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Against NFL’s hardest schedule, the Chiefs had a remarkable season

The way Kansas City came back to make the playoffs is something we should remember for a long time.

Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs are now entering the postseason with the AFC’s second seed. As AFC West champions, they will open the playoffs at Arrowhead Stadium. Should they win that game — against the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday night at 7:15 Arrowhead Time — they will play another game at home against the second-lowest remaining playoff seed. If they win that second game, they’ll either play the Tennessee Titans on the road or the last remaining AFC playoff team at home.

Kansas City Chiefs v Tennessee Titans Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As of Monday, it’s been 77 days since this seemed like an impossible outcome. On the morning of Monday, October 25, the Chiefs were 3-4 after being manhandled in a 27-3 loss to the Titans. They had gone 1-4 against what were then perceived to be AFC contenders: the Titans, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers and Buffalo Bills. But as usually happens in the NFL, preseason expectations were a bit off: three of those teams will now miss the postseason.

If you want, it’s possible to see that as a red flag — that two of those early-season losses were against teams that didn’t even make the playoffs. Both of those teams, however, went into Week 18 with a chance to get in — and in what will likely be seen as one of the craziest final weekends in league history, fell by the wayside.

It’s also possible to see Kansas City’s last two games — a narrow loss to a playoff team and an uncomfortably narrow victory against an also-ran that fired its head coach the next morning — as another red flag.

But here’s the truth: what the Chiefs have achieved is truly remarkable.

Why? Because the preseason expectations were wrong. The Chiefs’ schedule was seen as difficult through the first seven weeks of the season, but a relative cakewalk through the final 11. That didn’t out to be true. Based on the won-lost records of its opponents, Kansas City faced the NFL’s most difficult 2021 schedule: an opponent winning percentage of 0.5381.

That may not seem like much, but if converted to standard deviations from average and expressed as a letter grade — where an A grade represents an easy schedule — it’s a D-minus. The Chiefs are the only playoff team with a D grade. Meanwhile, five playoff teams — the Bills, Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals — have B grades for their 2021 schedules.

Here’s another red flag that you might consider significant: the Chiefs went 3-3 against AFC playoff opponents. But against all of this season’s playoff teams, they’re 6-3; they won all three of their games against NFC playoff teams.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

In fact, playing against nine playoff teams in a single season is another indicator of how difficult Kansas City’s season has been; since head coach Andy Reid arrived in 2013, the most the team has played has been seven — and that was in 2015, when five of those games were in the opening six weeks of the season and the Chiefs went 1-5. The 10-game regular-season winning streak that followed was indeed amazing — but it’s now possible to see that what the team pulled off this season is even more impressive.

But does the Chiefs’ record against playoff teams this season really mean anything?

In 2020, the Chiefs — holding the first seed — had been 4-0 against teams that made the playoffs. They made the Super Bowl after beating a team they hadn’t faced and earning another win against one of the teams they had already defeated — but were then trounced in the championship game by another team they had previously beaten.

With the second seed in 2019, they were 3-3 against that season’s playoff teams. On the way to the championship, they defeated two of the teams to which they had previously lost — and then in the Super Bowl, defeated a team they hadn’t played.

In 2018, they earned the first seed after going 2-4 against playoff teams, defeated a team they hadn’t faced — and then in the conference championship, narrowly lost to another team for the second time that season.

It’s possible to interpret that record in several different ways — some of them reflecting well on the Chiefs for this year, but others reflecting poorly. But one of the most obvious interpretations is that regular-season records don’t necessarily predict playoff outcomes.

And this is precisely why none of this guarantees that the Chiefs will succeed (or fail) in the coming postseason. All it really does is demonstrate how wrong it was to count them out 77 days ago — and how difficult it has been for the team to get where it is today.

No one can say how Kansas City’s 2021 postseason will end. But even if the team goes one-and-out on Sunday night, there’s another reason — besides the presence of quarterback Patrick Mahomes — to be confident about the seasons ahead.

The ESPN analyst is reminding us that there are two ways to build a playoff contender: to stock a team with older, playoff-seasoned veterans — or build it through the draft. Many of the teams that made the playoffs this year won’t be back in some of the seasons to come. But the Chiefs — having successfully completed a very difficult year with one of the league’s youngest teams — will be returning again and again.

So enjoy the playoffs. And remember: even if they don’t turn out well this season, you shouldn’t worry. There will be many more to come.