Yes, the Chiefs. If you’re not a Chiefs fan, you’ll probably want to skip this post.
What the hell do you know about the Chiefs?
Relative to what I know about the Royals, not much. I’m a fan of football; I’m a student of baseball. I could probably name all 40 members of the Royals’ 40-man roster; I doubt I could name 40 members of the Chiefs’ 53-man roster.
But I am a Chiefs fan, and have been since I became a football fan in the late 80s, which not coincidentally happened to be the first time in my lifetime that the Chiefs were a competitive squad. I have watched essentially every meaningful game in the last 20 years, and since moving to Chicago and signing up for DirecTV in 2003, I’ve watched somewhere around 80-90% of all their regular-season games.
I never played football, and I lack the ability to watch the game the way someone who has played the game can – I can’t identify any but the most obvious defensive formations, and I couldn’t tell you what, say, the free safety’s exact responsibilities are on a specific play. (Speaking of which, if anyone out there knows a good football primer out there, that might teach a devoted fan how to watch football in a more intelligent fashion, don’t be afraid to mention it in the comments.) But I’m competent enough in my fandom that I can usually identify penalties as they happen.
Have you ever written about the Chiefs before?
On just a few occasions. Most notably, I wrote a pair of Chiefs season previews for Deadspin back in 2006 and 2007. (This was back in the early, more innocent days for Deadspin, when Will Leitch made people like Carl Monday and phrases like “You’re With Me Leather” famous to a small but rabid audience. I barely recognize, and have long since stopped patronizing, the Deadspin that exists today.)
In 2006, I summarized the torture that Chiefs fans had endured over the previous fifteen years; in 2007, I flipped the coin over and recounted, in my typically overdone fashion, the Week 17 miracle that sent a 9-7 Chiefs team into the playoffs on the previous New Year’s Eve. You can read those pieces here and here.
Other than that, I’ve saved most of my Chiefs comments for Twitter, where I spend Sunday afternoons complaining about the team when they’re doing something wrong, and rarely giving credit when they’re doing something right. Like I said: I’m a fan.
Why do you want to write about the Chiefs now?
While I have very little to say about the Chiefs themselves, I have a lot to say about figuring out their odds of making the postseason. Given that the NFL season is only 16 games and a complex set of tiebreaker rules are used to differentiate between identical records, sorting through all the playoff permutations for an NFL team is about as complicated and tedious as solving one of the “Logic Games” problems on the LSAT.
Unlike most people, I find Logic Games sort of fun. I’m weird like that. Figuring out all the different ways the Chiefs can make the playoffs is even more fun.
Several years ago, back when the Chiefs were a competitive team and went into December with a legitimate shot at the playoffs, I would write weekly reports about the Chiefs’ playoff hopes and email them to people I knew in the Kansas City media – people I knew or people whose email addresses I had managed to find. We’re talking about maybe seven people. Needless to say, I didn’t get much feedback.
But I enjoyed it nonetheless, particularly in 2007, when the Chiefs needed four different games to break their way on the final day of the season and every one of them did.
Now, for the first time in four years, the Chiefs are competitive again, only this time I have a blog, and I can share my thoughts with all of you. Or at least those of you who care about my thoughts on the Chiefs. We’re talking about maybe seven people.
If you’re one of those seven, enjoy.
Alright, we get it. So what are the odds that the Chiefs make the playoffs?
There are two ways to make the postseason: by winning your division, or by securing a wild-card spot. When I’ve done this breakdown in years past, the Chiefs were in the running for both possibilities, which made the math difficult. This year, it’s actually pretty easy: win the division or go home.
Winning the division is a lot harder than it might look from a cursory glance at the standings. After winning convincingly in Seattle, the Chiefs are 7-4, with a one-game lead in the standings and just five games to go. In the main, any team with an outright lead in the standings with five games to go should be favored to hold on.
