This year’s list of Super Bowl contenders looks a lot like those of years past.
The defending champion New England Patriots are the favorite, and also No. 1 in the first iteration of the Fancy Stats’ power rankings, with the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers also on the shortlist. But the one team that should be taken more seriously as a title contender is the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Chiefs won 12 games and the AFC West last season, finishing as the sixth-best team in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent.
Quarterback Alex Smith has his faults, but ended the 2016 campaign as the 11th most-valuable passer in the league per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. The game charters at Pro Football Focus weren’t as impressed, ranking him 19th among 36 qualified quarterbacks. Still, Smith was fundamentally sound, helping the Chiefs avoid three-and-out situations on 80 percent of drives, the 10th-best mark in the league.
He should also be helped by a maturing offensive line. Eric Fisher, Bryan Witzmann, Mitch Morse, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Mitchell Schwartz are all 27 years old or younger and still managed to hold defenses to a sack rate of 5.7 percent last season after adjusting for down, distance and opponent in a season where the league average was 6.1 percent.
Schwartz was the highest-rated member of this group, while Duvernay-Tardif and Morse were the only two starting lineman on the team who did not give up a sack all season. With another year under their belts, Pro Football Focus rates this offensive line as the 15th best entering the season, with Michael Renner noting he “could very well see sneaking into the top 10 by the end of the season.”
Protecting any quarterback is key, but Smith saw a lower-than-normal drop in his production when facing a pass rush — his passer rating dropped from 98.4 to 57.7 last season under pressure — so any improvement in this area will only make the Chiefs tougher to slow down.
One trouble area for the Chiefs: Red-zone performance. The team reached the end zone less than half the time (45.5 percent) once inside the 20-yard line — only the Houston Texans and New York Jets were worse — and had trouble converting both passes and rushes into points. Perhaps rookie running back Kareem Hunt could make a difference.
Hunt rose to the top of the depth chart after Spencer Ware was ruled out for the year with a knee injury. His preseason performance was noteworthy — 79 yards on 17 carries, with 64 of those yards coming after contact — and is a continuation of his performance at Toledo, where the game charters at Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 95.1, the highest among all running backs in 2016, noting his ability to “make defenders miss,” forcing 98 missed tackles on 302 total touches.
Plus, the Chiefs face only seven defenses this season that were ranked above average for red-zone defense in 2016, giving them more of a chance to improve over last year’s underwhelming performance.
Like any team coached by Andy Reid, this defense is sound. The Chiefs struggled a bit against the run (18 percent stuff rate, 19th in 2016) but ended the season as the seventh-best pass defense per DVOA. That should remain steady in 2017 with Pro Football Focus ranking Kansas City’s secondary as the 10th best entering the season.
Third-year pro cornerback Marcus Peters had 17 combined pass breakups and interceptions last season, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 66 passer rating against when they targeted him in coverage. Safeties Eric Berry and Ron Parker ended the year ranked fifth and 16th, respectively, at the position by PFF among 61 qualified players. Having a talented group such as this allowed the Chiefs to play man coverage almost two-thirds of the time (72.3 percent), per SportsInfo Solutions, who also notes was the best defensive scheme to stop New England quarterback Tom Brady, Kansas City’s opening opponent.
With the Chiefs opening the season on the road Thursday in Foxborough, they won’t be the favorite to start the season 1-0, but that won’t stop them from having a strong season. According to the early point spreads released by Cantor Technology in May, Kansas City was favored in 10 of the first 16 games of the season — Week 17 is excluded because players sitting out the final week and teams jockeying for playoff positioning make projections fairly erratic.
Using these point spreads as a proxy for margin of victory in Pro Football Reference’s win probability formula, with the Week 8 point spread against the Denver Broncos used again for the Week 17 game against the same opponent, we can estimate the winning percentage of the Chiefs for each week, giving us a way to project the season 10,000 times. By this method the Chiefs can be expected to win at least 10 games, with their best outcome a 15-1 season (0.3 percent, or 300-to-1 odds).
Since the NFL adopted its current playoff format in 2002, 94 percent of teams that have at least 10 games made the playoffs. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) won their division, a group that boasts 12 of the last 15 Super Bowl winners.
If the Chiefs win the AFC West, they would likely enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed, with the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers earning the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively. That would give Kansas City a home game against the second wild-card team, which, according to the simulations, would be the Denver Broncos. If they win that (53 percent chance), and the playoffs hold to form, the Chiefs would play a road game against the Steelers in the divisional round, with a victory (44 percent chance) earning them a matchup against the Patriots in the AFC championship game.
At that point, anything is possible, making the Chiefs a Super Bowl contender worth talking about.
Jack Barry contributed research to this article.
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