When expanding the playoffs to 14 teams two years ago, the NFL greatly incentivized one regular-season accomplishment: earning the conference’s No. 1 seed.
That honor comes with more than just home-field advantage now: It’s the only way for a team to get a first-round playoff bye, which allows extra days of rest while eliminating the slim-but-possible event that a team gets eliminated in the playoffs’ opening round.
Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid has experienced both ends of this the last two seasons. In 2020-21, his team picked up the No. 1 seed then knocked off Cleveland and Buffalo on its way to a Super Bowl appearance against Tampa Bay.
Last season — as the No. 2 seed — KC couldn’t get past that extra round to make the Super Bowl, defeating Pittsburgh and Buffalo before falling to Cincinnati in the AFC Championship Game (played at Arrowhead Stadium after top-seeded Tennessee lost at home to Cincinnati).
When Reid was asked Friday about the importance of getting the 1 seed, then, he spoke honestly.
“You talk about it early in the year ... you’d love to have it,” Reid said. “Then when you’re in the mix, you’re just trying to figure out the next game. So that’s what we’re doing. I haven’t thought too much about that other than trying to get ready to play the Bengals, who are a good football team.”
That 1-seed backdrop looms essential, however, when discussing the immense importance of the Chiefs’ 27-24 loss to the Bengals on Sunday afternoon.
This wasn’t just about bragging rights, a quality win, or the Chiefs trying to exorcise their demons from last year’s AFC Championship Game.
The result is likely to affect significantly how the playoff seedings will shake out — and in turn, could start a ripple effect that determines whether the Chiefs ultimately win a Super Bowl this season.
FiveThirtyEight’s NFL projections gave us some idea of what was at stake. Start with this baseline: The model — before Sunday — had the Chiefs as favorites to earn the AFC’s No. 1 seed (58%) and win the Super Bowl (22%).
Those numbers, though, shifted dramatically following Sunday’s loss.
With a win over the Bengals, FiveThirtyEight would’ve had the Chiefs’ odds shooting up to 74% to earn the 1-seed and 27% to win the Super Bowl. That latter number would have been well ahead of any other team in the field, with the Dallas Cowboys in second place at 15%.
Following the loss, however, KC’s No. 1 seed odds dropped to 38%, which fell behind the Buffalo Bills, who moved up to 46%.
Not surprisingly, those two teams flip-flopped in Super Bowl odds too. KC is now at 17% to win the Super Bowl, behind Buffalo (19%) and also the NFC’s Philadelphia Eagles (21%).
Another reason this game looms so large: The Chiefs are unlikely to be tested much on the back end of their schedule. Football Outsiders rated the Chiefs’ remaining schedule as the worst in the NFL before Sunday’s game against Cincinnati. FiveThirtyEight’s numbers, meanwhile, project the Chiefs as 10-plus-point favorites in their next four games; then, in their season finale, the Chiefs are expected to be 6 1/2-point favorites at Las Vegas.
Ultimately, each playoff team’s fate will be decided on the field in the postseason. That’s what makes for great drama and television ratings.
The Chiefs still had a considerable opportunity Sunday, with a chance to position themselves as heavy favorites to receive the AFC’s most optimal playoff path.
A close loss, then, will hurt in this sense: The Chiefs’ road to a potential Super Bowl has certainly now become a bit more difficult.