4:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Chiefs -8.5, Over/Under: 52
After a wild, Wild Card Weekend, we’re off what has been commonly referred to as the best weekend in the sport, as the Divisional Roud of the 2023 Playoffs kick off with the cardiac cats themselves, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who travel to Arrowhead Stadium to battle top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs. There have been many great stories around the NFL this season, though one of the best has to be the resurrection of the Jaguars (9-8, 1st in AFC South), who after spending the bulk of a decade mired in mediocrity, have not only returned to the realm of respectability, but have returned to the playoffs for just the second time since 2007, winning their first division crown since 2017. For those of you who underestimate the impact of a coach, then look no further than this franchise; from 2008 to 2021, Jacksonville posted the worst record in the league at 67-158 (.297), with just one winning campaign along the way, including a miserable 4-29 (.121) over the previous two seasons, resulting in back-to-back number one overall picks in the NFL Draft. Simply put, last year’s dumpster fire under the “guidance” of Urban Meyer was nothing short of embarrassing for everyone associated with the franchise, though that nadir thankfully led to the most inspired hire under (Owner) Shahid Khan: Doug Pederson. Indeed, the 54-year-old has been a GODSEND in Northern Florida, bringing a sense of professionalism that was absent throughout his predecessor’s brief tenure. Pederson posted a solid 42-37-1 record (.531) over five seasons with the Eagles, taking them to the playoffs on three occasions and delivering the franchise its first Lombardi Trophy thanks in large part to one of the most famous play calls in NFL history (Philly, Philly anyone?). Of course, he also dealt with quite a bit of controversy during in his time in Philadelphia, from ongoing QB controversies to the ravenous media and fan base, making this venture south to sleepy Jacksonville a proverbial walk in the park. Though his first campaign in Northern Florida began slowly, winning just two of his first eight games in charge, all of the hard work that he, his staff, and players have put in has finally paid off, with a 7-2 record over the last ten weeks, entering the playoffs on a five-game winning streak, their longest in SEVENTEEN years! So, what in the name of Tony Boselli has changed for these cats, you ask? Well, Pederson has proven his ability to identify and develop talent, particularly on the offensive side of the football and after enjoying so many premium draft picks over the past few years there is plenty of talent for him to work with, none more so than (Sophomore Quarterback) Trevor Lawrence. The number one overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Lawrence (pictured below) was arguably the most hyped QB coming into the NFL since Andrew Luck, and after receiving a complete disservice under the tutelage of Meyer, has begun to THRIVE under Pederson. The second verse has been far better than the first, with the 23-year-old posting significant improvement across the board, completing 66.3% of his passes (up from 59.6%) for 241.9 yards per game (up from 214.2) on 6.43 net yards per attempt (up from 5.37) with twenty-five touchdowns (up from 12) in comparison to eight interceptions (down from a league-worst 17), while making good use of his athleticism with 291 rushing yards and another five touchdowns. During this five-game winning streak, Lawrence has been even better, completing an efficient 67.9% of his throws for an average of 255.8 yards on 7.40 net yards per attempt, with eight touchdowns opposed to just two interceptions, while rushing for another eighty yards and two more scores along the way. For anyone questioning the growth or maturity of this team, or if the moment would be too big for them, we’ll quell those doubts in a bit when we get into their stunning comeback victory over the Chargers in last weekend’s Wild Card affair, but for the moment we’re going to dive into this matchup with another AFC West opponent, the Chiefs. Dating back to 2010, the Jags have lost six consecutive meetings, including each of their last four trips to Arrowhead, with the most recent being a 27-17 defeat back in mid-November. Pederson’s troops fell behind the eight-ball early in this one, trailing the hosts 20-0 until Lawrence found (veteran Receiver) Christian Kirk for a short touchdown just before halftime. Jacksonville managed to get as close as ten points, but could claw no closer than that, thanks in large part to a very one-dimensional attack, rushing for just seventy-five yards on sixteen attempts, leading to a disappointing 4-of-14 on third down, while (Sophomore Kicker) Riley Patterson missed a pair of field goals that could have changed the complexion of the encounter. It was very much a mixed bag for Lawrence, who completed 29-of-40 passes for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns, though was sacked five times and pressured on seven occasions. The same could be said for the Defense, who despite being torched for 486 total yards, did manage to force three turnovers, including a forced fumble on their opponent’s opening drive. Ironically, they would carry that loss into their bye week, which is when everything turned around for these felines, who went on to win six of their final seven outings en route to claiming their fourth division crown in franchise history.
