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The Steelers have a better chance against the Chiefs than you might think

Anything can happen come January, and the numbers back that up.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Opposing the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs in the postseason is no small task, especially on the road. On Wednesday, Ben Roethlisberger readily acknowledged such a challenge – and even took it a step further with some sarcastic comments (that were, rather unexpectedly, spun into a legitimate narrative).

Roethlisberger was far from the only Pittsburgh captain to joke about his team’s allegedly sub-zero odds against the reigning AFC champions. Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward was similarly playful about his team being underdogs by only two touchdowns.

Entering the Steelers’ Wild Card match, the vast majority of NFL fans expect Mike Tomlin’s squad to be absolutely pummeled in Arrowhead Stadium. While analysts across multiple platforms have suggested more of a slugfest and less lopsided contest, football enthusiasts have harkened back to the Chiefs’ 36-10 drubbing of the Steelers three weeks ago as proof that Pittsburgh stands no chance.

Patrick Mahomes is 5-1 at home in the playoffs, a figure that implies a rather grim outlook for Pittsburgh on Sunday night. However, league-wide and Roethlisberger-specific numbers indicate that the Steelers are certainly capable of shocking the world and postponing Roethlisberger’s presumptive retirement.

If the playoffs feel more exciting due to close games and a number of upsets, that’s no coincidence.

During the 2017-20 seasons, at least two Wild Card teams won in each year while playing away from their home stadiums. Last season, the NFL expanded the playoffs to include seven teams per conference, yielding two additional Wild Card matchups; in the first year of the “Super Wild Card Weekend,” road squads went 4-2, including impressive victories from the Ravens in Nashville, the Rams in Seattle and, yes, the Browns in Pittsburgh.

Expanding further, away teams are 12-10 in the Wild Card portion since 2015, and that metric becomes even more optimistic when eliminating the 0-4 mark of road units in 2016 Wild Card games.

How does this compare to teams’ overall success away from home turf? In 2021, road opponents went 131-140-1, good for a .482 winning percentage – much lower than the .545 clip at which road Wild Card teams have won in the last five seasons. In other words, having home-field advantage in the Wild Card Round far from guarantees reaching the Divisional.

As of Friday evening, the Steelers are 12.5-point underdogs for Sunday’s showdown (sorry, Cam Heyward, but it’s not two scores just yet). Teams that are expected to lose, at least according to Las Vegas, also have an uptick in performance come January.

From 2016-20, underdogs had a 10-12 record in Wild Card contests. Contrast that with this year’s regular-season mark for squads that were not favored – 100-173-1 – and it becomes apparent that higher seeds and/or “better” teams don’t always handle business and move on.

Moreover, two conditions for the Steelers’ matchup with the Chiefs are arguably in Roethlisberger’s favor: playing on the road and opposing a team twice in the same year.

Let’s start with No. 7’s success away from Heinz Field in the playoffs. Roethlisberger is 5-3 (.625) on the road in January (excluding Super Bowls); for context, Tom Brady is 7-4 (.636), and Aaron Rodgers is a middling 5-6. Simply put, the 18-year veteran is not fazed by raucous crowds or deleterious fans.

More specifically, Roethlisberger is 3-4 in the Wild Card Round, but two of the three victories have come as a visitor – ironically, both are in Cincinnati (2005 and 2015).

Some consider playing a team in the postseason after battling them in the regular season a positive, especially if a squad won the first meeting. However, Roethlisberger’s numbers indicate that winning once does not equate to winning twice.

When facing teams that he went 0-1 against in the regular season, the gritty gunslinger is 3-4 in the playoffs. Conversely, Roethlisberger is 4-4 versus squads against which he had gone 1-0 during the regular year.

What do these records demonstrate? Going 1-0 against a team in the regular season and the playoffs is no sure bet. Considering the Chiefs’ injuries in the Steelers-Chiefs matchup earlier this year, this may be especially true.

When the Steelers were bludgeoned in Kansas City, Mahomes did not have Travis Kelce at his disposal; that absence makes the Chiefs’ win all the more impressive.

Yet Kelce not being able to play could have caused some issues for Tomlin and the Steelers, as they had to plan to halt guys who had far less tape – e.g. Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman. Obviously, this didn’t work as Tomlin intended; Pringle accumulated six catches for 75 yards and two scores, and Hardman had a touchdown of his own.

In this bout, though, all signs indicate that Kelce will be active. Kelce is an all-world tight end, and his presence alone will probably cause Keith Butler nightmares; at the same time, Pittsburgh can at least have somewhat a better idea of how to contain him, especially since the Steelers have battled the three-time All-Pro in January before.

Sure, the Steelers are capable of being wholly embarrassed in Arrowhead for the second time this season. It’s easy to envision an inconsistent offense struggling to score even 20 points – good luck holding Mahomes & Co. to that number.

At the same time, the cliché has been proven true time and time again: anything can happen in the playoffs. All you need is a chance – with an experienced quarterback and coach, plus a number of superstars and a hungry young roster, the Steelers definitely have one.