Two of the AFC's most storied franchises are facing off on Monday Night Football as the Kansas City Chiefs head to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. Sadly for the Chiefs, this isn't 2003; Trent Green isn't walking through that door.
The Chiefs (1-7) have been one of the NFL's biggest disappointments in 2012. Their offense has failed to get going with Matt Cassel (or Brady Quinn) under center, and their defense has taken a step back with Romeo Crennel as head coach. While the Chiefs appeared to have a good offseason, their Scott Pioli-built foundation is crumbling, and wholesale changes could be in their near future.
The Steelers (5-3) had people worried after starting 1-2, but they have won four of their last five. While critics (read: this guy) chirp about their age or note the players they've lost, the Steelers defense is back among the elite in 2012, and the passing offense is starting to click regardless of injuries along the offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger is having an MVP-caliber season, and he's doing so with less help than he's ever had before.
So, which of these teams wins on Monday night?
Key Storyline No. 1: Are the Steelers Back? Did They Go Anywhere?
Every year—every single year—the talk around the Steelers is about whether or not their window of opportunity has closed.
The team is not getting older, but critics see their Hall of Fame-caliber players retiring or regressing, and the team hasn't done the greatest job replacing them with players at the same talent level. It is fair to say that the Steelers have drafted well, but replacing great players with good players may not mean continual Super Bowl runs.
That said, Roethlisberger is still in his prime (albeit on the tail end) and playing at an extremely high level. He covers for a multitude of their other roster sins and has learned to thrive behind a weak offensive line when the run game has been insipid.
Simply put, the Steelers' window is closing, at least insofar as Roethlisberger cannot play forever. How fast it closes and how tightly is shuts is dependent on how well his teammates play around him. If they can rally together and finish the season like they've played the last few weeks, they could get right back into the championship hunt.
Key Storyline No. 2: Are The Chiefs Done?
On the other side of the coin, the Chiefs have been terrible for some time. Pioli was brought over from New England, and he brought Matt Cassel with him to duplicate the success they had together with the Patriots.
It hasn't worked.
After last year's 7-9 record, the Chiefs had what appeared to be a pretty fantastic offseason. Eric Winston, Peyton Hillis, Kevin Boss, Stanford Routt, etc, were all solid signings that should have contributed to a team that was already winning games with a devastating defense and a tough rushing attack.
Moreover, getting injured players back like Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki and others was supposed to be like getting a whole extra draft class.
The Chiefs need to rebuild again, and it would be unconscionable for them to let Pioli and Crennel preside over that endeavor. It is likely that many of the Chiefs are playing the rest of this season to prove they are cornerstone players and should be kept around for the next roster shake-up.
Keys for the Kansas City Chiefs
Seriously, what are the Chiefs supposed to do against a defense that is in the top five against the run and the best overall against the pass in the NFL? Cassel has made terrible decisions all season long, so what are we truly expecting against a Dick LeBeau-style zone blitz that rattles even elite quarterbacks?
If the Chiefs are going to have success on Monday night, they will need to bide their time on offense with a balanced attack. A steady dose of the run game—even if it's into a brick wall—to keep the Steelers from pinning their ears back is essential. Getting the ball to Dexter McCluster in space could help loosen up the Steelers' front.
On defense, the Chiefs can make some headway. Yes, they will need some bounces, but they have the pass-rush ability to rattle Roethlisberger. The problem, of course, is that Big Ben often does his best work outside the pocket. They need to connect, not just hurry, with the Steelers QB if they have any chance of stopping him.
Keys for the Pittsburgh Steelers
On offense, the Steelers need to run the ball—a lot. They can't just trot Roethlisberger out there to be killed by Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Yes, they will need to pass as well, but they can't pretend he's bulletproof. In fact, the Chiefs' run defense might be just the prescription that the Steelers' rushing attack needs.
It's probably too much to ask that the Steelers run some intermediate routes. Their offense is built around Big Ben's giant arm and their elite downfield speed.
Instead, their plan needs to be to make sure they've accounted for the Chiefs pass rush anytime Roethlisberger is going to be asked to take anything more than a three-step drop. Keeping extra blockers in and moving the pocket can keep the pass game moving as well.
On defense, the Steelers don't need to do anything outrageous. Look for them to dial up blitzes early on in the game to truly rattle Cassel and get the home crowd rocking. If they set the tone early, this game could be effectively over by halftime.
Bold Prediction: The Steelers Will Have TWO 100-yard Rushers
For a team that has struggled to run the ball all season long, this sounds crazy. However, I truly expect this game to be "over" sooner rather than later. With that in mind, a few long back-breaking runs by Jonathan Dwyer and a steady dose of Isaac Redman could lead to a lot of Baron Batch in the second half.
It's more than possible that, against the Chiefs, two of those guys are going to cross the century mark.
Player of the Game Prediction: Lawrence Timmons
For all the talk of older players on the Steelers and their defense, Timmons is still a lithe and active 26—still entering his prime with his best football likely ahead of him. In this game, we should see some of what's to come, as his active play will be key in shutting down the Chiefs in both the run and the pass game.
Look for Timmons to create multiple negative plays and at least one game-changing sack-fumble, interception, etc. His dominance at the line of scrimmage is going to be the Steelers' biggest asset.
Final Score Prediction: Steelers 31; Chiefs 13
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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