After seven straight wins, the Kansas City Chiefs are in the driver seat to win the division for a record sixth consecutive time. At the time of this writing, the Chiefs have a 99% chance to make the playoffs and a 95% chance to win the division.
This is where we expected the Chiefs to be at the beginning of the season – leading the division while wondering how they would stack up against the rest of the conference. What we could not predict was that the Chiefs would essentially lose all their games against those same AFC contenders.
So we asked the Arrowhead Pride community which teams it is currently worried about with the playoffs four weeks away.
Which AFC team poses the greatest threat to the #Chiefs in the playoffs?— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) December 20, 2021
Indianapolis Colts (40%)
The first question here may be why are the Colts listed and no other team? They aren't even in the driver's seat of their own division.
The answer is pretty simple: Winners of seven of their last nine games, the Indianapolis Colts are playing well, and they have running back Jonathan Taylor. In a year where no quarterback is setting himself apart, Taylor is deservedly garnering some MVP hype. With a league-leading 1,518 rushing yards, 1,854 scrimmage yards and 19 total touchdowns, no team is more reliant on a single player than the Colts.
In the win over the New England Patriots in week 15, Taylor carried the ball 29 times for 170 yards, including the game-clinching 67-yard touchdown. He is the engine that leads the team with the best rushing DVOA.
But the reason not to fear the Colts is simple, too — their quarterback play.
Carson Wentz has been serviceable, but you'll need your quarterback to make plays in the playoffs and not put the team in bad situations. In the same Patriots game Taylor was incredible in, Wentz was bad. He finished the game completing only five of his 12 attempts for 57 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Wentz stares down receivers and still gets hurried in his process, which causes him to make bad decisions with reckless play.
What to watch for in the coming weeks: the Colts are currently fifth in AFC playoff seeding and do not hold the tiebreaker against the Tennessee Titans after being swept earlier in the season. With the Titans at 8-6, every game is a playoff game moving forward, as dropping a single game could impact their tiebreaker situation. This week, the Colts will play in Arizona against a Cardinals team that has lost in consecutive weeks and will be playing for the NFC West division title.
The game is on Christmas Day, and if the Colts lose, it could be an early present for Chiefs fans.
Everyone else – 60%
After Thursday Night Football, Arrowhead Pride readers believe the Chargers remain the greatest threat to the Chiefs. With two close games this year decided on last-minute drives, high-leverage gambles on fourth down and special quarterback play from both teams, the Chargers seem to have the sauce to truly test the Chiefs.
The Chargers hired Brandon Staley, who takes the necessary risks he believes that will put the Chargers in advantageous situations. Staley answered criticism of his goal-line decisions on Friday by reinforcing his philosophy that "you need touchdowns to beat the Chiefs." That aggressive mentality is the same one that helped the Chargers beat the Chiefs in September.
The Chargers also have a legit franchise quarterback.
Justin Herbert was also great Thursday night. He made plays that nullified a pass rush getting after a banged-up offensive line and making throws against a sticky secondary. Herbert leads an offense that is third in DVOA and is a top-five quarterback this season by any metric. The NFL brass must be ecstatic that it will get Mahomes against Herbert twice a year for the foreseeable future.
There is reason to favor the Chiefs in this potential playoff matchup — the Chiefs defense will be healthier the next time they play. Three of the most important players on the defensive side of the ball — Chris Jones, L'Jarius Sneed and Willie Gay — were not available Thursday night. Frank Clark, Melvin Ingram and Charvarius Ward did not play in the first matchup.
A rematch would occur in the divisional round or later, and it would more than likely happen in Arrowhead. I like the Chiefs' chances to best the Chargers in the elements of Kansas City with the defense we've seen over the last few weeks.
New England Patriots
Just a few weeks back, an overwhelming majority of Arrowhead Pride readers believed it was Bill Belichick and the new-look New England Patriots that posed the greatest threat to the Chiefs' chances of a third straight trip to the Super Bowl. This is the first time since 2016 that the two teams haven't met in the regular season.
However, this isn't the same Patriots that has struck fear into Chiefs fans in the past. Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Stefon Gilmore are no longer a part of this team. In the offseason, the Patriots spent $159.6 million in free agency before drafting NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite Mac Jones in the draft.
The Patriots had won seven games in a row, including wins over current playoff teams in the Los Angeles Chargers, Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills during that span. Their offense over that stretch is tops in the league in EPA per play, with the most efficient passing attack and the sixth-best rushing attack.
But while Jones and the offense may get headlines, Belichick's defense is unit to fear. The defense is also tops in the league in EPA per play at -0.226 (double that of the next best defense). The additions of Matt Judon and Jalen Mills, the return of Kyle Van Noy and the early returns of second-round draft pick Christian Barmore have given the Patriots a lot of options to combat a wide array of offenses.
With all that being said – I have to believe the Chiefs defense will confuse a rookie quarterback with his season on the line. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is known to have exotic coverages meant to confuse any quarterback, especially a rookie. And even though the Patriots showed that they could win a game with only three pass attempts, Jones will have to make a play or bring his team from behind in January.
This Bills team came into Arrowhead Stadium in primetime and beat the Chiefs 38-20. The Chiefs had terrible turnovers, showed poor coverage and tackling and displayed an overall lack of urgency against one of the top contenders in the AFC.
After the game, the Bills players made it known how much they were looking forward to revenge. They were embarrassed in the AFC championship game and prepared all offseason to attack the Chiefs in each phase of the game. It worked well for them that night – but since then – the Bills are 3-4, including embarrassing games against the Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars.
As a top-five team in DVOA, the Bills still have issues running the ball. They rank 30th in the league in rushing EPA above only the Houston Texans and Jaguars. As the weather gets colder and the winds in the northeast continue to worsen, that rushing attack may be their Achilles heel as they enter playoff football.
At 8-6 and currently in the seventh seed, the Bills will need a big win on the road in New England to close out their season to ensure that they make the playoffs.
The bottom line
After being called broken and done at 3-4, the Chiefs are the No. 1 seed heading into the Christmas holiday with the best record in the AFC. They've been challenged throughout the season, but there are some teams that will continue to strike fear into Chiefs fans as the season winds down. If the Chiefs can handle business and win out, those teams will have to come into Arrowhead to play in January.
The Chiefs' foes will have to play against the best quarterback in the league who has led his team to two straight Super Bowls. They will have to beat a defense that has been a top-five unit over the last seven weeks, according to DVOA. And they will have to beat a coach who rivals the best when it comes to preparation and getting his team ready for playoff football.
At this stage, the Chiefs should be favored against anyone.