Here’s a stat that may surprise you: according to FiveThirtyEight's Elo ratings, the Kansas City Chiefs have a 14 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl—tied with the Seattle Seahawks and behind only the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys. Make of that what you will—I don’t think the Chiefs’ Super Bowl chances are that high—but the number underscores the fact that no team this good has been so under the radar in recent memory.
It’s understandable why the public isn’t particularly interested in the Chiefs. I hate to sound like a curmudgeon at age 17, but without any enthralling fantasy football options on the team, there won’t be many people outside of Kansas City interested in watching them on a weekly basis. That’s fine, but as a result, the public has yet to catch on to just how good this team is. Get into a conversation about the NFL and the Chiefs are often an afterthought at best. Tell someone they have a respectable chance at winning the whole thing and they’ll look at you as if you have three heads. Nevertheless, the Chiefs have as good a chance as anyone. Maybe not as high as 14 percent, but the 6.2 percent proposed by Football Outsiders—higher than all but five teams—is more than feasible.
Nobody likes to admit it, but Alex Smith and Andy Reid aren’t all that bad of a combination. Smith is the prototypical Dilfer Zone quarterback—he may not be the reason you’re winning, but he sure as hell won’t be an obstacle. Reid is frustrating late in games—he mismanages the clock and tries turning 2-minute drills into 10-hour marathons all too often—but his teams consistently play at or above expectations. With the right supporting cast, it’s not hard to see them winning games in the postseason and the Chiefs may have the right supporting cast.
Offensively, they can do just enough. Spencer Ware has kept the run game afloat by averaging 4.7 yards per carry and ranking inside the top-15 in DYAR and DVOA. The offensive line isn’t noticeably good, but all five players are average by PFF grading, meaning that none can be exploited by the likes of Von Miller in the way Marcus Cannon and Mike Remmers were last postseason. Travis Kelce is a unique, if underused threat. Defenses struggle to match up with him and the threat of a Gronk-like run up the seam is always there—it’s just a matter of when KC breaks it out. Tyreek Hill has turned into a dynamic playmaker in the screen game who picks up yardage after the catch as well as anyone in the league. He’s also spearheaded a special teams unit that ranks second in DVOA. (Don’t underestimate special teams in the playoffs. They were a big reason why Kansas City won against Houston in the wild card last season and the ability to maintain good field position is huge for a team like the Chiefs, especially on the road or in cold weather). Jeremy Maclin is also set to return soon—he’ll add the element this offense desperately lacks: a receiver who can consistently make plays downfield. It’s not the best offense in the league, but it can certainly supplement a defense that is among the top of its class.
With Justin Houston making a triumphant, resounding return over the past two weeks, the Chiefs’ pass rush is suddenly among the most fearsome in football. Dee Ford has piled up sacks—10 to be exact—with Chris Jones and Dontari Poe making positive contributions as well. Throw Houston into that mix and things are downright scary.
The inside linebacker position has been better than expected with Derrick Johnson posting an 82.8 PFF grade and Ramik Wilson ranking eighth at the position by PFF grading. The secondary can potentially be exploited—Phillip Gaines has been a frequent culprit—but Marcus Peters, Eric Berry and Ron Parker cover over the mistakes most weeks.
With sparingly few well-rounded teams this season, the time is ripe for Kansas City. Each potential opponent can be exploited in some way—New England via its lack of a pass rush, Oakland via its lack of a secondary, Denver via its offensive line and lack of a run game and so on—but outside of Gaines and potentially Kenneth Acker, there isn’t a glaring weakness for teams to go after when they play the Chiefs. If they can play to their potential defensively, this team is a Super Bowl contender, whether the public realizes it or not.
Week 13 Picks
Vegas Insider’s consensus lines are used. Home teams listed in CAPS.
Cowboys -3 over VIKINGS: Dallas’ defense will come back to bite them at some point, but it won’t be against a team that ranks 25th in offensive DVOA and features a quarterback with an ALEX lower than Alex Smith himself. On the other side of the ball, I just don’t think any team can compete with the Cowboys’ offensive line. Quietly, one of the most important events of the year for them was La’El Collins getting hurt, which allowed Ron Leary to come back to the starting lineup at left guard. Over the first three games, Collins had a 42.1 PFF grade. Since Leary has started, he’s had an 81.9 PFF grade.
Broncos -4.5 over JAGUARS: This pick is contingent on Trevor Siemian playing—I would take Blake Bortles over Paxton Lynch if it came to that—but I don’t think there’s any way the Jaguars can compete with Denver if Siemian plays. Jacksonville should have one goal for the rest of the season: making a definitive choice as to whether or not Bortles can be their quarterback for the next 10 years. I can’t profess to know a lot about the quarterback class in the draft this year, but if the Jaguars are going to make a change, it should be sooner rather than later.
Chiefs +3.5 over FALCONS: After the top of this column, all I’ll say is that I will continue to take Kansas City as long as the public underestimates them against tough competition. 4
PACKERS -6.5 over Texans: I’ve been spending way too much time playing with the New York Times’ playoff simulator and here’s what it looks like in the AFC South: if Houston can win three more games, it would take a minor miracle for them to miss the postseason. If they only win two, it has to be against Indy and Tennessee, otherwise things get dicey. Even in that scenario, however, the Titans would need to beat either Kansas City or Denver to get in, meaning that the favorite would be the Colts, who have a much easier schedule. If Houston can beat them next week, it virtually eliminates them and if they can beat Tennessee in Week 17, it virtually eliminates them. And, unfortunately, both of those seem possible.
