As most of you are probably aware the Chiefs will play, tomorrow, in their sixth consecutive AFC Championship Game. This year’s team, however, is a little bit different in that for most of that span, it was considered something of a disappointment if the team didn’t reach the Super Bowl. This year’s team, on the other hand, wasn’t truly expected to make it this far.
For five straight seasons, the Chiefs were either the number one or two seed, entering the playoffs. This means you would expect (and the tournament was set up to encourage) them to reach the AFC Championship Game. In 2023, however, the team only managed the third seed. This might not seem like a huge difference but it’s large enough that the Chiefs not only had to play their first road* playoff game over this stretch but they were not favored for the betting lines for the first time in a non-Super Bowl playoff game.
*As Quarterback Patrick Mahomes pointed out in a post-game interview, the team did have to play a Super Bowl game against the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. But it was considered a neutral site game all the same.
They ended up beating the Bills last weekend anyway. This wasn’t because the Bills are a bad team or because they played poorly. Bills quarterback Josh Allen played completely out of his mind. But there were two factors that arose that made the difference between an anticipated KC loss and their eventual win.
- The Bills had a lot of injuries in their defense.
- Marquez Valdes-Scantling had two vital catches.
Injuries are something that impact almost every team, every season, in every sport. Performing amazing athletic feats is hard on the human body. But they can have an outsized impact in the playoffs when a single loss leads to a team going home.
As for MVS, the reason his two catches stand out over the more impressive statistical outputs of several other players is that he had been truly awful all season.
We all know that almost anything can happen in a small sample size. You can use a small sample size to make Mike Trout look like a bum and you can use them to make Jordan Lyles look like a stud starting pitcher. That means they’re not good for predicting future results. What they are excellent for is earning wins in a playoff tournament which expands the importance of small sample sizes a hundred-fold.
In 2015, Alcides Escobar won the ALCS MVP award. He deserved it, too. He slashed .478/.481/.652/1.134 for the series. He was hit by as many pitches as he struck out on (two.) He was an incredible spark plug for the team at a time when they needed it most. His career slash line for Kansas City was .259/.292/.344/.636. He was even worse for the regular season in 2015. But none of that mattered during the ALCS when his hot hitting helped lead the team to victory over the Blue Jays.
In an even smaller sample size, a weirdly moving groundball by Kendrys Morales and deflected by Tony Sipp was the difference between a double play that put the Royals' comeback efforts in dire straits and two runs scoring to tie the game.
The Chiefs, this season, looked mostly like a team that wasn’t going to make it far into the playoffs. No one would have been surprised if the Dolphins had knocked them out in the Wild Card round. But because they did make it to the playoffs, they opened up a world of opportunities for small sample sizes to lead to another run.
The Chiefs’ opponent in the Championship Game, the Baltimore Ravens, are favored to win again. KC definitely has their work cut out for them, and they might even lose. But because they made it to the playoffs and small sample sizes have favored them, they have a shot. And even if they don’t win it, this year, their recent track record of making the playoffs every season (10 of their last 11 seasons) they should have another chance next year.
That’s why the Royals making a play for the central division is so exciting even if it’s also reasonable to wish they’d made even splashier moves this off-season. If they can beat out the weak AL Central, there’s no telling what could happen in the small sample sizes of the post-season. Who knows, maybe they could even reach the World Series again!