The truth hurts. It’s a universal, well...truth. I know it, you know it. We each see our own world through tinted lenses that allow us to witness that which excites us or makes us happy, while ignoring the reality that our world is merely subject to the greater world around us.
Perhaps, that applies more to our sports fandom than anywhere else. Those of us who exhibit the true meaning of “fan” — short for “fanatic”, after all — could probably debate all day about how our team is better than their team.
Well, those of you who are fans of the Cleveland Browns, L.A. Rams or Jacksonville Jaguars can be forgiven if this all sounds foreign to you. For the rest of you, don’t pretend you have no idea what I’m talking about.
The truth is, each of the remaining AFC teams is flawed. Some more so than others. With the divisional round of the NFL playoffs just three days away, it’s a great time to examine just that.
Yes, believe it or not, they are a flawed team. You have to be, to lose to the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots are on a seven-game winning streak since losing to the Seattle Seahawks, but the list of quarterbacks they have played is underwhelming: Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick (twice), Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian and Matt Moore. Moore didn’t even throw 100 passes during the regular season, and among the rest of them, the highest rated was Kaepernick. That, by itself, speaks volumes to the level of competition the Patriots have faced in the last seven games. Twelve of their 16 games were played against offenses ranked in the bottom half of the league. The only one of the six worst offenses in the NFL they didn’t play was the Chicago Bears. The problem is, it’s hard to tell how they’re flawed, because their level of competition has been so bad that we can’t really gauge it.
When it comes to limiting points, the Texans have done pretty well for themselves: they are the 11th-best scoring defense in the league. But when it comes to scoring points with their offense, they’re worse than everyone except the Jets, Browns and Rams. They are one of three playoff teams this year, along with the Dolphins and the Lions, to have a negative points differential. That means they give up more points than they score, and that’s not a very effective way to win games. They spent a lot of money to land quarterback Brock Osweiler in free agency, and he literally hasn’t played above replacement-QB level, having been outplayed more than once by his backups.
The reality for the Texans is this: they got in by virtue of being the best team in the worst division in the league, and they got past the wildcard round because their opponents, the Raiders, lost their starting quarterback with two games to go in the season. This week’s game against the Patriots is a rematch from earlier in the season when the Texans lost by 27 points. This could be one of the worst divisional-round games ever played.
If you’ve read any forward-looking articles on this site this week, you are, by now, acutely aware of both the strengths and the flaws of the Chiefs. The conversation has been animated, to say the least.
Their strengths lie in their defensive secondary, their run game and their tight end. They have forced a lot of turnovers this year, and they haven’t exactly given back their fair share of turnovers. Cornerback Marcus Peters, safety Eric Berry and tight end Travis Kelce each are in the top tier at their respective positions.
But they have a run defense that is more than suspect, and they’re facing one of the top-3 rushing attacks in the league. A week ago, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell shredded the Dolphins’ 30th-ranked run defense for a team playoff record of 167 yards and two touchdowns. The Chiefs are only marginally better at 26th, and they were gashed by Bell for 144 yards when the two teams met in Pittsburgh in Week 4 of the regular season. Bell averaged a ridiculous eight yards per carry in that game.
But it wasn’t just Bell who fared well. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had, statistically, his finest day of the year, completing 22 of 27 passes (81.5 percent) for 300 yards and five touchdowns, good for a near-perfect rating of 152.5. In particular, his two touchdown throws to Antonio Brown were as well-placed as they could possibly be, and were all but indefensible.
The Chiefs’ offense has had a tendency to stall, having scored just 34 touchdowns to their 33 field goals. By comparison, the Steelers have 33 touchdowns through the air alone. But, thanks to the short fields which the Kansas City defense often creates, the Chiefs ended the season with just 10 fewer points than Pittsburgh.
Like I said: the truth hurts. And the truth is that the Steelers are as deeply flawed as anyone left in the AFC. Their biggest flaw is that they are a very different team on the road than they are at home. A week after beating the Dolphins by 18 at Heinz Field, the Steelers are likely to spend the rest of the playoffs — however long that might be — on the road, unless Houston pulls out an absolute miracle against the Patriots this weekend. In particular, Ben Roethlisberger seems to have a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing going on between home games and road matchups. To be fair, they did win their last four road games, but it wasn’t as if they were playing a Who’s Who of the NFL.
The only other real flaw the Steelers have on offense is the lack of a true No. 2 receiver. Eli Rogers, Demarcus Ayers and Sammie Coates have contributed throughout the season, but none has laid definitive claim to be the second starter opposite Brown.
Defensively, depth at all levels is a big concern. The defensive line has struggled to simply field enough warm bodies at times, but even the backups have done well. L.T. Walton, Dan McCullers and John Maxsey have played admirably, but the squad lost Cameron Heyward for the season and has lost Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt and Ricardo Mathews for stretches.
Outside linebacker is less of an issue now since the return of Bud Dupree and the promotion of ageless wonder James Harrison back to a full-time starter on the right side. But behind them, the depth is underwhelming. The same goes for cornerback, where Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns are playing very solid football, but really only boast a single, legitimate backup in William Gay. And at safety, Robert Golden is a solid backup, but this might be the level at which the loss of a single player would sting the most. Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell may be the two most important players on the defense right now, and are both playing as well as they have at any time this year.
Finally, the Steelers’ special teams have been nothing short of dreadful outside of placekicker Chris Boswell and punter Jordan Berry. Half the time, they can’t get out of their own way, and can’t get into their opponent’s way. When they don’t stop the returner or get a decent return of their own, they usually end up with a penalty. When they don’t earn a flag, they either give up a long return or get dropped for a loss of their own. If not for Boswell and Berry, this unit would be cover-your-eyes bad.
So, as the games unwind this weekend, don’t forget: none of these teams are unbeatable. Each of them is significantly broken in their own ways. That’s true every season, of course, but each team is different and bears analyzing. That analysis, inevitably, reveals one incontrovertible fact: the truth really does hurt.