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How each AFC playoff team could beat the Chiefs

Not all matchups are created equal in the NFL, regardless of seeding. So who should fans most want to see the Chiefs play this postseason?

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a Kansas City Chiefs fan, it’s the best time of the year: playoff football.

Recent years filled with extremely high levels of success have often left fans — and the team, for that matter — ready to fast-forward to these very moments.

After a wildly unpredictable regular season, the Chiefs finished with a 12-5 record, securing the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. But unlike two years ago — when they rode the second seed to a Super Bowl victory — they won’t have a bye during Wild Card Weekend. Instead, they’ll host seventh-seeded Pittsburgh (9-7-1) on Sunday night.

Let’s break down all of the AFC teams the Chiefs could encounter on the way to what could be a third-straight Super Bowl appearance.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Seed: 7

When they will play: Wild Card round — this Sunday at 7:15 p.m. Arrowhead Time

Just a few weeks ago — in a game in which tight end Travis Kelce was unavailable and wide receiver Tyreek Hill played very little — Kansas City beat the Steelers 36-10 at Arrowhead. At one point, the Chiefs led 30-0. So we’ve already seen just how bad of a matchup this appears to be for the Steelers — even when they’re not playing against the Chiefs’ best offensive playmakers. Kansas City enters this game as a 12.5 point favorite. On paper, the Chiefs should win the game — hopefully, with little stress.

But this is the always-unpredictable NFL. Pittsburgh is led by Mike Tomlin — a great head coach — and its defense is led by defensive end T.J. Watt, whose 22.5 sacks just tied the league’s single-season sack record. As a team, the Steelers led the league with 55 sacks in 2021. But when the teams played in Week 16, Watt was hampered by a rib injury.

If Pittsburgh pulls off an upset, it will be because Watt and fellow defensive end Alex Highsmith can consistently pressure Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. To score enough to have a chance at winning, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have to be on point, throwing deep balls down the sidelines — and perhaps more importantly, his dynamic wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool will have to consistently beat Kansas City’s cornerbacks one-on-one at the catch point.

Buffalo Bills

Seed: 3
When they could play: Divisional round

Right now, a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship looks pretty likely. But this season, it will have to be in the Divisional round.

In Week 5, Buffalo trounced Kansas City 38-20 at Arrowhead. After that game, Buffalo went just 7-5 — while the Chiefs went 10-2. But both in terms of scoring and yardage, the Bills still finished the year within the top-five in both offense and defense. That’s pretty spectacular.

Lately, Bills quarterback Josh Allen has been a more inconsistent version of himself — a scary situation for a team that likely needs him to string together four good games to win a Super Bowl.

So if Kansas City again loses to Buffalo at Arrowhead, it will be because Allen was on his ‘A’ game, making quality decisions and displaying above-average accuracy. Defensively, Buffalo would have to do all it can to keep a lid on the Chiefs’ offense. If Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes aren’t patient enough to commit to the running game — marching the ball down the field in small chunks — Buffalo’s defense can make enough stops to keep the scoring low. I would say this is the toughest possible AFC matchup — simply because Buffalo has the best overall combination of quarterback, defense and special teams.

Cincinnati Bengals

Seed: 4
When they could play: Divisional round or AFC Championship

It would be a lot of fun for Chiefs fans to see the team get revenge for what took place during Week 17 in Cincinnati, when Kansas City lost 34-31.

The Bengals are a fun young team — but based on what we saw two weeks ago, the hype is probably a little over the top. The team ranks 17th in overall DVOA, an advanced metric that can be a great indicator of just how good a team really is. Cincinnati’s best ball is championship-caliber — but their worst resulted in a loss to the New York Jets.

For Kansas City to lose again — this time at home — it will be because of injuries suffered ahead of the game or the Chiefs’ defensive coaching staff failing to adjust to what happened in the last matchup. I wouldn’t bet on that. The Chiefs will adjust. They will consistently rush four defenders against quarterback Joe Burrow — and they will win.

Las Vegas Raiders

Seed: 5
When they could play: Divisional round or AFC Championship

The Raiders are in the playoffs? After seeing the Chiefs outscore them 89-23 in two regular-season games, that doesn’t even sound right. But this season, the Raiders are a great story of perseverance — overcoming many obstacles to be where they are. Still, Las Vegas remains a middling team in just about every meaningful metric (21st in DVOA, 26th-ranked scoring defense and 18th-ranked scoring offense).

For the team to pull off an upset in Kansas City, the Chiefs will have to play very poorly — and like the Steelers, the Raiders will need tons of pressure from defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue to cause turnovers. Meanwhile, quarterback Derek Carr and his receivers will need to play perhaps their best game of the season.

Tennessee Titans

Seed: 1
When they could play: AFC Championship

If I had to guess, I’d say Kansas City is going to visit Tennessee for the AFC Championship. It will be a great opportunity to avenge October’s brutal, ugly 27-3 loss.

This one all comes down to Tennessee’s superstar running back Derrick Henry. Coming back from a foot injury that made him miss the second half of the season, Henry needs to be close to his best self for the Titans to make it to the Super Bowl.

Whether Henry is on the field or not, quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s production really hasn’t changed much; he’s largely struggled in 2021. With Henry, Tannehill had 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Without him, he had 11 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. But if the running back is again ready to take on a full workload, Henry can succeed in those key moments when plays must be made.

If the Titans beat the Chiefs, it will be because Henry enabled them to stay in favorable down-and-distance situations — second and third-and-short — and Tannehill has made accurate passes to wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones in play-action concepts. Kansas City’s offensive tackles could really struggle against the speed of pass rushers Bud Dupree and Harold Landry, too. As you can tell by now, speedy edge rushers and dynamic wide receivers on the perimeter are the kinds of matchups that should scare Chiefs fans the most.

New England Patriots

Seed: 6
When they could play: AFC Championship

The Patriots are the biggest longshot among Kansas City’s potential offseason opponents. A defensive football team — as evidenced by its second-ranked scoring defense — New England has free-agent pass rusher Matt Judon, who led the team with 12.5 sacks this season. Cornerback J.C. Jackson — with eight interceptions and 23 passes defensed — is one of the league’s best in man coverage.

Offensively, the Patriots lean on running backs Damien Harris (929 rush yards at 4.6 yards per carry) and Rhamondre Stevenson (606 rush yards and 4.6 yards per carry), who combine to form the league’s eighth-ranked rushing offense. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has had an admirable opening campaign— but is still just a game manager who doesn’t have the weapons around him to give New England a championship-quality offense.

If New England defeats Kansas City, it will be because the Chiefs cannot tackle the Patriots’ running backs to force favorable pass rushing scenarios for their defensive line. New England head coach Bill Belichick will also have to lead a masterful defensive performance where his top-flight secondary does a great job covering Kansas City’s receivers.