NFL betting: Respect for the Bengals? Concern about Patrick Mahomes? Why the AFC title spread is shorter than expected

With the divisional round of the NFL playoffs now in the rear-view mirror, we turn our focus to the four teams still alive in the fight for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. When analyzing the upcoming AFC championship game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals, the immediate focus becomes Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is considered by most to be the best player in the sport, but the question is how much he will be impacted by the ankle injury he suffered in Kansas City's divisional round victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Mahomes was rolled up on by Arden Key late in the first quarter and was immediately hobbling. He tried playing through the pain at first, but was temporarily replaced by Chad Henne. After halftime, Mahomes returned. While he was still efficient, he was also clearly compromised. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said that Mahomes will play and that this injury is not as bad as a previous injury Mahomes played through in 2019.

Elsewhere, the Cincinnati Bengals were about as impressive as it gets on both sides of the football in a 27-10 victory on the road against the Buffalo Bills. They pulled off the outright victory as 5.5-point underdogs and they were always in control of the game.

The Bengals and Chiefs will meet in the AFC championship game for a second consecutive season. Last year, the Bengals pulled off a massive upset, winning outright in overtime as a 7-point road underdog. This time around, oddsmakers are singing a different tune. Cincinnati is just a 1-point underdog in Kansas City. Are the Bengals finally getting respect? Is Mahomes' injury concern baked into the line? The correct answer is both.

A look back at recent meetings

This Chiefs-Bengals game will be the fourth time these teams have met in the last 13 months. Both teams have had continuity at quarterback and coach, and the timeline is recent enough to make all the information relative.

In Week 17 of the 2021 season, the Cincinnati Bengals were 3.5-point home underdogs against Kansas City. The Bengals won the game outright, 34-31, clinching the AFC North title in the process.

Of course, the two teams met in the AFC championship game last season. In that game, the Chiefs were a touchdown favorite at home, but the Bengals pulled off the massive outright upset in a 27-24 overtime victory.

This past regular season, the teams met in Week 13. The Bengals were once again home underdogs, catching 2.5 points. The result was once again the same, with Cincinnati pulling off the upset victory, 27-24.

This upcoming weekend, the Bengals are 1-point road underdogs in Kansas City. Obviously, this is a significant adjustment from what oddsmakers have posted in recent meetings between these teams. The last time Cincinnati was in Kansas City, the Bengals were catching a touchdown. This time around, oddsmakers basically view it as a toss-up. A six-point adjustment over the course of a calendar year is massive.

The Bengals are a smaller underdog on the road this upcoming week than they were at home less than two months ago. For a long time, we've assigned three points for home-field advantage. That's no longer the case, with home field being worth about 1.5 points these days. Obviously, oddsmakers have downgraded the Chiefs and/or upgraded the Bengals enough over the last two months to negate the impact of a switch in venue.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - DECEMBER 04: Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals reacts after a first down run against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half at Paycor Stadium on December 04, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
With Patrick Mahomes hobbled, bettors are siding with Joe Burrow and the Bengals. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Are the Bengals finally getting respect?

The Chiefs have been favored in every meeting against the Cincinnati Bengals. That hasn't meant squat.

The Bengals are 3-0 against Kansas City over the last 13 months, earning three outright victories as betting underdogs. Kansas City entered the fourth quarter of all three games with a win probability of 75% or higher, but the Bengals pulled out the victory in all three games.

Cincinnati has outperformed the expectations of the betting market every step of the way the last two seasons. The Bengals went 4-0 against the spread in the playoffs last season. So far this season, they've gone a robust 13-5 against the spread. The Bengals have covered in nine straight games where they were betting underdogs, winning six of those games outright.

The most recent example of spitting in the face of the oddsmakers came this past weekend. The Bengals were 5.5-point underdogs against the Buffalo Bills before pulling off the outright upset. Ahead of kick-off in that game, 67% of bets were backing the Bengals to cover. Cincinnati has been good to bettors and people have noticed.

The first book to release a line for the AFC championship game was the SuperBook in Las Vegas. It actually posted the line before the Bills-Bengals game was over, as the Bengals had a three-score lead late. It opened the Chiefs as 3-point favorites before taking "basically all Bengals money" at that price. By the time other sportsbooks like BetMGM posted the line, market consensus had the Bengals as just 1.5-point underdogs. That line has gotten even lower.

As Yahoo Sportsbook's Frank Schwab pointed out, the Bengals are an extremely popular bet to begin the week. It doesn't feel like that momentum is shifting anytime soon.

The Patrick Mahomes effect

While respect and public support for the Bengals has certainly played a part in shaping this line, it's obvious that the injury status of Mahomes has had an impact as well. The most telling example of that is in the total for the game.

Currently at BetMGM, the total for Bengals-Chiefs is set at just 47 points. In the three recent meetings between these teams, the total has closed at 51.5 points or higher in every meeting. While two of those three games went under the total, all three games saw the teams combine for at least 51 points. If Mahomes were fully healthy, you'd have to think this total would be quite a bit higher.

Mahomes injured his ankle in Week 1 of 2019. According to Andy Reid, this injury is not as bad as the one he suffered back then. Mahomes missed no time after that injury. In fact, during Week 2 of that season, Mahomes threw for 443 yards and four touchdown passes. In the three games after his injury, Mahomes averaged 377 yards per game and Kansas City scored nearly 32 points per game.

While the injury didn't impact Mahomes much back then, there's no telling how it will be this time around. If you think Mahomes is near his usual self, the Chiefs and the over both have value compared to the recent history of this matchup. However, Mahomes has never beaten Joe Burrow and it doesn't seem like the betting market is convinced he will do it this week on a bum ankle.