When we last saw the Jaguars, they ran the gauntlet of emotions in last weekend’s epic 31-30 comeback over the Chargers, rallying back from a 27-0 deficit in the first half becoming the third-largest postseason comebacks in NFL history. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a worse start for this young team, as the aforementioned Lawrence was intercepted on FOUR of his first six drives of the night, leaving the crowd at TIAA Bank Stadium absolutely stunned. Los Angeles was happy to turn those mistakes into twenty early points, though there would be much more football to be played in this one, folks. Rather than pack it in, Pederson’s troops took advantage of good field position, marching fifty-three yards downfield as Lawrence fired a strike to (Tight End) Evan Engram for a touchdown just before halftime, to wrestle back some momentum from the visitors. Coming out of intermission, Jacksonville stopped the Bolts just outside of field goal range forcing a punt and then proceeded to engineer a 15-play, 89-yard drive culminating in another Lawrence touchdown pass, this time to (veteran Receiver) Marvin Jones to make it 27-14 with just over five minutes left in the third quarter. The visiting side would respond with a long field goal, but the Jags would strike right back with another strong drive, hitting (veteran Wideout) Zay Jones for a 39-yard strike, though the ensuing two-point attempt would fall short, cutting the deficit to ten points. Los Angeles would then near the red zone, but Cameron Dicker’s missed field goal attempt gave the ball right back to the home side, who once again sprinted downfield, as Lawrence struck paydirt again, this time with the aforementioned Kirk, who hauled in the 9-yard score. (Chargers Edge-Rusher) Joey Bosa, who was flagged for his second unsportsmanlike penalty of the second half, lost his mind on the sideline as his gaffe set up Lawrence for the two-point conversion, which he carried into the end zone, making it 30-28 with just 5:25 left in the affair. From there, LA went three-and-out, setting up the Jags to complete the improbable comeback, as Lawrence drove them to their opponent’s 41-yard line, with (Sophomore Tailback) Travis Etienne ripping off a crucial 25-yard run on a fourth-and-one, setting up Patterson for the game-winner, which he drilled between the uprights. Despite losing the turnovers battle 0-5 and converting just 2-of-10 third downs, the Jaguars amassed 390 total yards, as Lawrence completed 28-of-47 passes for 288 yards, with four touchdowns and interceptions apiece. Etienne rushed for 109 yards and a score on twenty carries, while Engram, Kirk and Jones all posted 70+ yards receiving and a score. (Veteran Edge-Rusher) Josh Allen was impactful throughout the second half, with eight tackles, one sack, and four hits. Looking to this Divisional Round matchup, the Jaguars will be looking to snap that aforementioned six-game losing streak to the Chiefs, while sitting one win away from advancing to their fourth AFC Championship Game in franchise history and their first since 2018. This trip to Arrowhead will serve as a homecoming of sorts for Pederson, who worked there as Offensive Coordinator from 2013 to 2015, while his relationship with his counterpart, Andy Reid, dates back to their days together in Philadelphia where the 54-year-old spent four years coaching Quarterbacks. Furthermore, Pederson has yet to beat his mentor in two career meetings, predating that aforementioned encounter with a 27-20 loss at Kansas City back in 2017 en route to leading the Eagles to Super Bowl glory five months later. From a betting perspective, Jacksonville have been hot for a while now, covering the spread in seven of their last ten outings overall, including four of their last five regardless of the venue. Being an underdog has suited them as well, for they have covered the spread in four consecutive games in which they received points by the oddsmakers, though they have failed to cover the number as an underdog in three straight meetings with Kansas City. Furthermore, this role has really suited them in the playoffs, where they’ve covered the spread as an underdog on each of their last four postseason affairs. On the injury front, the Jags emerged from that rally over the Chargers largely unscathed, with the only major absence being that of (Left Tackle) Cam Robinson, who tore his meniscus back in Week Seventeen and is expected to miss the remainder of the campaign.
Meanwhile, the more that things change the more they stay the same for the Chiefs (14-3, 1st in AFC West), for after an offseason in which many were questioning their mortality, they have managed to keep on doing what they do best: win and look great doing it. For a seventh consecutive season, they can call themselves division champions, while earning their fourth number one seed over the last five years, with designs on advancing to a fifth AFC Championship Game in as many years. In the offseason, Kansas City fell victim to the plight of many powerhouses, as they parted ways with a number of playmakers on both sides of the football, none more so notable than (All-Pro Receiver) Tyreek Hill, whom they traded to the Dolphins in exchange for a first, second, and fourth-round pick in last spring’s NFL Draft, along with another fourth and sixth in 2023. Of course, he was a tremendous weapon for (Head Coach) Andy Reid, with his blazing speed leading to 418 receptions, 6,037 yards, and fifty touchdowns from 2107 to 2020, all the while making an impact as a return man and in the run game to boot. This season, Hill earned another All-Pro nod, with career-highs in catches (119) and receiving yards (1,710) in Miami. So, how on earth did the Chiefs manage without him, you ask? Well, having (All-Pro Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes is a great place to start… After his rapid ascension to elite status, it was difficult to envision the 2018 MVP getting even better this season, particularly without his most dangerous vertical threat, but what we’ve seen from the 27-year-old is a growth and maturity that has been stunning, quite frankly. It’s been a case of no Hill, no problem for Mahomes (pictured below), who has adjusted his approach to complete a career-high 67.1% of his passes for a