, who’s among the most valuable quarterbacks in the league, has created an unusual debate.

Mahomes’ status remains a mystery after he suffered a concussion Sunday, but the opening line on the Buffalo-Kansas City matchup in the AFC title game was posted anyway. The line of Chiefs -3 might have been the season’s most difficult number to make, and it’s obviously subject to change. It could change dramatically.

“You have got to get a game of that magnitude up and let people bet it,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “It is a tough number. I think Mahomes is going to play, and I think it’s going up to six. If you want to make a bet and speculate, you can lay the three knowing it will go a little higher if he does play.”

Mahomes must clear concussion protocol this week to play Sunday. The Chiefs would be a much different team without him and with veteran backup Chad Henne running the show. What’s the drop-off from Mahomes to Henne? Where do oddsmakers draw the line? Let the debate begin.

Buffalo will flip to the favorite if Mahomes is ruled out. South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro speculated the line would be Bills -1.5. Westgate SuperBook director John Murray cited a significant difference of opinion among his staff of oddsmakers, with some saying Bills -3 and others saying the line should move as high as -7.

“If Mahomes is fine and fully healthy, it’s Chiefs -3.5 or 4,” Murray said. “If he’s not playing, Buffalo could be about a 7-point favorite. The betting public loves the Bills.”

The first significant wager the Westgate took Sunday night was for $20,000 on Kansas City -3.

VSiN oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo said the opening line is a “conservative” number that will allow bookmakers to adjust quickly once Mahomes’ status is determined.

“That number tells you that we believe Mahomes is going to play, and you could see that number go up,” Magliulo said. “There will be Kansas City money even with Henne.”

The worth of a starting quarterback to the point spread has much to do with the quality of the backup. Magliulo is high on Henne, a veteran who made key plays in the fourth quarter of the Chiefs’ 22-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Kansas City is not hopeless with Henne.

Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are each worth about seven points to the spread. The NFC title game has no injury issues to debate, so Rodgers and the Packers opened as 3.5-point favorites over Brady and the Buccaneers.

“Rodgers means the most to the number from a quarterback perspective,” Magliulo said. “Henne was not awful. He was pretty composed. You know he’s going to get all of the reps in practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Think of the backup quarterbacks with all of the remaining teams. Who’s the most capable backup? It’s Henne.”

If Mahomes misses the conference championship game, Magliulo said he does not think the Chiefs should be more than 3-point underdogs.

“Would it be Buffalo -7? No,” Magliulo said. “I respect the other guys’ opinions, but I can’t see the Bills being that big of a favorite in Kansas City. So you’re saying Mahomes is worth 10 or 11 points? I disagree with that. My personal opinion is I don’t see it as a 10-point difference. There’s no way it’s that much. I actually think it’s a pick-’em. I think Bills -3 is still high, but that’s much more in line.”

The Bills are 11-1 straight up in their last 12 games — the loss was on a Hail Mary at Arizona — and 9-1 against the spread in their last 10. The Chiefs are 0-8-1 ATS in their last nine. Bettors have been rewarded for backing Buffalo and repeatedly burned by Kansas City, so the betting public seems likely to pile on Josh Allen and the Bills if Mahomes is sidelined. Even if Mahomes starts, he also has a foot injury and is not 100%.

Circa Sports and DraftKings moved to Chiefs -2.5 on Monday night.

“If you believe Mahomes is going to play and you see -2.5, you have to lay it,” Magliulo said.

While the AFC line could be volatile — with estimates ranging from Chiefs -6 to Bills -7 — the NFC matchup will be all about wagering volume and two-way action.

“I think the NFC championship could be the highest-volume non-Super Bowl game ever,” Murray said. “It’s Brady versus Rodgers at Lambeau Field. You couldn’t ask for a bigger game. It will be a massive handle through the roof.”

Brady passed for two touchdowns and ran for one as Tampa Bay upset New Orleans 30-20 and likely ended Drew Brees’ career. The Saints committed four turnovers, with Brees throwing three interceptions.

“The Saints kind of gave that game away with turnovers,” Murray said. “I don’t see that happening at all with Rodgers.”

The Packers covered as 7-point favorites in a 32-18 victory over the Rams. Rodgers, who jumped over Mahomes late in the season to become the MVP favorite, passed for 296 yards and two touchdowns. Jared Goff was not a serious threat to outgun Rodgers.

Brady is making his 14th trip to a conference title game, but this is his first in the NFC, and the showdown in Green Bay will be the first postseason meeting between Brady and Rodgers.

“Brady attracts money, and the Bucs continue to draw big money,” Avello said. “You put them up against the Packers, who always draw big money, and it’s going to be huge.”

As Brady continues to advance, more bettors are believing in his postseason magic and siding with the Buccaneers. The line seems to be moving toward Packers -3 at some books, and that number is the buy sign for me. Beating a worn-out Brees was a minor accomplishment compared with the challenge Tampa Bay faces in Rodgers this week.

In late November, when betting Green Bay at 7-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, I had become convinced this is Rodgers’ season.

The Bills have caught lucky breaks in their two playoff wins. Mahomes and the Chiefs appear more fragile than at any point in the last two years. Brady’s mystique is not scaring me away from sticking with Rodgers and the Packers.

 

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