At this point in the NFL season, there aren't many surprises. You will see the occasional shocker — like the Texans beating the Chargers — but upsets are tougher to predict the final two weeks. Favorites covered the majority of the games only three times in the first 10 weeks of the season. Since then, they have done it five times in the last six weeks. The betting market has matured with 16 weeks of data under its belt. The weekly lines are very efficient, making it more challenging to find edges. As bettors, we need to refine our process as well.
Gauging a team's motivation is critical as some teams are already looking toward next year. The Jacksonville Jaguars released a list of the head coaching candidates they will be interviewing. The New York Giants shut down Daniel Jones and publicly committed to him being the quarterback of the future. Five of the seven underdogs that covered last week won on the moneyline, which increased the hit rate on the season to 72%. There is still value in the underdogs, but I need motivated ones I can trust.
The best motivation is taking on a top team right before the postseason. This week I am tackling arguably the two hottest teams in the league at some attractive odds. As they say, scared money doesn't make money. I am betting our brashness pays off in a big way as these teams test themselves against the league's elite.
Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals (+200 ML)
Chiefs backers from early in the season are taking victory laps as Kansas City has positioned itself to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They are now favorites at +400 to win the Super Bowl. Andy Reid's offense leads the NFL in offensive success rate and has ripped off 6.5 yards per play over the last three weeks — second best in the NFL. Guess who is first? Joe Burrow's Cincinnati Bengals.
I wouldn't dare compare the two offenses because KC is in a league of its own. However, I am impressed with the maturation of Zac Taylor as a play-caller. The Bengals have beaten teams in a variety of ways, effectively using Joe Mixon as a runner and a receiver. Cincinnati is fifth in net yards per play and its 5.9 yards per play on the season is tied with K.C. and Dallas. A young ascending team with something to prove in front of its home crowd will be a real test for K.C.'s defense. The Chiefs' eight-game winning streak only included two road games, one in which they were fortunate to escape with a 34-28 overtime victory in L.A. against the Chargers.
Diverse offenses (BUF, BAL, LAC) have given the Chiefs defense trouble this season, and this Bengals team fits that mold. I expect Borrow to have a similar level of success that Justin Herbert enjoyed against the Chiefs defense even with Chris Jones in the lineup. The money line odds at +200 imply that the Bengals have a 33% chance of winning, which is worth a wager. Make no mistake: This Sunday is Cincinnati's Super Bowl. I am betting Burrow is up to the challenge.
Arizona Cardinals (+190 ML) at Dallas Cowboys
Kliff Kingsbury sure knows how to ruin Christmas. Cardinals bettors were left bewildered after Arizona squandered several opportunities to secure a win against the white-hot Colts. This season's last remaining unbeaten team didn't show us it was ready to play with the league's elite, but this week it gets another chance.
This is more of a "buy low/sell high" between these two teams than a confidence play on Arizona returning to form. It's a good situational spot with Kyler Murray having plenty to prove against a Dallas defense that ranks No. 1 in defensive DVOA and EPA allowed per dropback. The handicap comes down to whether you believe the Dallas defense is truly that good. Since allowing 509 yards to the Raiders on Thanksgiving, Dan Quinn's defense has feasted on Taysom Hill, Mike Glennon, and Taylor Heinicke twice during the Cowboys' four-game win streak. Is it possible we are giving Dallas too much credit for demolishing a depleted Washington team 56-14 after only beating it 27-20 two weeks ago?
Arizona's offense is not as broken as it seems. Its 379 yards of total offense, 5.9 yards per play, and 46% third-down conversion rate were the best in each statistical category when compared to what the Patriots, Buccaneers, and Bills recently did against the Colts' defense. It was the 11 penalties, missed field goals, and failed red-zone attempts that have made the situation look worse. The Cardinals are either going to clean it up this week or watch their Super Bowl aspirations collapse like a house of cards. I'm hard-pressed to believe it's the latter. A dangerous team that is still top four in EPA per play sounds like a solid wager at +190.
Stats provided by teamrankings.com, football outsiders, Ben Baldwin (based on 10/90 WP).