All four of this weekend’s Divisional Round games are rematches of non-divisional regular-season contests. The Seahawks edged the Falcons 26-24 in Week 6, the Patriots shut out the Texans 27-0 in Week 3, the Cowboys ripped the Packers 30-16 in Week 6 and the Steelers wrecked the Chiefs 43-14 in Pittsburgh in Week 4.
Much has stayed the same but an awful lot has changed for the Steelers and Chiefs since that meeting, mostly for the better. As they prepare to battle at Arrowhead on Sunday, here’s a look at what’s transpired and how they match up.
The Steelers nearly fell out of playoffs contention with four straight losses
After drubbing the Chiefs to improve their record to 3-1, the Steelers made it 4-1 with a win over the Jets, Ben Roethlisberger injured his left knee in a loss at Miami and required meniscus surgery. The Steelers lost that Dolphins game and four straight overall to drop below .500, seriously jeopardizing their chances at reaching the playoffs. Of course Big Ben used his superhuman healing powers and managed to return in only three weeks, though he was a bit rusty. The Steelers found their stride against (who else) the Browns in Week 11 and haven’t lost since.
Tyreek Hill got heavily involved in the offense
The blazing fast rookie began the season primarily as a return man but by midseason blossomed into a major offensive weapon, most often as a slot receiver on run-pass option plays. His snaps steadily increased until he saw the field for about two-thirds of Chiefs offensive plays by Week 8.
Between rushing, receiving and returning, Hill has accounted for 12 total touchdowns and a lot of frustrated defenders, including Von Miller -- who could only watch in Week 16 as Hill turned the corner and burst by him like The Road Runner. The Steelers didn’t see much of Hill in Week 4 and will have to keep him from finding open space.
Le’Veon Bell has been flat-out ridiculous
Bell only made his season debut in Week 4 against these Chiefs after serving a suspension and he’s having his best season yet on a per-game basis. In 12 games, the fourth-year running back has averaged 157 rushing and receiving yards per contest. The uber-patient rusher is also at peak confidence right now, likening himself to Steph Curry in terms of impact on the game. Comparisons aside, the Steelers finally have their Killer B’s together for the playoffs and so far, so good, notwithstanding Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin nearly causing the trio to unravel.
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Linebacker Derrick Johnson went down for the season
The Chiefs took a big blow in their Week 14 win over the Raiders when four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson ruptured his Achilles tendon, ending his season. Johnson was one of the team’s defensive leaders and also their best coverage linebacker -- not the guy a coach wants missing when facing a team with a dynamic running and receiving threat like Bell.
The Steelers defense has gotten tougher and a lot more confident
Like the Chiefs and pretty much every team in the league, the Steelers are missing a key player in defensive lineman Cameron Heyward (pectoral tear), but the D is getting solid play from a pair of rookies in the secondary: first-round defensive back Artie Burns and Sean Davis -- a converted defensive back now starting at strong safety.
Meanwhile, former first-round linebackers Bud Dupree and the impervious-to-cold Ryan Shazier have worked through injuries and come back strong. “We’re getting better each week. Guys are starting to feel the energy,” said Dupree, who has recorded 4.5 sacks since becoming a starter in Week 14. “I would love to say that [it’s because of me]. I hope that’s the case. I feel like we’re more confident. Everybody wants to be that person to make a play.”
The ageless James Harrison is still out there wreaking havoc, too, forcing a strip sack and crucial fumble against the Dolphins last week.
Travis Kelce found his Beast Mode
Not as a rusher or anything like that but after a good-but-not-great start to the season, the fourth-year tight end’s productivity exploded as he tallied six 100-plus yard receiving games in a nine-game stretch from Weeks 8 to 16. The 6-foot-5 Kelce went on to lead all tight ends in yardage with 1,125 yards and trailed Baltimore’s Dennis Pitta in receptions with 85. He’s one of the keys to the Chiefs offense and the Steelers did a pretty good job of containing him in Week 4 other than allowing him a garbage time (four seconds left in the game) four-yard touchdown catch.
The Chiefs are getting back key players on both sides of the ball
That would be rusher/linebacker Justin Houston on defense and leading rusher Spencer Ware. “Everybody that was banged up is good to go now” head coach Andy Reid said on Monday. “Justin [Houston] and [Spencer] Ware, they’ll be ready to go.”
Coming back from an ACL surgery, Houston didn’t make his season debut until Week 11 but immediately made an impact with four sacks in five games before a setback with the knee sidelined him for the end of the season. Meanwhile Ware, averaging 4.3 yards per carry this year, missed Week 17 with a rib injury.
The 12-4 Chiefs were actually outgained by their opponents this season to the tune of 408 yards of offense but that’s partly because they get so many darn takeaways (league-leading 33) and don’t turn the ball over much (17) for a differential of 16 that ties Oakland for the league lead. Last week, all four home teams won by double digits. We should be in for a much more exciting and closely contested slate of playoff games this time around.