This is the part of the season where I shamelessly plug the Kansas City Chiefs. I think Kansas City is a great town. Their fans are convivial, well-mannered, and pleasantly Midwestern. Their home jerseys are the perfect shade of red. Their all-white away uniforms, complete with the red helmet, are among the best in football. Jamaal Charles was great. Dante Hall was amazing. The BBQ is top-notch. Andy Reid looks like the titular character from a vibrant, fairytale epic about a magical, sexagenarian walrus and his gaggle of red men. They’re always in contention.
There are bad things, though. Despite having been regular fixtures in the AFC playoffs since the beginning of this decade, the Chiefs have one playoff win since 1993, a 30-18 road victory back in the 2015 postseason over a Houston Texans team whose starting quarterback was the wretched Brian Hoyer. They are responsible for two of the most impossibly astounding playoff collapses—they blew a 21-3 lead, at home, to the Tennessee Titans last season and, stunningly, a 38-10 lead to Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, and a bunch of scrubs wearing Colts uniforms in 2014—in NFL history. They are 2-7 against the Steelers in the Ben Roethlisberger era. (Pragmatically, they are the Bengals). Famously, they once went 19 games without throwing a touchdown to a wideout. And though their franchise has historically been blessed with solid quarterback play, the Chiefs have never drafted a functional NFL quarterback of their own...
[Move trailer narrator voice] Until now.
In preparation for the eventual departure of noodle-armed check-down artist Alex Smith, the Chiefs traded up in the 2017 NFL Draft to select canon-armed gunslinger Patrick Mahomes 10th overall. It’s still kinda early to fire off any thermonuclear takes about what is essentially a rookie quarterback—albeit one who used his actual rookie campaign as a de facto redshirt season—but Mahomes, after dropping a series of highlight-reel bombs in each of the past two preseasons (seriously, go watch this gorgeous off-balance dime) and torching the San Die...erm, Los Angeles...Chargers in Week 1, looks like a pretty legit quarterback. In front of a hilariously pro-Chiefs crowd at whatever derelict MLS venue the Chargers currently finds themselves in, he threw four touchdowns against a Chargers secondary that is, at least on paper, one of the best outfits in the league.
More specifically, he threw the ball all over the yard. Tyreek Hill (more on him in a second) was the primary beneficiary, catching seven passes for 169 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown, but no fewer than seven Chiefs caught at least one pass. Spreading the ball around and getting everyone involved in the passing attack has always been Reid’s modus operandi, but having a guy under center who can proficiently orchestrate that kind of passing attack and throw the ball 70 yards downfield represents a pretty significant concern for the remainder of the NFL. Also, one of Mahomes’ touchdowns went to Anthony Sherman, a fullback. It ruled. More fullbacks should score more touchdowns.
What the Chiefs lack in quarterback scouting aptitude they more than make up for in successfully uncovering stud running backs. Kareem Hunt led the whole NFL in rushing as a rookie last season and is a safe bet to finish among the top five or so rushers again this season—that is, of course, assuming he fends off backup Spencer Ware, who, before blowing his knee out last preseason, looked like he was going to be the next Great Chiefs Running Back. Either way, containing Kansas City’s backfield is gonna be a problem, especially since Hunt, Ware, and all-purpose utility tool DeAnthony Thomas are such proficient receivers.
They’re loaded at tight end and receiver, too. Travis Kelce is by far the best tight end in the league not named Rob Gronkowski, and the receiving corps, composed of Hill, Chris Conley, and Sammy Watkins, a former top-five draft pick seeking his third career revival in as many seasons, can overwhelm opposing secondaries with speed and power. But this is all secondary to Hill. Even without the creative offensive system, the big-armed quarterback, and the bounty of effective skill players to divert attention elsewhere, Tyreek Hill would still be the kind of dynamic, game-breaking presence who defensive coordinators ought to game plan specifically against; having those things just makes the proceedings a lot more one-sided. On any given play, he’s obviously a threat to simply jet past whatever defensive back is unlucky enough to line up across from him and score a long touchdown, but he’s also a crafty ball carrier, capable of grabbing slants and screen passes and zig-zagging his way, untouched, through complex labyrinths of defenders, and a reliable pass catcher, snagging 75 passes last season to go along with nearly 1,200 yards. He’s not particularly fumble-prone, either, losing just a single fumble on 266 career touches thus far, though he does get noticeably looser with the football on special teams (five total on 80 career returns). Unfortunately, he’s an ace punter returner, having four career punt return touchdowns to his name, including a dazzling 91-yard foray to open the scoring against Los Angeles, so it isn’t as if his fumbling proclivity on special teams gives the opposition any sort of advantage. If Keith Butler and (special teams coordinator) Danny Smith have been getting a lot of shuteye this week, the Steelers are in trouble.
Your level of concern about Kansas City’s defense should depend on the availability of safety Eric Berry, who did not play against the Chargers; he’s still nursing an Achille’s injury that he suffered against New England in Week 1 of the 2017 season. Injuries are always fickle and unpredictable things, but managing a player’s recovery from a torn Achille’s tendon—an injury that can very legitimately render professional athleticism totally useless—is a particularly sensitive process, one that often involves playing the long game, constantly and carefully monitoring flare-ups and strains. I am not a qualified healthcare professional, but being that Berry hasn’t practiced this week (or since the beginning of August), it doesn’t seem likely that his season debut will come against Pittsburgh. With Berry presumably out and Marcus Peters having been traded to the Rams, Kansas City’s secondary is vulnerable, and the Steelers would be wise to exploit it. Of course, considering that the Chiefs allowed the Chargers to rush for 123 yards on only 22 carries, perhaps it would behoove the Steelers to feed James Conner once again.
Prediction: Steelers 24, Chiefs 23
I’m giving the Steelers the slightest of nods because a) the game is at home, where Ben Roethlisberger actually plays like Ben Roethlisberger instead of, like, Chad Henne and b) Ho Flo might dump a bunch of rain on Pittsburgh, making Heinz Field something akin to the boggy morass they played on in Cleveland. If it doesn’t rain, spot each team an additional touchdown.
Here is a very hot, but probably very incorrect and very bad take: this is my prediction regardless of whether or not Roethlisberger plays. Ben is objectively better at home than he is beyond the confines of Heinz Field, but he’s barely over .500 in early season games (he’s 21-20-1 in September for his career). Screw it; let the Josh Dobbs era begin. I wholeheartedly welcome our new soft-spoken overlord.
By the time you read this, either the Bengals or Ravens will be 2-0, which is a disgusting thing to say and I’m surprised my computer even allowed it. Falling to 0-1-1 isn’t gonna throw a wrench in the Steelers’ postseason hopes (I think...), but it would be preferable to not fall a game-and-a-half behind one of your primary rivals two games into the regular season. Thus, I’m concerned that this grim reality could transpire if the law of averages plays out and enables Kansas City to steal a win, but this kind of thinking is exactly why I continue to pick the Steelers to beat the Patriots, so you are free to take this bit of analysis—or all of it, whatever—with a grain of salt.
Unsung Player of the Week: Special teams
It feels like it’s been a while since we’ve seen a Chris Boswell game-winner. He missed his chance last week, shanking a forty-something yarder in overtime against the Browns, but the field was a disaster and the weather was terrible. What I’m hoping is that those aforementioned points have been reinforced by every person Boswell has encountered over the past week, because the absolute last thing the Steelers need is for their robot kicker to come down with a case of the yips. Futher, it would be nice if Jordan Berry could crush some high, booming punts...directly into the stands. Please do not kick the football anywhere near Tyreek Hill. Better yet, let’s just hope the Steelers never have to punt.