Ship Steelers to Denver
Antonio Brown has 123 receptions on the season. The Steeler offense has scored over 30 in 6 of their last 7. And Ron Jaworski has compared this 2015 Pittsburgh team to the Rams "greatest show on turf."
But they’re still the sixth seed, lucky for the Pats who now (being at the two) could only meet Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship. With the Jets loss and the Pats flop in Miami last Sunday, the two-seed becomes the best case scenario for New England who will now most likely see the Chiefs in the divisional. Sending the Steelers, set to face a Dalton-less Bengals squad Sunday, to Denver for the Divisional weekend. And if Big Ben can best a Broncos team notorious for shrinking under the bright lights, Foxboro is once again hosting an AFC championship. Welcoming Ben Rothlisberger- a player notorious for rising to the occasion- and whose size keeps the play alive and arm keeps Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton in the end zone. The Pats secondary is elite, but to ask them to potentially contain Bryant Wheaton and Brown for 60 minutes while the offense sputters is risky. A defense can only stay stout for so long if the offense insists on 3-and-outs in succession, the Pats going an abysmal 5 for 24 in the past two games. Containing a quarterback is one thing- something the Pats have done and will do again. But containing a quarterback while blanketing an all-pro and two up and coming targets is a tall order. Eventually they'll be a big play and the 2015 Patriots have a worrying trend of allowing such plays to occur. Giving up 11 completions of 20 yards or more since December's first week as WEEI columnist Ryan Hannibal states, the Patriots defensive "Achilles heel" has been the no. 3 cornerback in 2015. And to shut down the three headed monster of Pittsburgh's aerial offense- you need a number three corner.
Welcome Kansas City to Foxboro
This is all assuming the Pats can get through Kansas City. A Chiefs squad who haven't lost since the Royals won the World Series (that was November 1st) and are heavily favored in Houston next weekend.
But make no mistake the Chiefs are a far better match up for New England then Pittsburgh. The Patriots haven't been at full strength since mid-season, haven't had a week of rest since early October and there is no guarantee the offense will gel immediately with the reintroduction of Edelman and Amendola. If up against the Steelers potent attack- this would be a significant problem. But with KC- a team whose offense failed to produce a 100-yard rusher, 200-yard passer or 100-yard receiver in their final five games, scoring in bunches won't be nearly the necessity.
This isn't to say the Chiefs are a cake-walk. Far from it. The NFL stands for "NOT FOR LONG" as in any given Sunday you can be saddled the L. Remember that reeling Eagles squad a few weeks back? Exactly. KC is merely the best of a bad situation. A team whose wins are molded from mistake free football and opportunistic defense. Signal caller Alex Smith has been thriving in Andy Reid's quick trigger attack- most notably for his escapability and tendency to protect the football. In his 45 career games for KC, Smith has thrown only 18 picks, leading the NFL in interception percentage. Couple that with his habit for fleeing the pocket rather than putting the ball up for grabs and you have a quarterback whose success come not from high risk but patience and play within a system. One that only recently begun allowing Smith- whose football IQ is near the tops in the league- to adjust the offense in his pre-snap read.
It’s new territory for Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson- a former Packer and student of Brett Favre who “never did those type of checks… The game’s changed a little but since then. Defenses have changed. But it’s funny, because I think Alex has changed Andy a little bit.”
The Chiefs let their opponents make the mistakes, then Alex Smith capitalizes on the short field. It's a low risk system whose rewards are reaped over the long, methodical term. This isn’t a spread offense, nor is it a west-coast juggernaut- it is a system of progressions. Designed by Andy Reid as a defined and rigid “read-scheme” which moves at a “checkpoint clip.” If the QB’s first read isn't there, check it off and move to the next. Then continue to go down the line… A, B, C, etc. For the first half of the year, Reid didn’t offer his QB much flexibility to “check”- as in adjust a route pre-snap. Only check through his points or playmakers as the play itself was going on. But sitting at 1-5 in Week 7, Reid and Pederson gave Smith the reigns of the offense. And since that shift, the Chiefs have won 10-straight games.
The Chiefs will not be taken lightly by Belichick, and quarterback Alex Smith has proven himself more than a game-manager. Yet still KC will be the team playing offensive catchup against New England. However, if the Patriots eventually meet Pittsburgh in the ‘ship, the tables will turn.
As is always the case come playoff time. It’s a matter of pick your poison.
By Cameron Mellin