2020 has been the oddest year in recent history for sports fans, so it is refreshing to write a Thursday Night Football preview article on an NFL game. It’s official, folks; the NFL is BACK. The 2020 season kicks off with an AFC Divisional Playoff rematch between the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Deshaun Watson led Houston Texans. This should be an exciting duel between two top NFL quarterbacks with new massive contract extensions.
– THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL PREVIEW –
Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs
Spread: Chiefs -9.5 | Over/Under 54.5
Since Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson both entered the NFL in 2017, the Texans and Chiefs have played each other three times. Two of the games were in early to mid-October, while the third game was the aforementioned 2019 AFC Divisional Playoff game. The OVER has hit all three times. Mahomes didn’t play in the first matchup back in 2017, but the other two games were in Kansas City last season with the combined scores being 55 and 82 (!) points.
The Chiefs have been money against the spread the last three seasons to start the season. From weeks 1-4 during the 2017-2019 seasons, the Chiefs are 11-1 ATS. This includes 4-0 ATS as a home team AND Vegas favorite. In the first four games of the past two seasons, the Chiefs have had six of the eight games with an OU of 52.5 or greater. The OVER hit four times, including BOTH home games. The over/under in this matchup has moved slightly over the last few days, but as of today, the line is 54.5.
The Texans have only had one game in September from 2016-2019 have an OU exceed 50 points and that was last season at New Orleans. In that game, the Texans covered the +6.5 spread, and the OVER hit with a total of 58 points scored in the game. There are parallels of that game and the season opener against the Chiefs. The Texans were a big underdog on the road with a high projected score. Can they cover? The Texans are good at covering on the road as underdogs to start the season. In the first four games to start the season in the 2017-2019 seasons, the Texans are 4-1 on the road as underdogs. The only game they didn’t cover was a 2018 game at New England where they lost 27-20 and the spread was +6.5.
I’m not sold that Deshaun Watson produces a top-10 week against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs defense was No. 5 in both WR success rate (48-percent) AND average yards per attempt (7.3) last season. Watson will also be missing his #1 target, DeAndre Hopkins who was targeted 27.7-percent between the two games last season.
There is a weakness in the Chiefs defense. Their defense forces offenses to funnel targets to running backs (24-percent, tied for No. 2 highest target rate by position). Not only that, but the 6.6 average yards allowed to running backs is also bottom-third in the NFL (No. 22). Will Watson exploit this weakness? History says no. Since Watson entered the league in 2017, the Texans have targeted their running backs 86, 68, 79 times respectively. That’s good for 28th, 32nd, 29th in the NFL.
Watson finished as QB5 in their Week 6 matchup thanks to his rushing production (42 rushing yards, 2 TDs) contributing 59.1-percent of his fantasy production in that game. He also scored a TD in the playoff game. Those 3 rushing TDs combined for 60-percent of QB rushing TDs allowed by the Chiefs, who managed to survive Lamar Jackson (8/46/1). The 46 yards given up to Lamar was the third-fewest he had in a game during his MVP season; I wouldn’t bank on Watson’s rushing production saving his fantasy week.
When the Chiefs were between being down 7 points or up 7 points, only three teams had a higher success rate passing the ball OR averaged more yards per pass attempt that were over the league average in passing rate. The Chiefs led the league in pass rate in these situations (65% of the time). To summarize, the Chiefs were a dominant passing offense in neutral game situations. Shocking, right?
Patrick Mahomes doesn’t let up though. When the Chiefs are up by 10 points or more, they still throw the ball 52% of the time (league average: 46%) and they have the highest success rate (53%) of teams that throw above that league average. If you drafted Mahomes, then of course you are starting him every week. He finished as QB10 last year in their regular-season matchup against the Texans, throwing for 273 yards and 3 TDs (1 INT). He followed that up with 321 yards and 5 TDs (0 INTs) in their playoff game. Mahomes started last season with three consecutive 300 yards, 3+ TD games last season. Look for him to hit that milestone in week 1.
Last season when the Texans were either a touchdown ahead or behind, they ran the ball 341 times. Only three NFL ran the ball more times. Bill O’Brien loves running the ball, evidenced by trading away an elite WR talent for an aging running back. The reliance on the ground game last season was shown by the Texans 68-percent (No. 21) Pass Rate when TRAILING by 10 points in games. What does this mean for newly acquired running back David Johnson? He is going to be involved early and often in this game, even in negative game script situations.
