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AFC playoff picture: The Chiefs’ most likely opponent on Wild Card weekend

The Chiefs are assured at least one playoff game. Let’s figure out which team they’re most likely to play.

NFL: San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

With the Kansas City Chiefs’ 26-3 win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night, the team stands at 11-4. If the playoffs began today, they’d hold the third seed behind the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens — the latter now having clinched the top seed. Behind the Chiefs are the Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans.

If the NFL cancelled Week 17, the Wild Card round would open with the Chiefs hosting the Titans and the Texans hosting the Bills. Then in the Divisional round, the lowest-seeded winner would travel to Baltimore while the other would go to Foxborough.

But when we last checked, the NFL still plans to play its full slate of games this coming weekend. There are still plenty of things that can happen.

The game we’ve been anticipating for the last few weeks — the Bills game against the Patriots on Saturday — didn’t go the way the Chiefs had hoped. With a Bills victory, the Chiefs could have clinched a bye week simply by winning out. The Chiefs can still move into the two seed and get a bye, but only with a Chiefs win and a Patriots loss. Both would now have to happen in Week 17.

We feel confident the Chiefs can beat the Los Angeles Chargers at Arrowhead on Sunday — gives Kansas City a 86% chance to win — but there’s far less hope the Miami Dolphins can beat the Patriots in Foxborough. It hasn’t happened since 2008 — and even then, Matt Cassel was starting for Tom Brady. FiveThirtyEight’s nerds don’t care about that stat but still give New England a 90% chance to win.

By FiveThirtyEight’s reckoning, that means the Chiefs have a 9% chance at the second seed. The New York Times playoff calculator we’ve referenced in recent weeks — which uses a similar (but not identical) model — puts the chance at 10%.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, their game against the Chargers will be occurring simultaneously with the game between the Patriots and Dolphins. So there will be no advance plan to rest starters; the Chiefs will just have to do their best to win. However, if both teams are out to very comfortable leads in the second half, both of them could start pulling some players to avoid the possibility of injury.

Should both teams win, the first three seeds would be settled: the Ravens, Patriots and Chiefs. (Since the Patriots have already clinched the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills are locked into the fifth seed). But if the Chiefs lose — and the Texans win — the Chiefs and Texans will swap the third and fourth seeds.

That brings us to the sixth seed.

Since Sunday evening, there’s been a lot of talk about how the Oakland Raiders could get the sixth position with an 8-8 record. Because the four teams the Raiders need to win — the Indianapolis Colts (against the Jacksonville Jaguars), the Texans (against the Titans), the Ravens (against the Pittsburgh Steelers) and the Patriots (against the Dolphins) are all favored, this suddenly seems likely to a lot of people.

Unfortunately for the Raiders, that’s just not how math actually works.

Only the Ravens and Patriots are heavily favored to win; the Colts and Texans are only favored by three. And there’s one other problem: the Raiders themselves need to beat the Denver Broncos on the road. FiveThiryEight, for example, gives the Raiders only a 31% chance to win that game.

So the chance that this will actually happen is a little less than the chance Chiefs will get a bye; the Times sees it as a 7% chance. Other teams have a much better chance at the sixth seed.

With a win against the Texans — or losses by the Colts and Steelers — the Titans stay in the sixth seed. The Times thinks there’s about a 63% chance one of those things will happen.

With a win against the Ravens and a loss by the Titans — or losses by the Raiders, Titans and Jaguars — the Steelers slide into the sixth seed. According to the Times, there’s about a 30% chance one of those two scenarios will occur.

So assuming the Chiefs stay in the third seed, the most likely opponent will be the Titans, followed by the Steelers and Raiders. But if the Chiefs fall to the fourth spot, the Bills will be coming to town.

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