AFC Divisional Round Playoff Preview 2017
by Rivers McCown (HOU-NE) and Scott Kacsmar (PIT-KC)
Both of this year's AFC divisional games are rematches of regular-season blowouts, but the season-long trajectories of these four teams couldn't present a stronger dichotomy between the two matchups.
Saturday's Houston at New England game is one of the largest mismatches in NFL playoff history. It is only the third playoff game in the Super Bowl era with a point spread of 16 points or more. By full-season DVOA, it is not the greatest mismatch in playoff history. That honor belongs to the 1991 divisional round game betweeen Washington (56.9%) and Detroit (-1.2%). However, this is the biggest gap ever measured based on the end-season weighted DVOA of two playoff opponents. That number takes out the four games Tom Brady missed with a suspension.*
On the other hand, Sunday's Pittburgh-Kansas City game is a very close matchup. These two teams are ranked consecutively in both full-season and weighted DVOA, separated by less than two percentage points. They are two of the rare balanced teams of 2016, with offense and defense both above average.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
*(The 1991 Washington-Detroit game is the No. 2 mismatch by this method. For those curious, we don't have weighted DVOA through the playoffs tracked back to 1989 so we can only compare all 27 seasons with weighted DVOA as of the end of the regular season.)
Houston at New England
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At 10-7, the Houston Texans roll into Foxboro, the burial place of the Matt Schaub/Andre Johnson/Arian Foster/Letterman Jacket Texans, as mere 16-point underdogs to our No. 1 DVOA-ranked New England Patriots. To put that into historical context, only two of 12 playoff teams that were underdogs by 14 or more points won: New England over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI, and the Jets over the Colts in Super Bowl III.
Generally when a team is this big of an underdog, it is because they are up against what is perceived to be an impossible force: the Warner/Faulk Rams, the Unitas Colts, the Walsh/Young/Rice 49ers. But while the Patriots have historically belonged in this category, 2016 hasn't been one of their best years. And to top it off, they come into this game without star tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Pats had a pass offense DVOA of 50.5%, but they have only hit that mark in a single game once since Gronkowski went down in Week 12: the finale against Miami. New England also has a defense that, improving DVOA be damned, hasn't played a functional offense since Russell Wilson's Seahawks in Week 10. Unfortunately for the Texans, they don't appear to have a functional offense either.
This speaks not only to the fact that the Texans have been an objectively bad team by any measure this year, but also the recent history between the two squads. The Texans went up against the Jacoby Brissett-led Patriots in Week 3 and were laughed out of the building, 27-0. They managed a whole six points against the Pats in 2015 on Sunday Night Football. Two Bills will be on the sidelines for this game, and Belichick has sonned O'Brien twice without much of a fight. Let's talk about how this game could be different. And then what will actually happen.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
J.J. Watt has zero career sacks against the Patriots. This Belichick guy can coach a little, and combine that with the fact that the New England offensive line has been much improved this year under Dante Scarnecchia, and you've got a recipe to stop would-be Giants front fours from kicking Tom Brady around. Jadeveon Clowney's coming out party against the Raiders last week went about as well as could be expected, but the most important rusher in this game is going to be middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Traditionally it has been pressure up the middle, not on the edges, that has disrupted Brady. McKinney is capable of giving the Texans some unique rushing ability from the interior as a linebacker, as he had five sacks and nine hurries this year. In a game with a better offense on the other side, this might be a terrific battle. In a game where the Pats are projected to be running the clock out a lot, well, Brady probably won't get too dinged up.
The Texans actually do have a pretty decent defensive game plan against the Patriots if they want to accept that it may lead to some coverage busts. It probably won't come to this, but whether they use Dion Lewis or James White, the Pats have a huge advantage involving the back in the passing game. The Texans simply haven't been able to cover backs all season. They're 28th in DVOA allowed to backs, and as that's already a staple of New England shootouts, you can expect that to pop up if the Houston offense somehow becomes feisty.
As alluded to earlier, without Gronkowski New England has no ace receiver who the Texans have to focus on. Martellus Bennett could be that guy if he's healthy after a bye week, but he has had problems pushing off a bum ankle all season. Otherwise, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Michael Floyd (assuming the limited Malcolm Mitchell is out) aren't exactly imposing threats. They will get theirs against the Texans because option routes are pretty matchup-proof for the Patriots, but don't expect a dynamic downfield passing game to pop up on what has been a fairly conservative defense.
