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2021 NFL playoffs: What to watch for in Steelers-Chiefs on Super Wild Card Weekend

Pittsburgh Steelers
2021 · 9-7-1
Kansas City Chiefs
2021 · 12-5-0

Three weeks ago, the Kansas City Chiefs walloped the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-10 in a game that wasn't even as close as the score suggested. At the time, it felt like the eulogy of the 2021 Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger's career.

But the poltergeists from Pittsburgh lived on, winning their final two games to sneak into the postseason at 9-7-1.

The Chiefs stubbed their toe after beating down the Steelers, losing a Week 17 shootout to Cincinnati to fall out of the top seed in the AFC. But the Chiefs offense has played its best football of the season heading into the playoffs and could be poised for another explosive outing at Arrowhead.

In a weekend of rematches, can the Chiefs finally put down a Mike Tomlin team that refused to die?

Here are four things to watch when the Chiefs play host to the Steelers:

  1. Will Patrick Mahomes continue to dominate the AFC? Kansas City is seeking a third consecutive trip to the Super Bowl, but Sunday marks the first start of Mahomes' career in the Wild Card round. Mahomes has a 17-4 TD-INT ratio in his playoff career, second-best among QBs with five-plus playoff starts since 1970 -- behind only Alex Smith (14-2). It's telling in a season most observers would consider a struggle in the early going for the Chiefs offense, Mahomes and Co. still put up 28.2 points per game and averaged 396.8 yards per game. Mahomes took care of the pigskin better down stretch, which led to the eight-game win streak. Mahomes had 12 giveaways in Weeks 1-8 (T-most in NFL, Chiefs went 4-4) but had only five in Weeks 9-18 (Chiefs 8-1). The superstar QB has gotten his secondary weapons more involved of late, which has spearheaded the offensive turnabout. In the Week 16 meeting, the Steelers slowed Tyreek Hill, but Byron Pringle tortured Pittsburgh. K.C. didn't have Travis Kelce (COVID-19) against Pittsburgh and still managed to score 36 points and put up 381 yards. His return in the rematch will make life even easier for Mahomes.
  2. Can Roethlisberger extend his career another week? Obits of the future Hall of Fame QB's career were written following the blowout loss in K.C., but Big Ben leads his zombie crew back into town with a shot at keeping his career alive. Roethlisberger has become the king of the two-yard out. It marks the first season in the Next Gen Stats era that Roethlisberger's air yards per attempt dipped below 7.0. The propensity of the Steelers QB to throw a two-yard pass on third-and-long has felt like a bit this season. It won't work against the Chiefs. K.C. has allowed the league's lowest passer rating on quick passes since Week 8 (when it made a trade with Pittsburgh for Melvin Ingram). The Steelers want to hammer Najee Harris and play a station-to-station offense. But if Big Ben is to pull off a huge upset, he'll need to hit repeated bombs that eluded Pittsburgh this season. Perhaps if JuJu Smith-Schuster, who made a surprise appearance in practice this week, can return, it will add a tackle-breaking element to the offense. But to keep pace with the Chiefs, Big Ben must pull out his old magic and stretch the field. Or at least go out trying.
  3. Steelers need a DPOY performance from T.J. Watt. Watt tied the single-season sack record, netting 22.5 QB takedowns. He might need that many Sunday for the Steelers to pull off the upset. Watt was held to just one QB pressure and no sacks in 36 snaps in the Week 16 meeting. That won't get it done in the postseason. The Steelers led the NFL with 55 sacks in the regular season, their fifth consecutive season with at least a share of the league lead. Watt and Cam Heyward must wreck the Chiefs' offensive line. Blitzing Mahomes is usually a fool's errand, and you'd think Pittsburgh would have the defensive front to cause havoc without additional rushers. The Steelers (7.5) trail only the Bears (8.0) in sack rate when sending four or fewer rushers this season. Mahomes leads the league in attempts (578), completions (377), yards (3,974), and touchdowns (31, T-1st) versus four or fewer rushers this season but has just a 41.2 completion rate and -11.3 completion percentage over expected when those four provide pressure.
  4. Which Chiefs defense will we get in the postseason? Steve Spagnuolo's squad was dreadful to open the season, allowing 32.6 points per game for Weeks 1-5. Then it was dominant, allowing just 13.1 PPG from Weeks 6-14. But the past four outings, the Chiefs have settled into middling, allowing 24.0 points per game and 392.5 yards per game in Weeks 15-18. It's not a scary Steelers operation they're facing Sunday, especially if they're able to slow down Harris early and build a lead. In Week 16, K.C. sacked Big Ben just twice but netted 17 QB pressures while forcing three turnovers. A repeat performance Sunday would get K.C.'s postseason run off to a good start.

Next Gen stat of the game: Kansas City's defense yielded 5.4 yards allowed per attempt on passes of fewer than 10 air yards since Week 8 (third-fewest in NFL).

NFL Research: Andy Reid made the NFC Championship Game four seasons in a row with the Eagles from 2001-2004 and could become the first head coach in the Super Bowl era to have multiple streaks of four-plus conference championship appearances -- Tom Landry is the only other HC to have multiple such streaks of three-plus seasons.

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