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The Chiefs’ playoff chances have improved on more than one level

Things look a lot different than they did just five weeks ago.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

After seven weeks of the season, the Kansas City Chiefs were in trouble. Picked by many in the preseason to make their third consecutive Super Bowl, they had a record of 3-4. Many fans had already decided that the team had no chance to return to the championship game — or perhaps even make the postseason.

They might have been overreacting — but not by very much. According to FiveThirtyEight.com's projections, the team was likely to finish the season 9-8. It had only a 43% chance to make the playoffs, a 15% chance to win the AFC West, less than a 1% chance to win the AFC's first-round bye and only a 2% chance to win the Super Bowl.

Five weeks later, the picture could hardly be any more different. Now leading the AFC West at 7-4, the team now has an 84% chance to make the playoffs, a 64% shot at winning the division and a 9% chance to grab the first-round bye — and also to win the championship.

Much of this, of course, has to do with the team's improved play — but some of it has been the result of the other AFC contenders returning to the mean. Just one team — the Baltimore Ravens — has fewer losses than Kansas City. Other preseason favorites like the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers have all lost enough games to give the Chiefs a fighting chance to ascend.

But there's one other reason for the Chiefs to have optimism they can turn this season around: their remaining schedule.

The morning after the Bills embarrassed the Chiefs 38-20 in Week 5, I noted that things weren't going to get any easier: at that time, Kansas City had the league's second-hardest remaining schedule.

Seven weeks later, things have changed quite a bit. Before the Monday Night Football game between the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Football Team, here's how the remaining schedules for all NFL teams stack up — ranked from least-difficult to most difficult.

Team Rk WL Grade
Titans 1 0.3652 A-
Cardinals 2 0.4135 B-
Eagles 3 0.4146 B-
Packers 4 0.4182 B-
Seahawks 5 0.4271 B-
Buccaneers 6 0.4422 C+
Vikings 7 0.4432 C+
Texans 8 0.4565 C+
Giants 9 0.4632 C+
Falcons 10 0.4708 C+
Jets 11 0.4723 C+
Washington 12 0.4736 C+
Patriots 13 0.4742 C
Cowboys 14 0.4757 C
Colts 15 0.4788 C
49ers 16 0.4793 C
Chargers 17 0.4847 C
Dolphins 18 0.4852 C
Saints 19 0.4875 C
Jaguars 20 0.4875 C
Rams 21 0.5045 C
Broncos 22 0.5072 C
Raiders 23 0.5210 C-
Bears 24 0.5237 C-
Bills 25 0.5343 C-
Chiefs 26 0.5527 C-
Lions 27 0.5538 C-
Bengals 28 0.5830 D
Ravens 29 0.5870 D
Panthers 30 0.6000 D-
Steelers 31 0.6187 D-
Browns 32 0.6316 F+

As you see, the Chiefs have moved up in the rankings — but not a whole lot. Note the final column, which represents the strength of each team's schedule as standard deviations from average expressed as easy-to-understand letter grades. Differences of less than a full letter grade between two values mean they are measurably different but not significantly different. After Week 5, the Chiefs' remaining schedule rated a D-minus — so while the current C-minus represents a schedule markedly easier than it was, it's not that much different than 22 other NFL teams that currently have C grades.

But that calculation is only based on the won-loss records for each team. Even though Bill Parcells famously said that "your record says who you are," the simple fact is that won-lost records don't necessarily tell the whole story; a team that's gone 5-1 against a bunch of subpar opponents isn't likely to be as good as one that has a 5-1 record against playoff teams.

