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Chiefs Betting Preview: Patrick Mahomes Is Electric, but K.C. Will Really Miss Alex Smith Under Center

Patrick Mahomes’s electric arm talent can make it easy to forget how important Alex Smith was to the Chiefs. We examine why Kansas City's offense will suffer a much bigger drop-off than expected with Mahomes under center.

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Chiefs 2018 win total: 8 (-160 over, +140 under)

Chiefs 2017 record: 10-6

Key offseason acquisitions: WR Sammy Watkins, CB David Amerson, CB Kendall Fuller, LB Anthony Hitchens, NT Xavier Williams, CB Orlando Scandrick, RB Damien Williams, QB Chad Henne

Key offseason losses: QB Alex Smith, CB Marcus Peters, LB Tamba Hali, LB Derrick Johnson, CB Terrance Mitchell, CB Phillip Gaines, DT Bennie Logan, WR Albert Wilson, LB Kevin Pierre-Louis, OL Zach Fulton, LB Ramik Wilson, OC Matt Nagy

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Five things to keep in mind before betting the Chiefs' win total

1. Patrick Mahomes certainly raises the Chiefs’ offensive ceiling, however he also can greatly lower the unit’s floor. Mahomes’s electric arm talent can make it easy to forget how important Alex Smith was to this team. Per Warren Sharp in his 2018 Football Preview (a read I highly recommend for all football fans), Smith’s 1.35% interception rate only trails Tom Brady’s 1.3%. Kansas City’s +31 turnover differential over the past two seasons led the NFL, with Baltimore’s +22 and Philadelphia’s +17 ranking second and third respectively. That is a rather wide margin. Turnovers obviously play a huge role in a team’s success, but ending a contest without giving the ball away was especially imperative for the Chiefs.

During Smith’s entire time in K.C., the team won 77.6% of its games (38-11 record) in the regular season when he didn’t throw an interception. That number dropped to 44.4% (12-15 record) when he was picked off at least once. Mahomes will deliver more deep strikes through the air, but he will also be responsible for more negative plays, and that could end up being a major setback for this unit.

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2. Another key for the Chiefs with Smith at the helm was setting the defense up for the best possible chance for success—although the defense didn’t take advantage last season (we’ll address that later). Per Football Outsiders, the average Chiefs opponent starting field position in 2017 was the 25.49-yard line, the third-best mark in that metric. That was largely due to three factors: Kansas City didn’t turn the ball over (a league-low 11 turnovers), the Chiefs averaged 34.7 yards per drive (sixth-best) and the team’s kickers did not miss many field goals to help out the opposition’s field position (41-45 on FGs, and only one miss from 50+ yards). Kansas City’s drives also lasted an average of 2:52, the eighth-longest time in the NFL. 

With Mahomes as the signal-caller, there will be more explosive plays, meaning a likelier chance of drives taking up less clock. His higher turnover rate will also flip the field in the opponents’ favor more often than the Chiefs have been accustomed to in recent seasons. Having this version of Kansas City’s defense on with a shorter field to defend and on for a longer period of time is a recipe for disaster.

3. On the defensive side of the ball last year, the Chiefs weren’t just bad. They were flat-out abysmal. The unit ranked 30th in defensive efficiency. Losing safety Eric Berry to a ruptured Achilles in the first game of the season was a killer, yet Kansas City allowed a league-high 192.1 yards per game to wide receivers—including a whopping 90.3 YPG to opposing No. 1 wideouts (the next-worst mark was the Jets at 82.8 YPG)—and that falls on the cornerbacks. Acquiring Kendall Fuller from the Redskins in the Smith trade will be a significant boost in the slot. However the team’s coverage on the outside will be a glaring question mark, especially after dealing ball-hawking corner Marcus Peters to the Rams.

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This unit will be relying on a 29-year-old safety in Berry with two major injuries already in his past and a 29-year-old pass rusher in Justin Houston who has missed 16 games in the past three seasons. The Chiefs will need those two to be a beacon of health this campaign for any hope of even a league-average defense.

4. The Chiefs have big-time weapons on offense, headlined by Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and offseason acquisition Sammy Watkins. But don’t underestimate the impact of Matt Nagy leaving to be the Bears head coach and replacing him with a first-time NFL offensive coordinator in Eric Bieniemy. Kansas City was fortunate that going from Doug Pederson to Nagy as OC in 2016 was a seamless transition, but will there be a smooth change this time?

Bieniemy was Kansas City’s running backs coach from 2013-17, but his only experience as offensive coordinator was for the University of Colorado, his alma mater, in 2011 and 2012. Colorado’s offense finished 92nd in yards per game and 109th in scoring in 2011, and fell to 119th in YPG and 120th in scoring the following year.

5. It doesn’t get much tougher than Kansas City’s opening stretch: at Chargers, at Steelers, vs. 49ers, at Broncos, vs. Jaguars, at Patriots. Its final six games isn’t a cakewalk either: at Rams, bye, at Raiders, vs. Ravens, vs. Chargers, at Seahawks, vs. Raiders. Going from playing the AFC East and a weaker-than-usual NFC East last season to the AFC North and NFC West, playing a first-place AFC schedule and residing in the AFC West doesn’t give the Chiefs many opportunities for easy wins.