It was clear that AFC North champion Pittsburgh had more on its mind than survive and advance in last week’s wild card matchup against Miami. After all, the Dolphins had embarrassed the Steelers in Week 6 by a score of 30-15. Mike Tomlin’s team wanted a little revenge and got in in the form of a 30-12 blowout victory, its eighth straight win. The irony is that Pittsburgh finds itself on the other side of that coin entering the Divisional Round against AFC West champ Kansas City. The Steelers dominated the Chiefs in a lopsided Week 4 victory, as they scored a season-high 43 points. It was arguably Pittsburgh’s best performance of the season, and unquestionably Kansas City’s worst.
The Steelers now face the daunting task of trying to knock off the payback-minded Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium, one of the toughest venues in the NFL for a visiting team to escape with a win. The revenge factor and hostile environment will be tough for Pittsburgh to overcome. And the challenge is further compounded by the fact that a well-rested Kansas City team had an extra week of preparation following a bye last week. This also is significant because Chiefs head coach Andy Reid in 19-2 in his career coming off of a bye, including 3-0 in the playoffs. With so many factors seemingly in Kansas City’s favor, can the Chiefs exact a little revenge by stopping the momentum of the red-hot Steelers?
AFC Divisional Playoff: Pittsburgh at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 15 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Kansas City -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Pittsburgh Passing Game vs. Kansas City Pass Defense
The last time Ben Roethlisberger faced the Chiefs, he lit them up for 300 passing yards and a season-high five touchdowns. But that was then, and this is now. Roethlisberger not only has to face a much improved Kansas City secondary this time around, he also must do so in a very hostile environment on the road. In eight games away from Heinz Field this season, Roethlisberger has just nine TD passes compared to eight interceptions while posting a passer rating of just 78.4. For comparison’s sake, his QB rating at home is a very impressive 116.7.
Roethlisberger also is dealing with a foot injury. That certainly doesn’t improve his chances against three of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL in Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Tamba Hali. Houston alone is a one-man wrecking crew, and his absence (knee injury) in the Week 4 matchup helped make life much easier on Big Ben. It will be intriguing to see how a much healthier Kansas City pass rush matches up against a Pittsburgh offensive line that allowed the second-fewest sacks (21) in the NFL during the regular season.
If Pittsburgh’s front isn’t up for the challenge, an opportunistic Chiefs defense will force Roethlisberger and company into costly mistakes. Kansas City led the league in takeaways (33), while tying for the top spot in both interceptions (18) and turnover margin (+16). All-Pro defensive backs Marcus Peters and Eric Berry are the Chiefs’ top ball hawks combining for 10 interceptions during the regular season.
One of the marquee individual matchups to keep an eye on will be Peters against All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. Peters will not shadow Brown, but they should see plenty of each other throughout the game. Peters will look for redemption after enduring arguably his worst game of the season in the previous meeting. He was targeted seven times, allowing five completions for 86 yards. Brown hauled in four passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns in the 43-14 blowout win, although none of those came against Peters.
2. Le’Veon Bell: X-Factor Extraordinaire
Regardless of Roethlisberger’s road struggles, the Pittsburgh offense can always rely on the elite talents and contributions of Bell. The Steelers’ running back has been virtually unstoppable in the second half of the season. In his last seven games, Bell has more than 1,000 rushing yards while averaging a whopping 180.7 yards from scrimmage with a total of nine touchdowns. His 167 rushing yards last week against the Dolphins broke a Pittsburgh postseason record, which is no small feat considering the franchise’s championship pedigree.
Bell had a field day against the Kansas City defense in Week 4, his first after serving a three-game suspension to open the season. He ran for 144 yards in his 2016 debut while adding 34 receiving yards on five catches. Expect the Steeler offense to lean heavily on its versatile running back again on Sunday. And Bell could be in for an even bigger performance this time around against a defense that finished near the bottom of the NFL against the run (121 ypg). The Chiefs also will be without linebacker Derrick Johnson (Achilles), their leading tackler and the defense’s anchor in the middle. Kansas City will throw everything it has at Bell to slow him down, but that may not be enough. Bell’s production, or lack thereof, will have an enormous impact on determining the outcome of this game.
3. Kansas City Offense vs. Pittsburgh Defense
High-powered is a term that has rarely, if ever, been used to describe the Chiefs’ offense under the direction of head coach Andy Reid. However, the numbers this unit put up in the last two games of the regular season paint a slightly different picture. In wins over Denver and San Diego, Kansas City averaged 424 yards and 30 points per game, including 484 and 33 in a blowout home win over the Broncos on Christmas night.
The evolution of the Chiefs’ offense can largely be attributed to the emergence of all-purpose dynamo Tyreek Hill. Hill’s explosive playmaking abilities as a wide receiver, running back and punt returner have produced eight touchdowns in the last six games. Tight End Travis Kelce has done his part as well with 100 or more receiving yards in five of the last seven contests. And while quarterback Alex Smith hasn’t put up monster numbers, he has been productive as both a passer and runner in recent weeks. Smith’s ability to manage a game and minimize mistakes may be unmatched by any other quarterback in the league.
While Kansas City’s offense has been hitting on all cylinders of late, it figures to have its hands full trying to move the ball and put some points on a Pittsburgh defense that shut the Chiefs down in Week 4. The Steelers’ defense has been playing really well recently with 38-year-old linebacker James Harrison turning the clock back a little with his play on the field and 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree having an impact as a pass rusher. A young Pittsburgh secondary that was once viewed as a huge liability has become an asset down the stretch as well.
You will likely see Reid and co-offensive coordinators Brad Childress and Matt Nagy try and attack with plenty of short passes and screens in hopes that they can avoid a potent Steeler pass rush, and utilize their own players’ speed in an attempt to break through for big gains. Hill will definitely be one to watch in this regard. If Le’Veon Bell is the x-factor for Pittsburgh, Hill has to be considered the same for Kansas City. But in addition to Hill, running backs Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West are exceptional receivers out of the backfield. A much healthier Jeremy Maclin could be a difference-maker in that respect as well.
Home-field advantage, the revenge factor, the extra week of rest and preparation, Andy Reid’s track record following a bye and Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles on the road are all great reasons to like Kansas City in this matchup. However, it’s difficult to get past the thorough 43-14 beating Pittsburgh put on the Chiefs earlier this season. It’s not uncommon for NFL teams to avenge an early-season loss, even a bad loss. The Steelers did just that last week against Miami. And sure, a lot has changed since Week 4. Kansas City is unquestionably a much better team now than it was back on Oct. 2. But the same can be said for a red-hot Pittsburgh team that is riding an eight-game winning streak. It will definitely be a much closer game this time around, and a Chiefs win would not come as a total surprise for the reasons listed above. However, the Steelers were clearly the better team in Week 4, and that appears to be the case again with the stakes even higher. So will Kansas City hold serve at home or can Pittsburgh keep things rolling?
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.