Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7, 8-9 ATS) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-5, 8-9), 8:15 p.m., Sunday
Brolley’s Steelers Stats and Trends
The Steelers overcame long odds to reach the playoffs. A parlay on the Steelers to beat the Ravens (+150) and the Jaguars to beat the Colts (+750) paid out at +1900 odds. They then needed the Raiders and Chargers to avoid a tie on Sunday Night Football, which looked bound to happen after both teams made field goals in the extra frame.
Pittsburgh’s reward is a date with the defending AFC champions, and the Steelers are facing the longest odds (+500) to advance to the Divisional Round.
This is the 10th time the Steelers have made the playoffs in Mike Tomlin’s 15 years as a head coach, and they reached nine wins with smoke and mirrors for much of the season — only the Raiders own a worse point differential entering the playoffs at -55 (22nd, 12th AFC).
Ben Roethlisberger is facing the biggest point spread (+12.5) of his career in potentially his final game. He enters this week with a career-worst 6.2 YPA and it’s been really ugly in the last four weeks, averaging just 4.5 YPA with just three TDs. One of those performances came against the Chiefs in Week 16 when he completed 23/35 passes for 159 yards (4.5 YPA), one TD, and one INT.
With Big Ben struggling, Diontae Johnson hasn’t topped 51 receiving yards in four straight games after doing it in 11 straight games in Weeks 2-14. He’s at least still hauled in 5+ receptions in 15-of-16 contests. Diontae needed some garbage-time production to get to 6/51/1 receiving against the Chiefs three weeks ago.
Chase Claypool also hasn’t topped 41 receiving yards in four straight games, but he posted season-highs in carries (3) and rushing yards (33) last week. He also scored his second touchdown of the season after scoring 11 times as a rookie. Claypool managed 4/41 receiving on six targets when these teams met in Week 16.
Ray-Ray McCloud has seen 8+ targets in four of his last five games, but he’s turned in 25-37 yards without a single double-digit FP performance in those contests.
Pat Freiermuth missed this matchup three weeks ago after suffering his second concussion. He’s seen 15 targets since returning to the lineup, posting 11/75 receiving, but he hasn’t scored in four of his last five games after scoring in four of his previous five games in Weeks 8-12. Dalton Schultz was the last TE to reach double-digit FP against the Chiefs back in Week 11.
Najee Harris injured his elbow in the season finale, which led to a season-low 53% snap share. He finished with 11/28 rushing and 4/27 receiving against the Ravens, which was his third performance with fewer than 10 FP in his last seven games. Harris finished with 19/93 rushing and 5/17 receiving on seven targets against the Chiefs in Week 16.
Brolley’s Chiefs Stats and Trends
The Chiefs are starting their bid to reach their third straight Super Bowl, and they have a chance to host their fourth consecutive AFC Championship with a pair of wins and a Tennessee loss in the Divisional Round.
The Chiefs received the easiest draw of the Wild Card Round against a Steelers team they just wiped out 36-10 in Week 16 as 10.5-point home favorites in a game totaled at 44.5 points.
Kansas City enters the postseason on a 9-1 outright run and a 6-2 ATS streak.
The Chiefs have played over the total in five straight games with their offense posting 28+ points in each of those contests.
Patrick Mahomes is trending in the right direction entering the playoffs even with a sub-par performance against Denver in the season finale. He’s averaging 8.1 YPA over his last five games with 12 TDs and just one INT after averaging 6.3 YPA with seven TDs and four INTs in his previous six contests in Weeks 7-13. T.J. Watt and Pittsburgh’s defense is going to have to make a massive impact if the Steelers have any chance at pulling off one of the bigger upsets in postseason history. Watt, who played in 15 games this season, tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record with 22.5 sacks. Mahomes made quick work of the Steelers in Week 16, completing 23/30 passes for 258 yards (8.6 YPA) and three touchdowns.
Tyreek Hill barely played in Week 18 with a heel injury, which certainly didn’t help Mahomes’ performance, but he’s expected to be ready to play against the Steelers. He managed just 2/19 receiving on two targets in this matchup back in Week 16, but he played on just 42% of the snaps after dealing with COVID before the game. Hill has now seen five or fewer targets in four of his last six games.
Travis Kelce missed Kansas City’s matchup with the Steelers in Week 16 with COVID. He’s finished with fewer than 35 yards in four of his last five games, but he has scored four TDs in his last three contests to stay afloat. Mark Andrews posted 8/85 receiving on 15 targets in this matchup last week.
Byron Pringle led these secondary WRs with 28 routes and 6/75/2 receiving when they played the Steelers three weeks ago, followed by Demarcus Robinson (20, 2/15) and Mecole Hardman (16, 3/31/1). Hardman paced the group in receptions (59) and receiving yards (693) this season while Pringle had the most touchdowns (5) in the group.
Darrel Williams (toe) is trending in the right direction to be available for Sunday while Clyde Edwards-Helaire (collarbone) took a step back with a DNP on Thursday. Williams posted 11/55 rushing and 3/30 receiving on 42% of the snaps against the Steelers in Week 13 playing next to CEH, who managed just 9/27 rushing with a four-yard catch before his injury. The Steelers are giving up 5.0 YPC and the second-most rushing yards per game (120.8) to RBs this season.
Barfield’s Pace and Tendencies
Pace (seconds in between plays): 27.1 (4th)
Plays per game: 68.6 (9th)
Pass: 65.5% (3rd) | Run: 34.5% (30th)
Pace: 27.9 (11th)
Plays per game: 70.1 (4th)
Pass: 64.2% (5th) | Run: 35.8% (28th)
Everything on the surface sets up for this game to be a shootout. Both the Steelers and Chiefs rank top-12 in pace and play volume, making for the best Wild Card game by far from that perspective. However, the Steelers had better give Rick Sanchez a call and find a way to bring back vintage Ben Roethlisberger if this game stands a chance of being back and forth.
