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Who wins the race to the top of the AFC West?

afc west
Photo courtesy of NBC Sports.

The wild, wild West is giving us a fantastic race to the finish in the AFC.

The Chiefs are back on top after a disappointing start, but they don’t have as much wiggle room as they’d like. The Chargers, Broncos and Raiders are all within two games, and one slip-up could have some significant repercussions in the divisional race.

Oh, and every AFC West team still has each of the other three on the remaining schedule. How is this thing going to figure itself out?

Let’s begin by referencing some figures done by statisticians and analysts much smarter than I. Algorithmic data is so valuable at this point in the season, not just because it takes into account upcoming schedule but also because it has thirteen weeks of data points to weigh and balance en route to calculating a team’s odds at qualifying for postseason football.

There are two websites that I like to quote when looking for data that involves throwing things into an algorithm and simulating the remainder of the season an exorbitant number of times. The first is SportsLine, whose playoff odds are available for free on CBS Sports. SportsLine gives Kansas City the best odds to win the division at 58 percent – understandable, given their recent dominance of the AFC West and evident improvement throughout the course of the season – but after that, it gets interesting. Despite being separated by just one game, the rest of the division is split into two clear tiers. Los Angeles’ odds at winning the division sit around 38 percent. Denver and Las Vegas, though, don’t get nearly as much love, as they’re keeping each other company at the bottom with less than a 2 percent chance at winning the AFC West.

It’s a similar story on FiveThirtyEight, which is the other website I love to use when seeking analytical data. In fact, FiveThirtyEight likes the Chiefs a bit more than SportsLine does, handing them a 60 percent chance to win the division, and the Chargers slot in behind them with a 36 percent shot. They give Denver a 4 percent chance to win the division, and poor old Las Vegas is sub-1.

But why is that? One possible explanation could be the strength of upcoming schedules for all four teams in the division. Of the four teams competing for the AFC West crown, just one sits inside the top quarter of teams with the toughest upcoming schedules. That honor belongs to the Raiders, whose upcoming strength of schedule of 0.557 is the seventh highest in the NFL. They’re also one of just five teams for whom every remaining game is graded as a ‘tough opponent’ by Tankathon – one game against each divisional opponent along with two out-of-division games against fellow playoff hopefuls in the Browns and Colts. With ground to make up, the Raiders have the toughest path to the division crown.

Denver’s upcoming strength of schedule is friendly on paper – 0.492 is the 19th-hardest schedule in the NFL – but that number receives a friendly boost thanks to a home game against Detroit in Week 14. Aside from that, they’ve got meetings with every division rival and a tricky game against the Browns, each of which is graded as a ‘tough opponent’ by Tankathon. In fact, despite boasting a kind upcoming strength of schedule, the Broncos are one of just seven teams with at least four more ‘tough opponents’, and once that game against Detroit is in the rearview, expect their remaining SOS to skyrocket.

Most important remaining games

Another fantastic feature provided by FiveThirtyEight is a grading system for every remaining game that calculates its importance regarding the playoff picture. Here are the five most important remaining games that could shape the AFC West.

Week 15: Chiefs vs. Chargers (Thursday Night Football)

The first installment of this division rivalry was a thrilling affair that saw the Chargers win 30-24. The rematch could be even better, considering the winner might have the upper hand in the race to the division crown. Importance grade: 83

Week 15: Bengals vs. Broncos

A thrilling non-divisional bout with playoff implications for both teams, this game could leave a massive mark on the final wild card places. A surprising loss to Detroit in Week 14 could make this must-win for Denver. Importance grade: 94

Week 16: Chiefs vs. Bengals

Another game involving Cincinnati, this game could be equally as important for Kansas City if they slip up against the Chargers in primetime a week prior. The Chiefs will surely need to win at least one of these games to keep their hold on the division. Importance grade: 88

Week 16: Raiders vs. Colts

One of the Raiders’ difficult non-divisional games, the Colts are getting hot at the right time and just made an appearance in the Strike 7 Sports power rankings. Another game with massive implications on the wild card race. Importance grade: 84

Week 17: Broncos vs. Chargers

The most important game remaining, according to FiveThirtyEight. And why wouldn’t it be? If the Broncos hang around and the Chargers don’t go on a rampant tear, this game could decide second place in the division and effectively hand one of them a wild card place. Importance grade: 97

Our prediction: Chiefs win division, Chargers win wild card berth

After starting slow, the Chiefs finally resemble the team that we expected them to be in preseason – the best team in the AFC West and a Super Bowl contender. A five-game winning streak and wins in six of their last seven games, combined with home games against the Raiders and Steelers, should have Chiefs fans feeling good about their chances at winning the West.

And there’s a reason why the Chargers are so heavily favored over Denver and Las Vegas to finish second. Aside from being a game better at this stage in the season, Los Angeles has a far simpler remaining schedule (4th-easiest SOS) and the best quarterback in the division, according to FiveThirtyEight’s ELO rating. Games against the Texans and Giants should lead to two more wins for Los Angeles, and with both the Chiefs game and the Broncos game coming at home, just winning one of them should be good enough to clinch second.

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