Odds have shifted from an opener of Chiefs -3 at some shops to as far the other way as Bengals -2.5 before whipsawing back to Chiefs -1.5, with the moneyline moving correspondingly. Call it the parabolic championship, and the movement may not be done yet before the kickoff at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
The main variable here, of course, is the health of probable NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, who suffered a high-ankle sprain during the first quarter of K.C.’s divisional round win Saturday over the Jacksonville Jaguars. A gimpy Mahomes remained in the game, then was sidelined for X-ray of the ankle, then returned for the second half, during which he led a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
Meanwhile, the last image we had of the Bengals was of Joe Burrow & Co. — 5-point underdogs — burying the Bills 27-10 in Buffalo Sunday in a game that felt more like 42-7. The Bills no-showed on their snowy and slippery home turf, and maybe the team wasn’t that terrific this season to begin with. And then the 26-year-old Burrow swaggered off and took a jab at naysayers and contingency planners on social media.
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Things got crazy when some bettors braced for the worst about Mahomes — that he might be ruled out for the AFC Championship, giving way to backup Chad Henne — and focused on the Bengals having beaten the Chiefs three consecutive times over the past two seasons, most recently a Bengals comeback on Dec. 4, the last time the Chiefs lost.
“We posted KC minus three on Sunday, which was short-lived,” said Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of race and sportsbook operations at the Westgate SuperBook.
“We didn’t even take any money at plus 3, but adjusted, went down to PK, believe it or not. I don’t think we’ve ever done that. Our opening number minus 3 wasn’t our best work,” he said with a laugh. “We probably under-evaluated the injury. We knew [Mahomes] was hurt but didn’t think there would be a tidal wave of Cincinnati support.”
“Once we got to PK we took two of the biggest wagers we’ve taken so far,” Kornegay recalled on Thursday. “From Sunday night to Tuesday morning it was basically all Cincinnati money, and Tuesday morning reached a peak at 2.5, when we started getting a lot of money on K.C. — on the moneyline, and that was from sharp players.
“I would categorize the money we got early on Cincinnati, from pick to 2.5, a majority of recreational public play. And then Wednesday, we continued to take sharper play on Kansas City at plus 1.5 — finally reached Thursday morning, we have Kansas City minus 1. That was the journey, and it was pretty interesting.”
Mahomes’ demise greatly exaggerated?
“It’s likely a Grade 2, moderate high-ankle/eversion sprain on his back right foot, which is something he can play through,” is how the injury was sized up by Dr. David J. Chao, aka ProFootballDoc, a longtime team physician for the San Diego Chargers who now analyzes injury impact for Sports Injury Central.
“Anyone but Mahomes, I’d be more worried about it.”
However, it is not quite nothing to worry about.
“Yes, it’s a real injury and a physical limitation, but it’s one that Mahomes is uniquely equipped to handle,” Chao said. “He uses all sorts of off-balance throws at different arm angles already, and he has supreme arm talent. Maybe he won’t be able to push the ball as far down the field, but he should be able to make most throws. He’ll have enough mobility to navigate the pocket and throw. The biggest physical limitation will be his ability to run in space.”
Mahomes himself has helped quell some fears about how severely he’ll be impaired by the injury.
“I thought I had a good day yesterday,” Mahomes told reporters Thursday. “Overall, probably better than I expected.”
These comments, plus video of Mahomes jogging at practice and even stepping off a podium, examined on social media with Zapruder-like intensity, coincided with the spread swinging back in favor of the home team.
“Everyone is going to be monitoring Kansas City practices,” Kornegay said. “I think the way he walks, the way he jogs, is going to continue to influence the line. It will be under a microscope. I’m estimating he’s probably around 70 percent.”
Here’s a snippet of the media viewing portion of practice/stretching – Mahomes breaking out into a jog with every camera in Missouri on him today: pic.twitter.com/bI7O35trI4
— Michele Steele (@MicheleSteele) January 25, 2023
Speaking of numbers and percentages, Chao’s team at Sports Injury Central rates Mahomes at 84, “which doesn’t mean that he’ll be at 84 percent health, but that people can expect 84 percent of his usual statistical or fantasy production” if he were fully healthy, Chao explained.
Playing surface and other variables
Chao said Mahomes might get an injection of Toradol — a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug — but that has a limited numbing effect. He said it’s also very difficult to tape a high ankle sprain.
“But in the normal course of playing football, the injury itself isn’t going to worsen,” Chao said. “Of course there’s the risk that the leg gets twisted again or a player falls on it, but that risk is always present regardless.”
So does that have your pendulum swinging back to the Bengals, conjuring images of the hyper-confident if not cocky QB Burrow smoking a cigar in the visitors’ locker room?
Perhaps you’re imagining Mahomes as a sitting duck, with flashbacks of the QB running for his life in Super Bowl LV — the Buccaneers’ 31-9 throttling of Kansas City when Tampa Bay devoured the Chiefs’ lackluster offensive line?
“A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, this will be like the Tampa Bay Super Bowl all over again,'” said Chao. “Well, no, it’s not. Kansas City’s offensive line is much better now. I’d be more concerned about the Bengals’ offensive line against the Chiefs’ pass rush on Kansas City’s grass surface. Even if there’s a light dusting, there’s going to be much better treads than the slick, snowy turf that slowed down Buffalo’s pass rush last week.”
The Bills only brought down Burrow for one sack last week as a Bengals offensive line speckled with backups mostly held up. Cincinnati spent half its time attacking with the run game, springing Joe Mixon and backfield mates for 172 yards on 34 carries.
Just got out of #chiefs practice. We watched Patrick Mahomes throw three passes. Here they are all three. Next time we see him on the field will be at Arrowhead Sunday vs the #bengals pic.twitter.com/0VePAnUmqK
— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) January 27, 2023
“[Mahomes] has got a hell of a head coach and a terrific offensive mind,” Kornegay said. “I would think with the limitations they’re working with, they will come up with a lot of different schemes to keep him from having to move too much, and allow him to get the ball out quickly.”
How about adrenaline? Sure, there will be plenty of that in the mix, too.
“If you’re not fired up to play a team that beat you three times in a row coming up in the AFC Championship Game,” Mahomes said Thursday, “you’re not gonna be excited for anything.”
“I can’t think of a comparison to a [line] movement like this in a championship game,” Kornegay reflected. “We’ve seen it in the regular season where a star QB is hurt, or ruled out, and a line will go all over the place.”
But not at this stage of the season.
In a way, at this point, it feels like both teams are simultaneously underdogs and favorites. And probably some folks are straddling the line, looking for a middle.
But before the AFC intrigue, most bookmakers will get some less anxious viewing in the NFC title game when the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles (-2.5) host the San Francisco 49ers at 3pm ET.
“That one is a bookmaker’s dream,” Kornegay said. “We’re getting really solid action both ways, and the majority of the handle is going to come in over the weekend. I think we’re going to get a lot of recreational play. Those two teams attract a lot of attention and dollars.”