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Steelers-Chiefs playoff preview: It’s not who you play, it’s when you play them

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

September 12, 1993: The Chiefs hosted a Week 2 game against the Houston Oilers. The Chiefs were without their future Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana so Dave Kreig started in Montana’s place.

With high hopes for the start of the season, the Chiefs turned the ball over five times and were completely blown out to the tune of 30-0. The Chiefs moved to 1-1 on the season.

In the grand scheme of things, no one really remembers this game.

Fast forward to January 16, 1994. The Chiefs traveled to Houston for a Divisional playoff game. The talking heads were saying the Oilers defense would be too much for the Chiefs offense to handle, especially their young offensive line. The Chiefs had other plans though as Montana helped guide the Chiefs to a 28-20 victory. The Chiefs won the turnover battle and went on to play in the AFC Championship game.

I am sure you remember that quite well, especially the moment Keith Cash spiked the ball into Buddy Ryan’s face.

Often times in the NFL it’s not about who you play, but when you play them.

It’s October 2, 2016 and the Chiefs are traveling to play the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers had just come off a lopsided loss to their in-state rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. The Chiefs were without their best defensive player in Justin Houston. The Chiefs lost the turnover battle and were absolutely humiliated in a game the Steelers called “Redemption Sunday.” Ben Roethlisberger had an unholy quarterback rating of 152.5 and when the clock hit 00:00 the final score was 43-14 Steelers.

The Steelers would have beaten the ‘72 Dolphins in that game (well, at least the 2016 equivalent of the ‘72 Dolphins.) It was a bad week for the Chiefs to travel to Pittsburgh.

Now it’s time for the rematch between the Steelers and Chiefs in a divisional round playoff game. Once again the talking heads are saying the Chiefs will have problems.

With all the hyperbole leading into this game I was curious about how NFL teams have fared in playoff games when facing a team who crushed them earlier during the regular season.

So I did some research...

Some Quick Stats

The data I collected is between the 1990 to 2015 seasons. I decided to track all of the teams who lost by 21 or more points and eventually faced that same team in the playoffs. I tracked wins and losses, turnovers, and quarterback ratings. All in all there were 31 such games from 1990 to 2015.

From 1990 to 2015, in 31 playoff games, the team who won by 21 points or more during the regular season won 17 of 31 times in the playoffs, which means teams in the Chiefs situation have won 45 percent of the time.

This is more specific but stick with me. Since 1990, teams who were been beaten badly on the road during the regular season, but hosted the playoff game are 7-2. Six of these wins were from the early 90s, different era and all that.

In this data set, the team who won the turnover margin won the game 28 times out of 31. Turnovers are always extremely important in the playoffs, but this is a massive difference in winning and losing percentages.

The Turnover Battle Favors the Chiefs

The Chiefs finished the regular season No. 1 in the NFL in turnover margin. The Steelers finished the season ranked ninth. This stat alone gives an advantage to the Chiefs.

In 30 home games with the Chiefs, Alex Smith has thrown 21 interceptions. That’s a rate of 0.7 interceptions per game. On the other hand, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 29 interceptions in 30 road games since the start of the 2013 season. That’s a rate of almost one interception per game.

If turnovers are the most important factor in winning a playoff game, the advantage absolutely has to go to the Chiefs.

What About QB Play?

There was one thought in my mind about the Steelers game that I have really clinged to:

Ben Roethlisberger blew up against the Chiefs, he won’t do that again. The Chiefs lost not only because of the turnovers but because Roethlisberger played so well.

For the Steelers to win by that many points, something had to go very, very right. Maybe the quarterbacks in our data set play lights out but eventually lose in their next playoff matchup because part of their victory was due to a statistical anomaly.

Unfortunately, this thought was not true. Teams who had a QB with a quarterback rating higher than 120 were 6-3 in their next playoff matchup against the same team. This is an advantage for the Steelers. Good quarterbacks stay good.

