There were plenty of blowouts on NFL wild-card weekend, but this Sunday’s divisional playoff matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs feels destined to come down to the final possession.
The Steelers have won eight straight and are a legitimate Super Bowl contender with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown rolling, but the the Chiefs are coming off a bye and have home-field advantage at daunting Arrowhead Stadium.
Logic says it’ll be the closest game of the weekend, and Las Vegas appears to agree.
Five things you need to know
1. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid seems to have an extra edge with two weeks to prepare for an opponent. Reid is 16-2 in his career coming off of regular-season byes, with the latest post-bye victory coming when the Chiefs easily beat the mighty Oakland Raiders 26-10 on the road in Week 6. They also beat the mightier Denver Broncos 29-13 on the road after their 2015 bye. In those two games, they had zero turnovers and seven takeaways. But throw in his three post-bye playoff victories with the Philadelphia Eagles and Reid is actually 19-2 in his career after having a week off. And the numbers beyond that are even more impressive:
Andy Reid after a bye week:
Points for: 23.8
Points allowed: 14.4
Double-digit wins: 10
— Brad Gagnon (@Brad_Gagnon) January 10, 2017
2. But before the Chiefs’ 2016 regular-season bye, the Steelers crushed Kansas City 43-14. It was KC’s most lopsided loss since Reid took over as head coach in 2013. What happened? I honestly don’t know. The Chiefs took fewer penalties and had more first downs than Pittsburgh. They won the time-of-possession battle and had just two turnovers. But the Steelers led 22-0 in the first quarter and 36-0 in the third. It didn’t help that KC turned it over twice deep inside its own territory, give the Steelers the ability to score three touchdowns in a six-play span. But it was just an anomaly of a game. The Chiefs didn’t give up more than 28 points in any other game this season, and Pittsburgh never scored more than 31 again. Plus, that was in Pittsburgh and this is in Kansas City and the loser of the first game usually performs better in rematches, so don’t expect another Steelers blowout here.
3. One player who could completely change this game — and Kansas City’s playoff fortunes? You’re expecting me to say Alex Smith or Travis Kelce or Eric Berry, Marcus Peters or Justin Houston. And all of those guys possess that ability, but how ’bout Tyreek Hill? The rookie receiver/return man scored eight touchdowns during the final six weeks of the season, three of which came on returns. He was the only qualified returner in football to average more than 25 yards per kick return and 10 yards per punt return. He also had a 105-yard kick return touchdown negated by a holding penalty and had a 78-yard punt return score wiped out against the Steelers. Pittsburgh allowed 24.7 yards per kick return this season, ranking 30th in the NFL, and the Steelers also ranked in the bottom 10 with 9.6 yards allowed per punt return. The fact they didn’t give up any touchdowns almost makes that worse, especially after Kenyan Drake of the Miami Dolphins averaged 33.7 yards per kick return against the Steelers in the wild-card round.
4. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s top weapon — running back Le’Veon Bell — also has a chance to exploit a weakness. The Chiefs had the league’s 26th-ranked run defense this year, giving up 120-plus rushing yards in eight of their 16 regular-season contests. And Bell got them best, averaging 8.0 yards per carry in a 144-yard performance against the Chiefs in Week 4. But that was his season debut, and he hadn’t even warmed up yet. In his last seven games, the 24-year-old superstar has averaged 143.1 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per carry, while also scoring nine touchdowns and totaling 263 receiving yards.
5. The aging, injury-prone Roethlisberger is still one of the most dangerous home-run hitters in football, but he’s had an up-and-down season. And now he’s hurt after head coach Mike Tomlin left him in the game despite Pittsburgh possessing a three-score lead late in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins. He was in a walking boot after aggravating an old foot injury when he shouldn’t have been playing, but he insists he’ll be fine. There’s little doubt he’ll play, but that’s obviously something to monitor. Roethlisberger loves playing through pain, but he’s often substantially less effective when doing so. When he last attempted to, he bombed with a 23-for-45 performance in a mid-season loss to the Ravens.
Prediction: I don’t trust that Alex Smith can consistently make throws beyond the sticks, which he’ll probably have to do considering how good Pittsburgh’s defense has been of late. If the Steelers can shut down Jay Ajayi and make the Dolphins one-dimensional, they shouldn’t have too much trouble doing so against Spencer Ware (banged up) and/or Charcandrick West (averaged 3.3 yards per carry this season). Gotta think the Chiefs keep this very close at home, especially with Reid’s post-bye magic, and a big play from Hill (or any of those other guys) could put them over the top. That said, I still think the red-hot Steelers have a clear edge. Steelers 26, Chiefs 24