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Divisional Playoff Football Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Kansas City Chiefs Betting Advice

By Paul Wilson in Sports
| January 15, 2017 12:00 am PDT
Kansas City Chiefs QB Alex Smith

Who: Pittsburgh Steelers (11–5) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (12–4)

Where: Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City, Missouri

When: Sunday, January 15, 2017. 8:20 PM (EST)

The Pittsburgh Steelers knew that weather could potentially be a factor when traveling to Kansas City to play against the Kansas City Chiefs in the open air of Arrowhead Stadium. But they probably didn’t anticipate that weather would be this big of a factor.

The original time of the game was scheduled for 1 p.m. Eastern time. But with Winter Storm Jupiter rolling through the Plains, the NFL decided to leapfrog the afternoon game (the Green Bay Packers facing the Dallas Cowboys, scheduled for 4:30 p.m.) and catapult the Steelers/Chiefs game into the evening television spot.

The reason for this was that apparently, according to Weather.com, the winter storm is anticipated to bring freezing rain to the area around the stadium.

With fans of Pittsburgh travelling so well, there’s a good argument to be made that many fans traveling to the game – both home fans and visitors – would have to endure great duress to get to the stadium so early. With a late-afternoon rain and increase in temperatures expected to decrease the amount of ice on the ground, the NFL was merely accommodating for the conditions.

Additionally, by adding an additional 7 day-time hours to the period before the game, the grounds crews in the stadium and throughout the city gain a lot of time to improve conditions around the stadium, both on the roads and on the sidewalks and walking spaces. Ideally, this will lead to a lot many fewer injuries for fans traveling to the game.

But for the players, a later start time is undoubtedly a disadvantage. It’s a common misconception among fans that players prefer to play in the nationally televised games in prime time slots. Just because the fans prefer to have the better TV crews, the high-profile status of a night game, and the convenience for scheduling, this doesn’t mean that these are the players’ priorities.

It’s true that there is a bit of a prestige element of being nationally televised (for example, the Cowboys had a stretch of four straight night games during this last month of December), and that the players undoubtedly like the idea of having their team and their game on display in front of the entire nation. But while it certainly provides motivation, it also throws off the entire day.

Players, especially players from the visiting team, generally spend most of the day of the game in the hotel, twiddling their thumbs and trying not to waste any of their energies. So a later start makes that period of anticipation all the more difficult.

And after the game, too, with night games not getting done until almost midnight on the East Coast, considering the time it takes after the game (imagine if it went into overtime!) to shower, to talk with reporters, and to make your way out of the stadium, a later start to the game can also seriously cut into your time to rest and recover afterwards. The visiting team, remember, also has to get on a plane at that point and head back to their hometown.

So for these two teams, whichever of them continues on to the next round will undoubtedly feel like they lost a few hours in their week of preparation due to the fact that the game was shifted 7 hours later.

But for these two teams, weather be damned, the start time of the game – while perhaps an annoyance – will not change the degree of heart with which they play. It’s the playoffs, and it’s win or go home for both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the playoff atmosphere is nothing new. Since drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, the Steelers have won 12 playoff games (including last week’s game against the Dolphins), and made it to the playoffs nine times out of thirteen. In three of those playoff runs with Big Ben the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl, winning two.

Over the last two seasons, in particular, the combination of Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell has brought the Steelers to the playoffs over the course of the regular season, but hasn’t meant success once they got there. This is perhaps due in part to the fact that star running back Le’Veon was absent from each of these playoff runs due to injuries late in the season.

However, Bell’s playoff debut was spectacular last week against the Dolphins, rushing for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns off of 29 carries. Antonio Brown also added 124 yards and two touchdowns of his own, on only 5 receptions. The ease with which Bell and the Steelers offensive line cut through the Miami defensive front undoubtedly gave Steelers fans a lot of confidence, making them believe that this playoff run has the very element (Bell-ement?) that was missing from the past two seasons’ flops.

Unfortunately, the road will not be an easy one, as their opponent in this Divisional matchup also has plenty of experience with postseason football. The Andy Reid-Alex Smith era in Kansas City began in 2013 and has resulted in a playoff berth for three of the following four seasons and included one of the highest regular season win percentages of any team, as well as the longest streak.

