An interesting aspect of this weeks AFC divisional round games is that they are both rematches of games played earlier this season. Last Word went back to those earlier games to see what could be learned heading into the NFL’s most exciting weekend.
AFC Divisional Round Rematches
Week 4 – Kansas City Chiefs (2-1) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) – Pittsburgh 43-14 victory
Kansas City was missing running back Charcandrick West and cornerback Phillip Gaines. Justin Houston had yet to play in the 2016 season, and running back Jamaal Charles was making his first start. For Pittsburgh, Le’Veon Bell was also making his first start of the season, while starting offensive guard Ramon Foster and linebacker Ryan Shazier were out.
This Sunday Night Football match-up was a wet one, with several periods of heavy rain that clearly impact the Chiefs ball handling – Kansas City killed themselves with early turnovers. After both teams had drives that stalled at mid-field to start the game, Kansas City had back-to-back turnovers in their own territory which Pittsburgh turned into touchdowns. The Chiefs started their next drive on their own two yard line and after a short punt they were down 22-0. Pittsburgh had no trouble converting their good field position into points because Ben Roethlisberger was protected and nearly every deep shot he was taking down field was working. Kansas City didn’t score until it was 36-0 for the Steelers – a complete domination.
What We Learned
Pittsburgh’s plan was to attack Kansas City with deep strikes any time they saw man coverage. After the first drive of the third quarter it was already 36-0, and to this point the Steelers had tried five 30+ yard deep bombs and completed four of them, resulting in three touchdowns. The early turnovers certainly put the Chiefs in a tough situation, but they never really slowed the Steelers down either.
Gaines being out certainly hurt the Chiefs as rookie D.J. White, starting in his place, was picked on. But Pittsburgh was not shy about going after Marcus Peters in coverage either. The issue was the Steelers offensive line dominating against the Chiefs rush. Roethlisberger had time to step up in the pocket and deliver down field; the two times the Chiefs were able to sack him it resulted in a punt shortly after. The lack of pressure showed up in the stat line too: Roethlisberger had only five incompletions all game.
The real story is that the Steelers out performed the Chiefs on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Steelers largely built their lead by passing but once they turned to the run in the second half they had plenty of success on the ground also (Bell had 144 yards and an eight yard per carry average). The Steelers defensive line also harassed Alex Smith enough to shut down any comeback attempt, finishing with five sacks.
What Has Changed
The Chiefs offense looked very low powered in this match-up, and when they fell behind they had no way to attack downfield and get back in the game. The good news is that their offense has totally changed since this game. Remember that going into this game in spite of a 2-1 record the Chiefs offense had really struggled. Outside of the big fourth quarter/overtime comeback against the San Diego Chargers in week one they had only two offensive touchdowns across the 11 other quarters they had played.
Tight end Travis Kelce was not a focal point of the game plan against Pittsburgh. This was about to change as Kelce would lead the team in receiving in seven of their next 12 games. Perhaps the bigger move was the change to feature more Tyreek Hill. Hill was the Chiefs most explosive player in this game but he was only a part of certain packages in their offense and was not often on the field, even on third down. He was clearly below receivers Chris Conley and Albert Wilson on the depth chart. Despite limited playing time, Hill managed five catches and a touchdown (he also had a punt return touchdown called back on a penalty). Without these players being featured the Chiefs had no explosive plays and too often resorted to quick screens and horizontal throws which were never going to get them back in the game.
The other big changes are on the defensive side of the ball. The Chiefs sack-master Justin Houston is expected to play this weekend, his presence will be crucial for slowing down Roethlisberger. However, linebacker Derrick Johnson, who is a key run defender for the Chiefs is out, and this could be crippling when facing Bell. Meanwhile Steelers defensive ace Cameron Heyward, who dominated this game with three sacks and a tipped pass resulting in an interception, is out for the season.
This was by far the Chiefs worst game of the season, so a repeat performance is unlikely. Kansas City has revamped their offense and are much more explosive when featuring Hill and Kelce. They should be able to make their run game more of a factor this time around also if they can avoid another big early deficit.
