By any measure, this has been a much more difficult season for the Kansas City Chiefs than anyone imagined for the two-time defending AFC champions.
Inconsistent play and some uncharacteristic losses early in the season left the Chiefs at 3-4 and scrambling to wrest control of their division while staying within striking distance of the top overall seed in the conference.
A seven-game winning streak has changed the calculus, as the Chiefs (10-4) now possess the top record in the AFC and stand on the precipice of at least clinching a playoff berth in Week 16, with the possibility of clinching the AFC West title with a little help from an unlikely source. But a Covid-19 outbreak this week threatens to take back all that the Chiefs have gained these past seven weeks.
The Titans held up their end of the deal for top record with their victory over the 49ers on Thursday night. Here are the Chiefs’ playoff-clinching scenarios in Week 16:
The Titans keep the pressure on the Chiefs for the top seed in the AFC
The Chiefs started getting some good news on the Covid-19 front, particularly on defense, as defensive lineman Chris Jones and cornerback Charvarius Ward were activated off the reserve/Covid-19 list and should be in the lineup Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who remain in the playoff mix at 7-6-1, but are struggling offensively, which makes Jones and Ward’s presence even more significant for Kansas City.
Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce remain in protocols but still have a chance to get cleared by Sunday with one more negative Covid test.
The need for their presence got a little more urgent on Thursday night, at least in terms of the top seed in the AFC. The Titans (10-5) pulled within a half-game of the Chiefs for the top spot with their 20-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, and would overtake the Chiefs should the two teams finish tied, as the Titans beat the Chiefs in the lone meeting earlier this season.
A victory over the Steelers on Sunday means more than just maintaining the top spot in the AFC with two games to play. With a little help, a sixth-consecutive AFC West title is finally within reach.
The Chiefs can clinch the AFC West title, but need the Houston Texans to help them
The Chiefs have won the AFC West every season since 2016, and with a two-game lead over the Los Angeles Chargers with three games to play, the countdown to a sixth-straight title is on.
The Chiefs have already put the 7-7 Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders away by virtue of owning the head-to-head tiebreaker over both teams. But the Chargers split with the Chiefs this season, leaving the Chiefs’ magic number to clinch the division at 2, or technically, 1½.
If the Chiefs beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, while the Chargers either tie or lose to the Houston Texans, or the Chiefs tie the Steelers and the Chargers lose to the Texans, the Chiefs would clinch the division.
The Chiefs clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Steelers, or with a tie and help
There’s really nothing more maddening, yet oddly enjoyable, than reading the official NFL playoff clinch scenarios when we get down to the last few weeks of the season.
The text disseminated from the league that explains the myriad of possibilities for each team lacks the self-awareness that the likelihood that the Chiefs and Steelers are going to end Sunday’s game in a tie is probably ridiculous.
But clinch scenarios are not concerned with common sense, just the facts. And the facts are, the Chiefs clinch a playoff berth with a win on Sunday, or, in several ways, with the benefit of a tie.
Just play along for a minute and assume either Ben Roethlisberger or Patrick Mahomes channels his inner-Donovan McNabb and doesn’t realize the game can actually end in a tie, and it does. If that happens, and the Chiefs are 10-4-1, they clinch a playoff berth with one of the following corresponding outcomes:
A Buffalo Bills loss to the New England Patriots OR an Indianapolis Colts loss to the Arizona Cardinals OR the Cincinnati Bengals-Baltimore Ravens game doesn’t ALSO end in a tie, because, sure, two ties in a week happens all the time.