Are the Kansas City Chiefs in Must-Win Territory?

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Are the Kansas City Chiefs in Must-Win Territory?
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
The Chiefs need Alex Smith to carry the team over the final five games.

After two consecutive losses, the Kansas City Chiefs head into their second showdown with the Denver Broncos in the last three weeks. The first loss was in Denver, with this weekend’s return game in Kansas City.

The Chiefs won an impressive nine games in a row to start the season, but a second loss to the Broncos would put them two games back of the AFC West lead with just four games to play. If the Chiefs lose, they will almost certainly be playing for a wildcard spot and not the division—meaning they will open on the road in the playoffs and not at home.

After such a promising start, a third consecutive loss could begin to derail the season. It’s as close to a must-win game as a 9-2 team is going to have. A victory this week could be the difference between winning and losing in January.

The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since 1994. The 16-game season not only determines the 12 teams that make the playoffs, but also which teams get bye weeks and home games.

If the Chiefs are one of the two wildcard teams, it’s unlikely they would get to host a playoff game even if they won two postseason matches. Unless both wildcard teams were playing in the AFC Championship game, the Chiefs would always be the lower seed even if they finished with a better record than a division winner.

The last four games also don’t matter as much to the Chiefs if they don’t win this Sunday because there is not a huge difference between the two wildcard spots. The Chiefs would only need to win two of the final four games to clinch a playoff berth if they were to lose Sunday.

With a win on Sunday, the Chiefs’ final four games would determine home-field advantage and a first-round bye. The Chiefs would control their own destiny because they would be a game ahead of both the Broncos and New England Patriots.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Winning on Sunday at Arrowhead may determine if the Chiefs play at Arrowhead in the playoffs.

The final four games would have additional significance because the Broncos currently hold the tiebreaker over the Chiefs based on division record. Even though the Chiefs would have a one-game lead, they would have very little margin for error.

Andy Reid's charges would only get the tiebreaker back if they beat the Raiders and the Chargers and have the Broncos lose to one of the two. The tiebreaker would then be determined by common games which would be the eight games played against the NFC East and AFC South.

The Chiefs are 6-0 and the Broncos are 5-1 against the NFC East and AFC South—both teams have two games left to play against those divisions. If the Chiefs were to lose to Washington or the Indianapolis Colts, the next tiebreaker is strength of victory.

Put succinctly, a loss pretty much guarantees not playing a home game in the playoffs and even a win doesn’t lock things up with four games left.  The last thing the Chiefs want to do is put themselves in the position to lose a wacky tiebreaker that forces them to play on the road in the playoffs.

 

Home vs. Away

Since the last time the Chiefs won a playoff game, NFL teams are 126-64 at home in the playoffs—a .663 winning percentage.  In the last five seasons, NFL teams are 30-20—a .600 winning percentage.

Playoff teams since 1994 have won 76 percent of the time at home in the regular season—that’s an 11 percent drop in production from the regular season to the postseason. There is clearly still a home-field advantage in the playoffs, but it isn’t as significant as one might think.

Home-Field Advantage
Years Team(s) Regular Season Home Win % Regular Season Home Win % (Playoff Teams) Home Win % in Playoffs
1994-2012 NFL .582 .761 .663
2008-2012 NFL .565 .765 .600
1994-2013 Chiefs .608 - -

pro-football-reference.com

Over the last five seasons, playoff teams have won 77 percent of their home games on average, which isn’t much different than the aforementioned larger sample. However, playoff teams have won an even smaller percentage of their home games (just 60 percent) suggesting the home-field advantage may also be slowly becoming less of a factor.

There is clearly still an advantage to playing at home—be it in the playoffs or regular season—and the Chiefs have generally played better at Arrowhead than on the road. Since 1994, the Chiefs have won 61 percent of their home games. The NFL average is just 58 percent over that same period, so it may be even more of an advantage for the Chiefs.

The Chiefs are defending their home turf on Sunday. With victory, they are a step closer to gaining the right to play on it in January. If they can’t defend their home field now, they may never get that chance later in the season, and it will be roughly 20 percent harder to win a playoff game.

Anything can happen in the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean the odds are great. If out of 10 playoff games three or four road teams win, that means six or seven road teams also lose. The Chiefs need to put themselves in position to be successful and they can do that with a win on Sunday.

 

Momentum

Most coaches believe in momentum, even if it’s statistically difficult to quantify. Bill Barnwell of Grantland coined it “nomentum” because he doesn’t believe in its existence.

If the Chiefs lose Sunday to make it three in a row, is that negative momentum? Have they lost the momentum they had over the first nine games or does that just fit the narrative?

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Would the Chiefs have lost last Sunday if Justin Houston and Tamba Hali were on the field?

It probably has a lot less to do with momentum and a lot more do with the Chiefs playing teams with quality quarterbacks. The Chiefs faced very few quality quarterbacks over the first nine games, so that’s a much more reasonable explanation for the losses.

The Chiefs are also playing games within the division now, which are notoriously tougher. Division opponents study each other twice per season instead of once, so the teams know each other more intimately.

There’s also the injury factor with Kansas City. Would they have lost last week against the San Diego Chargers with both Justin Houston and Tamba Hali on the field? It’s impossible to know, but it wouldn’t be ridiculous to say the game would have gone much different.

Although some people would argue the Chiefs have been banged up just as much as any team, the reality is that they have been one of the healthiest teams this year in terms of games missed due to injury. Cornerback Brandon Flowers missed some time, but he might not even qualify as one of the team’s best players anymore—ProFootballFocus (subscription required) has graded him out as the team’s worst defender so far this season.

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On offense, the Chiefs had injuries to rookie tight end Travis Kelce and tight end Anthony Fasano, but running back Jamaal Charles, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, quarterback Alex Smith and left tackle Brandon Albert have all played every game. Look around the league and you will find that’s pretty good.

That also all changed last week when defensive end Mike DeVito missed the game and Hali and Houston were sidelined. The Chiefs will have to produce without Houston for a few weeks, but otherwise are still in good shape compared to most teams.

They haven’t played as well in recent weeks because they have played tougher offenses, and they’ve had more injuries than they did early in the season. Opponents are also starting to devise ways to beat Kansas City’s secondary and they’ve struggled to make adjustments.

If the Chiefs lose Sunday, it will not be because of momentum. It also doesn’t mean they are any more or less likely to lose the following week in Washington. Unfortunately, it makes their playoff path much more difficult.

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