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Sunday NFL Thoughts: What are the Chiefs doing on offense, and which AFC teams can compete with the Patriots

Look for the Oakland Raiders to take a major step back in 2017.

1. The Kansas City Chiefs have released WR Jeremy Maclin in a move that makes almost zero sense. Maclin’s release frees up $10 million in cap space, but he was the top receiver in Kansas City and there isn’t a viable receiver waiting to take over.

Maclin averaged over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in the five seasons leading up to 2016, but a groin injury limited his contributions as he gained 536 receiving yards across 12 games.

The Chiefs passing offense was never great, but the loss of Maclin leaves TE Travis Kelce and third-string RB C.J. Spiller as the only two players with more than 1,000 career receiving yards and Spiller isn’t a lock to make the team.

Without the 6’0 Maclin at wide receiver, Kansas City will have to lean on 5’10 sophomore WR Tyreek Hill (860 yards from scrimmage as a rookie), 5’9 WR Albert Wilson (average of 355 yards from scrimmage over past three years), and 6’2 WR Chris Conley (530 receiving yards in 2016).

The Chiefs don’t have any major free agents after the 2017 season, so giving up one of their only skill players for cap space they might not immediately need doesn’t seem like a wise decision for a team competing for a Super Bowl.

2a. I feel like we’ll read “Maclin signs with Baltimore Ravens” sooner rather than later. He’s a perfect receiver to be the target of the standard Joe Flacco Defensive Pass Interference specials- and because the Ravens lost a major target in TE Dennis Pitta, who is considering retirement after yet another injury.

Maclin could team up with Mike Wallace to form a fun deep ball duo.

2b. I also wonder if the Patriots called the Chiefs to kick the tires on Maclin last season or over the offseason when they were trying to acquire a WR1 like DeAndre Hopkins or Brandon Marshall. Maclin is on an expensive deal, but would’ve been cheaper than the first round pick and change the Patriots gave the New Orleans Saints for Brandin Cooks.

I think that Maclin’s base salaries of $9.75 million, $10.75 million, and $10.75 million over the next three years would have been a non-starter for the Patriots.

3. But with the Chiefs already-mediocre offense intentionally weakening itself, I just wonder about the caliber of teams in the AFC. Kansas City was the #2 seed last year and they appear to have taken a step backwards. The Houston Texans (#4 seed), Oakland Raiders (#5 seed), and Miami Dolphins (#6 seed) went a combined 24-5 games decided by 7 or fewer points and are due for a major regression back to the mean.

(Don’t get me wrong, I still think the Raiders will compete at a high level and probably win the AFC West, but they were extremely lucky in 2016 and need to see some major improvements from their defense if they’re going to compete in the postseason.)

That leaves the #3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers as the top competition with the New England Patriots and the Steelers roll over whenever they have to face Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

4. Then there are some teams that could be the opposite of the Texans and Dolphins in close games that could regress back towards the mean in a positive way. The Cincinnati Bengals were 1-5-1 in games decided by 7 or fewer points and should be back in the playoff picture, while the San Diego Chargers (1-8) and Buffalo Bills (2-6) could be this year’s Dolphins squad as a sneaky wild card finisher.

But other than the Patriots and a healthy Steelers team, the AFC looks like a bunch of squads that offer no better than a coin flip’s chance at victory. But just like the Texans, Raiders, and Dolphins in 2016, any team can be lucky enough to win a string of coin flips and reach the playoffs.

5. For those wondering about “regression to the mean” in these games, it’s rooted in the idea that teams will win an average of 50% of their close games. Dating back to 2000, the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts are the only two franchises to escape this rule in a positive manner and that’s linked to the overpowering successes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

The Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions, and Buffalo Bills have escaped this rule on the negative side; they’ll always find a way to lose. But every other team follows this “regression to the mean.”

In 2015, the Carolina Panthers (6-1), Arizona Cardinals (4-1), Denver Broncos (9-3), Minnesota Vikings (4-2), San Francisco 49ers (4-2), and Indianapolis Colts (7-4) were the only teams in the league to fare better than the Patriots (5-3) in games decided by 7 or fewer points. All but the 49ers made the playoffs in 2015. None of these teams reached the postseason in 2016.

So be wary of the Texans, Raiders, and Dolphins in 2016. They could still make the playoffs, but they might not be much better than a coin flip.