Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) rushes past Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dadi Nicolas (52) during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Jared Wickerham)
While watching a national TV network Thursday, I kind of chuckled when one of the on-site reporters in Kansas City said the poor weather expected in Kansas City this weekend might help the Chiefs more because they have the better defense.
Certainly that is the case in terms of forcing turnovers. Kansas City led the NFL with 33 takeaways this season. That’s good.
But the Chiefs also ranked 24th in total defense, 26th against the run, 16th against the pass and 27th in third down percentage.
KC did rank seventh in scoring defense, which is really what matters, but that was only slightly better than the Steelers, who finished 10th.
The Steelers were better everywhere else, save passing defense - where they gave up five more yards per game - and turnover ratio.
And while Kansas City’s 18 interceptions was a solid number, you can’t necessarily count on recovering fumbles.
So, really, which team has the better defense?
Kansas City has some star power on defense to be sure. Eric Berry is excellent at free safety and Justin Houston and Dee Ford are good off the edge. But the inside linebackers without Derrick Johnson - who’s out for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon? - they’re average to below average. And that could be bad news against Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who torched the Chiefs for 144 yards on 18 carries in a 43-14 win in Pittsburgh earlier this season.
The weather could, indeed, be a factor in this game. It’s expected to rain throughout Sunday’s playoff game. And that could affect the passing games of both teams.
So this could come down to which team avoids the big mistake and runs the ball more effectively and stops the run.
The Steelers have been excellent at both - when healthy - of late.
In his past seven games, Le’Veon Bell has 1,002 yards rushing. By comparison, only three running backs in league history - Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson (twice) and Terrell Davis - have gained 1,000 yards in the first seven games of a season.
Now, Bell didn’t accomplish that since his 1,000 yards came in the past seven games, but that’s some pretty exclusive company to keep.
Bell has averaged 143.1 yards rushing per game over his past seven. That’s what Simpson averaged over 14 games in 1975 when he set the league record for yards per game average.
In other words, Bell is on fire.
If Bell comes close to that against the Chiefs and Pittsburgh takes care of the football on offense, it should win.
Not to say this is going to be a 43-14 rout. Not by any stretch.
Pittsburgh’s special teams have been, as head coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week, “not so special.”
In Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs have a dangerous weapon. Hill scored six touchdowns receiving, three rushing, two on punt returns and one on a kickoff this season.
The Steelers are going to have to be very careful with Hill. Expect them to kick the ball out of bounds on punts whenever possible.
Defensively, the Steelers did a good job on Hill and Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce the first time around. Hill had one rushing attempt for minus-2 yards and they combined for 10 receptions for 47 yards. Both scored touchdowns, but those came in the fourth quarter after the Steelers had taken a 36-0 lead.
Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdowns in that game and I don’t expect anything close to that in this one. After all, Roethlisberger threw nine TD passes and eight interceptions on the road this season.
The Steelers can live with Roethlisberger throwing one TD pass in this game. They can’t live with multiple interceptions.
Kansas City led the NFL with eight touchdowns on returns this season, five on defense and three by Hill on returns. That helped prop up an offense that was 20th in the league in total offense.
The Steelers had 27 sacks in the second half of the season - tied for most in the NFL over that period - and then racked up another five last week against the Dolphins. They got to Alex Smith four times in their win over the Chiefs this season, but it’s not easy to do.
Smith gets rid of the ball quickly and was sacked 32 times this season. Likewise, the Steelers protected Roethlisberger extremely well this season, allowing him to be sacked 17 times.
The matchup of James Harrison or Stephon Tuitt - they’ll move him around - working against left tackle Eric Fisher will be one to watch.
Fisher has gotten better, but he’s still a below average left tackle.
Kansas City hasn’t won a home playoff game since beating the Steelers in overtime in 1994, going 0-4 during that period, and is 1-9 in its past 10 playoff games.
The Steelers are 1 ½-point underdogs in this game.