The Steelers and Bills are playing each other in a big Week 14 game on Sunday night. In reality, at the end of the 2020 NFL season on the road to Super Bowl 55, the only thing that matters is what either can do against the Chiefs.
Pittsburgh (11-1) would be the No. 1 seed if the AFC playoffs started now. Buffalo (9-3) is trying to rise from the No. 3 seed. But in between at the No .2, reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City (12-1) is the team still looming large as a strong favorite to repeat as conference champions.
The Chiefs, early in the season, took care of the Texans, Ravens and Patriots — the three teams that used to be their toughest competition. At the same time, the Chiefs have seen a new wave of challengers pop up, led by the Steelers, whom they don’t play and the Bills, whom they beat in Week 6.
While the AFC runner-up Titans, Browns and Colts also are in the playoff picture, by record and by reputation, the Steelers and Bills stand out. But which of those two teams is better equipped to bring down the Chiefs head-to-head, in either the divisional round or AFC title game?
Steelers vs. Chiefs
1. Pass defense vs. Patrick Mahomes
This is the first thing you need to stop the Chiefs. They trust Mahomes with a high volume in the most prolific passing offense in the league. Incredibly, in averaging nearly 40 attempts per game as the only team that averages 300 passing yards plus per game, they have allowed only 16 sacks and Mahomes has throw only two interceptions.
The Steelers are the best pass-rushing team in the NFL and second-best overall pass defense after he Rams. But they took a hit in losing Bud Dupree from the edge for the season and their older cornerbacks, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, are battling some attrition late. The Steelers can also have major lapses in allowing big plays downfield, which spells disaster against Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and the rest of the Chiefs’ speedsters.
The Steelers’ stout run defense is irrelevant in this equation because the Chiefs have proved they are fine abandoning it when needed with Andy Reid. The Steelers also can be vulnerable in tight end coverage against the most athletic receivers at that position, which isn’t great for stopping Travis Kelce.
2. Rushing offense vs. Chiefs’ defense
The Chiefs went into Week 14 with the No. 27-ranked run defense, their carryover weakness from their Super Bowl run. They have been allowing a healthy 4.8 yards per carry and a heavy 132.4 rushing yards per game.
The Steelers have struggled to run the ball all season as their offensive line hasn’t been the same in pushing opponents around and James Conner, with his durability issues, has had limited effectiveness as the featured power back. Going into Week 14, only the sub-.500 Bengals, Bears and Texans average fewer rushing yards than the Steelers (92.6). Their 3.7 yards per carry is tied for worst in the league.
The key to beating the Chiefs is balancing ball control to keep Mahomes off the field and also making sure to get enough explosive pass plays to match him. The Raiders did just that to upset the Chiefs in their only loss, and failed to do all of that right twice.
There have been concerns about the Steelers’ lack of a reliable rushing attack all season, and whether that will hurt them in January when their quarterback, relying on mostly short-to-intermediate passing to move the ball, isn’t as well positioned to win shootouts.
3. Ben Roethlisberger vs. Patrick Mahomes
That quarterback is Roethlisberger. He’s been smart in adjusting his game after a season lost to a right elbow injury. He’s getting the ball out quickly knowing his arm limitations at age 38. He’s been sacked only 10 times.
But Roethlsiberger also is ranked No. 24 in intended air yards per attempt (average depth of target) going into Week 14 at 6.9. Mahomes in contrast has been one of the league’s best at 8.2 such yards per attempt.
The Steelers can still burn teams with calculated deep shots to wide receivers, namely Chase Claypool and James Washington. But with their rushing limitations, much of their offense is short-to-intermediate passes to Claypool, Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Eric Ebron.
Pittsburgh’s dinking and dunking is its form of ball control. Only the Packers and Saints have had a greater time of possession this season, improving on the Raiders’ style of moving and maintaining the ball.
But the Steelers have had only 18 pass plays go for more than 25 yards, which puts them down near the bottom of the league, near some anemic all-around offenses. The Chiefs’ zone defense is sharp inside-out because of fine safety play, led by Tyrann Mathieu. Not running the ball and getting compressed in the passing game isn’t the most inspiring formula for success against that group.
Bills vs. Chiefs
1. Pass defense vs. Patrick Mahomes
The Bills went into Week 14 with the No. 20 pass defense, allowing on average a shade under 250 yards per game. But they crack the top dozen with their 30 sacks and are No. 13 with their 10 interceptions. Unlike the Steelers, however, they are a shaky run defense, ranked No. 24 in allowing on average 126 rushing yards per game at 4.7 yards per carry.
The Chiefs may be fine with Mahomes throwing, but with rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire and veteran Le’Veon Bell, they haven’t minded running when the situation and matchup calls for it. Edwards-Helaire ripped through the Bills with 26 carries for 161 yards in Week 6, a 26-17 Chiefs win. Mahomes didn’t go nuts throwing, but he was hyper-efficient, needing only 26 attempts to throw for 225 yards and 2 TDs.
The Bills did well to take away the deep shots to Hill, which kept them in the game. But Mahomes simply shredded them underneath playing off the run to Kelce, who scored two TDs, and Demarcus Robinson. For the rematch, the Chiefs will have one more tricky receiver to cover in former Bill Sammy Watkins.
The risk of stopping the quick strikes from Mahomes is letting him be methodical and keep the ball away from one’s own offense. That happened to the Bills, as the Chiefs’ offense was on the field for nearly 38 minutes.
2. Rushing offense vs. Chiefs’ defense
The Bills haven’t been consistent running the ball and go into Week 14 at No. 23, averaging 102.4 rushing yards per game. Part of it has been offensive line injuries and limitations. Another part is Allen not scrambling as much. The third is the fact that young backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss haven’t always found the right holes.
Regardless, the Bills can be considered fully a “passing team” now. Their strength is the depth of dynamic playmakers, from Stefon Diggs to Isaiah McKenzie and Gabriel Davis. When Allen gets in a comfortable groove throwing downfield, the offense tends to get into a zone. The Bills still average 25 rushes per game, so they can stick with the run if they need to, beyond keeping defenses honest.
3. Josh Allen vs. Patrick Mahomes
Allen is high on the list for intended air yards per attempt/average depth of target. He’s wedged right there right behind Mahomes, matching Carr this season so far at 8.0.
Allen profiles much better than Roethlisberger to win a pure passing shootout with Mahomes when it comes down to it. The Bills have also showed the greater upside in running to create more balance for Allen, and his own capacity to run for chunks and close drives in the red zone are a big asset over Roethlisberger.
The Bills’ defense isn’t as formidable as the Steelers’, but it will take a team that can go up and down the field with Mahomes and outscore the Chiefs, instead of trying to limit their scoring and turn the matchup into a defensive slugfest. The Steelers might match the Chiefs in the standings in 2020, but the Bills have emerged as the bigger offensive-minded obstacle in front of repeating.