As the 2021 season progresses, the AFC playoff picture gets more and more interesting. How have they all gotten here, and what do they have left?
Chiefs Focus @ChiefsFocus Charles Robinson @CRob5769
After week 7, the Kingdom was at a crossroads. The Chiefs were 3-4, coming off of the most embarrassing loss of the Patrick Mahomes era – a 27-3 beatdown at the hands of the Tennessee Titans. Tennesee, Baltimore, and Cincinnati were all 5-2, Buffalo was 4-2 on their bye just 2 weeks removed from their own impressive win over KC, and the Chargers were 4-2 sitting atop the AFC West. The Patriots blasted the Jets to get to 3-4 on the season that week as well. Fast forward 6 weeks, and the race for the top seed in the AFC is about as interesting as it can get going into the last 5 weeks of the season. The Patriots have rattled off 7 in a row to lead the conference with a 9-4 record, Kansas City is right behind them with 5 consecutive victories behind a suffocating defense and find themselves in a grouping of teams sitting at 8-4 that includes the other two division leaders in the Ravens and Titans. Just behind those 4 sit the Los Angeles Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Buffalo Bills, rounding out what is undoubtedly the most intriguing group of AFC contenders in recent memory, particularly when you think about the quarterbacks for each team.
Patrick Mahomes leads the pack in what can only be described as a youth movement – gone are the old names like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers, and presumably Ben Roethlisberger (although he’s still playing, Pittsburgh has a lot of work to do with a tough schedule to get into the mix). The oldest starting QB for the AFC top 7 is Ryan Tannehill at age 33, followed by Mahomes at 26, Josh Allen at 25, Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow at 24, and Justin Herbert and Mac Jones at 23 years of age. The next generation of QBs has certainly arrived in the AFC, and it’s going to make for an entertaining last 5 weeks of the 2021 season.
Let’s start by taking a look at how each team got to where they are today.
Each team have massive threats, and apparent weaknesses at the moment making this all more intriguing. The Bills, when they’re on, are almost unbeatable on offense. But they’re missing their best defender in Tre White, and have been Jeckyl and Hyde on offense in the past 7 weeks. Baltimore can punish you with the run, except all of their running backs are hurt. Forcing Lamar to beat you with his arm has proven effective recently, and they just lost Marlon Humphrey for the year. Cincinnati is ahead of schedule on the rebuild, and the combo of Burrow/Mixon/Chase are as good of a trio as any in the NFL, but the youth on that team has made for some inconsistency with them as well. The Chargers, much like the Bills, are damn near unstoppable offensively when they’re clicking, but they struggle running the ball and stopping the run – two things you have to do in postseason football and down the stretch when the weather turns bad. The Titans are an injury nightmare and are very lucky to have the remaining schedule they have – Indy still may catch them in the South. And the Patriots look invincible, but have a completely unproven signal caller on offense that hasn’t been tested to drive them to a win in a tight contest yet. That is coming, and it will be interesting to see how they react.
Kansas City, on the other hand, seems to be getting healthier as the year moves on. Yes they’re without Lucas Niang, Mike Remmers, and Rashad Fenton at the moment, but Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Willie Gay, Clyde Edward-Helaire, Travis Kelce, and Charvarius Ward all seem to be bouncing back nicely from injuries early in the season – crucial players rebounding at the right time is always a good thing. Some have been healthy for weeks, but getting all of them back to 100% at the right time is key. And I think the coaching staff realizes this, or at least it appears they do based on snap count numbers from the Broncos game – particularly across the defensive line and linebackers corps. The one weakness we’ve shown, though, is inconsistency on offense. The last time we talked about this was (checks calendar) right before we squared off with the Raiders for the first time. Could it be that all we need is another dose of facing the Raiders? We shall see on Sunday, but one thing is for certain – with Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid pulling the strings, the Chiefs offense will at very least be capable of icing a game, if not getting back to a track meet type look before the end of the year.
