Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5 SU, 10-6-1 ATS) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4 SU, 9-7 ATS)
AFC Divisional Playoff
Date/Time: Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 8:15PM EST
Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
By Loot, NFL Football Handicapper, Lootmeister.com
Betting Odds: PIT +1/KC -1
Over/Under Total: 46.5
The Pittsburgh Steelers come to Arrowhead on Sunday to face the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. The Steelers continued their streak on Sunday with a wild card playoff win over the Miami Dolphins, 30-12. They now try to get back to the conference championship game, as they take on the AFC West Champion Chiefs. Kansas City got a rest with a first-round bye following a big 12-4 season. They should have their hands full this week. Who can get it done at Arrowhead and keep their Super Bowl dreams alive?
It's not clear how much it really matters at this point, but these teams met at Heinz Stadium in week 4, with the Steelers emerging a big 43-14 winner. Pittsburgh was off to a fast start this season, just before they fell into a big slump that threatened to derail their season. Kansas City, meanwhile, was off to one of their typically-uneven starts to the season. But Ben Roethlisberger was at 300 yards, with Le'Veon Bell rushing for 144 yards. Expecting that version of Kansas City to manifest at home in a playoff spot this week could be a miscalculation.
With the big win at home over Miami in the Wild Card round, the Steelers remained red-hot with their 8th straight win. On Sunday, the recipe to success was not a secret one, as those you would suspect to be productive were. Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown all had big games and quickly had it going the Steelers' way with some big plays. Bell was really big, with two touchdown scores on 167 yards rushing. Brown did most of the heavy lifting aerially with 124 yards through the air and a pair of TD grabs. It wasn't a diverse approach perhaps, but it's clear that when the stars on the Steelers' offense flex their muscles, it's trouble for opposing defenses. And it was trouble when the Chiefs faced this team the first time around this season. On element of concern is that Roethlisberger was seen with a boot on his right foot following the win over Miami. He was adamant that he would play and didn't miss any snaps, though it's something to watch the later we get in the week.
Pittsburgh is a dangerous opponent for a few different reasons. One is that they are on a real roll now with 8 straight wins. And teams that hit full-stride in time for the postseason need to be respected a little extra. The defense, in particular, has saved its best for late, giving the offense even more teeth. Beyond their momentum is what they've overcome this season. First, their aerial attack was hampered by injuries, suspensions, and inconsistent play. It forced them to change their identity midseason and forge a bit of a different offensive approach. And it's really taking as we hit the divisional round of the playoffs.
While the Steelers were able to victimize the Miami defense with Big Ben making the most out of Bell and Brown, they got a big assist from the "D" and against the playmaking Chiefs' defense, might need more. And that's one of the Steelers' issues on offense—a lack of dependable depth. A handful of different receivers have made contributions this season, but who will step up this week? With the coaching of the Chiefs and their ability to hone in on one or two guys, someone else may very well need to produce for the Steelers.
The Steelers' defense has really been on-point lately. In the middle of the season, they seemed lost at sea, as opponents were hanging big totals on them. Slowly, players began returning and this side of the ball found their legs. While Miami was able to move the ball, the playmaking Steelers defense made it look like they were stuck in quicksand. They secured three turnovers and got big performances from some of their key contributors. All registering sacks were LT Walton, Bud Dupree, Mike Mitchell, James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, and Ryan Shazier, who also picked off a pass. They have a secondary that can also wreak havoc against the run-game with safety blitzes. And up-front, they do a lot of tricky things to keep opposing offenses guessing.
It's hard to deny Kansas City their respect at this point. Going back to last season, they have won 22 of their last 26 regular season games. And a lot of people aren't able to immediately explain why. You see this a lot in combat sports when a fighter doesn't measure up to his opponents in terms of speed, power, or along any of the lines you would normally judge fighters. But he wins and a lot of times in surprising fashion because people are overlooking the simple, but neglected and vital trait of simply being able to win. It's a knack. It's a skill. After all, the Chiefs are 20th in offense and 24th in defense, yet are a reasonable candidate to go far in these playoffs. There are no stars at all on offense, so how do they pull it off? It's like when you're playing a pick-up one-on-one hoops game with someone who you have beat in all pertinent categories, but you lose. Why? It's because of a certain desire, a know-how, and an ability to deliver under-pressure and in the clutch. Kansas City has some of that mojo. Overlooking them will be at one's own peril.
The Chiefs lost a costly one in unlikely fashion at home to the Titans in week 15, before rebounding with consecutive wins over divisional foes Denver and San Diego to create some momentum moving into the postseason. It also didn't hurt that Oakland suffered some untimely injury misfortune, allowing the Chiefs to take the division on the strength of their season-sweep over the Raiders. With 70 combined scored points in their last two games, the Chiefs are getting a timely spike on that side of the ball.
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Alex Smith continues to be an efficient and capable field general. Giving the offense some real spark in recent weeks is speedy rookie Tyreek Hill. With multiple scores each on the ground, through the air, and on returns, he gives the team a real X-factor on an otherwise pedestrian offense. Tight end Travis Kelce is a matchup problem for any team and a real weapon. Jeremy Maclin (questionable) and Chris Conley are nice role receivers in this offense, with running back Spencer Ware adding a lot in the short-pass category. He's a little banged up with some rib issues, but is expected to be a go. Dealing with an injury might be a hard time for him to find a second wind, as he hasn't really delivered a good performance in a number of weeks.
The Chiefs' defense is a lot better than it looks on paper, especially with their number-24 overall rank. They still allowed fewer than 20 points per game on the season. On top of that, they made a lot of plays, securing a massive 33 turnovers and scoring five touchdowns on the season. They look for Justin Houston and Dee Ford to get after the quarterback, while getting a little better play against the opposing ground-game. And out of the secondary, they look for Eric Berry (questionable) and Marcus Peters to continue making big plays, as they've been doing all season. Eleven times this season, they allowed fewer than 21 points and they were 4-1 in the games they didn't.
This is the toughest game of the weekend to pick, as the point spread will attest. Any number of plausible conclusions can be reasonably suggested. I think Kansas City has more of a hidden value, as Pittsburgh's worth is more on the surface. And with inclement weather anticipated, that would tend to suit the less-aerial home team. There's something about Kansas City's style, how they don't undermine themselves and get the most of what they have, which makes them a slightly-more compelling choice in this spot. And being at home helps, where the weather is suspected to be a little dicey. I'm taking the Chiefs.
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