Green Bay Packers @ Kansas City Chiefs
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No player like Mahomes
For a mercifully brief period last week it looked as though the Chiefs had lost one more season in their Super Bowl window at least, if not their franchise quarterback for good. Patrick Mahomes ploughed into a pile of bodies on 4th-and-1 and didn't get back up. Had he been hurt as badly as first feared the league would've lost its reigning MVP and the most electrifying player since... Robert Griffin III? Michael Vick? Ever?
Fortunately, Mahomes was diagnosed with a dislocated patella not severed ligaments. It's a horrible injury, but not as serious as what many watching may have imagined as he writhed on the field. The big question now is how soon he can return. Hopes are high that it'll be a matter of weeks.
The 24-year-old was already playing at less than full capacity because of an injured ankle picked up in KC's loss to the Colts in Week 5. The image of Griffin playing on hobbled for Washington in 2012 is one Chiefs staff and fans won't want to linger over. Griffin wrecked his knee in that postseason and was never close to the same player again.
Mahomes will want to play and win as soon as he can. The Chiefs look devastating when he's at full tilt. But for now, and for the best interests of their QB and his long-term future in the league, they're starting Matt Moore.
Moore or less?
As a career back-up, Moore's made starts for Miami and Carolina and thrown for three touchdowns or more on six occasions. However, he was working as a high school football coach last year would probably still be doing that if Chad Henne hadn't got injured this summer leaving the Chiefs without a stand-in QB.
Last week, in relief of Mahomes, the 35-year-old posted an acceptable 10-for-19, 117 yards and a TD. The score came on a 57-yard Tyreek Hill catch-and-run that at least suggests there's potential in the passing game despite the starter's absence.
The KC defence also made mincemeat of the Broncos weak offensive line, easing the burden on the fill-in signal-caller. Joe Flacco was under pressure all night and took eight sacks as KC won 30-6 on the road. It won't be so easy this week and big-name players like Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce and LeSean McCoy will need to make plays if they're to push the Pack.
More importantly, coach Andy Reid will need to make space for his pass-catchers against the strongest, nastiest Packers defence this football watcher can ever remember seeing. Sean Payton has relished the challenge of coaching the Saints without Drew Brees this season. Reid ought to approach the next few weeks without Mahomes in the same way.
It helps that his team last played on Thursday night in Week 7. Reid is known as one of the all-time great game-plotters in league history. Having three extra days to work on a plan of attack with Moore as starter ought to matter on Sunday night.
Pack on track
The Mahomes drama takes attention away from another big story from Week 7 - the Matt LaFleur-Aaron Rodgers bromance that's blossoming on Wisconsin's chilly plains.
Like any relationship, there were doubts at first, misunderstandings - "Does he really like when I change plays at the line?", "Is he only saying he likes my more balanced play-calling strategy?" LaFleur earned his shot with the Packers through his work on the running game in Tennessee with Derrick Henry, so it was no surprise to see Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams enjoy more prominent roles since his arrival.
Their progress looked to be coming at the expense of Rodgers' play, but in recent weeks the former MVP and new Green Bay coach have shown that they could be built to last.
The QB started hitting those airlock-tight throws only he can make against Detroit on Monday night in Week 6, but last week saw him find his peak playing rhythm. A five TD passing performances for over 400 yards against the Raiders at Lambeau Field showed there's something beautiful potentially happening in Green Bay this season.
Throw in the defensive changes they've made for the better this season - the two Smiths signed in free agency to play linebacker, drafting Darnell Savage, sniping Adrian Amos from the hated Bears, Jaire Alexander's continuing growth - and Green Bay could be set for a fifth Super Bowl title if things fall their way in the testing NFC.
All of which makes it quite difficult to go against them here, but I think the Chiefs getting more than a field goal at home has to be the handicap play.
First, Reid's mastery of game planning is a crucial factor here. Even if the Chiefs can't beat Rodgers et al, their coach has enough nous to keep this game close. Remember, KC looked like a potential Super Bowl team before Mahomes emerged as the replacement for game manager par excellence Alex Smith. Reid is used to making the best of what he's got.
Moore's shown himself to be a fine back-up in the past. The Chiefs will try to lean on LeSean McCoy in the running game to take the pressure off their quarterback and to move the clock. If they can keep it ticking over and their defence can contain a Packers receiving group that still lacks true top-tier talent without Davante Adams, the home team stays in this game. Their defensive line limited Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman effectively last week despite Chris Jones' health issues, so it's no given that the Pack will be able to move the ball on the ground this week.
Also, purely as a contrarian play, this stands out as a value spot. The Packers are coming off a huge win and loads of positive buzz. The Chiefs are without Mahomes, their star player. That has to appeal to lots of casual punters, and that'll move the line too high. On balance, I'd still expect the Packers to win, but there's enough to suggest the Chiefs make a game of this in primetime and I'd rather be on them at home +4 points at 1.9110/11.
Under on the total of 47.5 follows from this. Yes, we had the Rodgers fireworks of recent weeks, but this game should see him limited in possessions and opportunities to score. It's also worth wondering about the Packers receivers on the road in Arrowhead Stadium on a Sunday night. This is a big occasion and they're short on experience without Adams. Plus, the Chiefs will want this to be a scrappy affair and won't expect to put up a huge score with Moore under center. Under is a logical play at 1.9420/21.
For a player bet, the choice is between Hill and McCoy on the Kansas side. The receiver, returning from an early-season injury, has three scores on just 10 receptions, so, if it's possible to keep that completion rate up to his primary target, Moore doesn't have to find him too many times to have a chance of the Anytime TD landing. In the running back's favour, he's likely to see a lot of touches if the Chiefs skew run-heavy.
Both players have legitimate claims, but I'll go for the rusher at the bigger price of 2/1 and suggest Shady McCoy is worth including as an Anytime Touchdown option in a Same Game Multi at 11/1 too.