Analysis

Nine games down, seven more to go: What the Chiefs need to become the #1 seed in AFC

While the Chiefs may seem like the best team in the NFL, there is still work to do if they wish to acquire the #1 seed…if it even matters anymore.

(Note: The NFL has announced that if key games are missed due to COVID-19 that there will be a 16-team playoff structure, not the proposed 14-game playoff system, which would eliminate the bye week for the #1 overall seed for both NFL conferences).

Heading into the week 10 bye the Chiefs are 2-1 in the AFC West and 8-1 overall with big wins over Buffalo and Baltimore so far this season, and both of those wins coming outside of Arrowhead. While achieving these records, the Chiefs have seemed to somehow amplify their defense AND offense from last year and slowly-but-surely the ‘Super Bowl hangover’ conversations have simmered to a silence across social media.

Even though Patrick Mahomes seems to be the favorite for MVP and the Kansas City Chiefs are looking bigger and better each week, they are technically not the best in the AFC, nor the favorite to be #1 overall (according to SportsLine). Instead, the 8-0 Steelers, who trailed for most of their week 9 game against the all-but-forgotten Dallas Cowboys, are the favorites to win the AFC top spot–and, believe it or not, that is rightfully so.

Right now, if the playoffs began today, the Chiefs would be the #2 seed, only trailing the 8-0 Steelers by a half-game, but that could all change within the next four weeks of the season as Pittsburgh has to play a resurgent Buffalo and a vengeful Baltimore.

According to the Upshot NFL Playoff simulator, the Chiefs have a 90% chance to win their division while the Steelers only have a 76% chance; this is most likely due to the fact that the AFC North has, at times, been much more consistently competitive than the AFC West and has three of the four teams sporting a .500 record or greater halfway through the season.

Not only does the AFC North have a higher winning percentage than the AFC West, they have the Baltimore Ravens, who were heavily favored during most of the 2019 season, as well as earlier this year during the offseason. The Ravens, who still have 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, play Pittsburgh again on Thanksgiving and–if history repeats itself–Baltimore will knock off the AFC’s #1 seed just in time for Kansas City to begin their postseason push.

Wins aside, the Steelers have a very formidable defense–averaging the 5th best passing defense and 9th best rushing defense in the league–and they are something that the Chiefs should be scared of, no matter how many points Mahomes can score or how many teams the Chiefs can embarrass athletically.

Pittsburgh’s defense seems to take over any and every conversation about the black and gold bees, but that doesn’t mean they have played perfectly throughout the first half of the season. In fact, the Steelers defense has played progressively worse over the past three weeks, and the Chiefs defense has only been getting better since week 5, in that sense it seems momentum has shifted in Kansas City’s favor.

The Steelers recently beat the preseason-favorite Baltimore Ravens, although not nearly as effortlessly as the Chiefs did in week 3, as well as the 5-0 Titans who were coming off a forced bye due to COVID regulations. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have beaten the Ravens handily as well as a hard-nosed Buffalo Bills in a rainy away game that showed how the Chiefs ground game can take over whenever they feel like it.

While the Chiefs offense–which is 2nd in points per game, 2nd in passing yards per game & 4th in overall yards per game–has had some easier defenses to go against so far this season they should still feel proud of the performances up to this point, putting up an average of 37 pts/game over the past three weeks. Meanwhile, the Steelers have only reached the 30 point mark in two of their eight games with five of their wins being within one score.

The Steelers defense has held them up through the first half of the season, averaging just over 315 yards allowed per game, but the Dallas Cowboys game showed just how vulnerable their defense can be, as well as how ineffective their offense can look if pressured correctly. Not only that, Big Ben Roethlisberger had his knee injured midway through the Dallas game and has not been able to practice since due to COVID-19 regulations on top of his lingering knee issues.

A few more upsides and downsides…

Upsides:

  • The Chiefs have one of, if not the easiest schedule left in the AFC, only playing three teams with a winning record over their last six weeks, and only one of the six teams reaching the playoffs within the last two years. With three of KC’s last six games being divisional and the first of those being a revenge game against the only team to beat Mahomes in 365+ days, the Chiefs have nothing but green pastures ahead of them.
  • The Steelers have a less-than-great record on Thanksgiving when they are awarded the honor of playing on the national holiday, housing a 1-4 record in the Super Bowl era, with their last loss coming against Baltimore in 2013.
  • The AFC West is one of the most winnable divisions in the NFL. The Chargers and the Broncos are both below .500 and obviously not looking to make any major changes in their game plans to hoist them to any sort of better position. On top of their terrible play so far this season both LA and Denver have somewhat difficult finishes to the season–Denver with the most difficult, playing six teams with winning records over their remaining eight games.
  • The Chiefs defense, currently ranked 8th overall by Lineups, has only been getting better and better over the past month–ranking in the top five in forced turnovers and top ten in third-down conversion percentage. Add in the news of standout rookie L’Jarius Sneed returning to practice this week from a collarbone injury, and the defenses’ talent raises exponentially, boosting the already-high ceiling of KC’s defense. If healthy, this Chiefs defense should be poised to have an even better showing than they did entering the postseason last year.
  • The Chiefs have a top-2 offense in almost every registered category and Patrick Mahomes thrives when blitzed (topping the league with a *crazy* 140.6 overall rating vs blitz, completing over 70% of his passes), which the Steelers do more often than 30 other NFL teams–earning them the name ‘Blitzburgh’.
  • On top of all that, the unexpected explosiveness of an underrated Dirty Dan Sorenson and an undrafted free agent Tershawn Wharton having a rookie season for the record books, the KC defense has never looked as disruptive and abrasive as they do heading into the bye week.

