The Kansas City Chiefs have come out of their Week 12 bye with a 7-4 record on the heels of their 19-9 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11. Six weeks remain in the NFL season, in which the Chiefs will face the Denver Broncos (6-5) and Las Vegas Raiders (6-5) at home, the Los Angeles Chargers (6-5) on the road, the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5-1) at home and the Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) and Denver Broncos (6-5) on the road.
Let’s take a look at the team’s current playoff picture. Just as we have done in previous seasons, we’ll use the New York Times playoff calculator to help us figure out what’s on the horizon.
The big picture
As it stands right now, the Chiefs have an 84% chance to make the playoffs, a 62% chance to win their sixth-straight AFC West championship, a 10% chance to win the single AFC bye and a 10% chance to win Super Bowl LVI. Two teams — the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals — have a 12% chance to win the championship, while the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers also each have a 10% chance to win the Super Bowl.
These percentages begin with the Sagarin ratings for each NFL team. This system determines the relative strength of every team, which 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 99% of the simulations, the Chiefs make the playoffs.
Making the playoffs
The playoff calculator also allows us to assume the outcome of any remaining game and then see how it changes things.
By simply winning their next three games — all of them against AFC West teams — the Chiefs’ chance to make the playoffs rises to above 99%. With a fourth win among any of the last three games, the Chiefs are locked into the postseason. In fact, any combination of four wins in the last six games will almost guarantee making the playoffs; certain combinations of two losses to AFC West teams reduce Kansas City’s chances, but still result in a playoff probability above 99%.
Winning the AFC West
Simply by winning their last four division games, the Chiefs will win the AFC West. With a win against the Broncos this Sunday — and victories in the next four games — they could afford a loss to Denver in Week 18. As long as they win the other five remaining games, they could also handle a loss to the Raiders in Week 14.
But because the Chargers hold a head-to-head tiebreaker from their Week 3 victory over Kansas City, the Chiefs must win the Week 15 game against the Chargers — or else they can’t win the AFC West without also winning their other five remaining games and the Chargers losing at least one of their other five games. The Chargers still have matchups against the Bengals, Broncos and Raiders on their schedule, so another loss is certainly possible. Lacking one of those, Kansas City would have to hope for upset victories by the New York Giants or Houston Texans.
Getting a first-round bye
Since the Chiefs go into Week 13 with only a 1-in-10 chance to secure the AFC’s only bye, it likely won’t surprise you to learn that any reasonable scenario for Kansas City to skip the Wild Card round begins with the team winning all six of its remaining games. By itself, that improves the team’s chance for a bye to about 3-in-4. With those six wins, the Chiefs would need at least two losses by the Baltimore Ravens — along with at least one loss each by the Patriots, Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills.
So here’s a scenario for you: the Steelers defeat the Ravens on Sunday and the Bills beat the Patriots on Monday Night Football. Then in Week 14, the Cleveland Browns knock off the Ravens and the Buccaneers defeat the Bills. And then... the Jacksonville Jaguars defeat the Titans. Along with six victories to close the season, those results — a couple of them pretty unlikely — would clinch the first-round bye for the Chiefs.
But if that scenario seems too far-fetched, then consider this one: the Ravens win those two games and the Titans win in Week 14. Then the Ravens lose to the Packers in Week 15 and the Bengals in Week 16 — while the Titans lose to the Steelers in Week 15.
All of this is simply to show that should the Chiefs take care of their own business to close the season, it’s not that hard to imagine those four teams accumulating the losses needed for the Chiefs to earn the first seed. But with any Kansas City loss during the last six weeks, it gets a lot harder to imagine a path to the bye.
The final word
Despite beginning the season 3-4 — including losses to teams considered to be AFC contenders — the Chiefs still control their own destiny to reach the postseason and win their sixth-straight AFC West title. But getting the first-round bye will likely require them to be perfect the rest of the way — and also see some favorable results from four other teams.
But all of that starts with a win against the Broncos this Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.