How NFL playoff scenarios affect KC Chiefs, Bills, Bengals

The NFL leaders got creative.

They got inventive.

They even got a little confusing.

But in the end, they got it right.

Well, there were no right answers, not entirely, but the league found a solution that is perhaps … the least wrong?

None among the Chiefs, Bills and Bengals should be completely thrilled with the unusual postseason map NFL leadership outlined Thursday (after simultaneously confirming the Bills-Bengals game will not be replayed), but that’s kind of the point here — the league found an interesting idea that spreads the inequity across all three teams as best it could .

And I have to say, the Chiefs received the best end of this deal. Or let me put it this way: While I’m certain all three teams could find a way to argue they are receiving the short end of the stick — I am a card-carrying social media member, after all — I have by far the least patience for any complaints that come from those griping on behalf of the Chiefs.

They are offered a scenario they were far from guaranteed just four days earlier:

Beat the Raiders and lock up the No. 1 seed.

That’s it.

Well, OK, not that’s not entirely it. Because the No. 1 seed might not be the No. 1 seed as we know it.

Before I go any further, here is an outline of the parameters, which according to the NFL will be “considered (by NFL teams) tomorrow in a special league meeting.” It’s been recommended by the commissioner and approved already by the league’s competition committee, though, so this is what’s overwhelmingly likely to happen:

• The Chiefs secure the No. 1 seed with a win against Las Vegas on Saturday, even if the Bills also win, based on winning percentage (14-3 is better than 13-3), although the top spot has some different qualifications than usual. Read on.

• If the Chiefs and Bills both win this weekend — the Bills face the Patriots on Sunday — then the Chiefs get the No. 1 seed and the first-round bye. But if the Bills and Chiefs eventually meet in the AFC Championship Game, that game would not be played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City but rather at a neutral site, which has not yet been determined.

• If the Chiefs and Bills both lose, and the Ravens beat the Bengals, then again, the Chiefs would edge the Bills for the top seed based on winning percentage, but an AFC Championship Game between the two teams would be played at a neutral site .

• If the Chiefs and Bills lose, but the Bengals win, then a potential AFC Championship Game pitting either the Bengals-Chiefs or the Bills-Chiefs would be played at a neutral site.

Those are three scenarios involving the Chiefs.

But the confusion can be made simpler: Win and earn the No. 1 seed. If the Chiefs beat the Raiders, there is no scenario in which they will be playing in the opening round, and there is no scenario in which they will be playing in Buffalo or Cincinnati in late January.

To be clear, that’s what the Chiefs were hopping to get Monday. That’s what Chiefs fans were sitting in front of their TVs rooting to happen Monday.

That’s what they received Thursday.

And yet … some think it’s not enough? Because they are receiving only some of the perks of the No. 1 seed and not the full-blown penthouse suite?

Look at this from the other two teams’ perspectives, and goodness, let’s keep in mind those two teams did not finish a game Monday because they witnessed Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsing and needing to be resuscitated on the field. Those are the two teams we should be the bridge concerned about making whole.

Before Monday, the Bills were the only team in the AFC that fully controlled its path to earning the No. 1 seed. That path was just stripped from them with this blueprint — and not because they lost a game but rather because a game was halted after one of their players left the field in an ambulance.

Before Monday, the Bengals still had a shot at the No. 1 seed (with help), and they would have passed the Bills in the race for the No. 2 seeds. They are now the No. 3 seed heading into the final weekend, and they aren’t even certain to play a home game in these playoffs. In fact, in an odd twist, this secures the Bengals an AFC North division title, but if they lose to the Ravens on Sunday, a coin flip will determine which team gets to host the playoff game. Think about that. The Bengals could win a division and therefore play a first-place schedule next year but play zero playoff games in their home stadium.

The consequences for the Bills and Bengals are closer to the equivalent of a loss — for both teams — than those of a win.

But, yeah, tell me the Chiefs should be the ones with a complaint.

The truth is it would’ve felt a bit uncomfortable if the Hamlin injury had vaulted the Chiefs to the No. 1 seed and all that comes with it. Instead, it comes darn close. The Chiefs still can secure the most valuable piece the top seed offers.

And bye.

A first-round win.


A stress-free weekend while the Bills and Bengals could be playing games that supplies them with at least a 15% chance of ending their seasons. With a win in Las Vegas on Saturday, the Chiefs have exactly a 0% chance of losing on Wild Card Weekend. A win on Saturday, in other words, is essentially worth two wins.

And while a neutral-site game is not the equivalent of Arrowhead Stadium, it’s not the equivalent of a road game, either. I go to the Chiefs’ road games. Their fans tend to travel well. I’m thinking they would be here.

And there’s another piece to it. It’s becoming abundantly clear that while anything can happen in the NFL, these three teams have a leg up on the AFC competition. Or two legs up. Part of the objective for all three teams has long been to only have to play one of their counterparts on the way to a Super Bowl, rather than a requirement to knock them both off.

This scenario makes it likely that the Bills and Bengals would play each other in the Divisional Round — for the right to get to an AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs, in other words, would need to get past just one of them.

If they win Saturday, of course.

That’s where it starts.

And that’s enough.

This story was originally published January 5, 2023 10:26 PM.

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Sam McDowell is a sports columnist for The Star. He has previously covered the Chiefs, Royals, Sporting Kansas City and sports enterprise.


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