Saturday, November 13, 2010

Week 10 Pick: Chiefs -1 @ Broncos

I'm really pushing my luck this week, as for the second straight week, I'm going with a pick that public money seems to love. Even so, I couldn't find a line I was quite as happy about, so despite the 75% of public money backing the Chiefs, I'm picking them to cover this spread. Here's why:

1. Chiefs should dominate the game on the ground.

This is, at least on paper, a dream match-up between the Chiefs' greatest strength and the Broncos' biggest weakness. The key to the Chiefs' surprising turnaround this year has been their superlative rushing attack; they rank 3rd in yards-per-carry and 1st overall in total yards rushing. On the other hand, the Broncos surrender the 2nd most yards per game on the ground, and they yield the 5th worst YPC for opposing running backs. There's little reason to think that the overall trends won't hold in this game; remember, last time these teams played, Jamaal Charles ran for 259 yards and 2 TDs. I expect the duo of Charles and the perennially underappreciated Thomas Jones to enjoy similar success this week.

If the Chiefs do dominate on the ground in the manner of which they are capable, they should win this game fairly easily. Indeed, the Broncos typically fare poorly against teams that control the game on the ground. Just look at the 20-point drubbing the Chiefs administered at Denver last time that Charles ran wild, or the Raiders' domination of the Broncos a few weeks ago behind DMC's career best day on the ground. Kansas City should again be able to control the time of possession and field position and put up plenty of points to beat the Broncos.

I have little faith that the Broncos' defense will step up their game and reverse these prevailing trends. Put simply, they're a total mess. Injuries have forced them to waffle between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, despite not having the personnel to effectively run either scheme. In addition, D.J. Williams' DUI will likely deprive the Broncos one of their only playmakers on defense for this game. Moreover, I doubt the Broncos' coaching staff's ability to schematically compensate for their defensive shortcomings and take the Chiefs' ground game away. The Broncos have been gashed by all sorts of running games -- zone blocking attacks, outside speed, inside power -- and their staff has demonstrated no clue how to stop the pounding.

So this is not as simple as identifying one glaring flaw in the defense and applying a fix. And even if it was, the Broncos' players may be tuning out McDaniels' shrill and overbearing voice. Indeed, this has the trappings of a lost season in Denver, and the players may be just playing out the string. I'm not sure where leadership is going to come from within the organization, but at this point, it's reminding far too much of Dallas. In sum, ground game asymmetry is something that an in sync and respected coaching staff may be able to scheme around, but I don't see that happening in Denver.

It is true that the Broncos are coming off a bye, which is a factor in why the line is this low (Broncos are 6-2 ATS in their last 8 post-bye games), and perhaps a reason why the Broncos will be more prepared this week. But as Simmons pointed out this week, the bye historically exerts little influence on game outcomes, particularly with subpar coaches. Last year the Broncos' came out of their bye and lost by 21 points to the Ravens. This year, their bye comes on the heels of a loss to a bad 49ers team in London. In short, look for the Chiefs to conduct business as usual on the ground, at the expense of the Broncos' porous front-7.

2. The Chiefs are undervalued because of their fluky loss last weekend.

As most of you know, the Chiefs lost a heartbreaker last week in Oakland. I've discussed previously the role of recency bias in spread formulation, and there are those who have overreacted to he Chiefs' ugly failure to close out the Raiders last week. The line is this low in part because people will have a hard time overlooking the Chiefs' sloppy play last week. But I'm not all that worried about it.

The Chiefs lost for two basic reasons last week: penalties and poor special teams play. I think both are correctable, especially given that some of the calls were questionable and that special teams have been quite a strength for Kansas City this year. Moreover, the play of the game consisted of an long pass completion inexplicably going right through Brandon Flowers' hands.  I have faith in an outstanding Chiefs' coaching staff -- led by the fiery Todd Haley and perhaps the best pair of coordinators in football -- to use that game as a teaching moment and bounce back this week.

After all, the Chiefs' success has not been a statistical mirage this year; they are exhibiting few unsustainable statistical trends or runs of inexplicable luck to account for their victories. As such, I consider the Raiders' sloppiness last week more of an aberration than a burgeoning trend.

And even if the Chiefs were to play that sloppy again, I think they'll win anyway. The Raiders are displaying newfound swagger and poise in big moments, whereas the Broncos have consistently found ways to beat themselves. The Chiefs should be supremely motivated to bounce back from a bad game, particularly given their position in their division. In addition to their rushing attack analyzed above, I expect their young talented defense to be flying around the field. The way that the Raiders beat them -- exploiting their quarters coverages with deep straight-line speed -- is not something that plays well to Orton's weak arm and quick-throw offense.

In other words, I like the fact that the Chiefs lost a game they probably shouldn't have last week. That's a great time to pick a team.


Admittedly, the Chiefs have struggled on the road this year. Their inability to close teams out on the road have led some Chiefs' blogs to pick against the Chiefs this week. While I would be much more comfortable with this pick were it in Arrowhead, the fact it's in Denver is not enough to sway me off this pick. First, the Chiefs have not played anyone this bad on the road -- indeed, their 4 road games have been a win at Cleveland, and for the most part narrow losses to the Colts, Texans, and Raiders. All 4 teams are significantly better than the Broncos. Moreover, last year the road team won both games between these two teams, with the Chiefs dominating by 20 at Denver. And the Denver homefield advantage has significantly eroded; they are 5-15 ATS in their past 20 home games. And just to put their struggles in perspective, since their very surprising and chimerical 6-0 start last year, the Broncos have lost 14 out of their last 18 games. In part because of that fact, one statistical projection system (Advanced NFL Stats, about which I've written here), projects that the Chiefs have a 65% chance of winning this game. I think that this system, which factors in the home/road splits, underestimates the disarray of the Broncos' team and locker room. Thus, although the road factor worries me, I think the quality differential between the two teams is too much to overcome. Chiefs cover.

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