Instead, if you believe the over/under, a majority of the work will go to LeGarrette Blount. The Pats ran 39 times against the Texans with Brissett under center in Week 3. Blount did gash Houston late in the game once the defense was tired, but outside of a 44-yard touchdown run he was mostly kept in check. Brissett was actually the bigger problem, as the Patriots used the read-option game to confound the Texans. Brady doesn't exactly offer that, though I'm sure the Patriots will take the trade-off. As we pointed out in last week's preview piece, the Texans' run defense was on fire down the stretch. They held nine of their last 10 opponents to a negative rushing DVOA. I actually think this might be a prime spot for an unexpected game out of White or Lewis as a secondary back, because speed plays a little bit better against this Houston front.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
At Rise: (A large meeting room somewhere in Houston. Early Evening. BILL, forty-something head coach, is eating catered food while a large model of New England as the Death Star floats in the distance. He's about to hear a presentation from the czar of common sense, and he's not remotely interested.)
CZAR: So Bill, I understand you like to run the football a lot to take the time off the clock and play field position with your defense.
CZAR: So I've discovered a problem with that plan for this game, and it's that the Patriots have one of the best run defenses in the NFL. They had a -23.7% DVOA for the season, and allowed just one opponent all season to have a positive rushing DVOA against them: the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1.
(O'Brien dismissively grunts.)
CZAR: Now we actually play to New England's run weaknesses, which is to say we run the ball up the middle and at guard a lot, and the Pats are merely 13th in the NFL in adjusted line yards on those runs. But other than that, well, there's not much reason to suggest that if we give Lamar Miller 20 carries we'll get more than the 65 yards we got in Week 3 before a 15-yard garbage time shotgun run got him to 80. So barring some miracle start where we get 14 points early in this game, we're probably going to have to throw the ball to win.
(O'Brien shrugs and has a cookie.)
CZAR: It's fair to not want to pass the ball with Brock Osweiler, though he is coming off his best game of the year. The Patriots dared him to beat us in Week 3, barely blitzing at all and instead focusing on shortening the windows for his receivers. Osweiler couldn't really deal with that. Malcolm Butler is a handful for whoever gets matched up with him anyway, but the middle of the field could be open. The Pats allowed an above-average 19.3% DVOA on passes over the middle, and if we could make sure that DeAndre Hopkins got some run there, we could give Osweiler a target with a great catch radius.
O'BRIEN: He's a receiver. Why not throw it to C.J. Fiedorowicz?
CZAR: Well, Fiedorowicz, like most Texans, has shown barely any ability to break tackles. According to our Sports Info Solutions data, the Texans finished with a league-low 7.6 percent of plays with broken tackles. Fiedorowicz will fall down instantly on contact. You need broken tackles and long Will Fuller receptions to win this game. It would probably be smart to get the ball more to Hopkins and Miller on screens than to try to work the tight ends. The Patriots allowed only a -3.1% DVOA on throws at tight ends.
(O'Brien has indistinct chatter with other coaches.)
CZAR: So the best way for you to play this game is to probably to take the run-heavy identity and create some misdirection and try to find some big plays downfield to Fuller and Hopkins. Even posts against Cover-2 would work better than what we've been doing this year. (Czar suddenly comes to senses.) Wait, this kind of sounds like our game plan from Week 3 with more posts.
(O'Brien nods glumly.)
I spent my best material on Houston's special teams last week. Suffice to say, they have ranked last for two straight seasons and are bad. Last week, rookie returner Tyler Ervin muffed a punt that hit him right in the helmet, which is a) as poetic a tribute to Houston's special teams I can create and b) the second time that happened this season. The Raiders found 121 yards of returns along the way, and the Texans were penalized three times, including one that took a touchdown off the board.
The Patriots, on the other hand, have a remarkable streak of consistency. They've had a top-10 special team unit for every year of the 2010s. Stephen Gostkowski had some foibles earlier in the year, and the Patriots don't have an ace returner, but those are about the only blemishes you can find here.
