Chiefs second-half schedule full of challenges, opportunities

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The Kansas City Chiefs looked like a team that lost its way heading to the bye in week five, coming off a blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and struggling to find its rhythm on both sides of the ball.

Sept. 17, 2015; Kansas City, MO; General view of the line scrimmage in Week 2's game between the Chiefs and Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

Sept. 17, 2015; Kansas City, MO; General view of the line scrimmage in Week 2’s game between the Chiefs and Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

What a different a month makes.

Now the Chiefs stand 6-2, heading to Carolina with an opportunity to move to into a first-place tie in the AFC West and move from wildcard position into a projected top-two playoff seed.

The team’s playoff scenarios also drastically improved during the past month. Kansas City owns a perfect divisional record thus far and is now tied for the third-best conference record.

But it’s the second half of the season where the Chiefs must prove their mettle. The schedule poses challenge (four more divisional games), but also provides distinct advantages (three-straight December home games in week 14-16).

Here’s a breakdown of the remaining schedule ranked by each game’s importance to the Chiefs playoff aspirations.

Week 16 vs Denver

The whole ball of wax could be on the line in this game. The AFC West title, a top-two seed and a home playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium could all win captured with a win here. This game takes on added significance if the Chiefs lose in Denver over Thanksgiving weekend. Add in the Christmas night setting and this ranks as game to watch in the penultimate week of the NFL season.

Week 14 vs Oakland

The Chiefs win this game and the Raiders have virtually no margin for error to climb past Kansas City in the standings. Lose this game, and the Chiefs most likely find themselves in a must-win scenario in the season’s final three weeks to win the AFC West. Kansas City can win a wildcard spot with a loss, but it eliminates a critical tie breaker they already own.

Week 15 vs Tennessee

The game looms larger than one might expect due to tiebreaker implications. Oakland and San Diego already own wins over the Titans. The Broncos should be favorites in week 14. But both the Chiefs losses have come in the AFC, and the conference tie breaker could come into play. Sandwiched between two other primetime home games against Oakland and Denver, this game serves a classic example of a trap game. The Chiefs can’t stub their toe here.

Week 17 at San Diego

The Chiefs would love to enter this game with the ability to rest their starters, but there could be much on the line in this game. Kansas City could need this game to clinch any number of playoff positions: top seed, a bye week, home-field advantage or even a wildcard spot. The Chargers haven’t rolled over after a series of injuries, bad breaks and close losses. Rookie Joey Bosa makes this a tougher defenses than the one the Chiefs pushed around in the wild season-opening comeback.

Week 12 at Denver

The Chiefs likely won’t be a favorite, and losing doesn’t change much with Denver visiting Kansas City on Christmas night. Beating Denver on the road greatly improves the team’s tiebreaker position and gives the team confidence, but it’s not necessarily a must-win game. A win certainly boosts the Chiefs’ chances for an AFC West title and a top-two seed, but it doesn’t knock the Chiefs from the playoffs by itself.

Week 11 vs Tampa Bay

The most significant of the remaining NFC games by virtue of taking place at Arrowhead Stadium. The Raiders and Broncos own wins over the Buccaneers, making a win more important in keeping up with the Joneses. This game ranks as the easiest game remaining on the schedule, so a loss here truly stings.

Week 13 at Atlanta

The Broncos and Raiders already hold loses in hand against Atlanta, so a Chiefs loss does not hurt that much. But a win provides a huge boost in the AFC West tiebreaker among common opponents. A loss in week 12 at Denver and the Chiefs carry a two-game losing skid facing the Raiders. Atlanta also looks slightly more important than Carolina in the NFL’s complicated strength of victory tiebreaker.

Week 10 at Carolina

A win would be nice, especially since the Broncos already own a win over Carolina. The Raiders have the Panthers at home in week 12. Las week’s win and a winnable game against Tampa Bay next week diminishes the likelihood of back-to-back losses. A loss denies the Chiefs possession of first place in the divsion now, but leaves the team time to recover.