PLAYOFF PREGAME STRETCH: Steelers at Chiefs
With an ice storm forecast, turnovers should tell the tale in Kansas City this Sunday
AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS: Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) at Arrowhead Stadium, capacity 76,416; Sunday at 8:20 p.m., NBC
Announcers: Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth. Well, well, well, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. It’s hard to keep track of the NFL’s TV deal, but any deal that eliminates what would have been a Jeeeeem and Pheeeeel game in the past and replaces them with Al and Chris is OK with us. As an aside, the Saturday opener featuring the Seahawks visiting the Falcons will be done by FOX’s Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch, who apparently are that network’s No. 2 duo now. As an aside to that aside, CBS’s experiment with Jay Feely on the field as a kicking expert was worth a try, but can be put to bed now. In trying to make it seem like it’s important enough to merit an on-field expert, Feely just comes across as silly most times. Information courtesy www.the506.com.
(Blogger’s note: Below is our prescient original offering on the weather for the game, which has now moved the kickoff to 8:20 p.m. EST Sunday. At this writing, the Steelers have changed their travel plans, leaving earlier Saturday to ensure they arrive before the third (and predicted to be the most wicked) round of a three-day storm affects Kansas City. The region is now under an ice storm warning for one-quarter to one-half inch of ice, beginning around 9 p.m. Saturday night and changing over to rain at about 2 p.m. Sunday. If that 17-hour impact and one-half inch figure materialize, we would guess there’s a decent chance this game won’t be played Sunday evening either, as you’d be talking about thousands without power and interstate highways closed or restricted. One-half inch of ice is paralyzing. The swath of ice predicted is two states’ wide so it’s not something that might “just miss” the area. The best hope for the Chiefs and the NFL is that the warmer air moves in a few hours earlier than predicted. In any event, we don’t think fans will know for sure until the powers that be wake up Sunday morning and assess the amount of chaos. )
Weather – or not?: Freezing rain, 33. Yikes. Winter Storm Jupiter (imagine a trumpet blast when we write that) dumped feet of snow on the Pacific Northwest early this week and the weather weenies are saying the same system could bring a three-day ice storm to the Midwest with Kansas City roughly in the bullseye of the affected area. If it materializes, you’re talking about a weather event that wouldn’t affect just the game, but also fans ability to get to it and even the Steelers ability to get to Kansas City. We’re not usually one for weather alarmism but we think this bears watching. While we’re on this topic, let’s jump back for a second to the question of whether cold weather adversely affects a team from a warm-weather climate. We think the jury is still out on that (and really, it’s a player-by-player, more than team-by-team thing) but hopefully we can all agree that cold weather absolutely DOES affect a team that gets behind by a few touchdowns, whether they’re from a warm or cold climate. Information courtesy www.weather.com.
How they rank (final regular season): Kansas City offense: 19th passing, 15th rushing, 13th ppg; Pittsburgh defense: 16th passing, 13th rushing, 10th ppg; Pittsburgh offense: 5th passing, 14th rushing, 10th ppg; Kansas City defense: 18th passing, 7th rushing, 7th ppg; Sacks: Kansas City 28th (28); Pittsburgh 9th (38); Sacks allowed: Kansas City 11th (32), Pittsburgh 2nd (21). Comment: Very similar teams statistically. The biggest surprise, we think, is how few sacks KC recorded this year. Steelers statistical advantage seems to be attacking with the passing game, but will Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley put that kind of game plan in place in a road playoff game? We doubt it.
Referee: Carl Cheffers. Competence factor: Supposedly solid. The six best referees are supposed to be working this weekend and next with the Super Bowl top cop coming from this weekend’s batch. Well, Ol’ Blind Pete Morelli is among this weekend’s batch (in New England, no less) so you can forget about the subjective term “best” for anyone on the field. In the ultimate example of the insanity of Dean Blandino’s use of mixed crews for playoffs, four members of Cheffers crew will be working this weekend WITH OTHER CREWS while Cheffers helms guys from three different crews in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, six members of Tony Corrente’s crew will be on the field, three with him in Dallas, two in other games. It’s crazy for these already-challenged officials to work and train together all season as a unit, then split apart for the playoffs. As an aside, Cheffers did not work a Steelers game this year. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com and www.profootballreference.com.
The last time: The Steelers were clicking on all proverbial cylinders in a 43-14 Sunday night dismantling of the Chiefs, that ran Pittsburgh’s record to 3-1 and had all of us thinking Super Bowl or bust. Ben Roethlisberger threw five TD passes in the game, which saw Pittsburgh take 22-0 and 36-0 leads after the first two quarters. Tyreek Hill played only 19 snaps on offense for the Chiefs but caught a 10-yard TD in the fourth quarter. He also returned two kickoffs and two punts for 74 total yards. If Pittsburgh can match the return total for Hill and limit him to a single TD, they stand a good chance of winning again Sunday.