Last season’s starting running back, Carlos Hyde, managed to finish top-12 in carries and rushing yards. Johnson and Hyde have two different running styles though. Hyde succeeded by running by the interior offensive line, while David Johnson has been below average to even downright horrible running behind his interior offensive line in his NFL career. Volume trumps efficiency though. PFF has the Chiefs defense as the most favorable week 1 matchup for RBs. Wheels up for David Johnson.
The Texans weren’t the only team in this matchup with a new starting running back. Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the Chiefs 1st round draft pick in the most recent NFL draft. He’ll be tasked with replacing the opted-out Damien Williams. The Texans are a perfect team for the Chiefs to introduce their newest offensive weapon to the NFL. The Texans defense allowed a 50% pass success rate to running backs last season (No. 27). The 7.3 yards per attempt allowed on passes to running backs was 31st in the NFL, just behind the Miami Dolphins.
The Chiefs were the fourth most successful running team last season according to SharpFootballStats. In the two games against the Texans in 2019, the Chiefs ran the ball 21 times for 97 yards and two touchdowns. They also turned 11 targets into 6 catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Clyde Edwards-Helaire may see a smaller workload at the start of the season as he is expected to split the workload with Darrel Williams. Even if he receives 12-13 touches in week 1, 100 yards of total offense and a touchdown is a reasonable expectation against this porous Texans defense.
After an offseason of debating who would be the #1 WR for the Houston Texans, we now know that Brandin Cooks will line up on the left side and Will Fuller will line up on the right side. Randall Cobb will be the slot receiver when they run 3WR sets. The Kansas City Chiefs have an unheralded cornerback in Charvarius Ward and a backup filling in for suspended starter Bashaud Breeland, Rashad Fenton. Ward got destroyed by Chris Conley in week 1 of last season, allowing 8 catches (on 8 targets) for 150 yards. The rest of the season was a different story. He would allow 412 yards total in the 14 other games he played, or an average of under 30 yards. He was stupendous against top-tier wide receivers. DeAndre Hopkins (3/16/0 on 4 targets), Courtland Sutton (0/0/0 on 2 targets), Stefon Diggs (2/19/0 on 7 targets), and Sutton again (2/36/0 on 9 targets) were some of his most impressive showings.
If I have to choose between starting Will Fuller or Brandin Cooks, then I’m choosing Fuller. Rashad Fenton, a sixth-round rookie last season, is starting his first career game. Last season against the Chiefs, Fuller was targeted nine times against Bashaud Breeland and finished with 5 catches and 44 yards. Fuller should see at least that many targets and has a higher chance of fantasy production than his new wide receiver counterpart. Randall Cobb is not an option to play, even as a desperation play. Tyrann Mathieu will make sure of that.
Tyrann Mathieu: 61.7 passer rating allowed from the slot
Best in the NFL pic.twitter.com/IybbcUrbxf
— PFF (@PFF) January 17, 2020
Kansas City Chiefs WR-CB matchups are a completely different story. Tyreek Hill was slated to match up with Gareon Conley, which would have been PFF’s 2nd highest most advantageous matchup in week 1. However, Conley was placed on IR as he continues to rehab from offseason ankle surgery. That means Conley’s backup, Lonnie Johnson, will be tasked primarily to stop the man dubbed ‘Cheetah’. Last season, Johnson did an admirable job against elite wide receivers Julio Jones (3/31/0 on 5 targets) and D.J. Moore (3/44/0 on 4 targets), but struggled against lesser receivers Zach Pascal (6/109/1 on 7 targets) and Tyrell Williams (3/68/1 on 4 targets).
You better sit down for this next one. Sammy Watkins is a START this week. Remember week 1 last season? The 9 catches for 198 yards and 3 TD game? Something like that may happen again to start the 2020 season. He’s matched up with Vernon Hargreaves this week.
