Chiefs-Bengals betting-line shift takes Vegas by surprise: ‘That just doesn’t happen’

Nick Wagner/

Jay Kornegay — executive vice president for SuperBook Sports operations — says what’s transpired over the past 72 hours is unprecedented in an AFC or NFC Championship Game.

Kornegay’s SuperBook Sports opened its line Sunday night with the Kansas City Chiefs favored by three for Sunday’s home game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Less than 24 hours later, so many Cincinnati bets came in that the Bengals became the favored team.

And as of early Tuesday afternoon, that trend hadn’t slowed, with the line shifting to Bengals by 2 1/2 (though it moved back to 1 1/2 later on Tuesday).

“We talk about the Bengals’ great performance (against the Buffalo Bills last week), but that’s a 5 1/2-point move. That just doesn’t happen,” Kornegay said. “And I would say 90% of that is because of (Patrick) Mahomes’ injury.”

The Chiefs quarterback Mahomes suffered a high-ankle sprain last week against Jacksonville, which limited his mobility in the second half. Mahomes has vowed to play Sunday against Cincinnati, though, meaning sportsbooks were left to speculate about his status while attempting to set their opening lines.

Kornegay said he and a handful of other handicappers met Sunday during the Bills-Bengals game to establish SuperBook’s opening line.

They started the discussion with Mahomes. They knew from the past that high ankle sprains could be serious, estimating that Mahomes would be around 60-80% of his usual production (with some in the discussion leaning closer to that lower 60% mark).

The next talking point, though, was about Chiefs coach Andy Reid. Could the bookmakers give that much deduction to Mahomes if the Chiefs coaching staff might game-plan some around Mahomes’ lack of mobility?

“We think that there’ll be certain plays that will be designed to keep Mahomes in that pocket or a more dink-and-dunk kind of passing plan to limit his limitations,” Kornegay said. “And so we think about that.”

The group also tried to keep the big picture in mind. For example, one of the biggest surprises from Sunday’s Bengals-Bills game was Cincinnati’s run game; running back Joe Mixon had 20 carries for 105 yards, and the Bengals averaged 5.1 yards per rush.

Whether that would be repeatable against the Chiefs, though, was a different discussion.

“The Bengals were just running right at the Bills, and the Bills couldn’t do anything about it. It was just shocking to us,” Kornegay said. “So we thought that was kind of an anomaly of what we were seeing, simply because the Bengals really haven’t been able to do that all season long.”

The handicappers also had recent history to take into account. The Bills were favored by six at home over the Bengals in that game Sunday, with more bets coming in on the Bills’ side. That number, if nothing else, could be the start of a baseline for how Cincinnati should be viewed when traveling to KC.

Kornegay said the group eventually came to a consensus: SuperBook Sports, which prides itself on posting some of the fastest opening lines in the NFL while operating in seven states and at Westgate in Las Vegas, began with the Chiefs favored by three.

“You take all these variables, and you throw them in the hat. And we spit out three, even though I will admit ... I’ll admit that it wasn’t our best work,” Kornegay said with a laugh.

According to Kornegay, Cincinnati had “a rush of money” in the first few hours to move that line down to Chiefs by one late Sunday night. By Monday morning, the Bengals were favored. However, Kornegay noted some “highly respected handicappers” started to bet Kansas City when the game was a pick ’em or Cincinnati favored by one.

That still didn’t stop Cincinnati’s support as the line shifted to 2 1/2 points. As of Tuesday afternoon, Kornegay had only seen a brief instance of a sportsbook making the Bengals a three-point favorite before shifting back to 2 1/2; that three-point number is a big one in betting circles, as NFL games often end with a three-point margin because of field goals.

“What’s surprising to us at this point,” Kornegay said, “is that (the bets) just keeps snowballing on the Cincinnati side.”

Some of this could be attributed to recency bias, Kornegay said. The Bengals looked dominant in their 27-10 win over the Bills, while the Chiefs failed to cover their 8 1/2-point spread in a 27-20 home win against the Jaguars.

Kornegay spoke through some hypotheticals to give context on where the public was landing with the Bengals-Chiefs line. He said with a fully healthy Mahomes, he’d put the Chiefs as 4- to 4 1/2-point favorites against the Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium. If Mahomes were ruled out, he’d set the line at Bengals by five.

There have been NFL instances in the past, Kornegay said, when a team missing its starting quarterback and turning to its backup has moved a line between seven and 10 points. Those are typically extreme examples.

This circumstance is unique, however, because it’s trying to estimate a healthy Mahomes against an injured one.

“I think everybody’s eyes — whether you’re a bettor, educated player, sharp guy, sharp handicapper, bookmaker, oddsmaker — everybody’s gonna be looking at that ankle all week,” Kornegay said.

With that information, Kornegay said, the line could still shift either way.

“It’s really going to be based off those practice reports,” Kornegay said. “I think that people are gonna look at that and see — including us — and read between the lines of what’s reported to really get an idea of how healthy he is.”

Nothing that happens ahead changes the craziness of what’s already occurred with the Cincinnati-Kansas City spread.

Kornegay says the line has been a “hot topic” in Vegas this week, with other handicappers he’s talked to agreeing that they’ve never seen anything like this.

“This is the biggest move,” Kornegay said, “I’ve ever seen in a Championship Game.”