In this case, it’s not, and if I’m an oddsmaker, I’d probably list the Chiefs as an underdog to win the division. That’s because the Chiefs are almost certain to lose any tiebreaker to the Raiders or Chargers. The reason for this is that while the first tiebreaker the NFL uses to settle a tie for the division crown is head-to-head record, the second tiebreaker is overall division record.
How can you calculate the head-to-head tiebreaker when the Chiefs have only played each team once yet?
Well, the Chiefs have already lost to the Raiders once; if they lose the season finale to the Raiders, they’ll automatically lose the tiebreaker as well. But even if they beat Oakland, they’re almost certain to lose the second tiebreaker, because the Chiefs have already lost two AFC West games, in Oakland and in Denver.
The Raiders are currently undefeated in divisional games. Assuming the Chiefs beat Oakland when they rematch in KC to end the season, the Raiders would still have a better divisional record than the Chiefs unless they lose to San Diego next week (as they probably will).
Realistically, though, as long as the Chiefs beat Oakland in the season finale, it’s very unlikely that the Raiders will somehow squeak past the Chiefs into first place. The Raiders have six losses already; a loss to the Chiefs would leave them at 9-7 even if they run the table. A win against Oakland would give the Chiefs at least 8 wins; all they would need to do is win two of their other four games to clinch a 10-6 record.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that despite the fact that the Chiefs will probably lose a tiebreaker to Oakland, as long as the Chiefs take care of business, the Raiders are unlikely to be a threat to them.
What about the Chargers?
Thanks to the Colts crapping the bed tonight, the Chargers are a completely different story. The Chargers are only one game back, and of course they still have a home game left against the Chiefs.
If the Chargers win that game, not only do they make up the difference in the standings, they would take the lead in tiebreakers. The teams would finish even head-to-head, but a loss to the Chargers would mean that the best record the Chiefs could finish with in-division is 3-3.
The Chargers would have two wins in the division, meaning they’d only need to beat either Oakland or Denver to win the tiebreaker. That’s because, even if the Chiefs and Chargers both finish with the same in-divison record, the Chargers will almost certainly win the third tiebreaker, which is a team’s record in common games.
The Chiefs and Chargers share 14 of the 16 games on their schedule; the only two games which are not shared are Buffalo and Cleveland (for the Chiefs) and New England and Cincinnati (for the Chargers). The Chiefs were 2-0 in non-common games; the Chargers lost to New England already and haven’t played the Bengals yet. If both teams finish, say, 10-6 overall, then the Chiefs would be 8-6 in common games; the Chargers would be at least 9-5, and would win the division.
The implications of all this:
1) There’s no way to over-state the importance of the Chiefs-Chargers game in San Diego in two weeks. For the Chargers, it’s really a must-win game – if they lose that game, they’ll be two games back and lose a tiebreaker. If the Chiefs win that game, they are guaranteed to finish ahead of San Diego in the standings if they finish 10-6. If the Chiefs beat San Diego, not only are they guaranteed to win the division if they finish 11-5, but their guaranteed to win the division if they finish 10-6 unless Oakland wins their last five games.
If the Chiefs lose to San Diego, they lose control of their destiny. If they lose to the Chargers, then even if the Chiefs win their other four games, they have to hope San Diego loses somewhere else along the way.
In short: the Chiefs are more likely to win the division with a 10-6 record and a victory in San Diego, than with an 11-5 record and a loss in San Diego.
2) Chiefs fans should absolutely, positively be rooting for Oakland next week when the Raiders and Chargers play. A Raiders win does open up the possibility that Oakland could win the division with a 10-6 record. However, their path to a 10-6 record runs through Kansas City in Week 17.
Put it this way: if Oakland beats San Diego next week, then even if the Chiefs lose to San Diego the following week, the Chiefs control their own destiny: beat Denver next week, and finish with wins against Tennessee, St. Louis, and Oakland, and the Chiefs are guaranteed to win the division.
3) If the Chiefs do lose to the Chargers, there’s a very good chance that they’ll need help from an outside source – namely, the Broncos. Denver plays both Oakland in Week 15, and more importantly, they host the Chargers in the season finale.
