After a hard-earned bye in Week 1 of this year’s NFL playoffs, the Kansas City Chiefs are back in the divisional round for the second straight season. You’ll have to forgive K.C. fans, however, if they aren’t all that optimistic.
Simply put, the second round of the playoffs is where Chiefs seasons usually go to die. Including this year, they’ve made seven trips to the divisional round since 1990 (when the league expanded its playoff field to 12 teams). They haven’t made it any further than that since 1993, when they lost to the Bills in the AFC Championship Game.
And it hasn’t been for lack of trying. From 1990 through this year, K.C. has been in the postseason 13 times, the eighth-most of any team. But the Chiefs own one of the most disappointing playoff records in modern history: They’ve won a grand total of four playoff games over that span — the fifth-fewest of any team in football. Kansas City’s playoff record is an abysmal 4-12 during that stretch.
In fairness to the Chiefs, they’ve played more than half of those playoff games on the road. They’ve also run into more than their share of tough opponents, including the 2015 Patriots and 2010 Ravens in recent years and the Super Bowl-bound Colts, Broncos and Bills in an earlier era. But even if we account for those factors using FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings — which can be used to create a prediction for each game — K.C. still has the biggest shortfall between its actual and expected playoff wins of any NFL team since 1990:
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According to Elo, Kansas City was expected to win about about eight of their 16 playoff games, four more than they actually won. That’s a testament to how good the Chiefs’ regular seasons have been, but also to how many ways they’ve fallen short in the playoffs. They’ve choked late in games (Chiefs fans surely remember the team’s slow collapse against Indy in 2014) and been blown out early (they fell in quick holes against the Colts in 2004 and the Bills in 1994). According to their win probability added (WPA) at various stages of the game, the Chiefs have done plenty of both during their run of playoff futility.
This funk has lasted so long that it’s hard to assign blame for Kansas City’s struggles. The Chiefs’ stretch of underachievement spans seven different coaches and 11 primary quarterbacks. (Under the team’s current QB, Alex Smith, K.C. has a 1-2 record in the playoffs.) Maybe there’s something in the water — or at least in Arthur Bryant’s barbecue sauce — that precludes the team from making a deep playoff run. Or maybe, given enough teams and enough time, these kinds of droughts will inevitably happen to somebody.
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Either way, this could finally be the year for a Chiefs breakthrough. On Sunday, they’ll play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Elo gives them a 64 percent chance of moving on to the AFC Championship Game — K.C.’s best odds in a playoff game since they hosted the Colts in a divisional-round game in 1996. (Naturally, the Chiefs lost that one, too.) Furthermore, Kansas City is built like a team that traditionally succeeds in the postseason, with a strong special teams and passing defense, plus a surprisingly efficient aerial attack featuring quarterback Alex Smith and tight end Travis Kelce.
None of this guarantees that K.C. will overcome its long history of postseason disappointment, nor does it mean the Chiefs are necessarily “due” for a playoff turnaround after such a long wait. But with Elo giving the team a 15 percent chance of winning this year’s Super Bowl, Kansas City’s championship odds are the highest they’ve been at this stage of the playoffs in a long time.1 Now it’s up to this team to break with Chiefs tradition and win a dang divisional game.
Check out our latest NFL playoff predictions.