It might only be Week 16 of the NFL season, but for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs, this is about as close to the playoffs as you can get. Both teams need a win on Sunday to avoid getting into some crazy permutations and scenarios going into the final week of the season.
As of now, only three AFC teams have clinched a playoff spot. The Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots are in. Seeding is still to be determined, but right now this is all we know for sure.
According to Joe Ferreira of CBSSports.com, if the Steelers win against the Chiefs, they will clinch a playoff spot.
Obviously, if they win this Sunday and the following week against the Cincinnati Bengals, they would win the AFC North, but there must be motivation in the fact that the Steelers can wrap up a wild-card spot with a victory on Sunday.
Before we dive into the game plan for the Steelers, let’s check out how these two teams match up on paper thanks to the good folks at statmilk.com:
So, with all that, let’s take a good look at what Pittsburgh’s plan of attack needs to be as it takes on the Chiefs.
When the Steelers Are on Offense
What we learned last Sunday is that running back Le’Veon Bell is actually a mortal man. The Atlanta Falcons had a plan of attack to shut down the second-year star running back, and in terms of rushing yards, they did a nice job.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, the versatility of the Steelers offense allowed it to switch to a pass-first mentality and win the game.
By contrast, the Chiefs are one of the worst teams in the league in terms of giving up rushing yards.
Last Sunday, the Steelers took advantage of a questionable Falcons secondary. This week, it could be a big dose of Bell against the Chiefs' defensive front.
In fact, I fully expect to see the Steelers come out, line up in their big set and run right at the Chiefs, daring them to stop it. Pittsburgh is going to force the Chiefs to commit eight or nine guys in the box. If Kansas City doesn’t, Bell could rack up 30 carries and 150 yards on the ground.
That might have to be the plan of attack. As Ken Laird of TribLive Radio pointed out on Twitter, getting a 300-yard game through the air against the Chiefs just doesn’t happen:
The Chiefs D has not allowed a 300-yard passer this year despite playing Brady, P. Manning, Russell Wilson, & Rivers— Ken Laird (@Ken_Laird) December 17, 2014
However, should the Chiefs take a page from what Atlanta did, that means quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have some very favorable coverages to attack.
When you have weapons like wide receivers Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant, a single-high safety situation is a huge edge for the Steelers. The play-action game could be lethal.
If there was ever a week for the Steelers' offensive line to step up and play big, it is this week. If the Chiefs can stall out the run game, that will let outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston just tee off on Roethlisberger.
The Pittsburgh tackles are talent-deficient when it comes to pass protection, so the game plan could radically change if the Steelers have to keep in extra blockers to help with Houston and Hali.
When the Steelers Are on Defense
Moving to the other side of the football, things are very different. It is a case of the resistible force versus the moveable object. The Chiefs rank No. 30 in the NFL in passing yards, and the Steelers defense is No. 25 in the league in pass defense.
How bad is the Chiefs' passing game? This tweet from the NFL on ESPN account sums it up pretty well:
It will be interesting to see if the Chiefs try to get out of their comfort zone and take some shots down field on a very pedestrian secondary.
The Chiefs haven’t had a receiving touchdown by a wide receiver in over one calendar year. If there was ever a week for that to change, it’s this week.
Bleacher Report’s own Andrea Hangst said it in a most prophetic manner:
I think the Steelers win on Sunday, but I also think Dwyane Bowe has a touchdown.— Andrea Hangst (@FBALL_Andrea) December 17, 2014
If I’m the Steelers' coaching staff, I continue to focus my attention on the Chiefs' run game led by running back Jamaal Charles. Charles is agile and explosive—a threat to take any carry for a touchdown. Charles may or may not be 100 percent on Sunday, but the Steelers must prepare like he will be.
Charles runs the stretch to perfection. Teams will chase to the perimeter because of Charles’ speed, but they forget he can cut back and be back to full speed in just a few steps. The back side on those outside run plays will make all the difference in whether or not this team continues to give up big plays.
Look for the Steelers to play plenty of base, not crowd the line but give their linebackers an opportunity to run and chase.
In coverage, top priority will be accounting for Charles as well as the two Chiefs tight ends (Travis Kelce, Anthony Fasano) on every play. Pittsburgh has a tendency to allow opposing tight ends to have their way, especially around the end zone. This will be an area of focus for the Steelers on Sunday for sure.
When you really look closely at these two teams, the Steelers have the advantage in multiple areas. If there was ever a game for head coach Mike Tomlin to prove he can get his team up to play, it is this one.
With the Bengals at home to close out the season, getting a playoff spot wrapped up is top priority.
This is going to be a whole lot of Bell versus a whole lot of Charles. It’s going to come down to the rest of the teams around them to win this game, and when I look at Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith compared to Roethlisberger at home, it’s advantage Big Ben.
The Steelers find a way to win this one.
Steelers 24, Chiefs 17
All stats courtesy of NFL.com.