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Chiefs playoff picture: Christmas miracle edition

Let’s take a look at where Kansas City stands after its victory against the Chargers.

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Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

In Week 15, the Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) collected a 34-28 overtime victory over the Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) on the road. Three weeks remain in the NFL season. On Sunday, the Chiefs will play the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1) at home and then finish the season against the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) and Denver Broncos (7-7) 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 (before Week 15’s Monday Night Football game between the NFC’s Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears and three rescheduled games that include the Las Vegas Raiders against the Cleveland Browns), the Chiefs have a greater than 99% chance to make the playoffs (up from 97%), a 95% chance to win their sixth-straight AFC West championship (up from 70%), a 59% chance to win the single AFC bye (23%) and a 19% chance to win Super Bowl LVI (13%). No other NFL team currently has a better chance to win the championship.

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 greater than 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.

With just one more victory in the last three weeks, Kansas City will lock up a postseason spot. That’s all it would take.

Even if the Chiefs lost their last three games, they’d still have a 95% chance to make the playoffs; there are multiple scenarios (the simplest being the Raiders defeating the Chargers in Week 18) where Kansas City would get in.

Winning the AFC West

By winning its final division game against the Broncos — or beating the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals in the next two weeks — Kansas City will win the AFC West and host at least one postseason game.

Again... even if the Chiefs lose their last three games, a Raiders win against the Chargers in Week 18 will lock up the division. So would the combination of a Raiders win over the Broncos in Week 16 and a Broncos victory over the Chargers in Week 17. That same Broncos win — when combined with a Chargers loss to the Houston Texans in Week 16 — would also do the trick.

Getting a first-round bye

Just as the Chiefs now hold their ability to make the playoffs — and win the division — in their own hands, they also now have complete control over the AFC’s single postseason bye. With victories in their final three games, they will — for the fourth consecutive season — skip the opening week of the postseason and hold homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

This is true thanks to the results of three Week 15 games: Kansas City’s Thursday Night Football win over the Chargers, the Indianapolis Colts’ 27-17 win over the New England Patriots on Saturday and the Steelers’ 19-13 defeat of the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

There was only about a 1-in-10 chance those three games would play out that way — so if you thought it was a Christmas miracle, you weren’t wrong.

But there was an additional favorable result on Sunday: the Green Bay Packers’ 31-30 win over the Baltimore Ravens. This is important because the Ravens — along with the Patriots and Titans — are the three AFC contenders that hold tiebreakers against the Chiefs. The Ravens now have six losses, while both the Patriots and Titans now have five games in their loss columns.

So now — as long as the Patriots and Titans each lose (or tie) at least one game of their final three — it’s possible for the Chiefs to clinch the first-round bye with only their next two victories. That would give them the opportunity to rest their starters in the final game of the regular season.

Even better... because Kansas City’s Week 18 game will be in Denver, it is a late-afternoon game. Both the Patriots and Titans are presently scheduled to play in that Sunday’s early games — meaning that both of those teams will have had three opportunities to lose (or tie) before the Chiefs and Denver begin their season finale.

That said... the Patriots’ and Titans’ best chances to pick up a late-season loss will both occur in Week 16: the Titans will play at home against the San Francisco 49ers, while the Patriots will host the Buffalo Bills. But here’s something else worth mentioning: after that, both teams will play the Miami Dolphins — the team that famously opened the door for the Chiefs’ first-round bye in 2019.

The final word

The Chiefs have continued to take care of their own business — and have continued to see favorable results in other games. As a result, they now control their own destiny for 2021’s postseason. Even better, there is now a possibility that the Chiefs could take it easy in the season’s final week. For a team that began the season 3-4 — and had been written off by many observers — it just doesn’t get much better.

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