So making strength-of-remaining-schedule calculations using SRS from Pro Football Reference, ELO from FiveThirtyEight or DVOA from Football Outsiders — all of which evaluate teams based on the opponents they have faced — can provide a clearer picture. Here's what that currently looks like:

Team
(Rank/Grade)
SRS ELO DVOA
Titans
(1/A-)
-4.80
(1/A)
1424.0
(1/A-)
-11.9%
(1/B+)
Vikings
(2/B)
-3.67
(2/B+)
1452.5
(2/B-)
-6.7%
(7/B-)
Eagles
(3/B-)
-3.12
(4/B)
1467.6
(9/C+)
-8.1%
(5/B-)
Packers
(4/B-)
-3.26
(3/B)
1454.0
(3/B-)
-4.6%
(9/C+)
Buccaneers
(5/B-)
-2.05
(6/C+)
1459.7
(6/B-)
-8.6%
(3/B)
49ers
(6/B-)
-1.65
(8/C+)
1465.7
(7/C+)
-9.2%
(2/B)
Chargers
(7/C+)
-1.58
(9/C+)
1476.0
(10/C+)
-8.4%
(4/B)
Saints
(8/C+)
-1.73
(7/C+)
1478.0
(11/C+)
-7.8%
(6/B-)
Seahawks
(9/C+)
-2.26
(5/B-)
1459.1
(5/B-)
-2.3%
(13/C)
Colts
(10/C+)
-0.76
(11/C)
1456.2
(4/B-)
-1.9%
(14/C)
Chiefs
(11/C+)
-0.62
(12/C)
1492.0
(16/C)
-5.7%
(8/C+)
Giants
(12/C)
-1.02
(10/C+)
1498.5
(17/C)
-1.4%
(15/C)
Dolphins
(13/C)
0.02
(16/C)
1490.4
(14/C)
-2.4%
(12/C)
Cardinals
(14/C)
-0.32
(14/C)
1466.3
(8/C+)
2.8%
(23/C-)
Jaguars
(15/C)
-0.17
(15/C)
1484.3
(12/C+)
-0.4%
(16/C)
Broncos
(16/C)
-0.43
(13/C)
1504.5
(18/C)
-2.5%
(10/C+)
Texans
(17/C)
0.23
(19/C)
1491.3
(15/C)
2.3%
(21/C-)
Bills
(18/C)
0.90
(22/C-)
1508.7
(20/C)
-0.3%
(18/C)
Browns
(19/C)
0.14
(17/C)
1536.2
(27/D+)
-2.5%
(11/C+)
Ravens
(20/C-)
0.20
(18/C)
1525.3
(26/C-)
0.8%
(19/C)
Cowboys
(21/C-)
0.35
(20/C)
1517.8
(23/C-)
2.1%
(20/C-)
Lions
(22/C-)
1.03
(23/C-)
1525.2
(25/C-)
-0.3%
(17/C)
Washington
(23/C-)
1.86
(28/D+)
1488.0
(13/C)
6.6%
(29/D+)
Raiders
(24/C-)
0.48
(21/C-)
1540.0
(29/D+)
2.9%
(24/C-)
Rams
(25/C-)
1.17
(24/C-)
1507.0
(19/C)
6.5%
(28/D+)
Jets
(26/C-)
1.77
(27/C-)
1509.7
(21/C-)
5.2%
(25/C-)
Patriots
(27/C-)
2.36
(31/D+)
1520.0
(24/C-)
2.4%
(22/C-)
Falcons
(28/C-)
2.05
(29/D+)
1509.8
(22/C-)
8.1%
(31/D)
Bengals
(29/D+)
1.18
(25/C-)
1550.3
(30/D)
6.1%
(27/D+)
Steelers
(30/D+)
1.52
(26/C-)
1562.7
(32/D-)
5.5%
(26/D+)
Bears
(31/D+)
2.23
(30/D+)
1538.8
(28/D+)
7.5%
(30/D)
Panthers
(32/D-)
4.08
(32/F+)
1561.8
(31/D-)
10.8%
(32/D-)

The bottom line

Just as was true after Week 7, the Chiefs have little room for error. To have a decent chance to grab the AFC's first seed, they'll likely have to win the rest of their games — and probably get a little help from other teams, too. But as we have seen in the last four games, the team is playing much better — and with two-thirds of the season gone, their remaining schedule looks significantly easier than it did before. In fact, it might even be a tiny bit easier than just the won-loss records of the last six opponents might lead us to believe.

It's still a long shot, but the door to AFC West crown — and maybe even the conference's first seed — is still open.