4:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: Chiefs -4.5, Over/Under: 47
Division leaders traveling in very different directions clash at Arrowhead Stadium, as the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs host the Pittsburgh Steelers in a rematch of last season’s AFC Division Championship. Even though they’re currently pacing the mediocre NFC North, the vibe that’s been coming from the Steelers (3-2, 1st in NFC North) certainly doesn’t feel like that of a division leader, for with just over a quarter of the campaign in the books, Mike Tomlin’s charges have been maddeningly inconsistent. To be fair, this is a team that is an Overtime Period away from being 4-1, but at the same time they could also be in much worse shape, primarily due to a woefully underachieving offense, which has easily been their strength over the past few years. At their height, there are few teams in the league that can match the explosive quality of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell, who on any given Sunday are capable of setting the Fantasy Football World ablaze, along with actual NFL Defenses. However, to say that this triumvirate has gotten off to a slow start in 2017 is an understatement, particularly given the lofty expectations levied upon them heading into the season. Through five games, Pittsburgh has averaged just 19.8 Points per Game (19th Overall) on 343.8 Total Yards (17th Overall), including 253.8 through the air (12th Overall) on 5.9 Net Yards per Attempt (16th Overall), along with another 90.0 Yards on the ground (24th Overall) on an underwhelming 3.5 Yards per Carry (26th Overall). At the age of thirty-five Roethlisberger (61.5%, 253.8 Y/G, 5.93 NY/A, 6 TD, 7 INT) appears to be physically breaking down, though that narrative has been overplayed in no small part to the 14-year veteran insisting on periodically questioning his own football mortality. Maybe there’s some truth to his self-doubt, for after being selected to the Pro Bowl in each of the last three terms, Roethlisberger has seen his production decline significantly across a number of categories, including Completion Percentage (61.5%), Interception Rate (3.6%), Yards per Game (253.8), Net Yards per Attempt (5.93), and Passer Rating (75.8), with the majority of those figures representing his lowest mark in at least four years. Adding fuel to the fire was the absolute egg he laid in last weekend’s shocking 30-9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field, in which Big Ben carelessly tossed FIVE Interceptions in a debacle in which he attempted a whopping fifty-five passes. While the signal-caller has certainly underperformed, both Brown and Bell have been productive, but not nearly as overwhelmingly prolific as they’ve been in the past. Though he drew waves of criticism for his behavior during Week Four’s 26-9 victory at Baltimore, it’s not like Brown (40 REC, 545 YDS, 1 TD) hasn’t been getting the ball thrown his way, for the five-time Pro Bowl Receiver has seen a staggering sixty-four balls thrown in his direction, which is thirty-one more than the next player on the team, Bell (102 CAR, 371 YDS, 3 TD, 27 REC, 144 YDS), who continues to exhibit uncanny versatility for a Tailback of his size, averaging 103.0 Total Yards from Scrimmage. The problem here though, is one of quality against quantity, for while both players have enjoyed a wealth of touches, what they’re doing with it doesn’t quite measure up with what you’d expect; the pair have accounted for just four Touchdowns, which is alarming given that Brown is once again leading the league in both Receptions and Receiving Yards, while Bell is picking up a mediocre 3.6 Yards per Carry, well below his career average of 4.4 or the 4.9 he’s posted in each of the past two seasons. Not to sound cliché, but the answer in all likelihood lies with the group that makes it possible for these stars to function in the first place, the Offensive Line; Tomlin has had to shift a number of players around up front, with stalwarts such Tackles Ramon Foster (Back) and Marcus Gilbert (Hamstring), along with Center Maurkice Pouncey (Chest) suffering from a variety of ailments. All three players are currently listed as Probable to play after practicing limitedly throughout the week, which would be a boon to a unit that has been in chaos in recent weeks, with one of the more aggressive Defenses waiting for them this weekend.
