Through a series of improbable wins in Week 18, the Pittsburgh Steelers are back in the playoffs. Their prize? A trip back to Kansas City to face a team they lost to by four scores just three weeks ago.
The hope is that this game will be better than the 36-10 trouncing in Week 16, and both teams will have several key players back from injuries or the Reserve/COVID-19 list. But this much is clear: Vegas thinks it's the most lopsided first-round matchup, the only game with a double-digit spread.
In many ways, the Steelers are lucky to be here. They join the Raiders as the only teams with a negative point differential to make the playoffs. It's quite a testament to Mike Tomlin's coaching abilities — he's never had a team with a losing record in 15 seasons — that he could take a team that ranks 20th or worse in scoring offense, total offense, scoring defense, and total defense to the postseason.
For the Chiefs, they may not have a bye this time around, but they're every bit the dangerous team people expected heading into the season. Despite their much-talked-about 3-4 start, they've won nine of 10 to finish the season, with an average margin of 29.2-16.1.
Can the Steelers avenge their recent loss for another unlikely playoff run? Or will the Chiefs end Ben Roethlisberger's career at Arrowhead Stadium?
AFC Wild Card: Pittsburgh (9-7-1) at Kansas City (12-5)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 16 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -12.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Do the Steelers have hope with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill back?
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Chiefs' blowout win three weeks ago for Pittsburgh is that Kansas City did it largely without its two best pass catchers. Kelce was on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and Hill was just activated but only saw two targets on 29 snaps. Now Patrick Mahomes will have his full complement of receivers.
Pittsburgh could hardly stop Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman Jr. last time around, so what will make things go better against the NFL's best tight end and a healthier version of perhaps the fastest wide receiver in the league?
One key may actually be the health of the Chiefs' running game. With Clyde Edwards-Helaire out, opponents haven't had to fear Kansas City's ground attack and have been able to drop two deep safeties. In games with CEH, Mahomes completed 68.2 percent of his passes with 7.9 yards per attempt and a 6.6 percent touchdown rate. Without? He completed 63.9 percent of his passes on a 6.7 ypa with a 4.4 percent TD rate.
Both Edwards-Helaire and backup Darrel Williams have been practicing this week but are dealing with injuries. Edwards-Helaire hasn't played since Week 16 with a bruised shoulder, while Williams is dealing with a toe injury from the regular-season finale.
Unlike last time around in Arrowhead, the Steelers will have linebackers Devin Bush and Marcus Allen back. But if they cannot stop Kelce and Hill, this game will get out of hand quickly.
2. Can T.J. Watt be a one-man wrecking crew?
Besides facing a neutered running game, one other way the Steelers may be able to slow the Kansas City offense with a big game from the likely Defensive Player of the Year.
In his 15 regular-season games, Watt has been held without a sack just four times. One of them was against the Chiefs, although a couple of cracked ribs limited him to just 38 defensive snaps. Now that he's back to full health, Watt figures to be a much bigger factor.
Don't expect Watt to have another three-sack game, though, as he did against the Bears, Ravens, and Browns this season. With a revamped offensive line, the Chiefs rank second in the NFL in ESPN's pass block win rate (68 percent) and fourth in adjusted sack rate (4.8 percent).
But when Watt does register more than one sack, the Steelers are 7-1, including wins against the Bills and Titans. Dedicating extra blockers on Watt may be one of the most important things the Chiefs can do Sunday night.
3. Can Roethlisberger force the Chiefs out of their preferred defense?
The Chiefs are a particularly bad matchup for Roethlisberger, at least if he continues to be unable to push the ball downfield. Kansas City loves playing press coverage and Cover 0 Man, and Roethlisberger has been unable or unwilling to punish the Chiefs deep.
In their first matchup this season, Roethlisberger attempted 35 passes, and only seven went beyond 10 yards (he completed two and threw an interception). Because the Chiefs could jam players at the line and crowd the box, Roethlisberger only completed his 23 passes overall for 159 yards, giving him 4.54 yards per attempt, his second-lowest rate of the season.
Of note, wide receiver James Washington landed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday, and his availability is in question. Washington has been one of Pittsburgh's best vertical threats, although he didn't have a single catch on two targets in the previous KC game.
Roethlisberger's arm strength has been missing for a while now, but in what could be his last hurrah, the Steelers will need him to take more chances downfield. Playing conservatively didn't work at all last time, so they need to try something new.
Both teams should be better than when they last met in December, but the Steelers haven't improved enough to make a significant difference. Although this shouldn't be a four-score game again, Roethlisberger will have to play like it's 2006 to have a real chance. Big Ben has had a great career, but those days are long gone.