Since 2013, Ben Roethlisberger has an 86.5 quarterback rating on the road. During that same time span Alex Smith has a 91.3 quarterback rating at home. Once again this is a slight advantage for the Chiefs.

Either way, the Chiefs will need Alex Smith to be more efficient than Big Ben if they want to have their best shot at winning. A lot of people would look at this and cower in their boots, but the numbers over the last three years are on Alex Smith’s side.

Narratives Be Damned

I keep hearing over and over again how great the Steelers defense has played over the final seven games of the season. Is that really true? Or is it just group think?

The Steelers last seven games were at Browns, at Colts, Giants, at Bills, at Bengals, Ravens, Browns. Anyone notice that five of these teams are 20th or worse in points per game in the NFL?

Now I will give credit to the Steelers because they allowed 17.3 points per game against this schedule and if they had been average they would have allowed 20.6 points. The Steelers defense has been above average down the stretch against some really bad offensive units, but they certainly haven’t been great.

The Steelers final seven opponents have a combined record of 42-69-1. Contrast this with the Chiefs whose final seven opponents who had a combined record of 64-31. In the final seven games of the season the Steelers played one team with a winning record and the Chiefs played six.

Any talk about the Steelers playing great down the stretch is partly a factor of their schedule. I would argue the Steelers defense isn’t quite surging down the stretch, but they have indeed played above average.

The Puzzle Pieces

In the 1993 matchup between the Oilers and the Chiefs, the biggest puzzle piece missing was Joe Montana. With Montana playing, the game went in a completely different direction.

The missing puzzle pieces are not quite as clear in 2016, but there are many to be found if you look hard enough.

Chiefs Missing Pieces in Week 4:

  • The big and obvious piece is Justin Houston
  • A seasoned Tyreek Hill
  • Ramik Wilson
  • Chris Jones wasn’t getting many defensive snaps
  • Offensive line continuity

The Chiefs have come a long way since their Week 4 matchup against the Steelers. Ramik Wilson has emerged as a solid ILB. Chris Jones only played 44 percent of the defensive snaps in that game. Tyreek Hill was still a gadget player.

Maybe the least appreciated item from the list above is the offensive line’s growth as the season has progressed. Alex Smith took a career low 28 sacks over the course of the entire season. The offensive line has gelled nicely.

People may not remember, but the game against the Steelers was LDT’s first game back from an injury. It was also the Chiefs first game with the combination of Fisher-Fulton-Morse-LDT-Schwartz. This combination stayed together through the rest of 2016 and has turned into a solid offensive line.

The Chiefs team from Week 4 is very different from the Chiefs team now.

It’s not who you play, but when you play them.

The Bye

Everyone has beaten the whole Andy Reid coming off a bye story to a bloody pulp. But the fact still remains, the Chiefs are coming off the bye and Andy Reid has been absolutely phenomenal in both the regular season and post season when his teams are allowed a week of rest.

Reid is 3-0 in divisional playoff games when his team gets a bye. In fact, the only times Reid has lost after coming off of a bye have been against teams who finished the season with 13-3 records. The Steelers finished the season 11-5. The extra week of preparation with this veteran coaching staff means the Chiefs will be highly prepared for this game.

The Chiefs go from playing a pissed off Steelers team who went as far to name the game “Redemption Sunday”, to playing a game they should be be more prepared than any during Andy Reid’s coaching career in Kansas City.

It’s Almost Poetic

In the 1993 regular season game against Houston the Chiefs were without their best offensive player and were completely futile on offense while being unable to score a single point.

Joe Montana returned for the playoff game against the Oilers and the Chiefs scored 28 points against one of the best defenses in the NFL as the Chiefs rode valiantly onward to the AFC Championship game.

In the 2016 regular season game against the Steelers the Chiefs were without their best defensive player and were completely futile on defense while allowing 43 points.

It would only seem right if Justin Houston returns and helps hold one of the best offenses in the NFL to a low score all the while sending the Chiefs to the AFC Championship game.

Remember in the NFL it’s not always who you play, but when you play them. And I like the Chiefs chances in this game.