Downsides:

  • The Steelers are having a comeback year the likes none of us have ever seen, following the loss of Big Ben and a lousy 8-8 finish last year, the Steelers are the 8-0 for the first time in franchise history and have no signs of slowing down with their next four games being the Bengals (2-5-1), Jaguars (1-7), Ravens (6-2) & the Washington Football Team (2-6).
  • Chiefs defensive end Taco Charlton, who was having a comeback year of his own with two sacks and a forced fumble, was knocked out of the Carolina game with a fractured ankle that will keep him sidelined for the near future, right after he finally seemed to find his stride with KC after a sub-par career in Dallas and Miami. Charlton walked off the field thinking he might be able to finish the game but now that he’s aware of the time he will be spending off the field he seems to have newfound motivation.
  • The Steelers defense ranks #1 in sacks and interceptions halfway through the season, not only that but they rank #2 in Defensive-adjusted Value over Average (DVOA) only behind Tampa Bay by a measly .1% over the first nine weeks. With the ease of Pittsburgh’s schedule over the next six weeks, it would be likely that their defense stays ranked high.
  • The Steelers were able to add LB Avery Williamson to their defense right before the trade deadline on November 3rd, Williamson has accrued over 14 sacks in 86 games and was obviously extremely thrilled to leave the winless Jets for the undefeated Steelers as he showed through his Instagram.

Now the real question must be asked…will all this matter? The weekly playoff predictions, the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, all 32 teams striving for the #1 overall position in their conference could be all for naught after the NFL and NFLPA announced that the playoffs would be altered if COVID-19 makes a 256-game season impossible through the cancellation of regular-season games.

This alteration to the schedule would result in a 16-team playoff system instead of a 14-team system, causing the #1 overall seed in both the AFC and NFC to forgo their highly-coveted bye week in exchange for a game against the lowest seed in their conference.

The Chiefs and Steelers both have similar schedules heading forward after week 10: both look to add (Williamson to PIT) or bring back (Sneed back for KC) key positions on defense, and both play divisional rivals that will help decide the winner of the division.

A Chiefs loss to the Raiders would mark the first time since 2012 that KC was swept by the black and gray, but it wouldn’t necessarily knock them out of first place in the AFC West, although it would make the AFC West much trickier to keep hold of. A Steelers loss to Joe Burrow and the Bengals would put Baltimore right behind the driver’s seat in the AFC North only down by a half-game due to their respective overall records, leaving them both tied in AFC North divisional standings before they face them on Thanksgiving.

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers completely and utterly deserve the success they have found and are continually finding week-in and week-out, success that continually feeds the rumors regarding Tomlin and Coach of the Year (COTY) speculations, but Pittsburgh must keep in mind that even one loss can open the door for Mahomes and Kansas City to take over the AFC.

Even if the top spot doesn’t mean much due to the nature of 2020 and the possible 16-team playoff structure, it is still important for the Chiefs to try and reach the honored #1 position before the playoffs, this would at least ensure that KC has a bye if 2020 (and presumptively 2021) allows us to move that way through the postseason.

No matter what, the Chiefs and Steelers both must win their division–a much easier feat for Kansas City and the AFC West–before anyone can decide their playoff positioning. The Chiefs having one less divisional game remaining on their schedule while also having one more divisional loss (see week 5 vs the Las Vegas Raiders) leaves much to the imagination:

  • What if KC loses a game to Denver/Las Vegas/Los Angeles but wins out against Tampa Bay/New Orleans/Atlanta?
  • What if Mahomes demolishes the division but drops a game or two against the NFC opponents slated against him and KC?
  • Right now the Chiefs hold the tiebreaker over Baltimore, something that could come into play at the end of the season if the Ravens refuse to be swept by Tomlin and Roethlisberger.
  • If Pittsburgh loses on Thanksgiving the division will be much easier to topple for Baltimore heading into the postseason–but wait–what happens if Baltimore loses that game like they’ve lost every game against Mahomes or every playoff game in the Lamar Jackson era? Then things start to become interesting…

The only scenario where Kansas City becomes the #1 overall team, granting Reid and Mahomes a bye week before running it back to Super Bowl LV, involves the Steelers losing at least one game, with the most likely chances of that happening coming from the hands of Baltimore or the surprisingly-entertaining Bills.

The Chiefs would have to win out their last seven games, handing out losses to the top two NFC South teams as well as the remainder of the AFC West, in order for Mahomes to guarantee himself another postseason bye week. As long as Pittsburgh loses to Baltimore on Thanksgiving, or loses to the Cleveland Browns (who would have to beat Baltimore at least once by the end of the season) then KC would theoretically get the #1 spot in the AFC and obtain the bye week that may not even exist by the time the playoffs begin.

The difference between Kansas City and Pittsburgh truly comes down to the good, old-fashioned eye test: who looks better? The Chiefs offense or the Steelers offense? The Chiefs defense or the Steelers defense? KC’s special teams or Pittsburgh’s special teams?

Either way this AFC race, much like the four-way battle for the NFC top spot, will come down to the wire and rely on the blowouts just as much as the shootouts. KC’s offense can hinge on the attitude of the defense, can the Steelers’ offense do the same? Can the Pittsburgh defense rely on their offense as much as Spagnuolo and the KC defense relies on Mahomes and the consistently-dangerous Andy Reid offense? Only time will tell…

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