In a game where I'm trying to find a devil's advocate reason to believe the Texans can have any chance, these two units are the equivalent of the devil giving me a firm shake of the head.
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It's very hard to succeed with an offense as limited as the one the Texans have. It's even harder to do so when you're playing a good team on the road in the playoffs, and when your special teams is constantly setting both units up with poor field position.
There are reasons to believe the Texans can grind clock and keep the game closer than the spread, particularly if they are able to get some pressure against Brady and break up some contested short passes.
But to win in New England would be a gargantuan upset, and likely something that would involve multiple defensive scores, big special teams returns, or otherwise random touchdowns that are mostly unpredictable.
Pittsburgh at Kansas City
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The AFC playoffs are progressing just as we expected, with Pittsburgh and Kansas City squaring off as the best challengers to New England in what should be next week's AFC Championship Game matchup. The Chiefs and Steelers have been spastic at times, often battling for the DVOA variance crown before Pittsburgh ultimately earned it (Kansas City finished 23rd) with three straight wins from a double-digit deficit to end the season. Meanwhile, the Chiefs started 2016 with a franchise-record 21-point comeback against San Diego, and also had a wild 17-point comeback in Carolina to help finish 12-4 for the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
I admittedly held back on some Pittsburgh stats last week since we expected the team to take care of Miami, which it did handily. The Steelers have won eight games in a row, scoring at least 24 points in each contest. Everyone knows about the star triplets on offense, but most fans would be surprised to see Pittsburgh's 11th-ranked defense is three spots ahead of the Chiefs in DVOA. In terms of weighted defense, Pittsburgh's edge is even greater, ranking seventh while the Chiefs are still just 14th.
Kansas City may not play the most exciting brand of football, but this team has won 23 of its last 28 games, and tied Oakland for the best turnover differential (plus-16) in 2016. The Chiefs' resume includes impressive sweeps of the Raiders and Broncos, a 30-14 shutdown of Andrew Luck's offense in Indianapolis, and a 29-28 win in Atlanta after Eric Berry's historic pick-two return on a late two-point conversion. When a team can crack Denver's great defense twice and outscore the prolific Falcons on the road, that team might just be ready to beat anyone this season.
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However, the elephant in the room is that miserable 43-14 loss in Pittsburgh that the Chiefs suffered back in Week 4 on Sunday Night Football. Granted, the Chiefs were in a tough spot given how poorly Pittsburgh had played the week before in a 34-3 loss at Philadelphia. You just knew Mike Tomlin would cheer the Steelers on to bounce back at home, but no one saw a 36-0 lead shortly after halftime coming. Pittsburgh's 99.4% DVOA in that game was its best of the season, and the offense (62.8%) also had its top game of the year. Ben Roethlisberger was incredible with 300 yards and five touchdown passes, and Le'Veon Bell returned from his suspension in a big way with 178 yards on 23 touches. The Chiefs will hope to flip the script with a change of venue in the rematch, much like how the Steelers took revenge on Miami a week ago.
We know that the first regular-season game, especially one from Week 4, has little bearing on what will happen this week. Just look at the Cardinals and Packers last season. Arizona waxed Green Bay 38-8 in Week 16, but just a few weeks later in the divisional round, the teams played an instant classic 26-20 overtime finish with Arizona barely prevailing again. Big turnarounds happen all the time in the NFL, especially when well-coached teams are involved.
One of the top stories in this matchup is Andy Reid's 19-2 (.905) record following a bye week in his career. It appears this oft-quoted stat does not include his loss with Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX, since both teams had an extra week to prepare. The 19-2 record sounds great, but is there something more at play here other than "boy, you better not give Big Red an extra week to prepare?"
I can already hear the Green Bay fans shrieking about fourth-and-26, but let's look at a few more things here. For starters, 14 of the 21 games were played at home, and Reid's record was 13-1 in those games. This is actually the first time with the Chiefs that Reid will have a home game following a bye. Reid's teams were also at least 3-point favorites in 14 of the 21 games. During Reid's career (since 1999), teams win just over 53 percent of their games after a bye week, but that jumps to 74 percent for winning teams, and when a winning team is playing at home after a bye, they win 77 percent of the time. Reid's very first game after a bye was the 1999 finale against a dominant St. Louis team that went on to win the Super Bowl, but rested key starters down the stretch in a 38-31 win for the Eagles. So while Reid has done some impressive work after the bye, a lot of the record is built from the fact that his teams are typically successful, and often played at home against teams they were expected to beat in the first place.
