National Post (National Edition)
Metrics hint Chiefs are lucky to be 14-1
Statistics do not point to a repeat Super Bowl win
The Kansas City Chiefs clinched the AFC's top seed Sunday by narrowly defeating the Atlanta Falcons 17-14 at Arrowhead Stadium.
The 14-1 Chiefs have won 10 straight games, and will receive the conference's only first-round post-season bye in addition to hosting all other AFC foes during the playoffs.
Their record also points to further success. From 1978, the first year the league played a 16-game season, to 2019, eight teams started the year 14-1. Five of them made the Super Bowl and three of those five left the field as champions. Yet there is reason to be concerned Kansas City isn't as good as its record reflects.
The Chiefs have scored 452 points and allowed 324. Based on that point differential, we would expect a team to have a 10-5 record, not the near-perfect record sported by Kansas City heading into the final week of the season.
A team's expected win rate, known as its Pythagorean winning percentage, is a formula developed by baseball statistician Bill James that determines the number of games a team should have won based on its total number of points scored versus its number of points allowed. A higher difference between a team's actual and expected win rate illustrates a team got luckier than normal.
Since 1978, the first year the NFL rolled out a 16-game regular season, only the 1992 Indianapolis Colts, 2011 Chiefs and 2012 Colts have exceed expectations by four wins in a season. The first two teams did not qualify for the post-season that year and the latter lost in the wild-card round.
The disparity between Kansas City's actual record and expected record is a reflection of its narrow victories. The Chiefs needed a missed field goal to move past the Carolina Panthers in Week 9, a game-winning drive to beat the Raiders in Las Vegas in Week 11, a key defensive stop to beat the Denver Broncos in Week 13 and a missed 39-yard field goal this week to best the Falcons. Coach Andy Reid guided his team to its seventh straight win by one score or fewer, establishing an NFL record. The Chiefs are also 5-0 in three-point games.
“Every (win) is not going to be the prettiest one you've had, but the bottom line is you've got to keep battling,” Reid said. “If you don't battle, you can't do anything. There's no way you're going to survive this. The mental toughness is the part I respect.”
The team may be mentally tough, but true Super Bowl contenders dominate opponents instead of squeaking by in close games. From 1978 to 2019, 37 teams won five or more games that featured a final point differential of three points or less. Just five appeared in a Super Bowl that same season with only two, the 1986 New York Giants and 2012 Baltimore Ravens, winning it all.
Sunday's win was also Kansas City's 10th comeback win of the season, tied for the most by any team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The other teams with as many come-from-behind victories include the 1980 Atlanta Falcons (12-4, lost in the divisional round), 1983 Dallas Cowboys (12-4, lost the wild-card game), 2003 Indianapolis Colts (12-4, lost the AFC conference championship game) and 2011 New England Patriots (13-3, lost in the Super Bowl).
Kansas City persevered so often in close games because its opponents were not that good. The combined record of the Chiefs' opponents is below .500 and, according to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs played the sixth-easiest schedule of 2020.
The offence isn't the problem. The Chiefs are scoring 2.7 points per drive this season, the third-most behind the Green Bay Packers (3.0) and Tennessee Titans (2.8). Kansas City sustains drives, too, and is only forced to go three-and-out 21 per cent of the time, the lowest rate in the league this year.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has completed 66 per cent of his passes for a league-leading 4,740 yards, 38 touchdowns and six interceptions, producing a 108.2 passer rating. He is the second-most valuable passer of 2020 per ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating and the team has scored 12 more points per game than expected on his throws after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each passing play, per data from TruMedia.
The defence, on the other hand, is struggling, especially against the run. Kansas City's defensive line stops opposing rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage 12 per cent of the time, the second-worst mark this year behind the New England Patriots. They are also allowing a 68 per cent conversion rate on third down via rushing plays. Only the Detroit Lions are worse this season. Last year the Chiefs allowed a 52 per cent conversion rate, much closer to the league average of 49 per cent.
The reason to fear for the Chiefs' Super Bowl chances is because the adage “defence wins championships” holds true. Since 2000, the first year data is available, only two teams have won the Super Bowl after allowing more points per game than expected during the regular season, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts and the 2011 New York Giants.