Can Chiefs still earn No. 1 seed? Absolutely, and it may not be far-fetched

Key for Kansas City is simply to keep winning
Cowboys Chiefs Football
Cowboys Chiefs Football
Posted at 3:28 PM, Nov 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-26 13:04:56-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Writing about the Kansas City Chiefs’ path to the No. 1 seed in the AFC probably would have seemed overly optimistic at best and utterly absurd at worst a month ago.

The national narrative swirling around the two-time reigning AFC champion Chiefs — who snapped a 50-year title drought two years ago, returned to the Super Bowl last season, and have hosted the AFC Championship Game three straight times — in mid-October was of a “broken” quarterback and a team more likely to crater out of the playoff race than remain the conference’s dominant force.

Four straight wins have a way of changing the conversation and Kansas City may even be the prohibitive favorite to finish atop the conference standings, especially if Patrick Mahomes and the vaunted Chiefs offense find some consistency down the stretch.

In other words, after beating the New York Giants, Green Bay, Las Vegas and Dallas in succession to reclaim some swagger and hit the bye week at 7-4, Kansas City deserves to exhale deeply and enjoy the holiday.

“They’ve had to work for this,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “When you have to really work for something and bear down, I think you enjoy it a little more.”

Still, Reid was careful to add that Kansas City hasn’t “proven anything yet,” a message Mahomes certainly seems to have embraced.

“I’m excited about it, because we’re still not playing our best football and we’re sitting here 7-4 and at least a half-game up in the AFC West,” Mahomes said. “You go into the bye week knowing you’re going to play a lot of divisional opponents coming up, so everything’s right in front of us.”

That includes a shot at the No. 1 seed, which seemed unlikely as the Chiefs — then 3-4 — limped home from Nashville fresh off a 27-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans.

But with Kansas City surging and the AFC’s front-runners sliding, the path to the Super Bowl may yet run through Arrowhead Stadium as it has for the last three years.

“Winning in this league is so hard,” Reid said. “It’s not an easy thing to do. I think teams are better than they’ve ever been. That’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing. There’s great competition and you’ve got to work for it every week.”


1. Tennessee (8-3)

The Titans have the tiebreaker on the Chiefs by virtue of the Oct. 24 woodshedding, but there’s ample room for optimism that coach Mike Vrabel’s squad will lose at least two more games.

Since All-Pro running back Derrick Henry went on injured reserve with a foot injury, Tennessee has averaged less than 293 yards on offense — and that includes the 420 total yards Sunday against Houston.

This is a Titans team that beat Buffalo, Kansas City, Indianapolis and the Los Angeles Rams in succession during a six-game winning streak this season, but also has lost to a pair of hapless two-win teams in the New York Jets and Texans.

Road games at New England and Pittsburgh appear to be the toughest remaining games for Tennessee, which also hosts San Francisco and Miami down the stretch.

Projected final record: 11-6

Texans Titans Football
Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel watches from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game between the Titans and the Houston Texans Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn.

2. Baltimore (7-3)

Another team that owns a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Chiefs thanks to a Week 2 win, the Ravens deserve credit for finding ways to way time after time this season.

That said, Baltimore easily could have lost to Kansas City, probably should have lost to Detroit and rallied for overtime wins against Indianapolis and Minnesota. Without Lamar Jackson, coach John Harbaugh’s squad also was fortunate Chicago with a win on Sunday.

But the Ravens’ luck might run out against a tough remaining schedule — including two games against both Cleveland and Pittsburgh, home games versus Green Bay and the Rams, and a road battle at Cincinnati. It’s not hard to imagine a few losses, which could allow the Chiefs to move past them in the standings.

Projected final record: 11-6

Ravens Lions Football
Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker (9) celebrates with Tavon Young (25) after kicking a 66-yard field goal in the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Detroit, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. Baltimore won 19-17.

3. New England (7-4)

The surging Patriots are surprise contenders despite starting a rookie, former Alabama star Mac Jones, at quarterback. And Bill Belichick’s current winning formula ought to be frighteningly familiar for NFL fans — a suffocating defense, an efficient and powerful run game, and a QB who doesn’t make mistakes.

With the rise to the top of the AFC East standings amid a five-game win streak, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the early years of the Tom Brady-led Patriots dynasty when the same formula helped fuel a decades-long run.

Plenty of tough tests — call them litmus tests, if you want — await Jones and company on the upcoming schedule. It starts Sunday with Tennessee, includes two matchups with Buffalo, and also includes road games at Indianapolis and Miami.

Projected final record: 11-6

Patriots Falcons Football
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches play against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Atlanta.

