This week's headlines have primarily focused on the Kansas City Chiefs securing their seventh straight AFC West title — a remarkable feat that deserves praise.
Within these past seven seasons, playing up to the level of the top teams in the conference has raised another vital question: Can the Chiefs earn a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage throughout the tournament?
Since the playoff format changed in 2020 — allowing seven teams to make the cut from each conference — only one top-seeded team made the Super Bowl: the 2020 Chiefs. And while the bye and home-field advantage have been highly enticing and beneficial for many years, there's enough evidence now to believe it has never been more critical to the potential success of the Chiefs' season than it will be this year.
The current winning formula
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes had another remarkable performance Sunday in Houston. His stat line has been used to display just how unbelievable it is to have witnessed that game go all the way to overtime.
Highest-graded QB in Week 15: Patrick Mahomes pic.twitter.com/52YejjFKdK— PFF (@PFF) December 19, 2022
The reasons this particular game went to the fifth quarter could essentially be summarized as turnover differential, red-zone efficiency and penalties. The Chiefs wouldn’t be close to 11-3 without Mahomes.
In all the games where the team appears to lack answers, Mahomes almost always makes a few plays to put the Chiefs back on top.
This speaks to the way the team is currently constructed. The special teams unit has been plagued by execution errors for chunks of games all season — including missing four points worth of kicks on Sunday in Houston.
Regardless of the opponent, the Chiefs' defense struggles to get quick pressure on opposing quarterbacks unless at least one of two things happen: defensive tackle Chris Jones is his dominant self or defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dials up a timely blitzes that are successful.
When the team does rush four defenders at the quarterback, it have struggled to finish those plays. The secondary has missed the presence of a true ballhawk this season, and the result has been that turnovers have been few and far between.
Against Houston on Sunday, the Chiefs' defense allowed just 219 total yards and 3.8 yards per play — which isn’t bad.
However, it further shows that this defense is playing a softer "Keep everything in front of you" schematic style that tries to limit explosive plays. This can work if the Kansas City offense isn't turning the ball over. But it becomes a complex winning formula for games in which the offense or special teams units make major blunders — because the defense is proving incapable of creating their own turnovers.
Having to string together three to four wins against good teams in the playoffs looks more complex than in prior seasons. Earning the chance to skip one of those games with a Wild Card weekend bye — and then playing a less challenging opponent during the divisional round — seems essential.
The Arrowhead advantage
We won't pretend that simply playing home games during the playoffs will turn the defense into a dominant unit. It does, however, increase its chances for success.
In the team's six home games this season, they have surrendered an average of 20.2 points per game, which is good enough to compete for championships. In eight road games, that number jumps up to 25.1 points per game — nearly a full touchdown more. There are a lot of factors involved — but when we watch the games, it’s clear that the defense, in particular, plays with greater energy at home. The sense of urgency and confidence they display feels higher.
It is worth noting that the Chiefs' offense tends to score less at home, too. However, that hasn't held up in playoff competition during the Patrick Mahomes era. Since 2018, the Chiefs — using their best plays with the utmost focus — have averaged 35.1 points per game during 11 playoff contests at Arrowhead Stadium. This shows that playing at Arrowhead puts the defense in the best position to succeed, period.
It's been noted the Chiefs had an earlier-than-usual regular-season bye week this year. Week 8 was the soonest the team has had its scheduled rest since the 2016 season. In the prior Mahomes-led seasons, the team had three byes during Week 12 and another during Week 10.
This means that when Wild Card weekend arrives in January, the team will have played 10 straight weeks of games. We can't project what an injury report might look like then, but we do know this: the physical and mental toll taken on players will be very real. The opportunity to rehab — and allow even minor bumps and bruises to heal naturally — would be welcomed.
Sometimes, a simple week off like that late in the year can make a visually evident difference in the speed and energy of a team. The Chiefs have proven that they come out of bye weeks focused and with great plans of attack. But above all, they will need the bye for the physical edge it provides.
How Kansas City can most likely finish the regular season atop the AFC in the standings is quite simple. They first need to win their own remaining games — home against the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, then on the road at the Las Vegas Raiders. If they drop any of those games, then the chances of earning the top seed will become pretty small.
If the Chiefs take care of their own business, it's a simple matter of needing one more thing to happen: that the Buffalo Bills lose one more game. Buffalo's upcoming schedule includes the Chicago Bears on the road this Saturday, the Cincinnati Bengals on the road two weeks from now on Monday Night Football and the New England Patriots in Buffalo to close out the season. As it currently stands, the Bills would most likely be a slight underdog when they visit Cincinnati in Week 17. While none of these games should be overlooked, the Bengals, ironically, are the team best positioned to help the Chiefs as the regular season concludes.
Sure... with Mahomes and Reid, the Chiefs will have a solid fighting chance in every playoff game. Make no mistake, however: the odds of this team going the distance will rest heavily on whether they take the easier path the No. 1 seed will provide.
With the bye, however, the path likely means beating only two of those teams. One of them would likely be the Bengals or Bills — but it won’t be both of them.
Get your popcorn ready, Chiefs Kingdom. It's the most wonderful time of the year.