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Ranking Each Threat to the Chiefs' Super Bowl Goal

The Chiefs' path to a third straight Super Bowl is full of tough challenges. Which teams are the Chiefs best equipped to beat?

On last week’s edition of The Athletic’s Time’s Ours podcast, Nate Taylor, Joshua Brisco and Seth Keysor discussed an intriguing idea on what could’ve been in this year’s AFC. After spending years as relative doormats to the Kansas City Chiefs’ perennial dominance, the pendulum had finally swung in the way of teams such as the Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans. Each of them took turns exacting revenge on Kansas City, pushing them to the AFC’s cellar, and threatening to shift the conference’s pecking order in the process.

Ten weeks since that humbling 27-3 defeat to the Titans, the Chiefs have re-propped themselves to a familiar perch with a chance, albeit, a small one, to claim the AFC’s No. 1 seed in their quest for a third straight Super Bowl appearance. After those four losses, it seemed likely that the Chiefs were doomed in every possible tiebreaker equation. 

Now that they’ve gained their footing and proved capable of containing everything on this side of Ja’Marr Chase, it begs the question: in a must-win playoff game, who would truly be Kansas City’s greatest threat? It’s up for debate, but here’s one subjective ranking ahead of Week 18.

No. 1: Buffalo Bills (10-6)

Based on the way they followed up their Sunday Night Football shellacking of the Chiefs in Week 5, some suggested that Buffalo had already played their version of the Super Bowl. With a chance to wrestle away the AFC, Buffalo responded to the 38-20 victory by losing five of their next eight. Now, Josh Allen has returned to form as a player capable of winning any game in any setting. A revitalized running game anchored by Devin Singletary, a talented, field-stretching receiving corps anchored by Stefon Diggs, and the NFL’s No. 3 rank in defensive DVOA will give this team a fighting chance against anyone.

Also forgotten is that just one season ago, in the AFC Championship Game, the Bills jumped ahead 10-0, and forced the Chiefs into a potentially game-changing fourth-and-1. Much has changed since that aforementioned Week 5 game. Daniel Sorensen fielded 100 percent of the defensive snaps that night; the Chiefs had produced a zero-sack, five-pressure game without Chris Jones and Willie Gay Jr. had just gotten back. Yet even so, the Bills remain a threat. Their defense has allowed the fewest big pass plays in the NFL (31). For that, they feel like the Chiefs’ top challenge.

Threat Level: Bill Belichick’s reaction to New Year’s resolution questions. They’ve proven they should be treated with the utmost seriousness year after year under this new regime.

No. 2: New England Patriots (10-6)

The Patriots’ weaknesses aren’t a secret at this point. They don’t strike fear in opponents with their aerial attack, and the history of rookie QBs in the playoffs — 11-21 overall per The Boston Globe — aren’t inspiring. But, the Patriots have the ultimate cheat code on its sidelines in Belichick, and for that, they’re always a threat.

As it stands today, Belichick’s Patriots are the only AFC team with a postseason win over the Reid and Mahomes-led Chiefs, and he’s 3-0 against Reid in total in the playoffs. Expect to hear that statistic a ton if they meet — reasonable considering the Patriots are mathematically the Chiefs’ most likely first-round opponent at this time. 

Though they’ve improved, the Chiefs’ struggle in finding a consistent No. 2 receiver remains something to watch for. That doesn’t bode well for Tyreek Hill against a coach who takes away a No. 1 wideout like no other. New England may not be able to score enough to keep up, but they’ve got the requisite defensive chops needed to compete with anyone.

Threat Level: Aaron Rodgers at a press conference in 2021-22. Nothing is to be ruled out or unexpected, even if they appear harmless on the surface.

No. 3: Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

Using the “this is a different Chiefs team” card is a tough sell, seeing as though the Bengals recently put an end to the Chiefs’ eight-game win streak. In the process, the Chiefs broke a record for the most yards surrendered outside the numbers in the history of the NFL’s Next Gen Tracking statistics era (361). Legend has it, Chase is still running free. Outside of him, the Bengals are stocked with the talent required to compete in any shootout.

The caveat comes in the aura of the postseason. On Sunday’s CBS broadcast, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor downplayed the Bengals’ lack of “big-game experience,” noting that their key players have played in must-win games, be it the National Championship or something of that caliber. 

But, the NFL postseason is a different monster, and the pressure of ending a 31-year postseason win drought means something. Plus, given the 34-31 nature of last Sunday’s loss, Kansas City likely still has some level of confidence should they meet again. For that, they sit near, but not at the top of the preeminent threats.

Threat Level: Um, how about Chase on an outside release? On a 3rd-and-27? In a 1-on-1 situation with 200+ yards already? It didn’t seem possible this early with their youth, but they’re absolutely a threat.