Here’s a likely scenario for you: San Diego beats Oakland next week, while the Chiefs get their revenge on the Broncos, and the Chargers beat Kansas City in two weeks. Chiefs and Chargers both win in Weeks 15 and 16.
Going into the final game of the season, the Chiefs would need to beat Oakland to advance – and they would need Denver to beat the Chargers.
You should have shaken his hand, Todd. When the Broncos come to Arrowhead next week, make sure to tell Josh he’s your BFF.
Okay, so what about the Chiefs’ wild-card odds?
The answer to that is pretty easy, if unfortunate: there aren’t any. Almost.
Thanks to the Buffalo Bills’ continuing quest to be the best 2-14 team in NFL history, this time coughing up a win when Stevie Johnson got a sudden case of the Bowes*, the Steelers escaped with a win on Sunday. (Not that Chiefs fans should complain about the Bills’ ability to blow winnable games this year.) That means there are two AFC North teams (Pittsburgh and Baltimore) that are 8-3, and two AFC East teams (New England and New York Jets) that are 9-2.
*The Bowes: When an elite wide receiver drops a routine throw that would have iced a victory for his team.
There are only two wild-card teams in the conference, so for the Chiefs to qualify as a wild-card team they would have to surpass one of those four teams in the coming weeks.
That isn’t unlikely. What’s unlikely is that the Chiefs would surpass one of those four teams without winning the division. I mean, if the Chiefs win their remaining five games and finish 12-4, they’ll probably finish ahead of one of those teams – but it won’t matter, because they’ll be the AFC West champs.
If the Chiefs finish 11-5, they’re the AFC West champs unless their one loss is to the Chargers, and the Chargers go undefeated the rest of the way.
If the Chiefs finish 10-6, they would need either the Ravens or Steelers to go 2-3 the rest of the way, or they would need the Jets or Patriots to totally collapse and finish 1-4.
The most likely scenario for the Chiefs to win a wild-card spot, then, is if they finish 11-5 but lose the division title to the Chargers. In that case, then if either Baltimore or Pittsburgh lose two games the rest of the way, they would finish in a tie for the final wild-card spot.
Unfortunately, once again, the tiebreakers don’t fall the Chiefs way. When teams from different divisions finish tied for a wild-card spot, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head record. Since the Chiefs don’t play any of these teams this year, the second tiebreaker is conference record.
All four of the Chiefs’ losses have been to AFC teams, and if they lose to San Diego they can finish no better than 7-5 against the AFC. Both the Ravens and Steelers have lost a game to an NFC team, meaning if they finish 11-5, their conference record would be no worse than 8-4, and they would advance.
So if they don’t win the division, the Chiefs best – maybe only – shot at a wild-card spot is to finish 11-5, and hope that either the Steelers or Ravens lose three of their last five games. That’s not an impossibility; the Steelers play in Baltimore next week, so one of these teams is going to lose. The Steelers host the Jets later in the year, the Ravens host the Saints, and both teams have to travel to Cleveland to play a surprisingly feisty Browns squad.
Stranger things have happened. Like, say, on New Year’s Eve, 2006.
Are you really planning to write one of these up every week the rest of the season?
So long as the Chiefs keep up their end of the bargain, I’ll try to keep up mine. So give it about two weeks.
Thanks for your blog, Rany. I appreciate how you help a KC transplant in Sacramento stay connected to the Royals...and the Chiefs. Keep up the solid work.
Count me as 2 of 7... transplant in L.A.
Wichita kid here. I'm not a huge fan of figuring out the stats myself. But I LOVE reading about it when somebody else does it for me. Keep it up!
Count me as 3 of 7.
5! It looks like the Chiefs' chances are substantially worse than you might guess from looking at their record. That's as it should be, in my book, since they've benefited from such an easy schedule. Huge game in 2 weeks...hope they can see this through.
Lets not get too far ahead of ourselves here. We still have to play Denver this week, and they made us bend over and grab our ankles and like it a couple weeks ago. We need to focus on beating them this week, not whatever San Diego is doing.
