2016 NFL Playoff Primer: Previewing AFC matchups in divisional round
One round of the NFL playoffs are in the books, and after a wild finish on Saturday night, it's the No. 6 Steelers who live to see another day—though not without some injuries. They'll travel to Denver to take on the top-seeded Broncos, while the Chiefs, who earned their first playoff win since 1994 with a 30–0 rout of the No. 4 Texans, are headed to Foxborough to challenge Tom Brady and the Patriots. Here's a look ahead at each matchup:
No. 6 Pittsburgh at No. 1 Denver
Do the Pittsburgh Steelers have anything left in the tank?
There will be plenty of time to discuss the Xs and Os of next weekend's divisional game between the Steelers and Broncos (and we'll get into that here, I promise), but that intangible issue looms after Pittsburgh's draining 18–16 wild-card win over the Bengals.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed most of the fourth quarter Saturday night after suffering a shoulder injury, then was unable to throw the ball downfield once he did. His team still managed to march for a game-winning field goal, but the play that put them in position for the kick—an incompletion from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown that resulted in 30 yards of penalties vs. the Bengals—left Brown with a concussion.
It likely will be at least midweek before the Steelers can provide any official answers about the health of their two stars. Roethlisberger, though, barely had any velocity on his passes during Pittsburgh's final drive vs. Cincinnati.
“Coach called one deep one in there,” Roethlisberger recalled, “and I went over to the sideline and said, ‘Coach, you can't do that anymore, I can't throw it that far.’”
The Steelers had no choice but to take to the air anyway, just as was the case in their Week 15 matchup with Denver. They faced a 27–10 deficit late in the first half of that game before Roethlisberger caught fire, throwing three TDs and completing 40 passes for 380 yards, en route to a 34–27 victory.
“We feel like we're pretty good on offense,” Tomlin said afterward. “That's not taking anything away from them, but if we take care of the ball we feel like we can go up and down the field on anyone.”
The first half of that game featured what was Brock Osweiler's finest stretch of football during the regular season. He torched the Steelers for two quarters, throwing three TDs of his own to stake the Broncos to a lead.
He'll be on the sideline Sunday, at least to start, with Peyton Manning back in his usual role. Manning took over for a struggling Osweiler in Week 17—his first action since Nov. 15—and helped Denver hold off San Diego.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak subsequently named Manning the starter moving forward.
“I feel really good about this,” Kubiak said. “I feel good about how far Peyton has come, where he's at physically, mentally. I could see it happening throughout the course of the last two weeks. I'm excited for him to get going.”
Denver rushed for a season-best 220 yards in its Jan. 3 win over the Chargers, the sixth time in its past seven games topping the century mark. The Steelers finished the regular ranked fifth against the run so, as always, establishing the tone in the trenches will be key. The variety of coverages over the middle of the field and blitzes kept Cincinnati's AJ McCarron off balance for three quarters Saturday. Ryan Shazier, in particular, had the Bengals on their heels when he came after McCarron.
Normally, it would be fair to expect Manning to avoid similar hiccups, but this is the same Manning who threw 17 interceptions (and nine TDs) in just 10 games.
Another pleasant development for Pittsburgh in its playoff-opening win was the joint performance of RBs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. With Le'Veon Bell done for the year and DeAngelo Williams sporting a walking boot Saturday, Toussaint and Todman combined for 183 total yards.
The Steelers' run game was a wasteland against Denver in December. Getting behind in down and distance again Sunday would be a Steelers recipe for disaster, no matter if Roethlisberger, Brown and even Williams are 100%.
Denver wrapped the season still holding top billing in scoring defense. Pittsburgh's offense came in at No. 3.
Both teams landed middle of the pack on the other side of the ball, although the Broncos should have an edge with their receivers vs. the Steelers' cornerbacks. William Gay and Antwon Blake have seen the majority of work outside for Pittsburgh, with Brandon Boykin now manning the slot and Ross Cockrell providing depth. They'll have to be at their best to keep the Broncos in check.