Vernon Hargreaves is like Tyrann Mathieu. That is, if Mathieu had no arms, no legs, and was in a vegetative state. Yeah, Hargreaves is like that version of Mathieu. He produced the fifth-worst slot coverage grade after joining the Houston Texans last season. He allowed 80+ yards in 6 of his 15 games and his 7 TDs allowed was fourth-worst among cornerbacks. Any cornerback that can make Tajae Sharpe look good (4/104/0 on 5 targets) is a cornerback to target against in fantasy football.
As mentioned earlier, the Texans offense does not focus on targeting running backs heavily, despite the Chiefs forcing opposing offenses to target running backs more. The Chiefs defense also allows opposing offenses to target tight ends 24-percent of the time (league average: 21-percent). The Texans have been in the middle of the pack in the league since 2017 in targeting TEs.
In their matchup last season, Darren Fells had his best receiving game of the season (6/69/0) on 7 targets. That was the 6th best fantasy performance among all tight ends that week. His 16.6-percent target share was almost double of his season target share of 9.9-percent. He was also targeted 7 times in the AFC Divisional Playoffs game last season (3/22/1). That’s two 11+ point performances from the 6’7”, 281-pound tight end. If you’re streaming tight ends in week 1, Fells is a solid flier.
If you drafted Kelce, then you’re starting him every single week. He had a quiet performance last season during their regular-season matchup (4/58/0) on 6 targets, but then he erupted for 10/134/3 on 12 targets in the playoffs. The regular season performance was a disappointment (TE12 for that week), but that’s his floor in fantasy football. His playoff performance shows that he can dominate the Texans. Kelce will finish in the middle of these two performances. 7 catches for 100 yards and a TD is a reasonable expectation for Kelce against a defense that allowed the 9th most fantasy points to TEs in 2019.
Do NOT start the Houston Texans defense. They are at a disadvantage at every matchup possible (WR/CB, TE, RB). Patrick Mahomes is going to feast against this lackluster secondary. Earlier I mentioned Mahomes going for 300+ yards and 3 TDs. 3 TDs is a lot to project, but I don’t see how he doesn’t accomplish this when all of his receiving options are superior in their individual matchups. Tyreek Hill has a juicy matchup, Travis Kelce has a juicy matchup, and even Sammy Watkins has a juicy matchup.
The Chiefs DST is sneaky good this year. Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman can use their 98th and 99th-percentile respectively to take any kick or punt to the house. The Chiefs finished in the top third of NFL defenses in both takeaways and sacks. With a strong pass-rush and plus secondary matchups, except for Fuller-Fenton, I’m comfortable streaming the Chiefs DST as a defense capable of forcing Deshaun Watson into bad throws and not allowing him to score rushing touchdowns. They are not a preferred starting option at DST in Week 1, but should be one of the more capable units available if you currently aren’t rostering a DST.
FLEX Dart Throws
- Chiefs: Mecole Hardman
- Let’s say that the Chiefs line Mecole Hardman in the slot. Hardman’s 4.1 fantasy points per target from the slot was No. 3 in the league. PFF has Texans’ Nickelback Vernon Hargreaves as the No. 7 most advantageous matchup overall in Week 1. Watkins in the playoffs took 2 catches for 78 yards against Hargreaves. Hardman could easily replicate that and more if given the chance.
- Texans: Jordan Akins
- The Texans ran 12 personnel 350 times last season (30-percent of their plays, No. 3). Fells is the more recognizable TE to casual fantasy football players because of his 7 TDs last season, but Akins ran more routes, caught more passes, and had more receiving yards.
NFL brought us an excellent game to kick off the season. Watching the two highest average salaried quarterbacks duel will more than makeup for an odd offseason of no preseason football, virtual NFL draft, and the threat of a canceled season. The spread of 9.5 points is a lot for NFL teams to cover and the Texans are a proven early-season dog to back in betting during Bill O’Brien and Deshaun Watson’s time on the team. I’m easily taking the points in a potential shootout.
As for the OU, the Chiefs are going to score and the Texans have the firepower and quarterback talent to add points to the total in comeback mode. In the Patrick Mahomes starting era, the Chiefs have scored 27+ points in their first four games of the 2018 and 2019 seasons and six of those eight games have seen them score 33. Two of those games were home games where they averaged 35.5 points and gave up 27.5 points. So I’ll go Chiefs 34-28.