Meanwhile, the last remaining unbeaten team in the league has no doubt had this one circled on their schedule for quite a while, for the last time that the Chiefs (5-0, 1st in AFC West) tasted defeat, it was when they witnessed their season come to an end in heartbreaking fashion on a frigid January Night at the hands of the Steelers, in an 18-16 affair littered by Field Goals, and one crucial, game-altering penalty. Trailing 18-10 with their Defense relegating Pittsburgh to six Field Goals, Kansas City proceeded to string together a mammoth 13-Play, 75-Yard Drive that lasted just over seven minutes, culminating with a 1-Yard Spencer Ware Touchdown Run to pull the hosts within two points. Andy Reid then signaled that they were to go for the Two-Point Conversion to potentially tie the contest with forty-seven seconds left until the Two Minute Warning. Alex Smith then took the snap, patiently scanned the field, and found Demetrius Harris in the back of the End Zone to level the score. However, lost in the celebration and the roar of the faithful at Arrowhead was the controversial 10-Yard Holding Penalty called on Left Tackle Eric Fisher, negating the successful Conversion. Now backed up to the 12-Yard Line, Smith attempted to launch the ball into the End Zone once more, only to see his pass to Jeremy Maclin fall to the frozen field, prematurely ending yet another postseason run. The following six months were hard, as criticism towards Reid’s conservative playcalling and Smith’s perpetual predilection towards game management festered for months, with some even calling for change in Kansas City. Now, with just over a quarter of the campaign in the books, it seems that Reid and Smith have taken the criticism to heart, learning from their mistakes and altogether UNLOADING on the NFL. It’s uncommon for a Head Coach that’s been as successful as Reid has been (178-114-1, .609) to also be a consistently derided for his playcalling, but that’s been the case for years now, but one look at Kansas City’s Offense in 2017, and you’ll see an efficient, yet explosive (dare we say) juggernaut; the Chiefs have averaged a league-best 32.8 Points per Game (1st Overall) on 434.4 Total Yards (2nd Overall), including 278.2 through the air (8th Overall) on a healthy 7.4 Net Yards per Attempt (3rd Overall), along with another 156.2 on the ground (2nd Overall) on a staggering 5.7 Yards per carry (1st Overall). Efficient AND explosive. Two words we’d never think to associate together with the Chiefs ‘ Offense. Hell has officially frozen over, folks. At the center of this perfect storm is Smith (76.6%, 278.2 Y/G, 7.37 NY/A, 11 TD, 0 INT), who now in his twelfth season has quite frankly never played better, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including Completion Percentage (76.6%), Yards per Game (278.2), Touchdown Percentage (7.0%), Yards per Attempt (8.8), Net Yards per Attempt (7.37), and Passer Rating (125.8) just to name a few. A serious early contender (dare we say frontrunner) for MVP, he’s provided a number of performances that have left us all wondering what parallel universe he’s emerged from; Smith outdueled Tom Brady on Opening Night in Foxborough, torching the defending champion New England Patriots for 368 Yards and four Touchdowns on 28-of-35 passing in a 42-27 rout, and just last week shredded the Houston Texans another three scores and 324 Yards in last weekend’s 42-34 victory at NRG Stadium. One of the real keys to his ascendance has been the talent that Reid has surrounded him with; Sophomore speed demon Tyreek Hill (25 REC, 356 YDS, 2 TD) has been utilized far more in the passing game than he was a year ago, while rookie Tailback Kareem Hunt (97 CAR, 609 YDS, 4 TD) has been a revelation behind a retooled, rebuilt Offensive Line. An unheralded Third Round Pick out of Toledo, Hunt has got to be the leading man for Offensive Rookie of the Year at this juncture, providing Reid with a versatile weapon that is just as adept at catching passes out of the backfield, as he is patiently navigating his way through the Tackles. He compiled a ridiculous 246 Total Yards and three Touchdowns from Scrimmage against New England, while breaking the 100-Yard threshold in each of the last three outings. Look for him to potentially have a HUGE day against a beleaguered Steelers’ Defense that relinquished 231 Rushing Yards last weekend (including 181 to Hunt’s more heralded classmate Leonard Fournette), and has given up an average of 136.6 Yards versus the run (28th Overall) on 5.1 Yards per Carry (31st Overall).