By Sam McPherson
The Kansas City Chiefs are coming off a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs, and in franchise history, the team has never survived after getting the first week off in the AFC postseason. To make the challenge even more difficult, the Chiefs are hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday. The Steelers are champions of the AFC North Division and winners of eight straight games after their opening-round playoff match-up against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday. History and momentum do not seem to be on Kansas City’s side, even though the Chiefs earned the bye via a better regular-season record.
To make the situation seem even more dire, Pittsburgh pounded Kansas City back in Week 4 by 29 points, easily the worst loss of Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s tenure in Kansas City since he took over in 2013. The Steelers come to town riding high on confidence, while the Chiefs have had the benefit of the extra week of rest to regroup, focus and prepare. The two teams are matched pretty evenly on paper, so the game on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium could come down to the simple reality that the team playing mistake-free football will win.
Steelers Season Record
Pittsburgh posted an 11-5 record this season after starting off with a lot of inconsistent football. In Week 3, the Steelers lost to the Philadelphia Eagles by 31 points, and in Week 4, Pittsburgh beat Kansas City by 29 points. That’s a hard combo to accomplish. The Steelers were just 4-5 after a loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10, but since then, Pittsburgh has won eight straight games. The last four games of the regular season featured four Steelers wins by less than seven points each time, against non-playoff teams. Pittsburgh righted the ship with its 18-point win over the Dolphins in the first round of the playoffs.
The Steelers managed two wins this year over playoff teams: the win over the Chiefs and a Week 13 victory over the New York Giants. On the other hand, Pittsburgh lost to the Dolphins, the Cowboys and the New England Patriots this year during the regular season. All in all, despite the current victory stretch, the Steelers have had a very inconsistent season.
Steelers On Offense
On paper, this should be one of the best offenses in the NFL: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown give Pittsburgh an excellent core of skill players among the best in the league at their respective positions. The Steelers finished seventh in the league on offense for yards gained (372.6 yards per game) and 10th in the league for scoring (24.9 points per game). This could be due to the fact that Bell missed four games, Roethlisberger missed two games, and Brown missed one game. Otherwise, those numbers would be much better.
Big Ben is a two-time Super Bowl-winning QB, and Bell established the all-time, single-game playoff record for rushing in Pittsburgh history last Sunday against the Dolphins, running for 167 yards in his first-ever postseason game. As for Brown, he’s merely averaged 120 receptions for 1,579 yards and 11 touchdowns for the past four seasons. It’s a pretty frightening offense, in truth, for any defense to face.
Steelers On Defense
This isn’t a Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s, so the Chiefs can breathe a sigh of relief there. Pittsburgh finished ranked 12th on defense for yards allowed (342.6 ypg) and 10th for points allowed (20.4 ppg). The defense has forced a turnover in 11 straight match-ups, including seven in its last two games. That kind of opportunism makes this defense more frightening than the mere statistics suggest. Opponents just can’t afford to beat themselves against the Steelers defense.
Linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons lead the unit from the middle, while the secondary is strong with five of the team’s top-seven tacklers coming from that group. The Pittsburgh defensive line isn’t the best, however, and that’s the Steelers’ weakness on this side of the ball. While the depth is there, no one on this defense posted more than five sacks this season, and Pittsburgh gave up 100 yards rushing per game while allowing opponents to average 4.3 yards per carry on the ground.
Steelers Players To Watch
Bell has averaged 4.8 yards per attempt over the last three seasons, but this is his first playoff road game ever. The Chiefs allowed him to gain eight yards per carry in the Week 4 match-up this year, and that cannot happen again if Kansas City wants to win this game. Bell is a workhorse back, and the Pittsburgh offense will feed him the ball 30-plus times if it needs to, so the Chiefs have to limit the damage there while forcing Roethlisberger into mistakes. Big Ben is 34 years old now, and in 14 games, he threw 13 interceptions and fumbled eight times (losing two of them). That’s where the K.C. defense needs to hit the Steelers hard.
This is a tough one to predict. As mentioned, it simply should come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes. Kansas City tied for the NFL lead this year with a plus-16 turnover differential, while Pittsburgh was tied for ninth with a plus-5 mark. The Chiefs have to keep the ball under control while forcing the Steelers into mistakes. The home crowd noise will help Kansas City a bit, and this is a game that also will be impacted by special-teams play. Pittsburgh allowed more on kickoff/punt returns than it gained itself, and that plays into the Chiefs’ strengths with Tyreek Hill getting his touches. Look for Hill to be the difference in a 28-24 Kansas City win on Sunday.