The Kansas City Chiefs are lucky to be 14-1

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. A team...

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. 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 postseason 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 late 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 game 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 comeback wins 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 was able to persevere 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 offense isn’t the problem, but it is masking one. 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 percent of the time, the lowest rate in the league this year. Plus, quarterback Patrick Mahomes has completed 66 percent 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 defense, 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 percent of the time, the second-worst mark this year behind the New England Patriots. They are also allowing a 68 percent conversion rate on third down via rushing plays. Only the Detroit Lions are worse this season. Last year the Chiefs allowed a 52 percent conversion rate, much closer to the league average of 49 percent.

The Chiefs have allowed opponents to score a touchdown a league-high 78 percent of the time in the red zone this season. Since 2002, no Super Bowl winner has ended the regular season with an opponent red-zone efficiency higher than 60 percent. Kansas City has the third-worst stop rate in goal-to-go situations, as well, with opponents earning six points 89 percent of the time in 2020. For comparison, the team had a red-zone efficiency of 51 percent last season (ninth-best) and allowed a touchdown in goal-to-go situations just 62 percent of the time (seventh-best).

The rate of total pass pressure on opposing quarterbacks has remained flat this season over last, but the defense isn’t generating as many sacks. The defensive line has generated 131 sacks, hits and hurries this year heading into the regular season finale but just 29 of those pressures are sacks (22 percent). In 2019 they sacked the quarterback on 45 of 145 pressures (31 percent).

After adjusting that sack rate for opponent strength, the Chiefs have the 23rd best pass-rushing unit of 2020, per Football Outsiders. It was the 10th best unit of 2019. Not converting pressures into sacks gives a break to opposing offenses. Leaguewide this year, teams are scoring 2.4 points per drive when their quarterback isn’t sacked. That drops to 1.1 points per drive if their quarterback suffers one sack and to 0.7 on drives featuring two sacks or more.

And unlike last year, when the Chiefs defense improved in the second half of the season, this year’s squad is getting worse as the season continues. For example, Kansas City’s defense cost the team 2.5 points per game during the first half of 2019. During the second half of 2019, the defense saved 2.6 points per game. This year, the unit saved 2.1 points per game in the first half but in the second half it’s allowed 7.6 more points per game than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each opposing play.

The reason to fear for the Chiefs’ Super Bowl chances is because the adage “defense 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.

Kansas City Chiefs defense

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Newsrust: The Kansas City Chiefs are lucky to be 14-1
The Kansas City Chiefs are lucky to be 14-1
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