Particularly impressive has been the Chiefs’ 2016/17 campaign, in which the steady effort by John Dorsey and the Chiefs’ front office to build a capable team finally came to fruition, with the team going 12–4 and winning what is probably the toughest division in the NFL, featuring the perennially good Denver Broncos and the recent upstart Oakland Raiders.

Both of these teams have the experience on all levels to win in the postseason, and both these teams are hungry to take their success to the next level, after being shut out for at least five years. Additionally, both of these teams know each other in the current coaching-quarterback iteration, having played only two seasons ago during the regular season as well as in Week 4 of the 2016/17 season.

The stage is set for a very exciting and very meaningful game, with additional hype built in based on the effects of Winter Storm Jupiter. But regardless of the outcome for the teams and the fan bases, the matchup undoubtedly holds potential value for interested gamblers.

Let’s take a look at all of the different ways in which you could wager money on the Steelers/Chiefs game. We’ll review the moneyline odds, betting against the spread, the total score over/under, and any individual prop bets that might hold value in this matchup.

Steelers vs. Chiefs Betting

MoneyLine

  • Steelers -114
  • Chiefs -104

Picking games in terms of moneyline odds is about which team will win the game. Our philosophy for determining which team will win the game involves a holistic assessment of which team we believe will have the drive, the hunger, and the will to remain focused and fundamentally sound throughout the entire 60-minute contest.

In our experience, the team that has the determination and grit necessary to limit mistakes throughout the entire game is generally the team that ends up on top at the end of the ball game. When teams are not playing with sufficient heart, they can lose focus and make the mistakes that ultimately cost them the matchup.

During the regular season, particularly in the later stages, a team’s overall status and their postseason prospectus can make a huge difference in the amount of heart with which they play. When a team has nothing to play for in the postseason, it can change the amount of discipline with which they approach individual matchups, which very often gives the game to the playoff-bound team.

However, in the postseason, every single team is facing the same dilemma: win, or go home. This degree of pressure provides a strong, equal motivation across all playoff teams, so it’s impossible to look to this as a factor influencing motivation.

In the absence of this factor, we turn our attention to a more granular view of some of the other factors that impact the ability of a team to maintain its drive throughout the entire course of the game.

One such factor is home-field advantage, which will certainly be in play in Kansas City. Not only have the Kansas City Chiefs had a stout home-field advantage throughout the last few seasons during the Andy Reid era, but it’s also possible that the challenge provided by the weather will strengthen the sense of community and camaraderie amongst Kansas City fans, providing an even greater motivation to the team.

When fans have to endure great hardship to get to the game, and when national news media outlets are proclaiming how difficult it will be to make it to the stadium when traveling across great distances, it provides a little bit of a challenge – almost as though fans are being dared to prove their loyalty to the team. When they rise to the occasion and show up in the stadium, that chip on their shoulder shows up in the atmosphere inside the stadium, and players undoubtedly appreciate and respond to it.

So we believe that the Kansas City Chiefs do have home-field advantage in this matchup, but we don’t necessarily believe that this will sway the game one way or another. It’s also true that the Pittsburgh Steelers are among the best road teams in the entire league: the ability of Steelers fans to travel is legendary. So the same extra bit of energy provided by the weather could potentially also apply to Steelers fans as well as home fans.

A second factor we use to make a determination of which team will have the drive and determination to play a full, disciplined 60-minute game is the health of the football team. It’s pretty simple: rookies and backups make more mistakes because they have less experience, and veteran players perform big important roles as well as a host of minor but still vital roles to contribute to a team’s success.

In this case, the advantage certainly favors the Chiefs, who are coming off of a bye week which enabled them to get fully healthy, but the advantage is slight. The Steelers managed to sneak out of the home win against the Dolphins in very good health, with only two players likely to be ruled out in this matchup (linebacker Anthony Chickillo and tight end Ladarius Green) and only two players game-time decisions (defensive end Ricardo Matthews and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint).

