Chiefs, Ravens set to take big step backward in AFC this season


Photo by Icon SMI/Retna Ltd. | It’s unlikely that quarterback Matt Cassel and the Chiefs will successfully defend their AFC West title this season.

The Patriots put up 47 points … and Tom Brady didn’t even play. Rex Grossman and the Redskins manhandled the Steelers, 16-7. The Browns, Rams and Panthers all posted double-digit victories over the Packers, Colts and Giants, respectively. Even the Lions roared to a 31-point win.

Ah, the first week of the NFL preseason. It’s similar to a first date in that what you initially see isn’t necessarily what you’re gonna get (unless, of course, you’re the Bengals; more on that below). The lesson: Be careful not to draw any concrete conclusions based on what occurs in four exhibition games—and if you’re betting these contests, remember that your money likely will be in the hands of a third-string quarterback going up against a third-string defense in the fourth quarter.

Of course, the best news about the start of the exhibition campaign is the regular season is now fully in view, as the Packers and Saints are set to kick things off Sept. 8. With that in mind, let’s resume my review of season over/under win totals, this time shifting the focus to the AFC (I covered the NFC last week). Once again these are my strongest recommendations, using the best available odds from four local sports books: MGM Resorts International, Las Vegas Hilton, Cantor Gaming and Lucky’s. (Note: My bankroll sits at $7,086 heading into the season.)

Chiefs (under 8, -145 at MGM): First, let’s review the positives of Kansas City’s 2010 season: 10-6 record, AFC West title. Now let’s review the negatives: exactly one win against an opponent that made the playoffs (the Seahawks, who won the NFC West with a 7-9 record!); exactly one win against a team that finished above .500 (the 9-7 Chargers, whom K.C. beat 21-14 in Week 1); and two losses to the Raiders, including a 31-10 thrashing, one of four double-digit defeats. And that doesn’t even include the 30-7 first-round playoff loss to the Ravens in which we got a glimpse of the real Matt Cassel (Kansas City’s QB went 9 of 18 for 70 yards with three interceptions).

Now take a gander at the Chiefs’ 2011 schedule: six games against AFC West rivals (Kansas City has gone 2-4 in the division each of the last four seasons!); nondivision road games at Detroit (loss), Indianapolis (loss), New England (loss), Chicago (loss) and the Jets (loss), with the final three trips coming in a four-week span; and home games vs. Pittsburgh and Green Bay—part of a Week 11-15 stretch that goes Patriots, Steelers, Bears, Jets, Packers.

Here’s the best way I can sum up my feelings about this year’s Chiefs: If President Obama and his buddies in Congress are really serious about making a dent in the nation’s debt, they’d gather up as much cash as they could find, send someone to Vegas and get a ticket on K.C. “under” its win total

Bengals (under 6, -110 at Cantor): Yes, I know I earlier cautioned you not to overreact to preseason results. But to ignore Cincinnati’s performance in Detroit on Aug. 12 would be like ignoring a huge dump your dog took on the carpet (and yes, I use that analogy for a reason). Consider: In getting destroyed 34-3, the Bengals amassed just 205 total yards, gave up 350 yards, converted just four third downs (in 13 tries), lost the turnover battle (3-0), and allowed the Lions’ quartet of quarterbacks—the law firm of Stanton, Stafford, Hill and Robinson—to go 23 of 33 for 280 yards.

No, you’re not going to convince me that the Bengals played it “close to the vest” in the 31-point loss. Rather, what we saw in Detroit is a prelude of things to come for Cincinnati, which will likely be favored just three times all year (at home versus San Francisco in Week 3, Buffalo in Week 4 and Cleveland in Week 12). Aside from that, I see maybe two more winnable games: at the Titans in Week 9 (only because Tennessee will be coming off a home game against the Colts); and versus the Cardinals in Week 16 (but Arizona figures to be much better by then).

Memo to coach Marvin Lewis: When you get around to polishing up that résumé, be sure to leave 2011 blank

Ravens (under 11, -155 at MGM): One of my strongest recommendations last year was the Ravens going “over” 10 wins, and I nailed it, as they went 12-4. This year? Baltimore is my surprise “step-back” team. Three reasons why: 1) The vaunted defense (which slipped to 10th in yards allowed last year) is another year older; 2) the Ravens have ranked in the top eight in turnover differential each of the last three years, with a combined plus-30 margin over this span (meaning they’re due for a season in which the breaks don’t go their way); and 3) they’re not exactly known for producing consecutive stellar seasons. To that last point: The franchise has posted double-digit victories six times (all since 2000), and it followed up those seasons by going 10-6, 7-9, 9-7, 5-11 and 9-7. As it is, in 10 years since winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens have finished with more than 11 wins just twice (13 in 2006; 12 last season).

Finally, in order to lose this bet, Baltimore would have to at least duplicate last year’s record, which is tough to imagine when you have to play the Steelers (twice), Jets, Texans, Colts and Chargers, plus tricky road trips to improving St. Louis and Seattle (a game that comes a week after a Sunday night battle at Pittsburgh).

Bills (over 5, -155 at MGM): Trivia time: Since 1986 (when they went 4-12), how many times has Buffalo finished with fewer than five victories? Whatever your guess is, I’m quite sure it’s wrong, because the answer is … twice! In 2001, the Bills went 3-13, and last year they went 4-12 (correctly predicted by yours truly, when I told you to play Buffalo “under” five victories). Even if you take the Bills’ 2011 projected win total of 5½ at most properties and check the history books, you see that they have had at least six wins in 21 of the last 24 seasons, meaning Buffalo’s reputation as an NFL doormat has been a bit exaggerated.

So what do I see in the 2011 Bills that I like? Well, for starters, they were solid over the second half of last season, following up an 0-8 start with a 4-4 finish. And of those four losses, three came against the Jets, Patriots and Steelers (an overtime game that Buffalo came within a dropped TD catch of winning). I’m also one of the few who believe that Ryan Fitzpatrick (23 TDs, 15 INTs last year) is a capable NFL quarterback.

Now, will the Bills beat the Jets (two games), Patriots (two games), Eagles, Giants, Cowboys or Chargers? Unlikely. But could they go 6-2 versus the rest of their schedule, which features the Chiefs, Raiders, Bengals, Redskins, Dolphins (twice), Titans and Broncos? Absolutely they can … in spite of inept coach Chan Gailey.

BEST OF THE REST: Texans (over 8, -115 at Cantor); Colts (under 10, -140 at MGM); Raiders (under 7, -110 at Hilton); Steelers (over 10½, -125 at Cantor).

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