Practically every week of the NFL playoffs — and for that matter, the regular season as well — the main story lines focus on quarterbacks. The Oakland Raiders-Houston Texans game last weekend drew extra scorn interest by pairing a benched former starter, the much-maligned Brock Osweiler, against a third-stringer, Connor Cook, making his first NFL start. A day later, the showdown between former Super Bowl MVPs Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning was the headline.
This week won’t be much different. Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers face the Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott, who can shore up the greatest season ever by a rookie quarterback with a playoff victory. Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons square off in a rematch of a postseason thriller four years ago.
In Kansas City, the story will be Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, two veterans with a handful of wins and playoff heroics in their past. Big Ben may have two Super Bowl rings, but Smith’s postseason résumé is stellar: 11 touchdowns, 1 interception, and nearly 200 yards rushing in five games.
Obviously, Smith and Roethlisberger should play central roles on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, but these two teams are very evenly matched. Forget what happened more than three months ago when the Steelers manhandled the Chiefs at Heinz Field in Week 4. In tightly contested playoff games there’s always one player, in addition to the familiar superstars, who can provide the difference and helps push his team to victory. In this particular case, neither is on offense.
Chiefs X factor: Tyreek Hill
Yes, Hill is a significant player on the Chiefs offense, scoring 9 touchdowns, catching 61 passes and averaging 11.1 yards per rush. And he’s not exactly under the radar. But Hill qualifies as an X-factor, and can deal the Steelers the most damage, for his special teams play, particularly on kickoffs.
Anyone watching the NFL this season knows how dangerous Hill has been as a returner. He has 3 special teams touchdowns, two on punts, one on kickoffs, led the league in punt return average, and was named to the All-Pro team as a returner. Against any opponent in this postseason, he’s a threat to score should he touch the ball on special teams. But the Steelers are especially vulnerable.
Pittsburgh’s special teams have not been good lately. In their critical matchup against Baltimore, the Steelers’ Chris Boswell twice booted kickoffs out of bounds. And in last week’s win against Miami, several poor, short, wobbly kicks (probably a result of the frigid temperature) by Boswell caused the Steelers cover team to let Kenyan Drake return a second-half kickoff 58 yards. And in Week 15, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Alex Erickson raced 72 yards against Pittsburgh’s kick return coverage.
In terms of balance, Hill’s unique abilities compared with the Steelers’ anemic kickoff returns (they’ve had one return that went more than 33 yards all season) give the Chiefs have a considerable advantage on Sunday. If the weather at Arrowhead is nearly as cold as it was on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the conditions will favor Kansas City’s kickoff return team even more.
Steelers X factor: Mike Mitchell
While Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Ben Roethlisberger draw most of the praise for the Steelers’ late-season resurgence, as well as their dominant playoff win against Miami, the Steelers defense deserves just as much if not more. Just look at the win over the Dolphins: the three consecutive turnovers Pittsburgh forced at the end of the first half and beginning of the second (two strip-sacks, one interception) were a bigger spark than either of Brown’s long touchdowns or Bell’s two scores.
The defense’s best player, linebacker Ryan Shazier, as well as a blend of new (Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Bud Dupree) and old (Harrison, Timmons) faces has helped Pittsburgh limit opponents to 293 average total yards during this seven-game winning streak. And against Kansas City, that should continue. Not only did the Steelers successfully contain Smith 1 rush, 2 yards) in Week 4, they did the same to another mobile quarterback, Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor (2 rushes, 3 yards) in Week 14.
Far more concerning than Smith’s feet, or the Chiefs’ running backs, is the presence of the best (active) tight end in the NFL. Travis Kelce led all tight ends — as well as all Chiefs receivers — this season with 85 catches and 1,125 yards. More so than Hill, Jeremy Maclin or Chris Conley, Kelce is the player Smith relies on down field on third down, and his ability to run with the ball after the catch is vastly underrated.
No doubt a variety of Steelers will have the responsibility of containing Kelce’s playmaking, be it in man or zone coverage or simply tackling the big body when he does make a grab. But Mitchell, the Steelers’ free safety, will more than likely have the most chances to limit Kelce, something he didn’t do in their Week 4 matchup. Mitchell was out of position and late to break on Kelce in the back of the end zone, allowing a late touchdown.
Nevertheless, Kelce is going to make his catches and gain yards, maybe even on the goal line as he did in Week 4. Kelce making grabs over the middle, in which he has room to run downfield, will be far more costly to the Steelers, and that’s where Mitchell can make an impact. The eight-year veteran is regarded as a hard hitter and fairly reliable tackler, but he’s also drawn his share of penalties for late hits or unnecessary roughness. It’s vital that, if he’s in position, Mitchell not only brings down Kelce or dislodges him from the ball, but does not draw a flag in the process. Allowing a 30-yard catch-and-run is not as costly as allowing a 30-yard catch-and-run and then letting the referees tack on an additional 15.
In a game as close as this one figures to be, one such flag can mean the difference between advancing or going home for the winter.