This is a very manageable injury report, and Steelers fans have to feel good about their health headed into this road matchup. So while the health of the two football teams certainly gives the Kansas City Chiefs a slight advantage, there isn’t any major concerns (such as the absence of Le’Veon Bell in previous playoff games for the Steelers) that will sway the game one way or another.

The next factor to consider is momentum, which, to preview, is also probably a wash. In short, the Pittsburgh Steelers managed to pull off a 7-game win streak to end the season without looking dominant (a rather difficult feat in and of itself), but after bouncing back from an ugly Week 17 overtime win over the Browns in which all of the major starters sat the entire game, the Steelers regained their momentum with the big win over the Dolphins last week.

The Steelers had essentially won the game 20 minutes after kickoff – and we don’t mean 20 minutes of game time; we mean 20 minutes of real time. Going up on the Dolphins by two quick scores early, the Steelers’ in-game probability of winning started off at around 80% and never dipped below that mark.

This type of dominant performance certainly provides a lot of momentum for a team. But the Chiefs are also nursing some strong momentum of their own. The final games of the season were meaningful for the Chiefs, despite having had a playoff berth already secured, because they were competing against the Oakland Raiders for the division title and the accompanying first-round bye.

This meant that Kansas City continued to play solid football during the closing weeks of the regular season, and indeed notched their highest two point totals of the entire season in the final two games. Additionally, the argument that teams that receive playoff byes lose momentum by virtue of not having played in a Wild Card game doesn’t hold up for the Chiefs, as one of Andy Reid’s greatest specialties is coaching his teams through the bye week and coming out with guns blazing in the next game.

Taking all of these various factors together, it’s a very close call. Clearly, if you compare the spread of this game (1) to the spread of the Patriots game (16), you find that odds-makers agree with this assessment.

We give the game to the Kansas City Chiefs, ultimately, because we believe that their style of play lends itself to the type of close game that odds-makers are predicting. Throughout the entire season, the Kansas City Chiefs’ success has been built around winning games on a limited number of defensive and special teams plays, and simply refusing to allow the offense to mess that up.

On the other side, however, the “gunslinger” mentality espoused by Ben Roethlisberger is a completely contrasting style, with the aging veteran completely comfortable lobbing up 50-50 balls and trusting his receivers to make a play. Many times, it works. But we believe that with the home team hungry to capitalize and unwilling to give the Steelers any margin of error, it won’t work this time.

Pick: Chiefs to win

Spread

  • Steelers +1 (-105)
  • Chiefs -1 (-115)

Now that we’ve established our pick that the Kansas City Chiefs will gain the slightest of advantages by remaining more fundamentally sound than the Pittsburgh Steelers, making the argument to take the Chiefs moneyline, we turn our attention to the bets against the spread.

However, with the line set at only one point, picking the game against the spread is essentially the same as picking the game moneyline. So in this case, we will instead simply try to shore up our argument against the Pittsburgh Steelers by examining the two offenses involved, and specifically whether or not either quarterback has what it takes to win the game by themselves.

In the case of the Steelers, their potent passing attack and pounding run game was certainly on display last week, and gave many fans the inclination that they are simply unstoppable. This could be the reason why the home team is getting so little love from odds-makers, as there are a lot of people that like to bet on the Pittsburgh Steelers despite being only casual fans of the game.

And while the Steelers did put on a show against the Dolphins, this doesn’t necessarily convince us that they will be able to do so against the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense. Before we even go into that defense, though, and how it could potentially match up against the Pittsburgh offense, first let’s just simply consider the offense itself.

While the aggregated statistics for Roethlisberger are certainly as solid as they always are, (top 5 in both passing yards and touchdowns this season; throwing 29 touchdowns and 13 interceptions; a fine quarterback rating at 95.4), Roethlisberger just hasn’t quite passed “the eye test” for us in 2016/17.

It’s undoubtedly true that he is still the same Super Bowl winning quarterback, and his toughness was once again on display with how incredibly quickly he recovered from a torn meniscus early in the season, but the fact of the matter is that Roethlisberger just seems to throw a couple balls up for grabs each and every game.

