The New England Patriots are waiting to see their opponent for the AFC Championship title game, but I think the rooting guide is pretty simple: the Patriots would rather face the Pittsburgh Steelers than the Kansas City Chiefs.
Both teams are great; they’re the second and third seeds in the conference. They have the second and third best quarterbacks in the AFC playoff picture. They both have quality defenses and players that can score a touchdown on any given play.
But the Patriots match up much better with the Steelers than with the Chiefs, and here are the reasons why.
The key to beating the Patriots requires the third, fourth, and fifth offensive skill players to outplay the Patriots third, fourth, and fifth defenders. It also involves generating pressure up the middle against Brady, while having quality players drop back in coverage.
There’s no question that Steelers QB Ben Roethlisbeger is better than Chiefs QB Alex Smith; or that Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell is better than Chiefs RB Spencer Ware; or that Steelers WR Antonio Brown is bigger threat than Chiefs TE Travis Kelce.
But once you get beyond Bell and Brown, who represent 51.8% of the Steelers yards from scrimmage in 2016, there aren’t many other consistent threats in the Pittsburgh offense. WR Eli Rogers has 600 yards from scrimmage as the #2 receiver. No other player has more than 500 yards from scrimmage. If the Patriots can limit either of Bell or Brown, as they are capable of doing, then the Steelers offense would be greatly hindered.
The Chiefs have Ware and Kelce, but they also have WR Tyreek Hill (860 yards from scrimmage), WR Jeremy Maclin (535), and Chris Conley (530). Hill, Maclin, and Conley force a lot more stress on a defense and the Patriots #3, #4, and #5 coverage players than Rogers, WR Sammie Coates, or TE Jesse James of the Steelers.
Add in Smith’s willingness to checkdown and take the easy passes, while also avoiding turnovers, and you have a recipe for success on leading long, sustained drives against the Patriots defense. Roethlisberger might be more drawn to taking a deep shot, which would end up stalling a drive and helping out the Patriots.
Looking at the defensive side of the ball, the Chiefs boast multiple All Pros in the secondary, with SS Eric Berry and CB Marcus Peters locking down the deep field. Add in a deep roster of pass rushers like Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, and Dee Ford, and stout defensive linemen in Dontari Poe and Chris Jones, you have a recipe to stop the run and move Brady around in the pocket, while also featuring tight coverage down the field. Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is a former disciple of Rex Ryan and his chaos defenses have the ability to fluster Brady if they get into a groove.
If the Chiefs have a weakness, it’s their loss of LB Derrick Johnson (achilles). Perhaps they could be vulnerable to a passing attack involving RB Dion Lewis and RB James White.
The Steelers defense crumbled against the Patriots in week 6, and if it weren’t for two fumbles by WR Chris Hogan and WR Julian Edelman, the Patriots would have run up a bigger lead. Pittsburgh doesn’t have their best defensive lineman as DL Cameron Heyward is on the injured reserve and Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and 2 touchdowns in the prior match-up.
Brady has a 7-2 regular season record against the Steelers and his 114.2 career passer rating is his best against any team with 5+ games against (Brady’s 88.2 passer rating versus the Chiefs is his worst). Brady takes advantage of the Steelers blitz packages to generate huge gains down the field and he’s done it throughout his career.
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien revealed an interesting mentality to SI’s Greg Bedard after losing to the Patriots in the Divisional Round. The Texans were able to batter Brady in the pocket and confound the offensive line- but only because that’s how they’ve played all season.
“I think the one thing about blueprint and stuff like that is each team is going to have to do their own thing,” O’Brien said. “What we did tonight, we’ve been doing it in different ways all year; we’re a very active front. So whatever the next team is, Pittsburgh or Kansas City, they’ve got to do what they do. That’s just how we do it.”
The Steelers and Chiefs are both going to play whatever defense they’ve been playing all year because it’s gotten them to this point. Brady has had far more success against the Pittsburgh defense than against the Kansas City defense.
The choice is simple. The Patriots would rather face the Steelers than the Chiefs.