It's an absolutely gruesome scenario to see an 11-5 team get shut out of the playoffs while some floater out of the NFC West not only makes it automaticaaly, but gets to host a first round game!
8 of 7...oh wait...
Patrick, the AFC South might be as bad...the winner of that division could be in the 8-8 or 9-7 range too...
Saw "Take Your Eye Off the Ball" by Pat Kerwan on my buddy's coffee table over the weekend. His dad sent it to him, and absolutely loved it. Haven't had a chance to read it myself, but am planning on it real soon.
"...it clearly and simply explains the intricacies and nuances that affect the outcomes of every NFL game. No more passively watching the action unfold with only the TV analyst's cliches to guide you..."
6! If they can win the game in two weeks - and it's possible if ther Chargers look past them - watch out for St Louis.
Oh Em Gee, Rany on the Chiefs!
I love this. Keep it coming, and don't worry about disclaimers in regards to your football knowledge.
My traditional Rany-style football outlet is TMQ (Tuesday Morning Quarterback) on ESPN's Page 2 by Gregg Easterbrook. He's a libertarian economist who writes about football in a similar by-the-numbers style.
In response to your tweet about the Chiefs taking a knee when they couldn't run out the clock, Gregg would likely say "the odds are in their favor!"
His weekly column (which appropriately comes out on Tuesday) is routinely thousands of words long, so be warned.
Lastly, can we talk about the fact that Chiefs management is a bizzaro world version of the Royals. Pioli and Haley manage the Chiefs like we wish GMDM would manage the Royals.
1. Comprised of largely unidentifiable, young, cost effective, but successful talent
2. Use mathematical odds and statistical analysis to dictate game plans (ie. going for it on 4th down) in lieu of tradition
I want a blog post on this, Rany.
I was recurited to play D 1 football, until I blew out my back. I understand offense and defense well enough that at the stadium I can see the chess game in action. (FYI - NFL schemes are complicated only compared to college schemes ... they are not rocket science. Remember many of the players in the NFL stopped caring about education in the eigth grade.)
Watch NFL match-up on ESPN, I learn at least one thing on that show every week.
Rany you'll like this bit of math. If we give the Chiefs a 30% chance to win at SD, and say a 20% chance to win one more game than the Chargers down the stretch - that's still a 44% chance to win the division (30% + 20% - 30%*20%). Basically a coin-flip, even though they wouldn't be favored in either event.
I learned most of the little I know about football tactics from listening to Len Dawson, who does have his share of cliches, but still seems a cut above your standard radio sports analyst.
I like it. Keep it coming, Rany!
Absolutely love your analysis. My football knowledge is probably similar to yours.
I may be wrong, and I am going to go look it up now and come back with a source, but I think there are three wild card teams from each division, which would change the analysis only slightly.
And I don't know much about putting the numbers together, but when you do your analysis you should factor in the fact that the NFL is very evenly pared up, so the likelihood of each team finishing up the season by playing close to .500 is very likely. In other words, the Chiefs are much more likely to go 2-3 or 3-2 rather than 4-1 or 1-4. I don't know how to factor that in, but I know how to yell at you about it. Like I said, I'm a fan.
Just looked and there are two from each conference. Should have looked before I said anything.
"Rany on the Raiders" has a nicer ring to it...
Anyone that says Len Dawson is "a cut above your standard radio sports analyst" should be permanently banned from your blog.
I know we share a name Nathan, but COME ON, MAN!
I have zero other radio football color guys to compare to. But Lenny is better than most TV color announcers. Are radio guys really that good?
Rany - Oh please no! I was excited to see a new post but saddened to see it was about the Chiefs. I come to your great blog to read about my Royals and not the Chiefs. Being a fan of one doesn't mean I'm a fan of both. Please - oh please - save me from Dick Kaegal and give me some new Royals news and analysis!
C'mon Rany. We need a Winter Meetings primer! :) Will Greinke be a Royal this time next week?
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