NFL playoff picture: How Chiefs vs. Chargers outcome will impact AFC West, wild-card races

The Chiefs and Chargers are kicking off a critical Week 15 for the NFL playoff picture on “Thursday Night Football”.

Whichever team wins the game will be in first place in the AFC West with three games to go in the 2021 regular season. The losers will be stuck fighting for wild-card position vs. a tough field.

Kansas City went into the game with a one-game lead at 9-4, with Los Angeles only a game behind at 8-5. For now, the Chargers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to bearing the Chiefs on the road way back in Week 3.

Here’s breaking down what each result would mean, barring a tie:

MORE: Projecting the playoff matchups for AFC, NFC brackets for Week 15

NFL playoff picture: AFC West

If the Chiefs win …

The Chiefs would improve their record to 10-4 and inch closer to their sixth consecutive AFC West title. They would have a two game lead over Los Angeles, which would fall to 8-6, while Denver (7-6) and Las Vegas (6-7) already blew their big chances in losing at Kansas City in the previous two games.

The Chiefs could then clinch the division with one more win and one more Chargers loss in the final three weeks. 

The Chargers would still hold the No. 5 spot and top wild-card position in the AFC, but they would be only a half-game ahead of the Colts (7-6), Bills (7-6), Browns (7-6), Bengals (7-6) and Broncos (7-6), opening the door for a wholesale shakeup after Week 15 is completed. They do, however, have key head-to-head tiebreakers against the Browns and Bengals and still have one more game left with the Broncos to split that series.

While the Chiefs finish with the Steelers, Bengals and Broncos with the last two games being on the road, the Chargers close with the Texans and consecutive division games against the Broncos and Raiders. There’s no question Kansas City would finish business in the division, but Los Angeles also has a good chance to sweep the rest of its games to ensure at least the No. 7 seed.

Kansas City would also improve to above .500 in AFC play at 5-4. They still need help from the Patriots (9-4) and/or the Titans (9-4) losing to move up from No. 3 after Week 15, but the Chiefs would be sitting pretty to at least stay put and host a wild-card game. Winning the division is the only real question for the Chiefs as their playoff probability is already 96-plus percent.

If the Chargers win … 

The Chargers and Chiefs would have identical records at 9-5. The Chargers would own the tiebreaker with the season series sweep. The Chiefs’ remaining schedule suddenly would look at little more daunting, knowing the Chargers look better positioned to run the table.

The Chargers would move up from No. 5 to the Chiefs’ current spot at No. 3, a half-game ahead of the AFC North-leading Ravens, who host the Packers in Week 15. Los Angeles would create some distance from it and the crowded 7-6 pack behind before any of those teams take the field on Saturday and Sunday.

The No. 1 Patriots beat the Chargers head-to-head and have a commanding 7-1 conference record. The Chargers would match the No 2 Titans by improving to 6-3 in conference play, 

Los Angeles would become a near playoff lock (96-plus percent) along with Kansas City — with a win, given there are multiple strong ways to get into the AFC postseason. Even if they let the Chiefs jump them again by a game, the wild card then becomes a strong fallback.

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