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Chiefs playoff picture: A plausible path to the bye opens up

Thanks to some help from an unexpected source, the Chiefs now have a path to the AFC’s only bye.

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NFL: Washington Football Team at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs are now 11-1 after defeating the Denver Broncos 22-16 on Sunday night. Four weeks remain in the NFL season, in which the Chiefs will face the Miami Dolphins (8-4) and New Orleans Saints (10-2) on the road and the Atlanta Falcons (4-8) and Los Angeles Chargers (3-9) at home.

Let’s take a look at the team’s current playoff picture. As usual, 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

With Sunday night’s victory, the Chiefs clinched a playoff berth; at minimum, they’ll appear in a Wild Card game. They now have a greater than 99% chance to win their fifth-straight AFC West championship, a 54% chance to claim the single AFC bye and a 20% chance to win Super Bowl LV. As things stand now, the Saints also have a 20% chance to win the championship, while the Pittsburgh Steelers have a 13% chance and the Green Bay Packers have an 8% chance.

Winning the West

A week ago, Kansas City’s magic number was two. That’s the number of Chiefs wins (or Raiders losses) required to clinch the division. With Kansas City’s win (and the Raiders’ last-second win over the Jets) the magic number is one. So now, it’s simple. With a win against the Dolphins on Sunday — or a Raiders loss to the Indianapolis Colts — the Chiefs will lock up the division title and play at least one postseason game at Arrowhead.

Getting a first-round bye

Thank you, Alex Smith!

On Monday, the former Chiefs quarterback helped his creatively-named Washington Football Team hand the Steelers their first loss of the season. That’s the main reason the Chiefs’ chance to win a first-round bye has increased from 44% a week ago to 54% today. By itself, a Kansas City win against Miami on Sunday will increase that probability to 67%. If that’s coupled with a Pittsburgh loss to the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City’s chance rises to 87%. But should the Steelers win in Buffalo, it drops to 42%.

But let’s focus on the better Week 14 outcome for a moment. Should the Chiefs win and the Steelers lose in Week 14, the Chiefs will control their own destiny to land the first-round bye; by winning their last three games, the Chiefs will get the bye. That would give them a record of 15-1 — which no other AFC team would be in a position to match.

Furthermore, a Chiefs win and Steelers loss on Sunday would give the Chiefs a little wiggle room. They could afford to lose either of their NFC games (against the Saints or Falcons) and still grab the bye. But even after winning the next three, they could not afford a loss to the Chargers in Week 17. This is because all of the Steelers’ remaining games are against AFC teams; should they win their last three against the Cincinnati Bengals, Colts and Cleveland Browns, they’ll have a better conference record than the Chiefs.

But what if the Steelers win on Sunday? Then the Chiefs have no wiggle room — even against NFC teams. In order to clinch the bye, they’d have to win all four of their remaining games — and hope for Pittsburgh to stumble in at least one of their final three.

But none of this would be possible without the efforts of Smith and his Washington teammates, who came back from a 14-point deficit to win on Monday. Washington hadn’t defeated the Steelers in 29 years — and since 2004, the Steelers were 109-1-1 in games where they had led by 14 points or more.

So make that 109-2-1. And thanks again, Alex.

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.

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