What comes next for Chiefs defines legacy

By Sam Mellinger
The Kansas City Star/TNS

The playoff bye is precious. In normal times, it’s a sort of hall pass from the grind of professional football. Guys go home for a few days. They see old friends, walk the halls of their high schools, get treated like kings. An earned treat.

Normal no longer exists, so this season the hall pass comes with a caveat - no required football work for the Chiefs, but guys will need to stay in town for daily COVID-19 testing. The rest of their days can be filled with meditation, Madden, memoirs, anything but mass gatherings.

The Chiefs’ JV squad lost to the Chargers 38-21 at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday, and that will be the last time here that we’ll mention a game with no impact on the other thing that matters.

The playoffs start next weekend. Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and the other Chiefs stars who watched from the sideline in track suits Sunday will be even more relaxed then - just stay hydrated, fellas.

This will be a week of rest, at least for the players. They’ll watch film, maybe lift a little bit, but mostly they’ll be told to take care of their bodies. Stay safe. Be ready for what matters.

The coaches will be busy. Andy Reid mentioned Joe Bleymaier, Terry Bradden and Alex Whittingham among the assistants who’ve been coordinating and establishing foundation work in scouting potential playoff opponents. Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy (and perhaps others) will interview for head-coaching jobs.

This is an awkward time, sort of the calm between the storms of the regular season and playoffs.

The Chiefs earned the AFC’s only bye, and their first playoff opponent will be determined by next weekend’s games - No. 2 Bills vs. No. 7 Colts, No. 3 Steelers vs. No. 6 Browns, and No. 4 Titans vs. No. 5 Ravens.

The Chiefs will play the lowest remaining seed, at home, and probably at night because the networks love Mahomes so much they praise him for throwing gum into a trash can.

The rest is the good part. The less awesome part is the AFC is strong, and no matter the results of the Wild Card Weekend’s games will present the Chiefs an opponent capable of beating them in the division round.

The Texans and Titans took double-digit leads at Arrowhead during last year’s postseason, and the Chiefs are certain to have a tougher road to this year’s Super Bowl.

The Chiefs would only play the Bills or Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Their playoff opponent will be the lowest seed among the No. 4 Titans, No. 5 Ravens, No. 6 Browns and No. 7 Colts. The Dolphins could have been involved but appeared disinterested and overwhelmed.

Let’s be clear: The Chiefs will be the deserved favorites, not just in the division round but to win the Super Bowl. Their best is better than anyone else’s best and, if we’re honest, so is their pretty good.

But the AFC appears to be as strong - or, at least, as top heavy around the playoff field - as any season in recent memory.

The Colts hold the AFC’s lowest seed, and would be the Chiefs’ opponent if they upset the Bills. So the closest thing to a layup would be a team that won four of its last five, employs stars at every level of the defense and all other the offense, and ranks in the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ catch-all DVOA metric.

The rest of the potential field is just as worthy.

The Titans have one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses, with a Hall of Fame running back at the height of his powers and two game-breakers on the outside. Their defense can be had, but only four teams forced more turnovers.

The Ravens have won five straight and Lamar Jackson appears to be back to his MVP form from a year ago. They’re averaging 267 yards rushing the last five games, and you probably don’t need to be reminded of the Chiefs’ vulnerabilities against the run. The Chiefs pants’d the Ravens in Week 3, so you’d assume they’d provide their best effort.

The Browns have holes you can poke, but their roster is loaded with talent. Myles Garrett would be lined up over guys the Chiefs signed as backups and Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb form perhaps the league’s best pair of running backs.

Winning a division game would (most likely) mean playing the Bills, who have won each game since Thanksgiving by at least 10 points.

One more time: The Chiefs will be favored against any opponent. They’ll be favored by bookmakers, heavily bet by the public and picked by most national analysts. There are no Cinderella runs to a second consecutive Super Bowl.

If the Chiefs repeat as champions, they will have benefited from timely rest, found a workaround on a makeshift offensive line and be remembered as the best team in franchise history and talked about as the NFL’s new dynasty.

All of those things are in play here.

But to get there, the Chiefs will have to navigate a loaded AFC playoff field that will begin to sort itself next weekend.

Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill gains yardage in the second quarter, slipping past the defense of Denver Broncos strong safety Kareem Jackson on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.