SharpClarke's Best Championship Round Bet: KC @ BAL

Jan 26, 2024
SharpClarke's Best Championship Round Bet: KC @ BAL

This weekend should be a lot of fun for football fans. Both sides of the Championship Round have plenty of intrigue. But one game in particular has caught my attention, both as an exciting matchup and for a bet I like. As I said last week, playoff betting markets get hammered into shape by sharp bettors earlier than regular season markets, so size any bets accordingly. But I disagree with the market movement favoring the Ravens over the Chiefs, and have taken a position on the road underdog based on my read of the matchup. Let's dive in.

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Matchup Breakdown

KC offense v. BAL defense

I won't sugarcoat it. This will be one of the toughest tests of Patrick Mahomes' career. The Ravens' defense has had some stellar performances this season against some of the best offenses in the NFL. They single-handedly turned Brock Purdy from MVP-favorite to "system quarterback" overnight. For 60 minutes, they completely erased the impact Ben Johnson has had on the Lions' offense and had Lions fans wondering if Jared Goff was the long-term solution at quarterback. They even slowed down the elite Miami offense in a 56-19 drubbing. And last week, they held rookie phenom C.J. Stroud and the Texans offense out of the endzone all game in a comfortable win. That last game, in particular, was aided by a raucous crowd that caused the Texans to commit countless pre-snap penalties as they struggled to account for the Ravens' complex defensive looks. That crowd will be back, and if anything, will be even louder in an attempt to disrupt the Chiefs' offense.

But two things give me comfort when I look at the Chiefs on offense. First, I have graded every snap of football that every team has played this season. My holistic metrics, which seek to capture predictive elements of performance and drown out the outsized impact of low-probability events, have the Chiefs' offense graded 2nd in the NFL. I have not hit the panic button in the same way many fans have. And second, Mahomes has made a career out of overcoming obstacles. It's not a coincidence that the Chiefs have a stellar record against the spread (and straight up) as underdogs with Mahomes at quarterback. He plays his best football in the toughest situations, and he and Andy Reid have mastered the art of elevating the offense in the playoffs.

In particular, his ability to avoid negative plays and create plays off script, particularly in the playoffs, has enabled him to reach new highs. In the last two years, without Tyreek Hill, he has played 5 playoff games. In those games, he has taken a total of three sacks and thrown zero interceptions. All three of those sacks came in one game (against the Bengals) in which he was playing with a high-ankle sprain. One was a scramble where he was stopped at the line of scrimmage. One was a scramble where he got the ball off to Isiah Pacheco just after his knee hit the ground. And on the last one (a lost fumble), the ball slipped out of his hand before any pressure got to him. Outside of those plays, he has played 5 virtually mistake-free games. He will need to play his best football for the Chiefs to have a chance here, but I believe he can.

My biggest concern is whether he will be able to communicate with his offensive linemen with all the noise. We saw Stroud have to throw the ball away several times (including an intentional grounding) when the blitz came free. We also saw false starts. I trust Mahomes to diagnose blitzes well, but it will be a team effort to keep him clean. If Joe Thuney cannot play, that could be huge. But all of this is baked into the current price. Backing Mahomes to overcome difficult odds has historically been a winning proposition, and I do not see that changing here.

BAL offense v. KC defense

I am confident that the Chiefs' offense will not repeat the success it had against Buffalo in this game. But the next question is how easily the Ravens will capitalize if they do not. This Ravens team is very solid and has finished the year strong. With a quarterback in a new system and a defense that has gotten healthier, that is a good sign for their prospects. Lamar Jackson has proved a lot this year in my eyes. I have not been optimistic about him in the Ravens' offense throughout his career, but I never knew whether to blame his limitations as a passer or Greg Roman's inability to get the most out of him in the passing game. This season, Todd Monken has shown us that the bigger problem was Roman. Jackson has been better at throwing timing routes and finding open receivers from the pocket, which is crucial for teams that want success in the playoffs. He is also a true threat to go downfield or escape for a big play any time he drops back.

The Chiefs' defense will need to be disciplined and will need to get to Jackson. He is much better when he has time in the pocket to operate, but is liable to make negative plays when the pressure gets home. The Texans showed a blueprint in the first half, particularly at the end of the half. But Monken's adjustments (and success in the run game, primarily) helped the Ravens handle things in the second half. If the Ravens' offensive line gets a push on just about every play, they will run the ball successfully, and Jackson will convert on third-and-short (if they even get there). But the Chiefs' defense has been very good in its own right this year. I expect them to disrupt things frequently enough to cause roughly half the Ravens' possessions to end with a turnover or punt. The secondary, in particular, should be able to win on the outside, making third downs more difficult for Baltimore than they have been in many games they've played.

Market Evaluation

I make this game roughly BAL -3. The Ravens have an elite defense, and home field should make a difference here. But the Chiefs are not far behind, and every point you give Mahomes as an underdog means a lot. But the market disagrees with me, with sharp bettors pushing the line up from -3.5 to -4 once limits got higher. There is a ton of respect from the best bettors for this Baltimore team. I have to have a reason to go against that kind of movement, and I do. Ultimately I have graded the Chiefs much better than the market this year and I think it's possible that models have a hard time quantifying the level of focus Mahomes brings to playoff games like this, and the impact it has on the outcome. I understand why the line has moved up, but I disagree. As I said at the outset, it's important to understand when you are going against long-term winners (and to size your bets accordingly). But ultimately, I have to trust my model and analysis.

Best Bet

Give me Reid, Mahomes, and the Chiefs as underdogs in the playoffs.

KC +4 (-110) (DraftKings, Betonline, Circa, Bet365) - also playable KC +3.5 +100 at FanDuel, Caesars (good to +3.5 -110)

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