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ESPN predicts the Steelers to be in the AFC Championship game this postseason

The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t really firing on all cylinders heading into the playoffs, but ESPN predicts them to find their mojo at the right time.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

With the Wild Card round of the NFL Playoffs getting ready to kickoff this weekend, everyone wants to know what will happen for their favorite team, if they are a member of the postseason.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers’ faithful, they don’t know what to expect. This is the organization’s first playoff game since 2017, and the team hasn’t won a playoff game since 2016. On top of that, they enter the playoffs being as cold as ice.

The Steelers have lost 4 of their last 5 games, and needed a gigantic comeback in Week 16 to claim that lone victory. Not really playing your best at the best time of the season, but their 11-0 start locked up a playoff berth weeks ago.

So, what will happen with the Steelers when the postseason party begins? Bill Barnwell of ESPN takes a stab at the future of the Steelers, and he sees big things for the black and gold. Take a look at his predictions for the upcoming postseason:

Wild Card Round: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers

The Browns were already the weakest team in the playoff field, finishing the season 18th in DVOA while being outscored by their opponents. Their team has further been torn apart by positive COVID-19 tests, with multiple players and now coach Kevin Stefanski out for Sunday’s game. The Steelers come into Sunday’s game as well-rested as they’ve been since the opener.

Cleveland’s play-action scheme doesn’t match up well against the Steelers, whose QBR against play-action passes is 34 points better than any other team in football. Pittsburgh’s biggest win of the season came at home against Cleveland in Week 6, and while the Browns responded with a 24-22 victory last week, that win came against backup quarterback Mason Rudolph and with many of Pittsburgh’s stars inactive. The Browns have made huge strides in 2020, but their season ends here.

Prediction: Steelers 34, Browns 7

Divisional Round: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills

This is a rematch from Week 14, when these defenses were near-perfect for most of the first half before the Bills found a solution just before halftime. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs got going as Josh Allen settled down, the Pittsburgh pass rush got tired and the Bills scored on four of their final five drives before kneeling in field goal range to end the game. The Pittsburgh offense scored a first-half touchdown on a short field, but it had only one drive of more than 40 yards all game. This was Buffalo’s best defensive performance of the season by win probability added, ahead of its two games against the Jets.

The Steelers offense isn’t great, but it’s not as bad as it looked against the Bills in December, when it went 1-for-10 on third downs. The signs of life it showed in the second half against the Colts, who have a better defense by DVOA than Buffalo, were promising. Getting a week off also probably helped a tired group of Pittsburgh veterans at quarterback and along the offensive line, although that might not matter against a weakened Browns team in the wild-card round.

It wouldn’t shock me if we saw the Steelers defense and Allen combine for something similar to the first matchup, when the Bills scored 19 points on offense (cornerback Taron Johnson had a pick-six to get the Bills to 26). I do think the Steelers will have more success throwing the football than they did the first time around, though, and that could be enough to lead to the upset.

Prediction: Steelers 24, Bills 21

AFC Championship Game: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs

It seems like these two teams should have played more regularly in the Patrick Mahomes era, but their only prior matchup came in Week 2 of 2018, when the Chiefs star threw for six touchdowns in a 42-37 shootout. Ben Roethlisberger threw 60 times for 452 yards on the other side of the field that day, but if he tried to do that at the end of a season in 2021, his arm might fall off. If these two teams combine to approach 80 points, you would figure that the Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl. Can the Steelers keep this game from becoming a shootout?

They have a shot. Their pass rush is better now than it was at the start of 2018. The Chiefs aren’t expected to get back star right tackle Mitchell Schwartz for the postseason, which means they would have Mike Remmers going up against likely Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt. We also saw the Falcons slow down the Chiefs in Week 16 with a scheme full of zone blitzes and sim pressures, crowding the line of scrimmage and then rushing four while dropping linemen and linebackers into coverage. The Steelers aren’t coordinated by zone blitz forefather Dick LeBeau anymore, but some of those pressures are still lurking in their playbook. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar approach from Pittsburgh if it plays Kansas City again.

The problem for the Steelers is the same issue they’ve been stuck with in prior postseasons: they don’t have an answer for an athletic tight end. The Patriots beat the Steelers with Rob Gronkowski, which led the Steelers to draft Ryan Shazier. With Shazier’s career sadly coming to an end in 2017, Travis Kelce hit the Steelers for 109 yards and two touchdowns in 2018. The Steelers drafted Devin Bush to take away tight ends, but he is out for the year with a torn ACL. I’m not sure Pittsburgh has anyone who can cover Kelce, and that’s the difference in this game.

Prediction: Chiefs 30, Steelers 24

Super Bowl Prediction: New Orleans Saints vs. Kansas City Chiefs

Prediction: Saints 24, Chiefs 20

What do you think of this prediction? Do you see this being accurate, or just wishful thinking? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below, and be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the Browns on Sunday night.