Instead of charging into December, when playoff berths are won and lost, the Chiefs are limping into the final month.
Their shocking loss at Oakland and submissive defeat at the hands of Denver, have dropped the Chiefs, 7-5, out of the playoff picture if the season ended today.
The San Diego Chargers, 8-4, would be the first AFC wild card team, and the Miami Dolphins, 7-5, would win tie breakers among the six teams that are 7-5.
That can all change this week, especially with the Dolphins playing Baltimore, also 7-5, and San Diego facing AFC East leader New England, 9-3.
But for the Chiefs, it starts with coming out of their two-game funk on Sunday in a non-conference game at Arizona. The NFC West-leading Cardinals, who have been ravaged by injuries, have lost their last two games, dropping to 9-3.
“You’ve got to be undefeated in December,” Chiefs safety Kurt Coleman said. “All the great teams really go on these runs. This is the last quarter of the season … the teams that are in it are fighting for it, and we’re in it and have to fight for it.”
The Chiefs finish the season with road games at Arizona and at Pittsburgh, 7-5, on Dec. 21, and home games against Oakland, 1-11, on Dec. 14, and the Dec. 28 regular-season finale against San Diego, which could determine a wild-card berth, depending on how the Chargers fare against a killer December schedule.
San Diego, which lost the first head-to-head meeting with the Chiefs, still has to face Denver and plays at San Francisco before coming to Kansas City.
“There’s obviously some scoreboard watching,” Coleman said, “and you want some teams to lose right now. But we’re not in position where we need teams to lose for us. We just have to go out there and play our brand of football and win.”
If the Chiefs win out and finish 11-5, that should be sufficient to claim their second wild-card berth in two years under coach Andy Reid. Anything less puts them in a precarious position.
So how will the month of December shake out?
Assuming New England, Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati maintain their leads and win their divisions, here’s a breakdown — and projection — for which two teams emerge for two playoff berths among the seven teams who are 7-5 or better.
The Chiefs are an early one-point underdog to Arizona, which lost starting quarterback Carson Palmer to a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 9 and is counting on backup Drew Stanton. Superstar wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has missed the last two games — losses at Seattle and at Atlanta — because of a knee injury, but he could return Sunday.
Arizona has a ferocious defense that ranks fourth in points allowed. The Cardinals need this game as much as the Chiefs do, considering their final three games are at St. Louis on a Thursday night, against Seattle at home and at San Francisco.
The Cardinals are 6-0 at home, so a Chiefs loss here means they would have to win the last three to finish 10-6. Let’s assume that’s how it will play out.
The Dolphins play three of their last four games in the warmth of South Florida, starting with Baltimore on Sunday, followed by a game at New England, and favorable home matchups against Minnesota and the Jets.
The Dolphins are coming off a short week, having beaten the Jets 16-13 on Monday night, but they should defeat the Ravens, Vikings and Jets and lose to the Patriots, giving them a 10-6 overall mark. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has come a long way since the Chiefs saw him back in September. He’s completed 70 percent of his passes in five straight games.
The Ravens are coming off a crushing 34-33 loss to San Diego, but on paper have one of the easiest roads to a wild-card spot. After a game at Miami, the Ravens play Jacksonville (2-10), at Houston (6-6) and Cleveland (7-5).
But the Ravens, who don’t play the kind of defense of old — they’re No. 31 against the pass — should go 2-2 in December and finish out of the money at 9-7.
The Bills will rue the game they gave to the Chiefs and how they failed to show up against the Dolphins four nights later in Miami. They play at Denver, against Green Bay, at Oakland and at New England. That’s Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in a four-week period. Give ’em the Raiders game, and it’s an 8-8 finish.
The Browns suddenly have a quarterback controversy, which won’t help them beat Indianapolis or Cincinnati in the next two weeks. They can win at Carolina but should lose the season finale at Baltimore, giving the Browns an 8-8 record.
The Steelers should split their home-and-home games with Cincinnati and lose at NFC South contender Atlanta.
That leaves the Dec. 21 game against the Chiefs, and if Romeo Crennel could take Pittsburgh to overtime in 2012, Andy Reid’s team can prevail in a must-win game. Pittsburgh finishes 8-8 for the third straight season.
San Diego (8-4)
Hard to see the Chargers beating the Patriots because New England rarely loses two in a row. San Diego could beat Denver at home and win at San Francisco, which will be coming off a tough game at Seattle, hounded by Jim Harbaugh’s impending departure and likely eliminated from the postseason.
That would set up a winner-take-all game between the Chiefs and Chargers for the remaining wild-card spot. If the Chiefs claim it with a win at Arrowhead, both teams would finish 10-6. But the Chiefs would own the tie breaker based on their season sweep and eliminate the Chargers.
Under this scenario, the Chiefs would be the No. 5 seed and play at Cincinnati, 10-5-1, in one wild card game, while Miami would be the No. 6 seed by virtue of a tie breaker with San Diego and play at Indianapolis, 11-5.