league-high and personal-best 5,250 yards on a very healthy 7.51 net yards per attempt, leading the NFL with FORTY-ONE touchdowns and a QBR of 77.7. Furthermore, his 5,608 total yards is the most in a single season from any player in the history of the league, positioning him as the rightful frontrunner for what would be his second MVP award. The key here has been an adjustment in approach; no longer simply trying to force the issue downfield, Mahomes has become much more patient this season in taking what opposing defenses are giving him, while making use of ALL of the weapons around him, which has in turn made this attack more balanced and unpredictable. Seven different players have caught twenty or more passes this season, with three of them being Tight Ends and a Tailback, led by (All-Pro Tight End) Travis Kelce, who led the team in receptions (110), receiving yards (1,338), and touchdowns (12). (Veteran Wideouts) JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling have brought different dynamics to the passing game, with the former settling into a more possession-oriented role, while the latter has been more of the vertical threat that Hill was. Furthermore, (veteran Tailback) Jerick McKinnon has really come on as a pass-catcher out of the Backfield, reeling in twenty-four receptions for eighty-five yards and a score over the final five games of the regular season. Add it all up, and you have a unit that led the NFL in points (29.2), total offense (424.7), first downs (408), passing offense (308.8), net yards per pass (7.51), and scoring percentage (46.4%), which isn’t bad without the services of a talent like the aforementioned Hill. This is something that their opponent this evening, the Jaguars, found out firsthand in their previous meeting this season; Kansas City hung 486 total yards on them, and it could have been much more had it not been for three turnovers along the way. After fumbling away the pigskin on their opening drive, Reid’s troops scored touchdowns on four of their next six possessions, racing out to a 20-0 lead late in the first half. At the end of the day, Mahomes had racked up 331 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-35 passing with six different targets hauling in multiple receptions, with Kelce chief among them (pun intended) with six catches for eight-six yards and a score. There have been few teams in NFL history that possess the requisite firepower to casually shrug off a -3-turnover differential, but these guys are certainly capable of doing it, which was coincidentally their overall margin over the course of the campaign, owning a 7-3 record in games in which they’ve posted a negative or even differential. We’ll see if they can manage to keep that in check in these playoffs, where mistakes are often magnified.
When we last saw the Chiefs, they took advantage of the golden opportunity presented before them, earning a third consecutive number one seed in the AFC. With that ill-fated Bills/Bengals affair being declared a no-contest, all Kansas City needed to do to clinch homefield was beat the fading Raiders in Sin City, which they did without much trouble, 31-13. This one was never in question, folks, as the visitors stormed seventy-five yards downfield in five plays, as Mahomes capped the opening drive with a short toss to McKinnon in the end zone. From there (Defensive Coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo’s unit got down to business, for after limiting Las Vegas to a field goal, they picked off Jarrett Stidham on the next drive, stopped them on a key fourth-and-two just outside the goal line, and strip-sacked Stidham in his own half, leading to yet another score to take a commanding 24-3 lead at halftime. It was clear that Reid’s troops were having a good time, for during one of their many trips into the red zone, instead of a proper huddle, they broke out into a ring-around-the-rosy routine, before eventually hitting paydirt once again. In the end, it was domination, plain and simple, as the visiting side outgained their opponent 349-279, outrushed them 168-99, and won the turnover battle 2-0. Mahomes continued to torment the Raiders, completing 18-of-26 passes for 202 yards and that touchdown, while the run game showed up big with four different players churning out over twenty yards, led by (Rookie Tailback) Isiah Pacheco, who amassed sixty-four yards and a score on just eight carries. However, the Defense was the big story of this one, as Spagnuolo’s troops made life miserable for Stidham, intercepting the passer once, and sacking him on SIX occasions, along with FOURTEEN hits and TWENTY-ONE pressures. (Pro-Bowl Defensive Tackle) Chris Jones was a nightmare in the trenches, with 2.5 sacks, six hits, and nine pressures, his most of the campaign. Looking to this Divisional Round matchup, the Chiefs have won seven of their last ten meetings with the Jaguars straight-up, including each of the last six dating back to 2010. Mahomes is perfect in three starts against them, completing 68.9% of his passes for an average of 340.7 yards on an insane 9.50 net yards per attempt, with eight total touchdowns in comparison to three turnovers, while Kelce has averaged 81.8 yards on a healthy 17.2 yards per reception with a score in four career encounters. From a betting perspective, Kansas City may have won nine out of their last ten games straight-up, but it’s been a very different story against the spread, where they’ve posted a 3-7 record over that span. They’ve matched that record against the spread in their last ten games at Arrowhead and as a favorite regardless of the venue. However, being a favorite against the Jaguars has been good to them (6-3-1), though most of those meetings came during Jacksonville’s aforementioned lean decade. With that said, there are two trends to keep an eye on in this one: Mahomes & Co have failed to cover the spread in four straight games against opponents with winning records, while dropping four in a row in that regard following a win against the spread, with both instances being the case tonight. On the injury front, this is a team that benefitted from the bye week, with the likes of (Edge-Rusher) Frank Clark along with (Receivers) Mecole Hardman and Skyy Moore all listed as questionable with various maladies.