Eagles -1 over BENGALS: What reason is there to pick the Bengals at this point? There’s nobody for Andy Dalton to throw the ball to, Jeremy Hill looked bad last week and is probably playing hurt, Vontaze Burfict might kill somebody on defense and Mike Nugent can’t make an extra point to save his life. I was optimistic about this team at the beginning of the year, but things have gone as badly as they possibly could have gone.
Lions +6 over SAINTS: Per Football Outsiders’ premium DVOA database, the Lions’ defensive DVOA over their past four games is 9.45 percent. That’s not good by any means—it would rank 29th on the year—but it is nearly twice as good as the 18.4 percent mark they have over the year, which ranks 31st. When you have a dynamic passing game as Detroit does, you don’t need much from the defense—especially in a shootout like this week’s game looks to be. Of course, the same logic applies to the Saints, but with this game being winnable for both sides, the six-point spread looks good for the underdog.
49ers +1.5 over BEARS: One of many unfortunate things about Colin Kaepernick’s recent comments regarding Fidel Castro is that they’ve overshadowed a small resurgence in his play. The 49ers have lost their last four games, but Kaepernick has played well in each of them—particularly in the past three, all of which were winnable. Kaepernick is running the ball well; he’s making something out of a horrific receiving corps and keeping the Niners in games. Most importantly, he’s thrown just two interceptions in those four games. It won’t save San Francisco’s season—it might even ruin their shot at a better draft pick—but it is nice to see him playing well after it looked like his career was over a year ago.
PATRIOTS -13.5 over Rams: Jeff Fisher’s week has included alienating his franchise’s best player of all-time, losing his 163rd game—which ranks second all-time (he’s only two losses away from tying Dan Reeves for the most)—and telling New England reporters about the importance of stopping Brandon Bolden and Danny Woodhead in this week’s game. Bolden has four carries this season and Woodhead plays for San Diego. At some point, we have to entertain the possibility that Jeff Fisher is pulling a Costanza and trying to lose his job.
RAVENS -3 over Dolphins: This is a stay-away of the highest order, but I went with Baltimore. They’re at home, they rank first in defensive DVOA and in a defensive game, being able to kick from anywhere inside the opposing 45-yard line with confidence can make a difference. That being said, nobody should bet on this game.
RAIDERS -3 over Bills: Outside of cold weather games, I’m not sure the Raiders' offense can be stopped. If they can get the #1 seed—a scenario I consider unlikely given that they still have to go on the road to Denver and Kansas City—Oakland is the biggest threat to New England in the AFC. As for this week, I don’t think Buffalo’s offense is good enough to keep up with the Raiders unless they can force a couple of turnovers defensively. The problem: Oakland has turned it over just nine times, the sixth-best mark in the league.
CHARGERS -3.5 over Buccaneers: Quietly, this is one of the most interesting games of the weekend. If Tampa Bay loses, they would need to win all three remaining divisional game—two against New Orleans and one against Carolina—to make the playoffs (assuming they lose against Dallas in two weeks). Despite that, I just don’t think they can get another top-notch defensive performance against Philip Rivers, who has quietly put together one of the better seasons in the league. Normally I love going against San Diego at home, but this has the makings of a game they should win—and cover—with the Bucs’ luck ready to run out.
Redskins +2.5 over CARDINALS: Carson Palmer ranks 25th in DYAR, 24th in DVOA and 23rd in QBR. If the Cardinals go down by two scores early, they aren’t coming back. Rob Kelley is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and Kirk Cousins is on his way to 4,000 yards thanks to one of the best receiving corps in football. In other words, the Redskins can get up by two scores.
Giants +6 over STEELERS: I picked the Steelers to miss the playoffs at the beginning of the year and still think it’s unlikely that they’re playing in January. It’s not just that the defense isn’t good enough (it isn’t), the offense has suffered more than anyone expected from losing Martavis Bryant. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell are great, but it’s tough to be an incredible offensive team when you’re relying on two skill position players to do everything. Eli Rogers is interesting in the long-term, but he’s been too inconsistent to make a big difference this year. Against a team like New York that can win at the line of scrimmage, slow down the run and do a passable job covering Brown, it’s just too hard for Pittsburgh to move the ball.
SEAHAWKS -7 over Panthers: With Justin Britt likely back at center, Seattle’s offensive line can survive just enough at home for them to eke out a cover. Expect constant pressure on both quarterbacks, but with Michael Bennett expected to return for Seattle and Ryan Kalil—and backup center Gino Gradkowski—out for the Panthers, things could get ugly for Cam Newton and whatever run game Carolina has salvaged this season.
Colts -2 over JETS: The Jets may look appealing after last week, but remember that they’ve played the Patriots close ever since Rex Ryan became their head coach all the way back in 2009. This line is an overreaction to that—as long as Andrew Luck plays, this game will be a blowout.
Last Week: 7-8-1
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 Jamison Crowder is averaging 6.29 YAC per reception according to NFL GSIS. That’s not the highest among receivers—Golden Tate, Ty Montgomery, Adam Humphries, Cordarrelle Patterson and Randall Cobb all have more—but when you factor in that his average reception is caught 6.89 yards away from the line of scrimmage, it’s easily the most impressive. In light of this, can we make Crowder’s nickname “YAC God”?