On the other side of the ball the Chiefs have big concerns. Although Kansas City has improved on defense as the season went along, the way the Steelers offensive line controlled the game has to be a major red flag. To stop the Steelers, the Chiefs will need their edge rushers, and specifically Houston, to make a much bigger impact than the first match-up. They will also need at least one turnover from their All-Star secondary members Peters or Eric Berry. They won’t be able to force enough stops against the Steelers offense to win this game without these impact plays.
Week 3 – Houston Texans (2-0) @ New England Patriots (2-0) – New England 27-0 victory
Jacoby Brissett made his first career start at quarterback for the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski was also making his first start of the season but saw only one target. The Patriots were missing linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and this forced Jamie Collins (traded) and Jonathan Freeny (injured reserve) into the starting lineup.
J.J. Watt made his first start of the season for the Texans but was not his usual self.
The Patriots dominated start to finish. Houston was never able to establish a rhythm offensively and didn’t cross mid-field until the second half. Two kick return fumbles by the Texans sealed their fate on the day. After scoring to go up 3-0, the Patriots recovered a fumble and scored one play later to go up 10-0. After halftime this happened again with the Patriots extending a 13-0 lead to 20-0 because of a turnover.
The Patriots offense was low powered without Tom Brady. Brissett threw for just 103 yards, but they capitalized on the Houston mistakes and didn’t look back. On the other side of the ball, Houston was a mess. The Patriots played two-high safeties all game and forced Brock Osweiler to complete several short-to-intermediate throws to move down the field – he couldn’t do it. The Patriots never had to leave this look on defense because the Texans run game never got started. Lead back Lamar Miller averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on the day running against a six-man box.
What We Learned
We learned the Patriots are tough to beat at home no matter who is playing quarterback. Being so early in the season, we also saw glimpses of what these teams would become.
The Patriots relied on grinding out three and four yard carries all night. This would become a staple of their offense all season with LeGarrette Blount as the lead back in almost all of their games. It was a commitment to the run that had not been seen by the Patriots in several seasons. The shutout on the defensive side would help the Patriots achieve the number one ranked scoring defense in 2016.
The Texans errors on special teams would become typical – they rank just 31st in DVOA. The issues with the quarterback would persist all season also. Osweiler was eventually benched only to get his job back when backup Tom Savage went out with injury. The Texans only allowed 282 yards of offense in this game, foreshadowing their strong performance all season that would see them finish first in yards against.
We also saw just how inaccurate Oweiler is on a consistent basis if you make him throw from the pocket. On the season he completed less than 60% of his passes, and just 58.6% on the road. Unless the Texans can gain big yards against the Patriots on the ground then they will stay in their two-high safety look. And that means Osweiler will need seven and eight completion drives just to score points. He hasn’t proven he is capable of this.
What Has Changed
Houston is the same team with the same issues. They play strong defense but must keep games low scoring for a chance to win. Teams have caught onto their deep strike game, which only had very minimal success to begin the year to begin with. Jadeveon Clowney emerged as a force this season securing six sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
The Patriots have undergone the bigger changes. Jamie Collins starred in this game as the Patriots leading tackler, while adding an interception. He is out of town, but the defense overall has improved steadily throughout the year. The Patriots now boast one of the most well-rounded defenses in the league and have players on every unit of their defense playing at a high level.
Tom Brady is also back. Since his return in week five Brady went 11-1 and suffered his lone defeat when the Patriots could not convert from the one yard line to tie the game. His return means the Patriots will not have to rely just on Blount in this match-up.
The Houston defense is very strong, and playing New England for the third time in two years means they know them very well. They have the capability to hold the New England offense down, but their issue is on the other side of the ball. The Texans offense is so poor, with Osweiler playing so inconsistently, that it is nearly impossible to see the Texans outscoring the Patriots. Instead the Texans won’t just require their defense to hold the Patriots down, they need them to dominate the game. They need to force two or three turnovers and find ways to steal possessions from the Patriots. In a game without interceptions or fumbles the Patriots win, and they probably win big.