In our experience watching the Steelers throughout the course of the season, the tight command that characterized his earlier career has given way to a more laissez-faire approach, in which he seems to support the idea of putting up 50-50 balls for his incredible receivers to come down with.

More often than not, his receivers do come down with the football, making the approach pay off. However, this is a very feast-or-famine approach, and not one that gives us an overabundance of confidence heading into what is likely to be a hotly-contested divisional playoff matchup. Last week it was certainly ‘feast’ for the Steelers; this week it could just as easily be famine.

For Alex Smith and the Chiefs, while they may undoubtedly get a bad rap for being one of the less dynamic offenses in the league, the proof is in the pudding. The Chiefs have won at least nine games in each of the last four seasons, performing well enough to win on offense in each of the last two seasons despite being without dynamic playmaker Jamaal Charles.

Furthermore, it’s not as though the Chiefs only rely on their defense to win close games. During the course of the regular season the Chiefs won several high-scoring matchups, putting up 33 and 37 points against the Chargers, 27 against the Saints, 29 against the Falcons, 26 against the Raiders, 30 against the Broncos, and 30 against the Colts.

So even in these 7 games, in which their opponent scored an average of 22 points, the Chiefs nonetheless won each of the 7, scoring an average of 30 points. Notably, these 7 wins are a full two field goals ahead of their season average for points scored (24 points per game), indicating that when the opponent scores points, the Chiefs are able to respond with points of their own.

In summary, even if Ben Roethlisberger and his complement of weapons were able to move the ball and put up a large number of points on offense in this game, we still don’t think by any means that this somehow spells disaster for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs have been winning high-scoring games all season: perhaps they just do so more quietly than most.

Pick: Chiefs to win by more than 1

Total Score

  • Over 45 (-105)
  • Under 45 (-115)

Now that we’ve established our view of the game as a tight, hard-fought matchup that ultimately ends up with the Chiefs making fewer mistakes than the Pittsburgh Steelers, let’s now turn our attention to the total score bet, in order to determine whether or not we believe this will be a high- or low-scoring game.

Our approach in picking the over/under is generally to appraise the ability of the defenses involved in the matchup to hold their opposing offense to few points, which involves getting off the field on third downs and keeping the opposing team from scoring in the red zone.

In the case of the Kansas City Chiefs, the statistics don’t lie. The Chiefs have the 7th-ranked scoring defense, allowing less than 20 points per game over the course of the regular season, despite not being able to hold the ball for long drives on offense.

What this means is that despite the fact that the Kansas City defense has been thrown against the 27th-most in the entire league (in terms of total attempts) and has been run against the 24th-most in the league, they nonetheless ended up at 15th in the league in total passing touchdowns allowed, and 5th in the league in rushing touchdowns allowed.

The reason for this astonishing success despite having an incredibly high number of attempts is pretty simple: turnovers. The Chiefs are top in the league in both interceptions and fumbles. This paints the picture of a defense that isn’t scared of anyone, and understands that even if the opposing team can move the ball or even if they get into the red zone, the team will still be able to make a play to get a turnover and stop the drive.

In this game, even though we believe that Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will have just as big an influence on the course of the game as they did last week against the Dolphins, we believe that the defensive players for the Chiefs will simply have more to say in response. We see players like Justin Houston, Marcus Peters, and Eric Berry having a huge impact on the game, and we see Ben Roethlisberger giving them the opportunity to get their hands on the ball in one way or another.

On the other side of the ball, the Steelers’ regular season statistics don’t exactly tell the full story of their ability to limit Alex Smith and the Chiefs’ offense in this game, due to the fact that they improved significantly throughout the course of the season.

The Steelers came up empty in terms of takeaways in three of their first nine games and went 4–5, allowing an average of just under 24 points on defense and around 380 yards per game. Subsequently, during their 7 game win streak to end the season and tacking on the win last week over the Dolphins, the Steelers defense tightened up considerably, allowing just under 18 points per game, around 308 yards of offense, recording at least one turnover in each of these games for a total of 19.

So the Steelers have finally started to play complementary football, with their defense generating turnovers and limiting the opponents’ opportunities, as well as giving the ball back more often to Big Ben and the offense.

