When the NFL expanded its postseason from 12 to 14 teams, each conference was handed an extra wildcard berth. That means that, in theory, all three wildcard teams could come from the same division. Meaning: it’s plausible that a single division could send all four of its teams to the playoffs.
This year that division could be the AFC West. FiveThirtyEight gives the Kansas City Chiefs (62%), Los Angeles Chargers (64%), Denver Broncos (70%), and Las Vegas Raiders (63%) a better than even chance of making the playoffs. Indeed, FiveThirtyEight’s ‘average simulated season’ model projects the worst record in the West to be split between the Raiders, Chargers and Chiefs at 10-7.
That feels… dubious. But it’s certainly possible. There’s a roadmap there.
Although, three weeks into the season, the division feels inverted. The Broncos and Raiders are vying for the top spot, both having jumped out to 3-0 starts. The Chargers, who look as impressive as any team in the league, are sitting in third place at 2-1. And it’s a testament to the strength of the division that sat in fourth are the Chiefs, the team of Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and one of the most explosive offenses in league history.
The Chiefs should still make the playoffs though. They had concerns coming into the season, but beyond the (anticipated) shaky defense, those issues have not really manifested. The offensive line looks better than first billed – it has gelled quicker than the team could have hoped. Their two losses have been tough, one on the road in Baltimore with Lamar Jackson doing Lamar Jackson things; the other to the MVP stylings of the Chargers’ quarterback, Justin Herbert.
Glance through the remainder of their schedule though and you’ll see there are only three similar opponents remaining on the schedule: the Packers, Cowboys, and Bills. Self-inflicted errors cost the Chiefs in both losses, too, more so at home to the Chargers than against the Ravens. It’s unlikely that Mahomes and Co will be so turnover heavy the rest of the way. Drop their turnover rate from four-a-game to two or one, and they win – that’s been the short history of the Mahomes era; if he plays clean, the Chiefs win.
The Broncos are relying on their all-world defense and the Teddynaissance to hold up over the course of the season. It’s the same in Vegas: Derek Carr has remodeled his game to become a down-the-field bomber, while Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue have elevated themselves from afterthoughts into one of the most fearsome pass-rushing duos in the league.
Vegas’ case feels a touch flimsier than Denver’s – we haven’t seen this defense play at a playoff-caliber level in the Jon Gruden era. Meanwhile, all the Broncos’ Vic Fangio knows how to do is to shape a top-five defensive unit. The advanced metrics aren’t as kind to the Raiders’ two overtime wins this season as the eye test may be. But, to make the playoffs, we’re most likely talking about winning seven out of the remaining 14 games. The team is clicking – at this point winning “only” 10 games would feel like a disappointment.
Inevitably, as the teams play more division games they will strip wins away from one another. But the AFC West has a chance to really beat up on a so-so NFC East, the division’s cross-conference foe. And, in reality, the AFC West’s fourth team only has to outpace the second-best team in one of the other three AFC divisions.
That’s not an easy ask. But it’s also not crazy. The Dolphins and Patriots have both disappointed early on in the AFC East, and neither looks close to a bonafide contender. The AFC South remains a mess, the Titans set to run away with the division as Indianapolis continue to battle injury concerns.
Up in the North is where things get sticky. The sharp decline of Ben Roethlisberger has all but ended any hopes of Pittsburgh as a championship team, but the Steelers still sport one of the finest all-around defenses in the league. Even in 2021, an elite defense, one built on pressuring the quarterback, can cover up for any number of roster construction sins.
Meanwhile, the Browns and Ravens both profile as two of the AFC’s top teams – one will win the division, one should make the playoffs as a wildcard. And then there are the Bengals, who have been positively frisky through three weeks.
And that’s where things get interesting. The AFC West is also set to play the AFC North this season. The Chiefs have already lost to the Ravens. But they beat the Browns in week one and will face the Steelers and Bengals back-to-back later in the season. The Chargers, meanwhile, still have all four AFC North opponents ahead.
If every team finishes in the 12-10-win range rather than having a team crank up 14-15 wins, then the entire division heading to the playoffs is possible. Again, that’s not easy. But the Chargers and Chiefs have the kind of offensive power (and are just good enough defensively) to allow them to blow any team off the field in any given week. In fact, the toughest game remaining on their schedules is likely when they play each other.
At first blush, it feels silly. But what it really comes down to is betting on Mahomes, Herbert, a Vic Fangio defense, and then crossing your fingers (and toes) and hoping the Raiders’ sudden leap sustains for at least seven games. And in that context, it starts to feel not only possible but nudges ever so closer towards probable.