Paul Higham is all-in on the Kansas City Chiefs as he previews the new NFL season with his best bets for the Super Bowl and MVP awards.
It’s back with a bang, as the quest for gridiron greatness begins with the first week of the new NFL season – and what a season as the league brings up his 100th campaign.
The New England Patriots and the age-defying Tom Brady are defending champions yet again, and yet again they’ll be there or thereabouts again as one of the few constants in this league.
To illustrate the point, since the 12-team play-off format was introduced in 1990, at least four teams every year make the post-season having missed out the year before – last season saw a huge turnover with seven teams that missed out in 2017 going to the end-of-season dance.
Contrast that with the Pats and their 18 seasons with Brady at the helm that has seen them win the AFC East a mind-boggling 16 times, going to nine Super Bowls and winning six. They’ve been to the last three Super Bowls and remarkably have been in the last eight straight AFC Championship games.
So while the Patriots are always there, others come and go, and the likes of Kansas City, New Orleans and the LA Rams are all in the ‘Super Bowl window’ with great teams ready to win now, but can any of them stop the Patriots machine?
In the AFC you’ve got to beat the Patriots to get to the Super Bowl, and the Kansas City Chiefs basically did just that in the AFC title game, only for a game-winning interception late on to be ruled out by a stupid off-side penalty.
That robbed us of a rematch of one of the greatest games of all time during the regular season when the Chiefs and Rams put on an offensive clinic in a 54-51 shoot-out – instead of a 100-point bonanza in the Super Bowl the Pats ground out a 13-3 victory in a defensive arm wrestle.
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes is the reigning MVP and favourite to defend that title after a stellar first full year at the helm that contained 50 touchdown passes, leading his top-scoring team to 565 points with left-handed throws (his wrong hand) and no-look passes lighting up the league.
Their defence let them down all season, especially in overtime against New England, but they’ve got a new defensive coordinator in the highly-regarded Steve Spagnuolo and four new assistant coaches, plus as many as seven new starters on that side of the ball.
The hype train has been parked in Cleveland and the Browns may make the play-offs but to expect them to just roll over the Ravens and Steelers might be going a bit too far – the AFC North is absolutely brutal this year and it may just be whoever the last man standing is takes this one.
Houston are worth taking on in the AFC South given QB Deshaun Watson was sacked more than anyone else last season – with the Jaguars and Titans well capable of taking advantage. The Titans are probably the most underrated side in the league and looking at the odds, the 7/1 on both of these two to finish top two here appeals.
In the NFC the Saints are surely due some luck – they were beaten by a miracle last play of the game in Minnesota two seasons ago, and last year they were beaten in the NFC Championship game thanks to one of the worst ‘no-calls’ ever in the NFL. The officials got it so wrong on a pass interference call that the NFL has changed the TV replay rules, but that doesn’t help Drew Brees and co who missed out on the Super Bowl as a result.
Getting to the hill for a third straight year will take some doing, but they’ve got a hugely impressive defence down in New Orleans, ranking fifth in sacks and second in run defence. Brees has dominant receiver Michael Thomas and now Jared Cook to throw to, while Alvin Kamara can do everything from running back so they really do have everything on their side – apart from luck in big games recently!
The Saints, then should be the ones to push the Rams, who are still a Super Bowl calibre outfit all the way. The main doubts about the Rams lie with Todd Gurley’s fitness, and he’s so crucial to this offence that if he’s slowed at all they look a lesser side when QB Jared Goff has to try and win games.
Aaron Rodgers' delighted after Thursday's opening night win was mainly down to the Green Bay Packers actually looking like they've got a defence, which makes them, and him, very dangerous, while the Dallas Cowboys are primed after signing Ezekiel Elliott. They've not made it beyond the Divisional round since 1996 but they've got the best chance to do it this year.
Dallas will have to get the better of the Philadelphia Eagles, who still have a ton of talent, especially in their defence, and a fully fit Carson Wentz will be huge for them - there's a question mark over whether he can put a full season together, but if he can then the Eagles should prosper.
Verdict: Kansas City Chiefs 8/1
Just too much talent on display in Kansas City and after gong so close last year, they can go a step further and get into the big game. Patrick Mahomes may just be the next great NFL superstar and if he's anything like last year then just a small up-turn in defence can make the difference to get them over the line.
Each way: Green Bay Packers 16/1 | Dallas Cowboys 20/1
We're heading to the NFC and there's more strength in depth and a few more teams capable of upsetting the big boys. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers and a defence - and that could be all they need. In Dallas there's high expectations every year but this year just has the feel of something brewing - Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper offer so many questions for opposing defences to answer.
It should be renamed quarterback of the year as QBs dominate this award, including 11 of the last 12 coming from the sport's most important position, and nobody played it better than Patrick Mahomes last season with his 50 touchdown festival. Anything like that again makes him impossible to oppose and he'd become the first man in a decade to win this back-to-back. Only Ezekiel Elliott or Todd Gurley could threaten for a non-QB given how much of their team's offence they can produce, as the main competition will come from Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Brady is playing a more conservative game these days and it'd take a near-perfect pats record for him to beat Mahomes, while Aaron Rodgers needs to make the play-offs with Green Bay and shine in those post-season games. Brees is a big threat given the nostalgia factor as he nears the end of his stellar career, and he's still well capable of throwing it about, but the Saints used a heavy dose of the run last year to keep the onus off him and that hurts you in this category.
It's team achievement plus individual brilliance - Mahomes had both last season, we're backing him to have both again and for that reason he's the obvious choice.
Verdict: Patrick Mahomes to be named NFL MVP at 5/1
Double: Patrick Mahomes MVP/Chiefs Super Bowl double at 16/1
There's a few interesting contenders in this category with New England's Josh Gordon heading the market, but it's a big ask going on what we know for him to stay away from disciplinary trouble for an entire season, and there are doubts over Jimmy Garoppolo's knee. Le'Veon Bell may have to shake off some rust but has a big chance while Jason Witten has climbed out of the commentary booth to return to the Cowboys - you suspect he wouldn't have to do much to get the nod but he'll struggle to have a huge impact.
Preference then goes to Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz, who was having an MVP-calibre season before getting injured in what turned out to be their Super Bowl-winning season. Nick Foles got the Super Bowl MVP but Wentz is the franchise QB and he now has to prove himself for a full season. Fitness worries are there, but at anything like his best he'd be well in the mix, and with the Eagles more like than the Niners and Jets to reach the play-offs, he can pip his rivals to land the gong.
Odds correct as of 1519 on 07/09/19