Breaking down the AFC's race, Chiefs' chances for home-field advantage in playoffs

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With less than two months remaining in the NFL season, the AFC playoff picture is coming into sharp focus.

So is the importance of home-field advantage for the Kansas City Chiefs, who have the inside track for the No. 1 seed in the postseason.

The Chiefs’ offense has become the talk of the NFL — and the envy of other NFL coaches.

LISTEN: 4th and 1 Podcast previews Chiefs vs Cardinals

“Sometimes, when you watch Kansas City, you sit back and watch because it just seems like they’re out there playing 7-on-7,” Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. “It’s impressive to watch.”

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was by many accounts the midseason MVP.

Running back Kareem Hunt has cemented himself among the NFL’s elite backs, whether running through and away from opposing front-seven defenders or leaping/running over opposing defensive backs.

Travis Kelce has mellowed in the ways that matter — he’s yet to earn an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty — and remains arguably the best tight end in the league. Certainly, Chiefs fans wouldn’t trade him for anyone else.

Tyreek Hill has evolved from the NFL’s fastest man into a true threat at wide receiver, because he’s a technician running routes and using that speed (or sometimes the mere threat of that speed) to get open with ease.

That offense will travel. We’ve seen it all season — 38 points in Los Angeles, 27 in Denver. 42 in Pittsburgh, 40 in New England, 37 in Cleveland — and there’s no reason to think people will suddenly figure out a way to shut down all the Chiefs’ weapons.

That defense is another matter entirely. The Chiefs allow 30.4 points per game on the road and 18.5 at home.

Some of that is a product of the opponents on the road versus home schedule, but having the rowdy fans of Chiefs Kingdom also is a big reason for that success.

That’s why it’s critical for the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LIII hopes that the road to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3, 2019, detours through Kansas City.

The Chiefs’ home playoff history is stomach-churning. There’s no doubt the franchise’s six-game home losing skid in the playoffs* hardly inspires confidence.

* The last win was Jan. 8, 1994, against the Steelers 27-24 in overtime on a Nick Lowery field goal. Joe Montana and Dave Kreig each threw a touchdown — to J.J. Birden and Tim Barnett, respectively — and Marcus Allen rushed for another.

Of course, that pitiful history also predates Mahomes, who is a game-changer — and will have a chance to prove he’s a franchise-changer when January rolls around.

New England, which owns the tiebreaker over the Chiefs by virtue of a 43-40 win Oct. 14 at home, is quite comfortable as the No. 1 seed.

The Patriots have been the AFC’s No. 1 seed six of the last 10 seasons and are 5-1 in the AFC Championship Game during that span.

The lone loss came five years ago against the Ravens, but anything to disrupt the comfort of the Fightin’ Belichick/Bradys in the postseason is good for a prospective opponent. And Arrowhead can deliver plenty of discomfort.

It’s not that the Chiefs should be scared to go through Foxboro, Massachusetts, if needed. They did score 40 points on the road despite a dismal first half.

Still, Kansas City wouldn’t be favored at Gillette Stadium — and history suggests it wouldn’t end well for the Chiefs.

History also says hosting the Steelers in a playoff game doesn’t favor the Chiefs, who suffered a gutting 18-16 loss two years ago in the AFC Divisional round and are 6-12 all-time against Pittsburgh at Arrowhead Stadium.

Of course, all that was pre-Mahomes — a distinction that shouldn’t be glossed over.

But the fact remains — being the No. 1 seed gives Kansas City the best chance to avoid both Pittsburgh and New England until the conference title game.

The deck gets stacked quickly if the Chiefs need a home win against the Steelers and a road win at the Patriots to rep the AFC, so there’s no time for Andy Reid team to experience a midseason lull. He’s got to keep Mahomes and company running full throttle for the ride to end in Atlanta.

BREAKING DOWN THE AFC CONTENDERS’ CHANCES FOR THE TOP SEED

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Record
: 8-1

Remaining schedule

Sunday vs. Arizona; Nov. 19 vs. Los Angeles Rams (Mexico City) ; Dec. 2 at Oakland; Dec. 9 vs. Baltimore; Dec. 13 vs. Los Angeles Chargers; Dec. 23 at Seattle; Dec. 30 vs. Oakland.

Strength of remaining schedule (opponents' record): .448 (26-32)

Projected season record/playoff seed: 14-2/No. 1

Analysis: The Chiefs shouldn’t have much trouble with the Cardinals on Sunday or in sweeping the Raiders. That will be good enough to ensure a playoff spot, but the defense plays so much better at home it’s imperative that those games are in Arrowhead Stadium.