The line: Chiefs -1.5. Smarts say: The Steelers briefly opened as a 1-point favorite in this game, but that flipped (and the over/under dropped by two points to 44) as news of Ben Roethlisberger’s ankle tweak emerged. From a strategic viewpoint, we’d much rather go into Arrowhead as an underdog and eliminate the “no one believes in us” narrative from a Chiefs’ motivational arsenal that already includes the “we’re not as bad as we played the first time” narrative the Steelers used so successfully last weekend. This line would put the Steelers as a 1.5-point favorite on a neutral field, which seems about perfect. The over/under means something like Kansas City, 22-21. Information courtesy www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com.
Key matchup: Steelers coach Mike Tomlin vs. Chiefs coach Andy Reid. Why: There’s a decently high PROBABILITY that this game will be decided by the talent and execution of the players on the field, as it should be. But there is a disproportionately higher than normal POSSIBILITY it will be decided by a bonehead timeout or two-point decision by one of the two head coaches, regarded by some as two of the shakiest gameday decision-makers in the league.
Player on the spot: Ben Roethlisberger. Because: The Steelers blew the Chiefs out in Week 4 with an aggressive passing attack and lots of downfield throws. It is highly unlikely that will be the gameplan in a road playoff game, especially with Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh offensive line performing at such a high level. That means turnovers will be critical in the outcome and Pittsburgh’s turnover pace is set by their quarterback, who can be very, very good for a very long time (see first 28 minutes of first half Sunday) and then make absolutely mind-boggling poor decisions with the football (see last two minutes of first half Sunday). Kansas City leads the league in turnover differential and they’ll beat the Steelers Sunday if they win that stat. When Pittsburgh lost 23-13 at Arrowhead last October, it was Landry Jones under center and his two interceptions were the difference in the game. It should be a different turnover story Sunday with a $100 million franchise quarterback on the field instead. It has to be if the Steelers are to win.
+ There is a 95 percent chance the winner of this game is going to New England to play for the AFC Championship in the late game next Sunday. There is a 5 percent chance the victor will host Bill O’Brien’s Houston Texans.
+We can’t figure out if the Dak Prescott injury and Tony Romo interception is happening this week against the Packers or next week against the Seahawks (we’re not saying the Seahawks are beating the Falcons, but we are saying if they do and face the Cowboys in the NFC Championship, we’re taking Seattle).
+ All four higher seeds winning on Wild Card weekend is quite unusual. Last weekend was the first time it happened since 2011.
+ The Steelers offensive line has gotten so good as protecting Ben Roethlisberger, we’re starting to take it for granted, but they’ll be sternly tested this weekend with the return from injury of Justin Houston to bookend Dee Ford, who leads Kansas City with 10 sacks. It will be primarily Marcus Gilbert dealing with Houston and Gilbert continues to be one of the quietest dominant players in football. You’ll remember he completely neutralized eventual Super Bowl MVP Von Miller in two meetings last year with Denver and he’ll get a chance Sunday to do the same to a player who’s just as dominant, when he’s healthy.
+Mike Tomlin was absolutely masterful at his press conference Tuesday in dealing head on with the arrest of linebacker coach Joey Porter last Sunday and largely defusing it as even a media-driven distraction. We have no doubt he’s been equally adept in making sure his team isn’t affected. With the charges involved reduced to summary level, there’s a good chance Porter’s coaching career won’t be permanently derailed by the indiscretion and he might even be back on the sideline Sunday. Whether that career should continue in Pittsburgh beyond this year is another matter. We have no idea what kind of coach Porter is and neither do you. But we do know he’s probably still got too much of a player’s mentality for his own good. There was a general theory/assumption he was hired more for the fire he might light under the likes of Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree than for any X or O input. Although Dupree is playing better of late, it still looks like the biggest fire Porter is lighting is under himself.
+ Pittsburgh’s offseason plans, including draft and free agent strategies, and how they approach the future could be altered dramatically from what we were thinking just a few months ago if the Steelers believe the performance level of Bud Dupree and Lawrence Timmons these past six weeks is legitimate. Dupree has gone from potential draft bust to potential star during that span and Timmons has gone from a plodding vet on the downside of his career to a seasoned playmaker saving his best for last. Again, though, is what we’ve seen since the Cowboys game real? Or just flashes never to be recaptured?
+ Ike Taylor is making quite a second career for himself as a commentator/personality on NFL Network. In a piece this past week, Taylor was asked his most vivid postseason memory. While most players (and people) would select a moment of personal glory, Taylor responded, without hesitation, that his most vivid moment was the pain of losing Super Bowl XLV. That guy can drop interceptions on our team any day.
The pick:…We’ve gotten this far without mentioning Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith because that’s the kind of quarterback he is. Smith isn’t flashy or big-armed and he doesn’t merit Sports Illustrated cover stories or a supermodel wife. But he wins, a lot. And the Chiefs stand a good chance of winning if he doesn’t turn the ball over Sunday. Smith threw only eight interceptions all year, but four of them came in Kansas City’s final four games. Another one Sunday, and one short field for the Pittsburgh offense, could be the difference … Steelers 21-19.
Last week: Ugh. We originally had Pittsburgh winning and covering what was then a 10-point spread, but we chickened out and officially predicted the Dolphins would lose but cover, leaving us 11-6 straight up and 8-9 against the spread, in the red for the first time this year.