Pittsburgh could be Reid's toughest post-bye challenge yet, in what is quietly one of the biggest games of his career. If Houston does the unthinkable on Saturday night and takes down New England, then this game will take on near-Super Bowl importance.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
In the previous three seasons, the Chiefs were the vanilla ice cream of NFL offenses. We expected to see a reliance on the running game, and an abundance of short passes and safe choices to keep turnovers low (and field goal attempts high). Sure, Jamaal Charles occasionally made spectacular plays and Alex Smith would try his hand at the option, but it has never been an aerial circus like so many of the best offenses are today.
But are the Chiefs not quite who we thought they were on offense this season? The offense ran the ball on 41.6 percent of its plays this season, or only the 13th-highest rate in the league. The running game also fell to 20th in DVOA after doing so well without Charles for much of 2015. Charles carried the ball just 12 times in a brief 2016 campaign that was shut down by injury. Spencer Ware has been solid at times with the seventh-highest rushing success rate in the league, but he's just 22nd in rushing DYAR and DVOA, not making quite enough of those spectacular gains that Charles so routinely produced to average more than 5.0 yards per carry every season. Ware's longest run of the season was actually a 46-yard burst against Pittsburgh, albeit when the team was down 43-7 with minutes to play. Ware is at least second among running backs in receiving DVOA and could give the Steelers, ranked 19th against receiving backs, some issues there on checkdowns and screens.
Smith is still one of the league's short-passing mavens, as only Sam Bradford (6.44) averaged fewer air yards per attempt than Smith's 6.75. Smith gets the ball out as quickly as anyone, and that has helped an unheralded offensive line to the fifth-lowest pressure rate (subscription required), according to SIS charting. It's just that those passes rarely travel far downfield, and Smith only threw 15 touchdown passes in 15 games this season. Still, Smith finished just one spot behind Ben Roethlisberger in the 2016 rankings for passing DVOA and ESPN's QBR, so the quarterback gap here may be smaller than fans expect.
When it comes to third-down ALEX, the stat's poster boy actually had his first positive season (plus-0.4) since 2007, and it was the first time he did not rank 30th or lower. Sure, he still ranked 24th, but he was 11th through Week 10 before settling back into some old habits. One could still argue that Smith has been a little more aggressive this season, and it has not always paid off. Smith threw his most interceptions in a season since 2010. Yeah, it was only eight picks, but he has tossed one interception in six of his last eight games, including two huge red zone picks in tight home losses to the Buccaneers and Titans, both by a final score of 19-17. Smith has also lost four of his seven fumbles this year, his most since 2007. Pittsburgh has two games with more than two takeaways this season, and they happen to be the last two weeks, including three takeaways from Miami's Matt Moore in the playoffs.
Smith is not likely to attack the Steelers where they are the weakest: defending No. 1 wide receivers (32nd in DVOA). Typically, top options go crazy against Pittsburgh, but the secondary receivers are held in check for the most part. As we mentioned last week, all three of Pittsburgh's top cornerbacks have a success rate of 51 to 52 percent, which ranks them 44th to 51st according to SIS charting (subscription required). Unfortunately, Jeremy Maclin has been an afterthought in this offense as of late, though his five catches for 78 yards in Pittsburgh marked one of his best 2016 efforts. Maclin has missed four games this season due to injury, but he averages just 44.7 receiving yards per game after averaging 72.5 in 2015. Maclin is questionable to play with an ankle injury this week.
The real top option in Kansas City is now All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce. Since Week 8, Kelce has six games with 100-plus receiving yards. The Steelers held him to 23 yards in Week 4, including a garbage-time touchdown with four seconds left, but Kelce has gone from 5.9 targets per game thru Week 7 to 8.2 targets per game since Week 8. Kelce is the closest thing the league has to Rob Gronkowski right now, with the Patriots tight end sidelined. He should be a huge factor in this game, though the Steelers will have Ryan Shazier, who did not play in the Week 4 game, on the field,. That is still a very tough matchup for the Steelers. Pittsburgh has also since made a switch at safety to rookie Sean Davis, though he could be hampered by a shoulder injury this week.