No. 4: Tennessee Titans (11-5)

This comes as no slight to the Tennessee Titans, who’ve rallied through injuries and uncertainties to, in all likelihood, have the AFC postseason run through Nashville with one more victory. The potential re-addition of Derrick Henry, especially if he’s anything like we’ve seen before, pushes this team closer to that top-two range. Given the bracket setup, the two powerhouses wouldn’t lock horns until the Divisional or AFC Title round at that.

The Titans have a few things going for themselves: their defense has been rock-solid since its bye week. They’ve played the Chiefs tough in the three meetings in the Mahomes era, winning 27-3 this year, 35-32 in 2019, and dropping the AFC Championship Game in 35-24 fashion. 

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If A.J. Brown keeps his upward trend and Julio Jones’ hamstring has any sort of goodwill left, they have the look of a team heating up and healing up at the right time. It’s scare-some that they have the lowest DVOA of any No. 1 seed in the history of DVOA (since 1983), and questions on how trustworthy this team is if they need Ryan Tannehill to carry them remain thought-provoking. 

Threat Level: Kevin Nash in his wheelchair at a WCW event. Uh-oh. Still beatable, but now, with health finally on their side, they’re among the most formidable.

No. 5: Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)

Based on this year’s results, both the Chiefs and Chargers likely have some semblance of confidence in the event that they would meet. They split the season series 1-1, each winning their respective meeting by six. Los Angeles, for all of its warts and inconsistencies, has playoff-friendly weapons in Justin Herbert, Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. And, their Achilles heel, the run defense, hasn’t been something the Chiefs have found easily exploitable in their last four meetings.

Those past meetings from this season offer valuable lessons. The Chargers, for one, took the Week Three matchup, and owned a 28-21 lead with two minutes to go in the Week 15 overtime thriller. After over-aggressiveness played to his demise in that loss, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley vowed that they wouldn’t change their stripes. Does a postseason, win-or-go-home stipulation slow that mentality? Can they remain polished enough to avoid said situations?

In the words of Patrick Mahomes at a golf course, “I’ll see it when I believe it.” 

Threat Level: Brandon Staley and the Chargers on a 4th-and-1 from their own 19. They can beat anyone, and lose to anyone in the same realm. But they’re fun, and you won’t be able to take your eyes off of them.

No. 6: Indianapolis Colts (9-7)

When you’re a team that gives up 4.6 yards per carry, the sixth-worst across the NFL, Jonathan Taylor isn’t the type of player you’d look forward to seeing. But, there are worse first-round scenarios than a matchup with Indianapolis. The Colts have epitomized resiliency, rumbling back from a heartbreaking 1-4 start to move to 9-7. With both slugfest and shootout victories on their ledger, they’ve proven an ability to win in versatile atmospheres.

Frank Reich deserves some credit for helping Carson Wentz rediscover himself in some ways, yet even so, Wentz remains a different player to trust with a season on the line. Over the last two seasons, Wentz-led teams have gone 1-12-1 in games in which he’s lofted 35-plus passes, compared to 12-3 when the “under” on that hits. What happens when he’s forced to come from behind and Taylor has to become more of a receiving back? It’s a safe bet that Indianapolis would rather not find out.

Threat Level: Baker Mayfield with Odell Beckham Jr. wide open on a downfield post route. The potential’s there, the talent’s there, but the Colts haven’t quite done enough to be feared. 

No. 7: Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

Eight weeks ago, the Ravens would have been among the elite on this list. Yet, injuries have ravaged this team to the point that they’ve started 45 different players in 2021-22. When your coach hurts his hamstring celebrating a kick, it just might not be your year. Lamar Jackson proved up to the challenge and then some to start, the highlight of which coming in his come-from-behind Week Two masterpiece against Kansas City.

But, as we’ve learned through Patrick Mahomes’s story in 2021-22, gaining trust in your offensive line can be the engine that makes everything else go. Unfortunately, it hasn’t come that easy for this year’s Baltimore group. 

They’ve remained competitive and gritty, but those don’t ensure victory. Baltimore ranks second in the NFL in players on IR (19), with 24% of its cap space out on the sidelines. Jackson has the talent to make a team of myself, yourself, and eight other selves competitive, but there are bigger threats this season.

Threat Level: They’re a “Jameis Winston’s offseason pocket presence workout”- level threat. At full health, the Ravens are a different monster and command respect under John Harbaugh, but there are bigger threats.

Nos. 8 and 9: Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1) + Los Angeles Raiders (9-7)

With respect to both the Steelers and Raiders, the three-game sample size of film speaks for itself here. In three respective games against the Chiefs this year, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles combined for 33 points. The Chiefs, in those games, combined for 75 first downs.

Threat Level: The Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Raiders playing the Kansas City Chiefs in 2021-22.

Read More: Chiefs Injury Report Ahead of Week 18 Rematch with Broncos