Two of the games in the Divisional round — Steelers at Chiefs and Seahawks at Falcons — will be excellent. They’re rematches of earlier contests. The first two matchups I previewed involve teams, the Patriots and Packers, that will look drastically different heading in their rematches. These two games, each team knows exactly how the other will operate. There will be no confusion, no extra game planning to prepare for the unknown.
Can the Falcons wear down the Seahawks?
Let’s head down south to preview the Seattle Seahawks visiting the Atlanta Falcons in a matchup that pits Atlanta’s No. 1 offense vs Seattle’s third-ranked defense.
Seattle has been atrocious on the road, minus a win in New England. In their four losses and a tie on the road, Seattle has scored — 3, 6, 20, 5, and 10 points. That’s not getting it done in Atlanta. This is indicative of poor offensive line play.
By most metrics, and my own eyes, Seattle’s offense line hasn’t been good. Poor offensive line play is magnified on the road when it’s loud. It’s hostile and things might not go as planned.
Seattle has no answer on the offensive line for Atlanta’s Vic Beasley. (You can read up on him with this piece by Stephen White). He’s a terror. When you can’t run the ball, you can’t eat up clock. That will give Atlanta a few more opportunities to put points on the board.
Russell Wilson has been beat up this season too, and while he has plenty of big playoff wins, he’s yet to win on the road in the Divisional round (0-2). His numbers on the road this season are not even close to his home numbers. Completion percentage is down, and his passer rating is 25 points worse on the road. He’s throw eight touchdowns and eight interceptions on the road compared to 15-3 at home.
It won’t be easy for the Falcons to start, but over the course of the game, they will wear down the Seahawks. I wrote extensively about the Falcons a few weeks ago, and nothing has changed. They will run outside zone, play actions, naked/boots, quick screens and some special plays. I’d expect them at times to go uptempo to get an edge.
Seattle’s defense is tough, no doubt. However, they are different without Earl Thomas patrolling the middle of the field. They haven’t forced an interception in five games. Thomas’ absence has also hurts the coverage of Richard Sherman. Since Thomas has been out, the passer rating against Sherman has gone up 20 points. All of Seattle’s defensive backs will have their hands full with the Falcons’ weapons.
The easiest way to disrupt the flow of Matt Ryan will be getting in his face with pressure. Seattle’s Cliff Arvil and Frank Clark have combined for 21.5 sacks, second in the NFL for a pass rushing duo. The Seahawks’ defensive game wrecker is Michael Bennett. He’s exceptional. He will line up all over the place and disrupt all facets of an offensive game. The Falcons will need to locate him every play and have a plan on stopping him, or at least slowing him down.
Prediction: I think as this game goes on, the Falcons will wear out the Seahawks and win big!
The Chiefs can win if they can limit Le’Veon Bell
Now let’s turn to the Pittsburgh at Kansas City game. It’s a rematch of a Week 4 contest where the Steelers demolished the Chiefs, 43-14, in Pittsburgh, and it wasn’t even that close. Pittsburgh dominated in every aspect of the game, going up, 36-0, in the third before the Chiefs finally scored a point.
Every team in the NFL, and of course there are exceptions, has, for lack of a better term, a bullshitting game. They just don’t come to play, in all phases. You can have games where one unit plays well, and another doesn’t. That’s not one of these types of games. If you’re an above-average team, you only have one of those a season.
The last playoff team I was on, the 2013 Chiefs, we had one in Week 16 at home to the Colts. Lost 23-7. We were bullshitting. We played them in the playoffs and lost, 45-44.
Both the Chiefs and Steelers have one of those games this season. The Steelers lost, 34-3, to the Eagles, and then the following week, the Chiefs had their bullshit game against the Steelers. That’s the only way to explain what happened in these games. No analytics, no breaking down the film.
This weekend, the game will be different. For starters, it’s the playoffs. The focus narrows, the speed of the game picks up. This game is being played in Kansas City, in front of the loud Arrowhead crowd. It’s after a Chiefs bye. Andy Reid is 19-2 after a bye (including 3-0 in the playoffs). That’s ridiculous!
That shows me that his staff knows how to game plan and teach. They know how to watch the film and when given the extra time, they can find ways to exploit the schemes of the opponent. I’ve said this on Twitter all the time: Reid has the best first 15 I’ve ever seen. The first 15 is a list of the first 15 plays of the game in normal down and distance. Third down, red zone, etc., aren’t covered on the lists. That’s why you often see the Chiefs start fast on offense.
The Steelers defense has played well during their eight-game win streak. They are allowing only 16.6 PPG, and are plus-6 in turnover margin, forcing a turnover in 11 straight games. They enter this game second in the NFL in sacks, led by 38-year old James Harrison. The Chiefs have tackles who can handle their pass rush, so Pittsburgh might bring some pressure to get into the face of Alex Smith. He gets rid of the ball the quicker then almost any quarterback in the league, and Smith’s underrated as a runner.
I also need to take this space to debunk some “game manager” myths. Smith has been excellent in playoff games. He ranks fourth among active QBs (minimum three playoff starts) in passer rating in playoff games. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns and one interception in his five playoff starts.
However, one recent trend from Smith that would concern me is his tendency to throw red zone interceptions down the stretch this season. Against the Steelers offense, losing points in the red zone could be a back breaker.
Another difference in this game, as opposed to the first matchup, is the emergence of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce as game changing players. Kelce was good to great, but now he’s a superstar. Hill can score at any time, and he’s the first player in NFL history with 3-plus receiving touchdowns, 3-plus rushing touchdowns, and 3-plus kickoff/punt return touchdowns in a single season.
Both these players have the potential for big plays, and it changes how you defend the Chiefs. The Chiefs are average at running the ball, so they rely on quick passes to the edge as replacement for runs. This is another spot where they have used Kelce and Hill. The Steelers will have to defend the entire width of the field.
This game comes down to the matchup of the Steelers offense vs. the Chiefs defense. The Steelers have absolute playmaking studs on offense with Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
The patience with which Bell runs is so impressive. I’d be ecstatic to block for him. He will always make the lineman look good.
And despite missing a combined five games this season, Bell and Brown led all teammate duos in scrimmage yards (3,177) and percent of team scrimmage yards (51.8). They are the offense. While the Chiefs are awful at stopping the run, which used to be a hallmark of their defense, Brown might have finally found his match in the Chiefs shut down corner Marcus Peters.
Marcus Peters ranks first in INT (14) and passes defensed (46) among all players in their first two seasons. Peters has faced seven of the top 10 wide receivers this season, and did not allow a touchdown in those games. The matchup against Brown will be one to watch. I’d expect the Steelers to ride Bell and their offensive line all game.
A couple more factors to consider in this matchup: Even though the Chiefs are at the bottom in many defensive stats, they are excellent in the red zone. This has helped them overcome some of those defensive issues. They have nine red zone takeaways and are in the top five in other red zone stats.
Lastly, the Chiefs have superb special teams, which always matters in close games.
Prediction: The Chiefs win a close game at home.