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The other huge change from Week 4 is the emergence of rookie Tyreek Hill, who I have dubbed as "Good at Football, Bad at Life" for obvious reasons. Hill scored a receiving touchdown in Week 4, but was largely a return specialist at that time. He is a fantastic return specialist, an All-Pro even, but we have seen him blossom on offense as well. Hill's first three runs this season lost yardage, but he has since broken runs of 68 and 70 yards. His last 21 runs have gained 273 yards and three touchdowns, and he can be a major threat on an end-around or gadget play that the Chiefs have had plenty of time to cook up here. Hill is also the second-leading receiver on the team after Kelce, and has shown some adequate skills in that department. While 35 percent of Hill's targets are thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage, he has caught five of the 10 "bombs" (passes thrown more than 25 yards beyond the line of scrimmage) thrown his way this season. Hill has only gained more than 20 yards after catch on one of his receptions this season, but the Steelers must be sound in tackling him in space this week, and the same applies to Kelce obviously. Those are the two players likely to do the majority of damage for this offense.
We mentioned before that Ware struggled to break the longer plays. Kansas City's offensive line ranks 27th in second-level yards and 22nd in open-field yards. While a talented back like Charles could turn a good hole into a huge gain, that's just not part of the Chiefs' conventional rushing attack this season. The offensive line has had solid continuity with five players making at least 12 starts, including nearly 100 percent participation this season from Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz, and Mitch Morse. Kansas City's best rushing success has come off the two ends, while Pittsburgh's weakness has been at left end (29th in adjusted line yards). This is where the loss of Cameron Heyward hurts, but the Chiefs are not likely to run with a high success rate on the Steelers.
Kansas City has relied on explosive plays at times this year since the red zone has not been kind to this offense. The Chiefs are 30th in points per red zone appearance, and the Steelers have been pretty strong in that area, ranked fourth in DVOA and second in points per red zone appearance. Pittsburgh is one of seven defenses to allow at least five touchdown plays of 50-plus yards this season.
The higher-scoring Chiefs of 2016 have been able to combat the higher-scoring games better under Smith. In his first 11 seasons, Smith's teams were 3-29 (.094) when allowing 27-plus points. In 2016, the Chiefs are 4-1 when allowing at least 27 points, the only loss of course being the 43-13 blowout in Pittsburgh.
The Chiefs must be able to sustain drives to keep Pittsburgh's offense on the sideline. Kansas City has the 10th-lowest rate of three-and-out drives, but is still 24th in punts per drive (.444). Despite some expected struggles in third-and-long situations (ranked 24th, though the Pittsburgh defense is 26th), the Chiefs overall are a solid third-down offense, ranked 11th in DVOA.
Kansas City was outgained by more than 400 yards this season -- the 29th playoff team since the merger to do so. Among the 28 previous teams, only two (1983 Seahawks and 2001 Patriots) reached the conference championship game. However, the Chiefs are only the second team in that group to win at least 12 games. The "hidden yards" associated with a league-high eight return touchdowns help a lot here, but it is never wise to rely on non-offensive scoring.
This matchup comes down to Smith avoiding sacks and getting the ball to his playmakers for yards after the catch. There were plenty of open receivers for Miami last week against this defense, but turnovers were a killer. The Chiefs can relate, as a Ware fumble and Smith interception led to a quick 15-0 hole in Pittsburgh in Week 4. Pittsburgh led 22-0 on drives that covered a grand total of 76 yards. The Chiefs basically gave themselves no shot that night. A much better start should set this up to be a tough, 60-minute game this time.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Wasn't it just a year ago that we were talking about a Ben Roethlisberger injury heading into a divisional round game at Denver? He had an AC joint sprain, but still played that day, and looked fine for the most part. This year, Roethlisberger aggravated an old foot injury late in the game against Miami and was in a walking boot on Sunday for precautions. He missed practice on Wednesday, but returned on Thursday. His mobility in the pocket will be something to watch, but I wouldn't expect this to be a significant injury that hampers his performance, like a high-ankle sprain did to end his 2011 season. When he tried to play with that injury, he also lost a Week 15 game to Alex Smith's 49ers by a final of 20-3. Simply put, Roethlisberger usually does not play well when injured, but we are going to assume that he is healthy enough for this matchup.