4. Kansas City (7-4)

Late Raiders owner Al Davis popularized the slogan “just win, baby,” but that also has to be the Chiefs’ mindset coming out of the break. With no College Football Playoff selection committee, style points don’t matter — wins do.

Whether it’s 42-30 against Philadelphia or 13-7 against Green Bay, Kansas City’s best path to the top seed is simply to keep winning. A 13-4 record will almost certainly get it done.

It’s a tall task, but that’s the position the Chiefs are in after a sluggish start left them with ground to make up. But it’s doable with two against the Broncos, home games against the Raiders and Pittsburgh, and road games at the Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati remaining.

“We can be better and the defense can continue to get better each and every week,” Mahomes said. “To be where we started to where we’re at now and still not be playing our best football, I would take that every time.”

Projected final record: 12-5

Cowboys Chiefs Football
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes signs autographs after an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. The Chiefs won 19-9.

5. Cincinnati (6-4)

The Bengals haven’t been in the playoffs since 2015 and haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season.

Led by former LSU teammates Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, Cincy clearly is an ascending team, but they don’t seem ready to snatch the mantle of AFC powerbroker.

The Bengals whipped Baltimore earlier in the season, but also took losses on the chin against Chicago and the Jets. With all seven remaining games coming against teams currently .500 or better, it’s hard to forecast Zac Taylor’s team running the table.

Projected final record: 10-7

Bengals Raiders Football
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Las Vegas.

6. Los Angeles Chargers (6-4)

The Chiefs probably will return from the break in second place in the AFC West. First-year Brandon Staley’s squad ought to win Sunday at Denver, which would move them into a tie at 7-4 with the tiebreaker nod over Kansas City thanks to a Week 3 win at Arrowhead Stadium.

While it’s hard not to dub the Chiefs as the division favorites after winning the last five AFC titles, the Chargers’ remaining schedule sets up well for a strong finish and leaves Reid’s crew with no room for error.

The division could well come down to a Thursday Night Football showdown Dec. 16 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, which also happens to be the site of Super Bowl LVI in February 2022.

Quarterback Justin Herbert also has to lead LA, which has put together an uneven season thus far, into hostile environments at Cincinnati and Las Vegas.

Projected final record: 11-6

Steelers Chargers Football
Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams (81) runs for a touchdown past Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Tre Norwood (21) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif.

7. Buffalo (6-4)

Job one for the Bills is to retake the AFC East lead from New England. Failing that, Sean McDermott’s crew has no shot at the No. 1 seed anyway.

But with two games remaining against the Patriots, the path back into the conversation for the AFC’s lone bye in the playoffs.

Obviously, Buffalo owns the tiebreaker against Kansas City after a Sunday Night Football decimation last month, but quarterback Josh Allen and company have limped to a 2-3 record since that signature win, including a loss at Jacksonville and Sunday’s uncompetitive mess against Indianapolis.

Buffalo’s next five games — at New Orleans, vs. New England, at Tampa Bay, vs. Carolina and at New England — will be tough to navigate unscathed, so Kansas City has every chance to finish with a better record.

Projected final record: 11-6

Colts Bills Football
Quarterback (17) Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills hands the ball off to (22) Matt Brieda against the Indianapolis Colts in an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Orchard Park, NY. The Colts defeated the Bills 41-15.

Other contenders

Pittsburgh is technically eighth in the AFC standings right now, while Cleveland (6-5), Las Vegas (5-5) and Denver (5-5) remain in the playoff hunt. But none of those teams seem like a real threat to finish atop the conference.

The only team with a chance might be Indianapolis, which fought through injuries and bad luck to fight into the playoff picture after an 0-3 start.

9. Indianapolis (6-5)

The Colts need some help — well, lots of help — to win the AFC South after getting swept by Tennessee already this season, but coach Frank Reich’s squad is overtime losses to Baltimore and Tennessee from being atop the AFC standings right now.

Jonathan Taylor’s five-touchdown performance paced a lopsided win Sunday at Buffalo, which served notice that Indianapolis is a legitimate threat in the AFC.

Still, games against Tampa Bay, New England and Arizona make the Colts’ path to the No. 1 seed precarious at best, but nobody will be eager to see Indy in the playoffs if they make the AFC’s top seven.

Projected final record: 10-7

Colts Bills Football
Running back (28) Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Orchard Park, NY. The Colts defeated the Bills 41-15.

So, can the Chiefs earn a first-round bye and the chance to host the AFC Championship Game again? Absolutely, and the early-season struggles could be a reason why it happens, if it ultimately does.

“When you play as a team and you find a way to win these tough, adverse games, that’s when you have those special teams and I’m excited for the rest of the season,” Mahomes said.