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Chiefs playoff picture: close enough to touch the bye

The Chiefs are almost guaranteed to win the AFC’s first seed.

NFL: NOV 08 Panthers at Chiefs Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After defeating the New Orleans Saints 32-29 on Sunday afternoon, the Kansas City Chiefs still have the NFL’s best record at 13-1. Just two weeks remain in the NFL season, during which Kansas City will play the Atlanta Falcons (4-10) and Los Angeles Chargers (5-9) at home.

Let’s take a look at the team’s current playoff picture. As we have been doing since the bye week, we’ll use the New York Times playoff calculator to help us figure out what to expect. More details about how it works are included at the end of the article.

The big picture

Going into Sunday’s game as AFC West champions, the Chiefs were already assured of beginning the postseason with a home game. With their win against the Saints, the Buffalo Bills’ defeat of the Denver Broncos on Saturday and Monday night’s improbable Cincinnati Bengals win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Chiefs now have a greater than 99% chance to claim the single AFC bye and a 25% chance to win Super Bowl LV.

According to the Sagarin ratings used by the New York Times, the Chiefs’ probability of winning the championship is now more than twice as large as that of any other team — and more than three times as large as any AFC squad. The Green Bay Packers now have a 12% chance to win the big one, followed by the Saints (11%), the Bills (7%), Steelers (7%) and Seattle Seahawks (5%).

Winning the first-round bye

As we explained last week, the Chiefs could have clinched the AFC’s first seed in Week 15 with a win against the Saints and losses by the Bills and Steelers. Only two of those things happened, which is why the Chiefs are not yet assured of obtaining the first seed.

Kansas City remains in control of its own destiny; it doesn’t need to have help from any other team to lock down the bye. Two wins to close the season will give the team a 15-1 record that no other team can match; no tiebreaker would come into play.

Should the Chiefs win just one of their last two games against the Falcons and Chargers, their record will be 14-2. No other AFC team can match that record because the other remaining contenders — the Steelers and the Bills — both already have three losses. Again, no tiebreaker needed.

Here’s how that all boils down: any Chiefs win — OR any loss by either the Steelers OR the Bills — guarantees Kansas City the top postseason seed.

In turn, that means that the Chiefs could easily lock up the first seed as early as Sunday.

But what if the Chiefs lose out?

But even if the Chiefs were to lose both of their remaining games — and the Steelers and Bills were to each win both of theirs — Kansas City would still have roughly a 3-in-4 chance to win the bye.

This is because all three teams would then have 13-3 records. The first head-to-head tiebreaker for a three-team tie would not apply, as the three teams haven’t all played each other. They would have identical 10-2 conference records, so the second tiebreaker would be out, too. The third tiebreaker — record against common opponents — could not be used because the three teams don’t have the required minimum of four such opponents.

This would bring us to the dreaded strength-of-victory tiebreaker: the combined winning percentage of the opponents a team has defeated.

Here, the Chiefs currently hold the advantage — which is why they would have a 3-in-4 chance to win the bye anyway — but a solid majority of the other 26 games remaining on the NFL schedule would have an impact on the calculation.

And no... we’re not going to get into the specifics of how that tiebreaker would play out.

Here’s why: there’s about a 50-50 chance the Bills will win their last two games. There’s roughly a 1-in-5 probability the Steelers will win both of theirs. But there’s only about a 1-in-100 chance the Chiefs will lose both of their final matchups. That works out to something like a 1-in-1000 chance of a three-way tie atop of the AFC. So we can’t say a three-way tie won’t happen — but with two games to go, such a possibility just isn’t worth worrying about.


About the New York Times playoff calculator

The calculator begins with the Sagarin ratings for each NFL team. This rating system determines the relative strength of every team. These ratings are then used to figure the probability teams will win each of their remaining games. Using this data, the remainder of the season is simulated tens of thousands of times — and the results of these projections give us our answers. So — for example — in greater than 99% of the simulations, the Chiefs make the playoffs.