But back to the top, if you look at each team and the games they’ve won and lost, it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly which teams have had to claw to get to where they are on the season, and who has had an easier go at it. Our counterparts in the AFC East both have been aided by both opponents inside of their own division (the 3-9 Jets) as well as their 2021 cross divisional matchup with the AFC South (2-10 Texans and 2-10 Jaguars). The Chiefs, Chargers, Ravens, and Bengals, however, have gone head to head with division opponents all at or above .500, and are in cross divisional matchups with each other. That’s an automatic 9 out of 17 games with teams that, to this point in the season, are above .500 and in the playoff hunt. The Chiefs specifically have the highest opponent winning percentage of anyone in the playoff race, just a hair ahead of the Chargers. In fact no other team in the top 7 currently in the AFC has an opponent win percentage to this point in the season higher than .500 outside of the AFC West. Take a peak below at the win percentages of each team’s wins and losses in 2021 :
Patriots – Wins = 42.59%; Losses = 57.14%
Titans – Wins = 48.99%; Losses = 48.99%
Ravens – Wins = 45.83%; Losses = 52.08%
Chiefs – Wins = 52.58%; Losses = 63.83%
Chargers – Wins = 53.57%; Losses = 59.2%
Bengals – Wins = 41.98%; Losses = 48.33%
Bills – Wins = 41.86%; Losses = 52.46%
So, what does that mean? Let me start by saying that 5 weeks is a long time in the NFL – just flip back to the first paragraph or think back to where you were 5 games ago when the Chiefs were sitting at 3-4. Anything, and I mean anything, can happen in 5 weeks time. There is a very good chance that 2 or 3 of these teams will miss the playoffs entirely. Do the Browns or Steelers sneak in instead of one of these teams? Raiders or Broncos? Ok, that’s a little ridiculous, but you get my point. Injuries can happen, players can hit cold streaks, and teams can run into just plain bad luck. It happens.
If you look strictly at remaining schedule, you would think that Tennessee has the easiest road ahead and the best shot the be in the top 2 seeds in the AFC. But they are without Derrick Henry, have had AJ Brown and Julio Jones in and out of the lineup, and offensively have been a disaster their last two games. New England has won 7 in a row and has two back to back good wins against Tennessee and Buffalo, but really built that win streak out from the start against pretty bad teams. Speaking of Buffalo, they have been inconsistent, flipping back and forth from win to loss each of the last 7 weeks, including a home loss to New England on Monday night that saw two fourth quarter drives get to the red zone and come away with zero points – in a game they lost by 4, where New England threw 3 passes total for 19 yards. That’s not a misprint. Same can be said for the Chargers, who had an impressive win in Cincinnati last weekend, but are 3-4 in their last 7 games.
I’ll take my “this league” hat off real quick and remind you all that while I’ve provided a lot of overarching context and data here, that’s not the point of this blog – it’s to remind you of what the Chiefs have been through, and what they have left to conquer. They’ve played the toughest schedule of any AFC playoff contending team so far, and have the second toughest schedule left to go. But they are battle tested. The defense has emerged as a unit that is to certainly be respected, and debatably feared going into December and January. And while the offense hasn’t looked quite right for most of the season, they will continue to adjust and gel and make improvements. KC’s losses are a combined 30-17 on the year, and are all squarely in the playoff hunt. You can look at that one of two ways – it’s concerning that we’ve lost 4 games to playoff teams. How do we expect them to play in the playoffs if they can’t beat them in the regular season? OR….on the flip side, 7 of the Chiefs 9 victories this year come against team who are, you guessed it, squarely in the playoff hunt. The 4 losses came with an offense that was addicted to turning the ball over multiple times per game, and a defense that was far from healthy and seemingly addicted to missing tackles. That is certainly not the case recently, and while the unit may not continue their exact torrid pace of allowing 11 points per game for the rest of the season and postseason, they have confidence and are playing as a team, not as a bunch of individuals.
Basically everyone except the Bengals and Ravens have an “easier” road ahead in the last 5 weeks of the season than the Chiefs, but that doesn’t define what will end up happening going into the playoffs. Kansas City has as good of a chance as any of these teams to grab that number 1 seed, and some teams that are sitting outside of the grouping above (looking at you Colts and Browns) could have a huge impact on how this thing goes between now and the second week in January. One thing is for sure, it’s going to be a fun ride. And if the Patriots do hold on to the number 1 seed and the playoffs end up running through Foxborough instead of Arrowhead, I can assure you that a showdown between Mac Jones and Patrick Mahomes in New England stirs a lot more confidence in the Kingdom than going to the northeast and facing off with Tom Brady. The storyline very well could unfold, though, that Brady will be waiting for either his former team or his most recent nemesis to square off in Super Bowl 56. After the heat that Pat has taken from the media this year about not being himself, I can’t imagine a better finish to the season than him getting over the hump against the GOAT and bringing home Lombardi number 2.
No one knows how this is going to end, but it’s been fun getting here and will be fun seeing how it all unfolds between now and February 13.