In a year without a dominant wire-to-wire favorite, the NFL was left with a score of good but ultimately flawed teams. In the divisional round, that gave a decisive advantage to teams with the best quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are here. Matt Ryan, the likely NFL MVP based on statistical accomplishments, is here. And Ben Roethlisberger, a probable Hall of Famer, is bringing up the rear.
That said, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the one team left that's actually balanced. Per Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics—which measure down-by-down success rate and adjusts for competition—they have the best defense of any remaining playoff team. And the split is more pronounced down the stretch:
While much was made of Kansas City's offensive woes on Sunday night, it was just another notch in the belt for Pittsburgh's defense. The Steelers shut down Tyreek Hill, holding the speedster to just 45 offensive yards. They hurried Alex Smith into a 58 percent completion rate. And on the key holding call on Eric Fisher that ruined the Chiefs' two-point conversion to tie the score, well, someone had to beat Fisher to draw the hold. Of Kansas City's three scoring drives, two of them started at midfield, and one of those went 18 yards and produced a long field goal.
Pittsburgh turned their season around when they started getting a rush off the edge. They went from eight sacks at their Week 8 bye to 35 sacks in their final nine weeks. The ageless James Harrison and second-year first-rounder Bud Dupree have led the way: Dupree has five sacks in his last six games, and Harrison has 2.5 in two Steelers playoff wins. Despite losing end Cameron Heyward, this is a strong front that can bring pressure inside, as well.
The Steelers' rookie class hasn't been praised much, but it also has been one of the key factors in the team's defensive turnaround. Third-round nose tackle Javon Hargrave has helped stuff the run and is a load to handle one-on-one. Rangy, position-shifting second-rounder Sean Davis has helped Pittsburgh's secondary become tighter. First-round corner Artie Burns hasn't been incredible, but he has fared about as well you'd hope for a rookie playing one of the toughest positions for newcomers in the NFL.
Coming into the AFC Championship game, the Steelers should be confident that their defense can stalemate Brady and the New England Patriots. While the Pats scored 34 points against the Houston Texans, seven of those came on a special teams runback, and seven more came when a Brock Osweiler interception was returned inside the Houston 10. New England's offense was functional, but not overwhelming. The only area they had a matchup edge was their running backs in space against the Texans' linebackers—they scored two passing touchdowns against Houston linebacker Bernardrick McKinney in the open field.
Pittsburgh allowed the highest DVOA to No. 1 receivers of any team in the league this year, permitting a 19.9 percent rating. This isn't a surprise, given that the Steelers don't really have a true No. 1 corner. However, New England's receiving talent is depleted without Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman as a possession receiver is not an intimidating matchup.
New England's offensive line will have to perform better against frontline pressure than it did against Houston. Brady was sacked twice and hit eight times as the Texans attacked with an array of stunts and inside moves designed to keep him from being able to step up in the pocket. That game plan will not be unfamiliar or hard for Pittsburgh to emulate. Linebacker Ryan Shazier, one of the fastest in the league, will be a sore spot for the Patriots when the Steelers threaten to blitz up the middle.
When I think of Pittsburgh over the past couple seasons, I think of a team that has never been healthy enough to win the shootouts it has the personnel to play in. Roethlisberger seems to always be dinged up—just as he was before a meeting with New England in the regular season. Le'Veon Bell has missed a lot of games to suspensions. Ditto Martavis Bryant, who has missed the entire season.
But the Steelers' defensive surge means it may not matter if their offense can't put up 35 points in any given game. Pittsburgh couldn't execute in the red zone against Kansas City last week, and they still won. Tough defense enables the Steelers to play a different kind of game than any other team left in the playoffs: ride Bell and a talented offensive line to grind clock, keep the ball out of the hands of the other team, and then turn it over to Harrison, Dupree, and company. It's the same formula Denver used to great success in last year's playoffs.
None of this is to say that Pittsburgh is a lock to go beyond this weekend. Still, the Steelers are the only team left that can have an offensive blunder or two and still stay in a game, and that certainly doesn't hurt their odds.
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