We'll get back to Roethlisberger soon, but the main matchup here could be Le'Veon Bell against the 26th-ranked run defense that has lost Allen Bailey, Jaye Howard, and Derrick Johnson to injured reserve throughout the year. The Chiefs have allowed 100 rushing yards 12 times this season, and Carolina rushed for 99 yards in Week 10, while the Texans had 100 yards in Week 2 before Brock Osweiler took two kneeldowns to end the game. Bell is the first player to ever average more than 100 rushing yards per game and 50 receiving yards per game in the same season, and you can count on him getting his touches in this one. Since Week 11, he has been at over 30 touches per game, and why not when it's so fun to watch him pick his spots to accelerate ahead for good gain after good gain? The Chiefs ranking 30th in adjusted line yards and 30th in second-level yards (yards earned 5 to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage) are bad news against the patient Bell.
With tight end Ladarius Green likely still out due to a concussion, this is going to be a game where the Steelers rely on their studs. Eli Rogers is a good slot receiver, but the Chiefs have been strong against secondary wideouts this year. It's actually against No. 1 wide receivers where the Chiefs only rank 19th, and Antonio Brown is likely going to play a huge role in this game. He scored two touchdowns in Week 4, though neither came with Marcus Peters in coverage. It's a matchup Brown won't fear, and he did have a 124-yard receiving game at Arrowhead last year in a game with Landry Jones at quarterback. Peters is exceptional at creating turnovers, but according to SIS charting (subscription required), he only ranked 65th in yards per pass and 38th in success rate this season. That still beats the success rates for Steven Nelson (52nd) and Phillip Gaines (76th). Roethlisberger will not be afraid to test Peters, but must be careful to avoid a pick-six or game-changing turnover.
This matchup really is about turnovers, and particularly the interceptions from Roethlisberger, who has thrown seven of them in his last four games. Last week, Roethlisberger was barely even tested against Miami. He threw for 162 yards in the game's first eight minutes, which was mostly YAC from Brown on two long touchdowns, and then passed for just 35 yards the rest of the game, never completing a pass thrown more than 10 yards down the field. He still tossed two picks, one coming off a deflection, but that was after a pass in which Roethlisberger should have been picked, only to see the defender drop the ball. That has been a problem this season, as Roethlisberger had 13 dropped interceptions to lead the league, according to SIS charting. The Steelers have really minimized fumbles well this year (fewest per drive), but it's the interceptions that could be a problem. The Chiefs led the league with 33 takeaways too, though that is inflated by the eight turnovers the Jets had, including six Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions, in Week 3. Still, this is quite the talented defense, and we saw All-Pro safety Eric Berry steal games from Carolina and Atlanta with huge interception returns.
Roethlisberger and Smith actually both had career-low seasons in sack rate in 2016, though the 2016 NFL season also featured the lowest sack rate (5.8 percent) in NFL history. Roethlisberger is very different from Smith when it comes to aggressively attacking defenses, though he'll need to be more balanced in his approach with this defense. On the season, no team used play-action passing less often than Pittsburgh (14 percent), though when Roethlisberger used play-action, he went for the big plays, averaging 13.5 air yards per attempt (second highest in 2016). Conversely, Smith's average play-action pass traveled a league-low 6.5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. On third downs, Roethlisberger led the league in ALEX (plus-4.0) for the third time since 2011. Quarterbacks attacked Kansas City on third down all season, and had success as the Chiefs allowed the sixth-highest conversion rate on third-down passes. Part of this is the lack of pressure generated by the pass rush this year, as the Chiefs rank 26th in pressure rate, according to SIS charting (subscription required).
