The NFL “flexed” the kickoff back to the primetime “Sunday Night Football” 7:30 slot in efforts to avoid the brunt of a potential Ice Storm, giving 7+ additional hours of anticipation for fans waiting to see the Chiefs first home playoff game since 2010 (and the third since 2003), where the Chiefs will take on the Pittsburgh Steelers for the right to face the winner of the AFC’s other divisional round matchup (Texans travel to the Patriots Saturday Night) in the AFC divisional playoffs. The last time the Chiefs won a home playoff game? 1994 (1993 season). The opponent? The Steelers.
These two teams met back in Week Four, and the Steelers routed the Chiefs 43-14. Many are pointing to that game as the main reason why Pittsburgh will win again, but there are some fundamental differences between the Chiefs team of then and the one of now, which is the reason why I believe Kansas City will advance in the playoffs.
For starters, let’s deal with the obvious. Star pass-rusher Justin Houston didn’t play in that game. Neither did slot cornerback Steven Nelson, who has done more than hold down his end of a Chiefs secondary that hasn’t been exactly “giving” at Arrowhead. Furthermore, Terrance Mitchell, a revelation for the Chiefs and the No. 2 corner, wasn’t even on the roster. Simply put, expecting Pittsburgh to just line up and watch Big Ben throw for five touchdowns again is not only unintelligent, it’s darn near impossible.
Also consider the state of the Chiefs offense that day, which resembled Heinz Field being overrun by toddlers on acid rather than a functional NFL offense. Tyreek Hill was still getting into the offense and was nothing compared to what he is for the offense, now. Travis Kelce was stuck in 2014, and Alex Smith was throwing near 50 times per game. Now, the offense resembles the one that won eleven straight last season. At times, it even resembles the offense that scored 44 points on the Colts in the 2013 Wild Card barn burner. Smith cut down on the errant throws, and has even incorporated the runs that made him so dangerous last season. Kelce had 100+ receiving yards in five of the last six games of the season, and Hill is a nightmare for opponents.
That explanation may seem simple, but it’s not. After all, many wondered what would happen to Smith in 2017 after starting this year off so awkwardly. Well, returning to their old ways helped fix the inconsistency, and the maturation that comes with playing an NFL season made the entire offense better. While big-bucks receiver Jeremy Maclin had a down year (for his standards), much due to injury, but he’s still one of the league’s best receivers. Kelce and Hill may get the attention (rightfully so), but the Steelers don’t have a cornerback they can leave on Jeremy Maclin all game while focusing solely on the Chiefs two young offensive stars. Don’t forget about Chris Conley, who tied a season-high for receiving yards in that Week Four game. The media may not talk about them, but the Chiefs have plenty of weapons to counter Pittsburgh’s big three.
Speaking of that dynamic trio of Big Ben, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown, let’s talk about the men tasked to stop them. With the last two weeks of the regular season, and the bye week, off for rest, Houston is healthy and ready to go. He wasn’t healthy in the playoffs last year, a big reason why KC couldn’t muster up a lot of edge rush. Also helping the Chiefs this year is the rise of Dee Ford (10.0 sacks), which also allows Tamba Hali to to play. On the back end, the Pro Bowlers Peters and Eric Berry along with Mitchell, Nelson and Ron Parker will look to keep Brown and company in check. They cannot afford to let the Steelers start fast on offense, or they’ll be in serious trouble. As the Steelers like to spread teams out, expect to see a lot of hybrid safety Daniel Sorensen. Recording three interceptions, a pick six, and six pass deflections, he proved to be an asset as a slot corner/safety/linebacker in Bob Sutton’s diverse scheme. He’ll also have to stop Bell on running downs, and given the Chiefs struggles to stop the run, he’ll be seeing him early and often.
Finally, the home/road splits for the Steelers this season have been incredible, and possibly indicative of an overrated team. Three of their five losses came on the road, and they were blown out (34-3 by the Eagles in Week 3, 30-15 by the Dolphins in Week 6) in two of them. The stats get worse, however. Their completion percentage falls from 68.7% to 58.9%, the yards per attempt fall from 7.8 to 6.4, and the passer rating drops from 106.8 to 76.6. The defense isn’t much better, allowing nearly a yard more per rush on the road, and a 90.1 passer rating, compared to 80.7 at home, AND the Steelers score 12 less points on the road (15) than at home (27).
Simply put, this is much different, much better Chiefs team, and you’ll see that on Sunday. In spite of the ice storm, I think Kansas City is the better team in this contest. Andy Reid is 19-3 after a bye, make it 20-3 and they’ll be playing in the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the last time they won a home playoff game (1994).
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