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Just one NFL team has reached the Super Bowl without a first-round playoff bye since 2013. And with only one bye per conference after a 2020 format change, the sportsbooks are likely to favor the No. 1 seeds in the AFC and NFC again this season.
Green Bay (11-3) should secure the top spot in the NFC. With a simple remaining schedule, the Packers lead the conference by one game and hold tiebreakers over three four-loss NFC teams: Tampa Bay, Arizona, and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Dallas (10-4) has a chance to edge out Green Bay with a conference record, which would determine the tiebreaker between the Packers and Cowboys if needed. All in, Green Bay has a 78% chance of earning the first-round bye, according to FiveThirtyEight projections.
On the other hand, the AFC race is wide open. Because of 2021 weirdness and unpredictability, it’s believable that an 11-6 AFC team could top the conference by year-end. In that scenario, the following 8-6 teams are still in contention for the No. 1 seed if they win out: Bills, Bengals, Colts, Chargers, and Ravens.
Such an outcome would require the Chiefs (10-4), with a difficult remaining schedule, to lose two of their final three games and the Patriots and Titans (both 9-5) to lose one of their next three. At that point, complicated tiebreakers would decide which 11-6 team sits atop the AFC.
That said, FiveThirtyEight found there’s a 96% chance either the Chiefs, Patriots, or Titans earn the AFC’s first seed, giving Kansas City a 62% chance:
- Chiefs: 62%
- Patriots 23%
- Titans 11%
While Kansas City leads the pack, projection models exaggerate the Chief’s chances. Here’s why:
Statistical projection models do not factor in streaks and availability. The Chiefs have won seven straight games, and finishing a season 10-0 is hardly common. So the Chiefs are bound to lose at least one of their next three games. And it may come this weekend against the Steelers after Travis Kelce tested positive for COVID. Kelce’s status for Sunday is uncertain.
Unlike Green Bay in the NFC, Kansas City needs to finish a game ahead of its competition as both New England and Tennessee hold tiebreakers over the Chiefs.
For example: if the Chiefs lose this weekend and the Patriots and Titans win, it will shift the AFC’s top seed probability to as follows:
- Patriots: 66%
- Titans 21%
- Chiefs 12%
So if Kansas City does not win out, it needs both New England and Tennessee to lose again. Here are the three teams’ remaining schedules:
- Patriots: at Bills, Jags, at Dolphins
- Titans: 49ers, Dolphins, at Texans
- Chiefs: Steelers, at Bengals, at Broncos
If you believe the Titans or Patriots will edge out Kansas City for first place, there’s value at FanDuel SportsBook. Kansas City is favored to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl at +185. Buffalo and New England are second, tied at +500. Indianapolis ranks fourth at +850, followed by Tennessee at +1100.
I like Tennessee at those odds because I predict the Bills will beat the Patriots and the Steelers top the Chiefs this Sunday.