The Steelers and Chiefs will face off on Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET in an AFC divisional matchup, and barring a miracle the likes of which it's hard to imagine, the winner will almost certainly face the Patriots in Foxborough for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
If we're looking to history to offer some guidance on how this matchup might play out, we only need to go back some three months ago, when the Steelers hosted Kansas City in Week 4. Both teams entered the game 2-1 and Vegas had the Steelers favored by three points. The Chiefs covered for approximately seven-and-a-half minutes. Pittsburgh led 22-0 by the end of the first quarter, 29-0 by halftime and when the final whistle mercifully sounded, Ben Roethlisberger had thrown five touchdowns and the Steelers had cruised to a 43-14 win.
One reason the spread was so close? The week before, the Eagles, with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, dismantled the Steelers. The Eagles run virtually the same offense as the Chiefs, and if Wentz could make it look easy, certainly Alex Smith would do the same.
But after three weeks of watching the Steelers rush three and four players -- and managing just one sack in those first three games -- defensive coordinator Kevin Butler cut the dogs loose against the Chiefs. It was an interesting decision because Andy Reid's offense is a lot like Doug Pederson's in that the idea is to get the ball out of the quarterback's hand as quickly as possible. More than that, both offenses are adept at screens, which the Eagles made abundantly clear in Week 3.
By the time it was over, Smith had been sacked four times, hurried and hit on countless other occasions, and the Chiefs had two costly first-half turnovers that resulted directly and immediately in Steelers points. (There was a stretch where Roethlisberger tossed three touchdowns on three consecutive completions.) That vaunted screen game? Never a factor.
Of course, Smith had very little to do with the outcome; the Chiefs' defense was manhandled, particularly the secondary, specifically rookie D.J. White, who was playing because of an injury to Phillip Gaines. This play from early in the third quarter serves as a microcosm of the evening for the Chiefs' defense:
This time around, the Chiefs, who earned a first-round bye and at least one home game, are favored by three points. We imagine the point spread is where the similarities end in this rematch. Both teams barely resemble their October selves; the Steelers would get to 4-1 before dropping four straight games to fall below .500 heading into Week 11. The Chiefs, meanwhile, bounced back from the loss to reel off five straight and win 10 of 12.
"This team understands how far we've come from that game,'' Smith said this week, via ESPN.com. "For us, we're certainly not the same team and every week is different. You got to put in the work and, obviously, every Sunday is different. I think that we enjoy that challenge.''
Reid added: "You never come out having played the perfect game by any means, so there's always something to learn. There's always more work to do, but I will tell you that in the Pittsburgh game they got after us as well as anyone did. You take what you take from it and move on."
And move on the Chiefs did. Smith continues to be a good fit for Reid's scheme, one that developed into a top-10 passing offense with the emergence of the dynamic Tyreek Hill to go along with Travis Kelce. And even if the "Nobody wants to face the Chiefs in Arrowhead!" argument is more myth than reality at this point -- Kansas City has lost its past four postseason home games -- there are plenty of reasons to think the Chiefs can take care of business against the Steelers and their high-powered offense.
1. Ben Roethlisberger hasn't been great on the road
Let's start with the home-and-away splits:
- Heinz Field: 70.8 completion percentage, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions, 116.7 passer rating
- Away from Heinz Field: 59.4 completion percentage, nine TDs, eight INTs, 78.4 passer rating
On the surface, Roethlisberger's road numbers aren't all that different than Brock Osweiler's; the Texans' quarterback finished the regular season completing 59 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 72.2 passer rating. This isn't to say that Big Ben morphs into Osweiler 2.0 once he leaves the Pittsburgh city limits, but he hasn't regularly resembled the Hall of Fame quarterback we see at Heinz Field.
And while the Chiefs' defense was blown off the field minutes into the Week 4 matchup, their pass defense currently ranks seventh, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. They're less effective against the run (OK, way less effective -- 26th), which is a problem when Le'Veon Bell is in the backfield, but if the Chiefs can force Big Ben into mistakes early and capitalize on those mistakes, they can also mitigate Bell's effectiveness. Which brings us to point No. 2...
2. Stopping Le'Veon Bell could stop the Steelers
Antonio Brown can change a game in less time than it takes to pull off the twerk-tastic touchdown celebration. Le'Veon Bell, on the other hand, is more methodical in his approach. Both are troublesome for opponents, and given the quick-strike nature of Brown's game, it seems reasonable that defenses should focus on him first, and worry about everything else later.
But Bell is the engine that drives this ridiculously talented Steelers offense. Yes, they thrived with 34-year-old DeAngelo Williams for the first three weeks of the season, but Bell is redefining the position. His patience at the line of scrimmage, his quickness through the hole, his ability to juke guys out of their jocks at the second level, not to mention his pass-catching skills -- he's legitimately a once-in-a-generation-type running back. Think Marshall Faulk but bigger.
When these teams met in Week 4, it was Bell's first game after a three-game suspension. He started slow but when it was over, the stat line was pretty much what we've come to expect on a weekly basis: 18 carries for 144 yards, five receptions for 34 yards.
The takeaway: Stop Bell, force Roethlisberger -- who we already know isn't the same on the road as he is at home -- to win the game through the air, and let a defense that features Eric Berry, Marcus Peters, Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe, Chris Jones and Justin Houston force Big Ben into mistakes.
Easier said than done, we know. But stopping Bell is the Chiefs' best chance to slow down the Steelers' offense.
3. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce can change a game
This seems like it should go without saying but Kelce was targeted just eight times in the Week 4 matchup, and ended the night with five catches for 23 yards. That can't happen on Sunday. And Hill, who is now a bona-fide threat to score every time he touches the ball, was still finding his place on the team in October. He had five catches for 24 yards in that game, but he also had a punt return for a touchdown that was called back because of penalty.
But we've learned in the weeks and months since that "Hill takes the return to the house!" has become a staple of his game, and something the Steelers are going to have to contend with.
TYREEK HILL.— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) January 1, 2017
It should come as no surprise that the Chiefs are the league's best punt-return unit, while the Steelers' punt-coverage team isn't even replacement level.
And while the Steelers' young defense has made great strides since early in the season, they're still vulnerable in the passing game. In fact, they're the league's worst when it comes to defending the opponent's No. 1 receiver and 13th against tight ends.
"He's a guy that has so many tools for a tight end," Smith said recently of Kelce. "We do a ton with him and he's capable of it. He's handled it mentally and physically. Kelce is a guy that, regardless of who covers him, he seems to separate. Really good cover corners, nickels, linebackers and safeties, he's gone against all of them and he's shown he can win. He's got that kind of ability. Sometimes as quarterbacks, we make too much of that. He's a guy that regardless of who's covering him in one-on-one, he wins."
Put another way: We won't be surprised if the Chiefs win. That said, conventional wisdom likes the Steelers, and seven of eight CBSSports.com experts think Pittsburgh will get the victory on Sunday.