Games against the Rams, Chargers and Seahawks largely will shape that fate. The Ravens game is looking less and less like a potential stumbling block, especially at home. But any stumble could derail the Chiefs’ championship train.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Record: 7-2

Remaining schedule

Sunday at Tennessee; Nov. 25 at New York Jets; Dec. 2 vs. Minnesota; Dec. 9 at Miami; Dec. 16 at Pittsburgh; Dec. 23 vs. Buffalo; Dec. 30 vs. New York Jets.

Strength of remaining schedule (opponents' record): .468 (28-32-2)

Projected season record/playoff seed: 13-3/No. 2

Analysis: To the surprise of no one who’s watched the NFL for the last two decades, the Patriots are the biggest threat to the Chiefs’ hopes for home-field advantage. New England should sweep the Jets, own the Dolphins and crush the Bills.

New England — a virtual lock to win a 16th AFC East title in the last 18 seasons and owners of a head-to-head win against the Chiefs — need only finish tied with Kansas City in the final standings to earn the path to the Super Bowl goes through Gillette Stadium. That gives the Chiefs precious little margin for error.

That said, games at Tennessee and Pittsburgh along with the home contest versus the Vikings provide opportunities for a stumble. And home-field seems to be almost as important to the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes as it does the Chiefs’ hopes.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Record: 6-2-1

Remaining schedule

Nov. 18 at Jacksonville; Nov. 25 at Denver; Dec. 2 vs. Los Angeles Chargers; Dec. 9 at Oakland; Dec. 16 vs. New England; Dec. 23 at New Orleans; Dec. 30 vs. Cincinnati.

Strength of remaining schedule (opponents' record): .552 (32-26)

Projected season record/playoff seed: 11-4-1/No. 3

Analysis: The Steelers are playing great, but home-field isn’t happening with two losses in the AFC already — including one to the Chiefs — and a tie against the Browns on the season resume. It would take significant collapses by Kansas City and New England for the road to the Super Bowl to go through Heinz Field.

Factor in a brutal schedule, including home games versus the Chargers and Patriots and a late-season road test at New Orleans, and Pittsburgh’s probably going to have to win on the road to reach the AFC summit. Of course, that’s probably OK with Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger — as long as the road doesn’t go through New England.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Record: 6-2

Remaining schedule

Sunday at Oakland; Nov. 18 vs. Denver; Nov. 25 vs. Arizona; Dec. 2 at Pittsburgh; Dec. 9 vs. Cincinnati; Dec. 13 at Kansas City; Dec. 22 vs. Baltimore; Dec. 30 at Denver.

Strength of remaining schedule (opponents' record): .471 (32-36-1)

Projected season record/playoff seed: 12-4/No. 5

Analysis: The biggest hurdle for the Chargers’ home-field hopes is winning the division. To unseat the Chiefs in the AFC West, however, seems like too far uphill to climb.

It probably would require winning out unless the Chiefs take three more losses. That means wins at Pittsburgh and Kansas City along with home wins versus Cincinnati and Baltimore. None of those seem like certain victories.

The Chiefs game, in particular, is tricky for the Chargers, who have to travel from Los Angeles after an afternoon game with the Bengals for a Thursday rematch of the season opener. The travel, the truncated week, the expected cold weather — it’s a lot stacked up against a Chargers team that already took one on the chin against the Chiefs this season.

HOUSTON TEXANS

Record: 6-3

Remaining schedule

Nov. 18 at Washington; Nov. 26 vs. Tennessee; Dec. 2 vs. Cleveland; Dec. 9 vs. Indianapolis; Dec. 15 at New York Jets; Dec. 23 at Philadelphia; Dec. 30 vs. Jacksonville.

Strength of remaining schedule (opponents' record): .422 (24-33-1)

Projected season record/playoff seed: 11-5/No. 4

Analysis: Already saddled with conference losses against the Patriots and Titans, the Texans probably aren’t a legitimate threat to win the No. 1 seed. But they have won six straight games, face the easiest remaining schedule, boast a strong defense, have a gifted young quarterback and enough weapons — remember DeAndre Hopkins — to be a dangerous team.

Coupled with a relatively easy schedule, it’s too late to say Houston isn’t in the conversation, but they are a definite longshot. The calculation changes if the Texans win at Washington and against the Titans during the next two weeks, because that would leave only one winning team in the final five weeks. But the three-game skid to start the season may be too much to overcome.

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