WHERE: Arrowhead Stadium
WHEN: Jan 16, 8:15pm ET
SPREAD: Chiefs -12.5 | O/U 46
From Saturday it’s knockout football. The loser goes home and while scheduling is stacked in favor of the highest seeded teams, any team can stumble in a one-off game. Just ask Indianapolis at Jacksonville in week 18.
The seventh and final seeded Steelers managed to extend quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s farewell tour into the post season, but they look overmatched in all departments away to the AFC’s second-seeded Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs beat Pittsburgh 36-10 as recently as week 16 at Arrowhead Stadium, a notoriously intimidating venue, and every statistical indicator, simple or advanced, points to the host winning comfortably.
Kansas has a positive points differential of 116, compared to minus 55 for the visitors. That’s the equivalent of 11.2 Pythagorean wins (winning percentage using the ratio of a team’s wins and losses related to the number of points scored and allowed) against just seven. Kansas’ Pythagorean wins are broadly in line with their twelve actual wins, but Pittsburgh’s over-performance has been fueled by a 7-1 record in closely decided matches, whereas the hosts are a more balanced and sustainable 5-3 in such games. Good fortune, rather than repeatable skill has often helped the Steelers.
The Steelers are anchored in the final third of the NFL ranking for offensive run and pass efficiency. Roethlisberger’s glory days as an elite passer are long gone, although they still trust his arm frequently and he remains capable of occasionally hitting a receiver with the game on the line.
Defensively, they fare well against the pass, but poorly on the ground. There’s been 46 regular season contests played solely between playoff teams and it is here that Pittsburgh’s underlying process becomes even uglier.
Offensively they both throw and run for a yard per attempt below the benchmark average and they’ve scored just 15 points per game against defenses that typically allow 22.5 points per game (PPG) when playing other post season qualifiers. As a comparison, the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs average 28.1 against admittedly poorer quality defenses that concede 26.2 PPG. They are great running the ball into playoff caliber sides and even with Mahomes’ well documented struggles with accuracy at times, they pass often and with average efficiency. They’ve turned around a 3-4 start to the year - going 9-1 from week 8, the only loss being a narrow one to fourth-seeded Cincinnati, and they are the leading contender to contest the Super Bowl for the AFC, with an 18% chance of success.
There’s more parity between the teams defensively when facing the best, but the Chiefs’ opponents are often on the backfoot, becoming one dimensional - which helps Kansas to shave four points from the average scoring rate of playoff bound opposition. Pittsburgh rarely control games and allow elite rivals to score points at the average rate for such contests.
Scoring rates suggest an easy day for KC with a predicted score line of 28-13. Expect to see Roethlisberger throwing frequently, but largely unsuccessfully. The Steelers have taken to the air on 69% of the snaps against other playoff teams.
KC are unlikely to attempt to cruise against an ageing, but gutsy, gunslinger and so take them to cover the lumpy spread, currently set at 12.5 points.
Playoff pick: Chiefs -12.5