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Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Kansas City Chiefs Prediction and Preview

Playoff positioning is on the line when the Steelers visit the Chiefs

Playoff positioning is on the line when the Steelers visit the Chiefs

Two potential AFC playoff teams will meet on Sunday when the Steelers visit the Chiefs, although they'll have far different stakes at Arrowhead Stadium.

Despite a 2-4 start, the Chiefs have the best record in the conference and could get one step closer to wrapping up the No. 1 seed and lone by with a win. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, likely needs a win to keep its playoff hopes alive.

At 7-6-1, the Steelers are a half-game out of the top wild-card spot, but five teams sit at 8-6, including the AFC North-leading Bengals. It's going to be hard enough to leapfrog two teams, and a seventh loss may be too much to overcome.

Playing in Kansas City is tough for any team, but the Steelers may have a moment to capitalize and win a third straight at Arrowhead because of a COVID-19 breakout among Chiefs players. In all, 13 KC players have landed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, including stars Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, and Harrison Butker.

The Steelers may not look like a playoff-quality team with zero wins coming by two scores and a -44 point differential. But they keep finding ways to win games. Can they pull another rabbit out of the hat and end the Chiefs' seven-game winning streak?

Pittsburgh (7-6-1) at Kansas City (10-4)

Kickoff: Dec. 26 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV: CBS
Spread: Chiefs -8.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Patrick Mahomes rescue Kansas City's depleted offense?
The Chiefs have dealt with injuries before. They missed Jones, Willie Gay Jr., and Josh Gordon last week due to COVID and still beat the Chargers in overtime. They won four of five games without starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

But there also comes a point when there are too many injuries. That was on display last postseason when the Chiefs just ran out of offensive linemen and couldn't hold off the Buccaneers' pass rush. Having the best quarterback in the league isn't always a trump card.

Kansas City's offensive line is in much better shape than it was in during the Super Bowl — even if right tackle Lucas Niang is out with COVID — but Mahomes really doesn't have much to throw to. 

As it currently stands, the Chiefs are looking at Mecole Hardman Jr., Byron Pringle, and Demarcus Robinson as the top receivers. They have a combined 93 catches for 1,105 yards through 14 games. Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams can be factors out of the backfield, but this Chiefs can't exactly create a Three-Body Problem with second- and third-stringers.

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Making matters worse, the Chiefs used to always be able to fall back on one of the best kickers in the league, but with Butker out, they're turning to Elliot Fry, who is 1-for-2 on PATs in the pros and nailed a 23-yard field goal last year. At South Carolina, from 2013-16, he was just 24-43 from 40 yards and beyond.

Mahomes can do amazing things — and he's coming off two of his best performances of the season — but this will be a serious test of the limits of what one player can do.

2. Does Pittsburgh have enough in the trenches?
Offensive line problems have been nothing new for the Steelers, although things have gotten worse over time. The Steelers ranked last in adjusted line yards in 2020 (3.78) and somehow have fallen to 3.74 this season. That's a good reason why Najee Harris has been held under four yards per carry in 10 games and under three yards in five.

Pittsburgh grades out better in pass protection — tied for 19th with 33 sacks allowed, 12th with a 5.9 percent adjusted sack rate — but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has faced more heat lately. After only taking 14 sacks through seven games, he's been sacked 19 times in just the last six games.

While the Steelers' pass rush has been strong with T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward, they've been unable to stop the run at all. Third-year linebacker Devin Bush has been a disappointment, but he won't even be able to play after landing on the Reserve/COVID-19. Backup Marcus Allen joined him and further thinned that crucial group.

The Steelers have given up 215.8 rushing yards per game over their last six outings. That's not a typo. With the Chiefs are missing their top three pass-catchers, they'll likely turn more to the run than normal and may have an easy time doing so.

3. Can Melvin Ingram III get revenge against his former team?
The Steelers signed Ingram as a free agent in hopes that the pass-rusher could replace Bud Dupree, who signed with the Titans. That did not work out. In six games, he totaled just 10 tackles, one sack, two TFLs, and six quarterback hits before Pittsburgh shipped him to Kansas City for a conditional sixth-round pick.

Ingram hasn't been especially great in Kansas City either. He has put up a shockingly similar 10 tackles, one sack, one TFL, and three quarterback hits. But much of his value has come in moving Jones from the outside to his traditional interior defensive position. Jones has especially been disruptive lately with four sacks, two TFLs, and five quarterback hits in just the last three games and could make a similar impact against a suspect Pittsburgh offensive line Sunday.

Could playing against a team that gave up on him make Ingram more motivated? Well, he did have another revenge game last week when the Chiefs beat the Chargers. Ingram had three tackles, matching his best mark in KC, against the team he spent his first nine seasons with.

Final Analysis

It's hard to know what to expect from the Chiefs when they're missing so many key offensive players. They're always going to be in the game with Mahomes, though, and the Steelers' flaws make it unlikely that they come away with a road win here. However, this one should be close, and Pittsburgh could steal a win if the KC kicking game becomes a problem. 

Prediction: Chiefs 24, Steelers 20