Chaotic NFL season setting up the most wide open playoffs in years

Chiefs and Buccaneers could be headed for a Super Bowl rematch after clinching their divisions

If the NFL was hoping to keep more teams in the playoff hunt longer by expanding the regular season from 17 weeks to 18, well, mission accomplished. Week 16’s slate of games is nearly completed, yet much remains unsettled, particularly in the still wide-open AFC. If there’s one team that’s taken advantage of their situation, it would be the Kansas City Chiefs, who are currently the only team in the conference guaranteed a playoff spot.

It feels like ages ago, but it was only late October when the pre-season favourites looked to be in serious trouble. After a demoralising 27-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Chiefs had stumbled from the gate with a perplexing 3-4 record. Since then, however, they have rattled off eight straight victories and look to be in great shape to make their third straight Super Bowl.

While previous Chiefs teams were famous for outscoring opponents, this Kansas City team has found a more sustainable model of success, as their Patrick Mahomes-driven offense is now balanced by what has become one of the league's best defences. It's to the point, where the Chiefs easily handled the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday despite being without star tight end Travis Kelce, who was on the team's Covid-19 list.

With Sunday’s 36-10 victory over the Steelers, Kansas City became the first team in the AFC to clinch their division, partly thanks to the New England Patriots’ own reversal of fortune over in the East. On top of that, they are one game ahead of the Tennessee Titans for the conference’s top seed.


Coincidentally enough, the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LV opponents also clinched their division on Sunday. The 11-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won the NFC South for the first time since 2007. Even before the season began, it felt like a rematch between these two squads was potentially in the cards and it hasn’t looked more possible than it does now.

However, given how relatively competitive the NFC has been this year, the Chiefs have a clearer path to a championship than the Bucs. Tampa Bay's record looks sterling, but they are missing key elements of their offense: running back Leonard Fournette and wide receiver Mike Evans both suffered hamstring strains while receiver Chris Godwin is out for the foreseeable future thanks to a torn ACL. On top of this. linebacker Shaq Barrett strained his MCL during Sunday's win over the Carolina Panthers.

Meanwhile, their competition looms. Despite his recent heel turn, reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers hasn't forgotten how to play football: he has helped lead the 12-3 Green Bay Packers to the best record in the league. The Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys – both of whom also clinched a playoff berth on Sunday – have identical 11-4 records, and LA holds a tiebreaker over Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, right now, the Chiefs are the only AFC team that knows its season will last beyond Week 18.

These are, however, only regular-season records. While rewards like a bye week and home-field advantage provide huge dividends come the playoffs, they don’t guarantee anything in a single-game elimination format. Look at the defending world champions, who came into last post-season as a wild-card team and still went on to finagle a victory over extremely talented opponents.

This brings us back to the chaos of the 2021 NFL season. At no point has a team looked invulnerable and – with the obvious exception of the season’s bottom-feeders (the Detroit Lions and the Jacksonville Jaguars) – every team has seemed capable of putting together a winning streak. It hasn’t helped that teams have had to piece together pandemic-ravaged active rosters as they continually lose players to Covid-19 and the surrounding protocols.

When the post-season comes, it’s not set in stone that previous results will dictate future success or failure. Right now, the Chiefs looked primed to make their third straight Super Bowl appearance, but if there’s one lesson to take away from this year it’s not to read too much into the current NFL landscape. – Guardian