Roethlisberger does not need to be pressured to turn the ball over, but it certainly helps to make him force things, like he did on both picks against Miami. Defenses have blitzed Roethlisberger less often than any other quarterback in 2016, but you shouldn't have to blitz if you can get a player like Justin Houston after him. The fact that Houston has only played in five games this season has no doubt hurt the defensive stats for Kansas City. Houston was a one-man show with three sacks against Denver in Week 12. Houston's knee has been an issue, but he is expected to play on Sunday and could be a big boost to the pass rush that will have to make Roethlisberger uncomfortable.
The crowd noise can also help make Roethlisberger uncomfortable in running the offense, which likes to go no-huddle, something that is not always as easy to do on the road. In fact, that might be one of the best theories for why this "Road Ben" phenomenon exists. This season, in seven home games Roethlisberger has tossed 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions, compared to nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight road games. Since the Steelers drafted Bell in 2013, this home-road split for Todd Haley's offense has rarely been that evident, but in 2016, the Steelers did finish third in home DVOA (22.0%) compared to 15th on the road (-0.5%). Some of this is due to injuries or suspension to Roethlisberger and Bell, but the numbers are more pronounced when you look at Roethlisberger's home-road splits since 2013.
|Ben Roethlisberger: Home vs. Road Splits, 2013-2016 (Playoffs Included)|
For a future Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime, you expect a bit more on the road here. The obvious difference is when it comes to throwing touchdowns, as the rates of sacks and interceptions are fairly even, but the touchdowns are more than twice as frequent at home. If we look at the period of 2007-2012, Roethlisberger's home touchdown rat was 5.2 percent compared to 4.8 percent on the road, so much closer. When you throw six touchdowns in back-to-back home games like Roethlisberger did in 2014, that will help put a gap in the splits.
Does any of this mean that Roethlisberger will not play a stellar game in Kansas City this week? Of course not, but when the Steelers head out on the road, expectations need to be held in check on how efficient this offense will perform in a hostile environment.
Long-time fans of these teams know how important special teams can be in a tight playoff game. The Chiefs have lost their last four home playoff games, but the last win came against Pittsburgh in the 1993 AFC wild-card round. Pittsburgh led 24-17 late, but a blocked punt set up Joe Montana just 9 yards short of the end zone to force overtime, which he of course did before the Chiefs went on to win 27-24.
If you expect this game to be that close, then a big play on special teams might be the deciding factor, and Kansas City has a considerable edge there with the No. 2 unit in the league. All-Pro punt returner Tyreek Hill is the strength of this unit with two punt return touchdowns this year, and punt coverage just so happens to be the weakness in Pittsburgh's mediocre special teams. As we have already mentioned, containing Hill is high on the priority list for a successful Pittsburgh performance. While Antonio Brown is so much farther along as a wide receiver than Hill, he's just not nearly as much of a threat on punt returns as the rookie. Like Miami a week ago, Kansas City was one of three teams (Minnesota the other) to have at least one touchdown on a punt return and a kick return in 2016.
Pittsburgh's Chris Boswell has been a better kicker than Kansas City's Cairo Santos, who has missed five extra points over the last two seasons. We mentioned last week that the Steelers were one of five teams to not miss an extra point in 2016, but Boswell did miss one against Miami in the wild-card win. Of course, you never know when Mike Tomlin will opt to go for two, like he did to start the scoring in the Week 4 win over the Chiefs. With a weather forecast calling for sub-40-degree temperatures and freezing rain, do not discount the impact of special teams on this game.
Pittsburgh opened up as a slight road favorite, but the line has since swung to the home team at about 1.5 points. This makes sense given the Steelers' popularity with the general betting public and the news that broke about Roethlisberger being in a walking boot on Sunday. While Roethlisberger's performance under pressure is a crucial element to this game, the Steelers' best bet is to lean on Bell against a shoddy run defense that will especially miss linebacker Derrick Johnson in this one.
However, the mixture of Pittsburgh's road sloppiness, the Chiefs' typical turnover mastery, the boost from the non-offensive scoring potential, and Reid's extra time to prepare for an opponent all points to a tight Kansas City win. There are simply more paths to victory for the Chiefs than for a Pittsburgh team that will rely upon its star offensive players to be special again. In the postseason, sometimes it is better to just be safe than to try to do too much, and an aggressive Pittsburgh offense might be in for a rude awakening against a talented, ball-hawking defense.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.