The Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) are a win away from clinching the AFC’s top seed and the best record in the NFL this season. Kansas City has won 22 of its last 23 games. If the Chiefs win this game on Sunday, they will have as many wins (29) since the start of 2019 as the Atlanta Falcons have had in the four seasons since losing Super Bowl LI.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, December 27, 2020 – 01:00 PM EDT at Arrowhead Stadium
You might say this one is a mismatch. The Chiefs are a 10.5-point favorite on most NFL betting sites, but Atlanta is the rarest breed of a 4-10 team. Despite the record, the Falcons have outscored their opponents by two points this season. Only one other team in NFL history (1971 Bengals) had a positive scoring differential with a 4-10 record. Can the Falcons at least cover the spread against a Kansas City team that has not won by double digits since playing the Jets in Week 8?
Falcons: Whoops, They Did It Again
Just a week ago I wrote that the Falcons would blow a double-digit lead to Tom Brady and Tampa Bay. They did just that again in a 31-27 defeat after leading by 17 points in the second half. It was the third time this season the Falcons lost after leading by at least 16 points in the second half. Throw in botched last-minute finishes in losses to the Lions and Chargers, and you can see how this Atlanta team could easily be 9-5 right now and still competing for the division. Instead, the Falcons are 4-10, poorly coached, riddled with mistakes, and have only recently beaten the Raiders in a 43-6 blowout that has boosted their scoring differential for the season.
However, it will be hard for Atlanta to maintain that positive scoring differential when it travels to Kansas City to face the most consistent scoring team in the league. Patrick Mahomes has led the Chiefs to at least 22 points in 49 of his first 50 career starts.
Without Julio Jones (hamstring), Matt Ryan had one of his best games of 2020 on Sunday against Tampa Bay. However, the offense melted down in the second half, scoring once on its final five drives. Jones’ status is up in the air for this one as he has battled injuries throughout the year.
Calvin Ridley is still a very good wideout who can give the Chiefs problems, but Kansas City has only allowed four receivers to top 100 yards this season. By comparison, the Falcons have allowed 10, tied with Seattle for the most in the NFL.
It is important to limit the possessions Mahomes gets. One way to do that is to run the ball effectively as part of long drives, but the Falcons have all but pulled the plug on the Todd Gurley experiment this season. The Falcons rank 32nd in rushing yards per carry and this offense settles for a field goal on a league-high 24% of drives. These are not good signs in a game where the Falcons should have to score at least 30 to win.
Chiefs: Too Close for Comfort?
Before you pencil in the Chiefs for the Super Bowl and the first NFL team to repeat as champions since the 2003-04 Patriots, there are a few signs of concern.
The Chiefs are the first team in NFL history to win six straight games by fewer than seven points. No matter how well Patrick Mahomes and the offense performs, the Chiefs have not been able to put any team away early since Week 8.
In each of the last six games, Mahomes has had the ball in the final minutes of a one-score game, trying to ice things with a score or to run out the clock. The Chiefs were able to close out all six games, but some week will come when the four-minute offense sputters and it will be on the defense to finish a game off. Maybe that won’t happen against Atlanta, but it could happen with a better team in the playoffs like perhaps Buffalo or Indianapolis.
The offensive line is also an issue. Both tackles were injured last week. Left tackle Eric Fisher played, but the Chiefs were without right tackle Mike Remmers, who is actually the backup to starter Mitchell Schwartz. The Chiefs need to get their right tackles back as soon as possible. In New Orleans, Mahomes was sacked four times and hit nine more times for a combination of numbers he has not seen in his career so far.
Still, I use “problem” loosely with the Chiefs. Mahomes is 20-2 in his career when he is hit at least four times while passing according to Pro Football Reference. He is 4-2 when he takes at least four sacks.
There is still not an effective strategy for beating the Chiefs outside of capitalizing on every little mistake they present you, whether it is a tipped ball or a fumble recovery opportunity. You really have to hope this offense will drop passes or get flagged for holding or pass interference to set them back in the down and distance.
Atlanta’s defense is not as porous as it was at the beginning of 2020. But as last week showed, this unit is still vulnerable to allowing big plays. Now it gets the toughest test of the season with a team fully prepared to wrap up the top seed.
I would pass on the thought that the Chiefs will win a seventh straight game by fewer than seven points. Only three other teams in NFL history have had a five-game streak like that. Another alternative of Atlanta winning outright – well, let’s just say it would not be the first or second biggest upset of December after what the Jets and Bengals did in Week 15.
If you are including this game in your NFL picks this weekend, I would strongly consider teasing the spread down to Chiefs -9.5 as -10.5 can always be tricky. You could lose out on a 30-20 final that way, but -9.5 would cover your bet.
This just feels like high time for the Chiefs to roll over an overmatched opponent and not leave the game undecided until the final minutes. The thought of Ryan throwing outdoors in December against an aggressive secondary, perhaps without Julio Jones again, does not excite me enough to trust the Falcons in this one.