Let’s start with the Chiefs who have fully exercised their demons offensively and are deserving of a first-round bye at the end of the season. Over the last eight weeks of the season, no team generated a score (FG or TD) more often than Kansas City (52.9% of their possessions) and their five turnovers were second-fewest. Even with Tyreek Hill playing at less than 100%, Patrick Mahomes has been nothing short of stellar as of late.
The same can’t be said for the Steelers offense. They are throwing a lot because they still can’t run the ball consistently and the results have been absolutely painful to watch. Over the final month, Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball 150 times… for 674 yards (4.49 YPA). Look, if the Steelers had any upside left at all, this game would easily be the best from a scoring perspective this weekend. Instead, the markets have Pittsburgh pegged for a week-low 17 implied points – which is nearly 2 points behind the Eagles (18.75 implied points).
Huber’s Key Matchup Notes
I am not looking forward to this game. With all due respect to the Pittsburgh faithful, the last three games from the Steelers have been some of the least appealing games I’ve watched all season. During that time, it took Ben Roethlisberger 125 passing attempts to assemble 526 yards (4.2 YPA). Falling backwards into the playoffs on the heels of back-to-back wins over franchises with injured QBs only makes a front office and/or coaching cleanse unlikely. Please understand, I genuinely want what’s best for the Steelers. The low quality of the offense they are putting on the field cannot be excused away.
Someone other than Diontae Johnson must step forward to catch the ball since the route stems from Chase Claypool are too intricate for Roethlisberger’s snap-and-instant release game. When Pittsburgh lost 36-10 to Kansas City in Week 16, Pat Freiermuth was absent while recovering from his second concussion in less than a month. It may be a tad too late to target TEs facing KC since Ben Niemann has been light’s out coverage the last five weeks, but Baby Gronk has drawn 75% of his targets at a depth of nine yards-or-less. Not blown away?
Another guy missing from the Week 16 game between these teams was Travis Kelce. It was the only game during Patrick Mahomes or Tyreek Hill’s careers where Zeus wasn’t on the field. The Steelers had presented quite a challenge to opposing TEs until recently. Over the last four weeks, Pittsburgh has offered the position 13.0 FPG (10th-most).
Dolan’s Vantage Points
You think Ben Roethlisberger is aware that literally no one expects his Steelers to win this game?
Ben Roethlisberger’s final comment today— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) January 12, 2022
“We’re probably 20 point underdogs and we’re going to the #1 team, I know they’re not the #1 seed but they’ve won the AFC the last two years, arguably the best team in football … we don’t have a chance. So let’s just go in and have fun."
I mean, it is fair. The Steelers barely snuck into the playoffs — they needed Carson Wentz to take a gigantic dump in Jacksonville, they squeaked by the Tyler Huntley-led Ravens, and they narrowly avoided a fatal tie in the Chargers-Raiders Sunday Night Football classic.
And of course, Ben’s arm is totally shot. Look at this throw to Ray-Ray McCloud that somehow was completed. If it’s possible to lazily drop a football 10 yards forward, Ben did it.
This fourth down play was the dagger. Ben made the right read, throw was low, but good job by Ray-Ray McCloud to reel it in and keep backpedaling past the first down marker. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/IWkpawnL3t— Tommy Jaggi (@TommyJaggi) January 10, 2022
But indeed, the Steelers are here. And it’s possible they’ll have two weapons they didn’t have in their last tilt with the Chiefs. One is obvious — TE Pat Freiermuth. The other isn’t — WR JuJu Smith-Schuster! JuJu has missed almost the entire season with a shoulder injury.
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s potential return for wild-card game says plenty about his character: Kaboly— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly) January 14, 2022
via @TheAthletic https://t.co/iUPw3ou65y
There are still some signals crossed on JuJu, but the fact that he’s trending in the right direction is pretty incredible. But it also benefits JuJu to show he’s healthy, as he’s entering free agency this off-season.
JuJu Smith-Schuster @TeamJuJu is healthy enough to play and Steelers are hoping he can play, but they are not planning on it right now, per sources.— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) January 14, 2022
If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say JuJu Smith-Schuster plays Sunday against the Chiefs -- at least on a pitch count.— Dale Lolley (@dlolley_pgh) January 14, 2022
If JuJu plays, it would likely eat into the role for McCloud, who has been one of the least efficient receivers in football. On the season, McCloud has 277 receiving yards on 66 targets — 4.2 yards per target. By comparison, RB Najee Harris, who is playing through a nasty elbow injury, averaged 3.9 YPC this season and despite having great volume was one of the least efficient runners in football. Replacing any McCloud targets with targets for JuJu can only be considered a positive.
The Chiefs have some availability issues of their own. They didn’t have TE Travis Kelce last time out against the Steelers (COVID), and WR Tyreek Hill was fatigued in his own return from the COVID list (he played just 46% of the snaps). While Kelce should be full-go for this tilt, Hill is dealing with a bothersome heel injury, and could well be limited, opening up opportunities for the secondary receivers here.
The Chiefs’ run game could also be shorthanded again, if RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire can’t play. And Darrel Williams (toe) could be limited.
Chiefs injury report shows RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire didn't practice Thursday due to the shoulder injury. RB Darrel Williams (toe) and WR Tyreek Hill (heel) were limited. Everyone else a full go for Thursday's practice.— Matt Derrick (@mattderrick) January 13, 2022
If CEH can’t go, I expect Williams to take the majority of the snaps, with Derrick Gore mixing in as an early-down grinder. Per SIS’ EPA metric, Gore was actually the most effective of the three runners this season.