The Chiefs should undoubtedly provide some serious matchup difficulties, however, as the NFL’s leader in yards per snap Tyreek Hill provides a huge challenge that was not at all present when these two teams met in Week 4. At that point in his rookie season, Hill was still learning the playbook and figuring out how to be a difference-maker in the NFL. At this point, he’s pretty well figured it out.

The biggest thing that Hill provides the offense, in addition to effective running back and occasional wildcat quarterback Spencer Ware, is yet another tool in Andy Reid’s arsenal for calling interesting plays and putting diverse formations out on the field. With Travis Kelce creating matchup problems down the middle of the field and Alex Smith an eminently mobile quarterback (who has two more touchdowns than Spencer Ware on the season), the addition of Hill on offense makes the Chiefs hard to defend.

For these reasons, we believe that despite the fact that many fans are pounding the under in this game, we instead like the over. We believe that Ben Roethlisberger will give the Chiefs opportunities to score on defense; we believe that Tyreek Hill will be responsible for either drives continuing or points being scored on offense; and we believe that Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown can be contained, but can’t be stopped, and that they will account for at least two touchdowns between them.

All of this combines together for a high-scoring game that features a little bit of everything, but this “little bit of everything” includes some defensives stops, as well, so we hesitate to put the score too high. We like both teams to account two offensive touchdowns, we give the Chiefs an additional touchdown in another phase of the game, and then we tack on a spattering of field goals to end up at the final score presented below.

Pick: Chiefs 27, Steelers 23

Prop Bets

Now that we’ve established our view of the game as a very exciting contest that contains elements of the strengths of both teams speaking into the game and accounting for a large amount of points and splash plays in all three phases, let’s turn our attention to the ways in which we can capitalize on this foreknowledge of the game by wagering on individual prop bets.

In terms of futures, we don’t recommend placing wagers on either of these teams to win the AFC Championship Game or the Super Bowl. The odds are certainly most favorable for these two teams of any (Steelers +900 to win the Super bowl; Chiefs +800), but this is only because the gambling public (ourselves included) think that the Patriots could beat either of these teams in the AFC Championship.

In terms of individual player bets, we would avoid all of the Chiefs skill players on offense, despite the intriguing possibilities of gambling on Tyreek Hill to have a breakout game in his first playoff performance. The game is quite simply not going to be lopsided enough for any offensive skill player on the Chiefs to get enough opportunities to swing their total towards the over.

Additionally, the Pittsburgh Steelers rank in the bottom five of teams in the NFL this season in terms of both touchdowns and yards given up to opposing quarterbacks on rushing attempts. In the entire season, only one touchdown was scored by a quarterback rush against the Pittsburgh Steelers. So we wouldn’t feel particularly confident placing wagers on Alex Smith to either rush for a lot of yards or score a touchdown with his legs.

In the same way, despite the fact that we believe Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown certainly contribute to the game in a meaningful way, we’re just not confident enough that they will be able to go over their posted totals to merit wagering on them for prop bets. It’s just too close to call.

The one bet that we do feel relatively confident about is whether or not a defensive or special teams touchdown will be scored. With Tyreek Hill in the ball game, the Chiefs leading the league in turnovers, and the track record of Kansas City throughout the regular season, we do believe that the statistics support the argument. But more so, for us, we simply “have a feeling,” which may not mean anything in the end, but bears mentioning nonetheless.

Summary: Best Bets

In summary, we believe that this matchup pitting the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Kansas City Chiefs holds interest not just because of the drama provided by Winter Storm Jupiter, but also because of how close this game is to call. We foresee a little of everything being added into the conversation of the game, with Pittsburgh’s offense having something to say on spectacular play from Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, with Kansas City’s defense adding to the dialogue with some turnovers and splash plays of their own; we see Tyreek Hill speaking a few lines, and we ultimately think that the last word will go to the Kansas City Chiefs, who will end up winning a close game by making just one or two fewer mistakes than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Here are our best bets:

  • The Chiefs moneyline (-104)
  • The Chiefs against the spread (-1, -115)
  • Over 45 total points scored (-105)
  • Will a defensive or special teams touchdown be scored? (Yes)

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