KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If the playoffs started next week, the Kansas City Chiefs would be the No. 4 seed in the AFC.
A quick peek at the AFC playoff standings shows a familiar team in position for the No. 1 seed, the New England Patriots.
Led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones, a stout running game and Bill Belichick’s masterfully coached defense, the Patriots square off with the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football with first place in the conference standings at stake.
For now, though, all four division leaders in the AFC sit at 8-4 and the reality is that it’s a wide-open race for No. 1 seed — and the only postseason bye under the NFL’s expanded playoff format, which went into effect last season.
Baltimore and Tennessee, which beat Kansas City earlier in the season, also sit at 8-4.
Given the offense’s recent struggles, the Chiefs clearly have less margin for error than the last two seasons, when Kansas City had a first-round bye in the playoffs and parlayed that into a Super Bowl appearance.
That puts a premium on getting to sit out the opening week of the postseason, and the Chiefs are well-positioned to control their own fate.
Twelve of the 16 teams in the AFC are .500 or better, including the rest of the AFC West, with surging Miami (6-7) still lurking in the playoff picture as well.
The Chiefs’ path still includes fast-fading Las Vegas (6-6) next Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium and a Thursday trip to Los Angeles to battle the Chargers (7-5) on Dec. 16.
The Chiefs host the Steelers (6-5-1) on Dec. 26 and wrap up the season at Cincinnati (7-5) and with a rematch at Denver (6-6), so every remaining team is in the playoff hunt.
It makes for a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity — a chance to improve their conference record and distance themselves from those teams in the playoff race.
“For the most part, it’s just all about the guys in the room trying to believe in each other,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “I still don’t think we’ve played our best game yet, so hopefully that game is — I don’t know — the Super Bowl. But we’re just trying to keep going and continue to push. This is a big stretch for us. We’re dealing with all AFC teams to close the season out, so it will be important for us to win all these games and put ourselves in a position where our fans can show their impact in the postseason.”
1. New England Patriots (8-4)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 6 at Buffalo, Dec. 18 at Indianapolis, Dec. 26 vs. Buffalo, Jan. 2 vs. Jacksonville, Jan. 9 at Miami
Outlook: The Patriots are the hottest team in football. Belichick’s formula — stout defense, a strong run game and mistake-free quarterback play — is tried and true. But is it too early for Mac Jones to consistently do it under pressure? We’re all about to find out. Oh, and if you’re wondering who to cheer for, a split would be great for Kansas City this month.
2. Tennessee Titans (8-4)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 12 vs. Jacksonville, Dec. 19 at Pittsburgh, Dec. 23 vs. San Francisco, Jan. 2 vs. Miami, Jan. 9 at Houston
Outlook: The Titans’ offense has sputtered without Derrick Henry, especially with AJ Brown and Julio Jones also banged up and missing time. Tennessee has one of the easier remaining schedules, but it’s hard to imagine they get through the next five weeks unscathed.
3. Baltimore Ravens (8-4)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 12 at Cleveland, Dec. 19 vs. Green Bay, Dec. 26 at Cincinnati, Jan. 2 vs. Los Angeles Rams, Jan. 9 vs. Pittsburgh
Outlook: Living on the razor’s edge caught up with the Ravens against Pittsburgh on Sunday, which is perhaps a sign the late-game luck — that’s always broken their way through the first three months of the season — may have run out. And that schedule is daunting.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 12 vs. Las Vegas, Dec. 16 at Los Angeles Chargers, Dec. 26 vs. Pittsburgh, Jan. 2 at Cincinnati, Jan. 9 at Denver
Outlook: There are no gimmes, but it’s probably fair today to assume the Chiefs will be favored in every remaining game (except perhaps at the Chargers). Kansas City has to win four — and maybe all five — remaining games to grab the top seed. But it’s certainly possible.
Wild card race
5. Buffalo Bills (7-4)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 6 vs. New England, Dec. 12 at Tampa Bay, Dec. 19 vs. Carolina, Dec. 26 at New England, Jan. 2 vs. Atlanta, Jan. 9 vs. New York Jets
Outlook: If the Bills can sweep the Patriots and dethrone the Buccaneers to close out December, they’ll deserve the top seed and justifiably be favored to reach the Super Bowl. But the offense’s recent struggles suggest that’s unlikely.
6. Los Angeles Chargers (7-5)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 12 vs. New York Giants, Dec. 16 vs. Kansas City, Dec. 26 at Houston, Jan. 2 vs. Denver, Jan. 9 at Los Angeles Rams
Outlook: No team has been more inconsistent than the Chargers in recent weeks. The AFC West comes down to that Dec. 16 meeting against the Chiefs at SoFi Stadium. If Justin Herbert and company want some respect, they’ll have to take it from Patrick Mahomes and company that night.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (7-5)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 12 vs. San Francisco, Dec. 19 at Denver, Dec. 26 vs. Baltimore, Jan. 2 vs. Kansas City, Jan. 9 at Cleveland
Outlook: The Bengals seem like the best team in the AFC some weeks then remind the NFL world why the Bungles are a thing the next. It’s probably too soon for them to be true contenders, but they are dangerous and could spoil Kansas City’s or Baltimore’s home-field advantage aspirations.
In the hunt
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5-1)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 9 at Minnesota, Dec. 19 vs. Tennessee, Dec. 26 at Kansas City, Jan. 3 vs. Cleveland, Jan. 9 at Baltimore
Outlook: The offense might not even be good enough to get the Steelers into the playoffs, especially if the defense continues to struggle to stay healthy. But Mike Tomlin’s teams always play hard.
9. Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 18 vs. New England, Dec. 25 at Arizona, Jan. 2 vs. Las Vegas, Jan. 9 at Jacksonville
Outlook: Arguably the most dangerous team in the AFC right now, the Colts can’t afford any more slip-ups or they may not get the chance to prove they’re the best team in the playoffs after those early-season hiccups.
10. Las Vegas Raiders (6-6)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 12 at Kansas City, Dec. 18 at Cleveland, Dec. 26 vs. Denver, Jan. 2 at Indianapolis, Jan. 9 vs. Los Angeles Chargers
Outlook: The Raiders — as any team would given all the locker room has been through in 2021 — have cracked. So, once again, Las Vegas’ Super Bowl will be in Kansas City this year as a brutal finishing stretch awaits.
11. Cleveland Browns (6-6)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 12 vs. Baltimore, Dec. 18 vs. Las Vegas, Dec. 25 at Green Bay, Jan. 3 at Pittsburgh, Jan. 9 vs. Cincinnati
Outlook: The Browns are too banged up to be a playoff threat, especially with that schedule, but they can help Kansas City out by beating Baltimore.
12. Denver Broncos (6-6)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 12 vs. Detroit, Dec. 19 vs. Cincinnati, Dec. 26 at Las Vegas, Jan. 2 at Los Angeles Chargers, Jan. 9 vs. Kansas City
Outlook: If the Broncos want to trip up the Bengals or Chargers, Chiefs fans won’t complain. But Denver will be watching the playoffs from home.
13. Miami Dolphins (6-7)
Remaining schedule: Dec. 19 vs. New York Jets, Dec. 27 at New Orleans, Jan. 2 at Tennessee, Jan. 9 vs. New England
Outlook: Arguably the Chiefs’ best friends in the playoff chase, it may be too late for the Dolphins to get into the playoffs, but wins against the Titans and Patriots would do wonders for the Chiefs’ top-seed chances.