That is, if Manning can shake off his season-long slump now that he is healthy again. Should he revert back into the form we saw through mid-November, the Broncos might have little choice but to pull him for Osweiler at some point Sunday.
Pittsburgh could have its own drama to deal with at QB, depending on how Roethlisberger's shoulder progresses this week. Landry Jones was overwhelmed in his spot duty at Cincinnati, so the Steelers will cross their fingers that Roethlisberger is ready.
The Steelers survived a wild one and will have their chance in Denver. The question now is if Roethlisberger will have anything left once they're there.
No. 5 Kansas City at No. 2 New England
Sure, not every playoff game measures up to the hype. But don't be surprised if this matchup turns out to be one of the best the NFL delivers all postseason.
The Chiefs certainly caught New England's attention on Sunday with a 30–0 whooping of Houston. Knile Davis took the opening kickoff back 106 yards for a touchdown and Kansas City never looked back, its defense forcing five turnovers by QB Brian Hoyer (four interceptions, one fumble).
The last time these teams met was in Week 4 of last season, when the Chiefs handed New England a 41–14 defeat. (You might recall Bill Belichick's “we're on to Cincinnati” postgame press conference). Kansas City would miss the playoffs eventually; New England won 11 of its next 12 en route to a Super Bowl title.
“We'll definitely look at that game,” Belichick said. “It was a pretty dominant performance by Kansas City, so I'm sure there are things from that game they may try to do or may feel like they still can do or want to do from that game so we definitely have to take that into consideration. ...
“There's been 25 games played since then, so it's definitely a game to look at but there are so many other—a couple thousand plays on either side of the ball—so I think you look at it that there are some things we can take from it ... It has relevance, but we're certainly going to have to prepare to coach the team a lot better than we did that night.”
Davis actually rushed for 107 yards in that outing, the second-best total of his career. But it was Jamaal Charles who stole the show, scoring three times to help open a huge lead. He has long been out of the Chiefs' game plan this season because of injury, so Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware will continue to split the load.
Despite their uptick in production through the air this season, the Chiefs remain a run-heavy offense. The injury Jeremy Maclin suffered vs. Houston could force that approach to become even more of a focus.
“Most of it is his pain is more in the ankle area than the knee area,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, “so we'll just have to see what the result is here after the MRI and the doctors have a chance to look at it.”
Early returns were good: Maclin is considered day-to-day with the ankle ailment, but even a minor issue could be problematic for the speedy receiver.
Not that they would expect any, but the Chiefs will not receive any sympathy from the Patriots when it comes to injuries. The defending champs currently have 14 players on injured reserve and have played at various times without Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Sebastian Vollmer, Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower and other key pieces.
Most non-IR bodies should be available this weekend, which would give the Patriots as close to a complete picture on offense as they've had since Week 10. Edelman's return alone stands to be absolutely massive—he caught 105 passes in 2013, another 92 last year and was on pace for 108 this year before he broke his foot.
“He's been very dependable,” said Tom Brady of Edelman a week ago. “He's been a great player for us for as long as he's been here, really since he got his opportunity a few years ago.”
Even Brady himself is hobbled a bit, thanks to the ankle injury he suffered in a season-ending loss to Miami. He, too, is on track to play vs. Kansas City.
It remains to be seen what sort of game plan Belichick devises to keep the Chiefs' pass rush away from his star QB, despite an O-line that's also banged-up. (Sebastian Vollmer's anticipated return will help the Patriots up front.) New England's run game is a mystery, at best, with Steven Jackson and Brandon Bolden splitting carries in Week 17, meaning a 40- or 50-pass night from Brady is not out of the question. The Patriots all but abandoned their run game earlier this season when pitted against the Jets' terrific front.
Should Kansas City's Alex Smith head north of 35 passes, it's likely something will have gone very wrong for his team. He hasn't even thrown 30 times in a game since November, and the Chiefs went 0-2 this year when he attempted 40 throws.