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Ben Roethlisberger pumps his fist.
AP Photo/Brett Carlsen, File

Inside this column

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s Great Gamesmanship
  • Ranking the Playoff Contenders by One Stat
  • Why One Personnel Man Wouldn’t Sign Lamar Jackson

Ben Roethlisberger pulled a brilliant psychological game in what is likely the last game of his career.

Roethlisberger agreed with what so many people are saying about this year’s NFL playoffs: The Steelers just don’t belong. As Roethlisberger readily admitted, the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t a very good football team. Frankly, they don’t belong in the playoffs and should get blown out (again) by Kansas City in a game that features a staggering 12.5-point spread for the Chiefs to cover.

All of that said, Roethlisberger’s admission was a great bit of gamesmanship. In the process of saying that, he did everything he could to make the Chiefs feel overconfident. Simply put, the Kansas City Chiefs under quarterback Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid have been terrible frontrunners over the past two seasons.

Ben Roethlisberger’s Clever Gamesmanship

That dates all the way to Kansas City’s Super Bowl victory against San Francisco two seasons ago and even to a few playoff games prior to that. It’s fair to say that no NFL team has underwhelmed more than the Chiefs. And yes, the Chiefs were the AFC Champion last season and might have won the Super Bowl if not for the staggering injuries they suffered on the offensive line. To say that the Chiefs are an underachieving organization is a bit apocryphal.

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Furthermore, to point to their awful performance against betting lines during the 2020 and 2021 seasons is not necessarily fair. Betting lines are driven as much by emotion and perception as they are about pure statistical performance. It is also hard to find much that’s wrong with any team that has won nine of its past 10 games.

But if you have really watched the Chiefs play over the past two seasons, there is one overwhelming trend that has emerged: This is a team that rarely plays a complete game from start to finish. The Chiefs play well in spurts, generally doing enough during a portion of most games to win. They rarely put away opponents.

Or, in coaching parlance, they play with their food too much.

That trend has resurfaced in three of the past four games this season. The Chiefs went to overtime against the Los Angeles Chargers before winning. They let an 11-point lead against Cincinnati fritter away in the second half as Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase destroyed them and the Chiefs offense also disappeared. The Chiefs let an eliminated Denver team hang with them even as Kansas City dominated the time of possession.

Patrick Mahomes smiles during a Chiefs game.
Andy Lyons via Getty Images

There have been plenty of other games like that this season for the Chiefs. They let Baltimore come back against them in Week 2 and let the Chargers beat them in Week 3. They were thumped by Tennessee and barely got by in games against the New York Giants and an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay team.

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What’s the problem? Any answer is pretty much psychobabble, but the Chiefs often play like a team that is bored. They know they’re great and need some type of challenge to wake them up. A lot of that has to do with Mahomes, who is a wonderful young man with a sense of humility and a desire to be likable. While Mahomes has obvious confidence, he does’t have that prickly quality that you sometimes need.

That’s the weekly and sometimes daily desire to just bury opponents and destroy their will. It’s there, just not consistently. It’s especially not there when Mahomes has been there and done that.

And the last opponent the Chiefs buried was the Steelers three weeks ago in a 36-10 game that wasn’t really that competitive. This playoff game should be more of the same. The Steelers are simply putrid on offense right now. Consider this stunning stat: In the first half of Pittsburgh’s eight road games this season, they have scored a total of 29 points. That’s an average of 3.6 points in the first half of eight games. They are also the only team in the playoffs with a negative average yards per pass play differential (more on that later).

And that has only gotten worse as the season has gone on. Over their past four road games, the Steelers have scored only six points in the first half. They are 2-5 this season against playoff teams, including an improbable opening-week win against Buffalo. Four of the five losses have been by double digits. They are dangerous because they still have some interesting stars, but their overall attack is undermined by huge holes, such as on the offensive line.

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In short, Pittsburgh is a team that a true championship contender should hammer. The Chiefs did that once. They need to do it again. If not, you have to really wonder if the Chiefs have the mentality to get back to their third straight Super Bowl and win their second. Furthermore, you have to wonder if we will someday look back at this period of Reid, Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill and wonder one simple question.

Why didn’t they win more than one title?

With that in mind, give Roethlisberger a lot of credit for the mind game that he just played with the Chiefs. He made them as overconfident as you can possibly imagine. That’s the best hope this awful Steelers team has.

Yards Per Pass Play Differential: Playoff Edition

Jimmy Garoppolo smiles while holding a football
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Good friend Dutch Wydo has provided his numbers for the 14 playoff teams, which leads to the following ranking of those teams and evaluation of their Super Bowl championship chances. For those who don’t recall my previous version of this ranking, yards per pass play differential is the average distance of yards that teams gain of offense when they pass compared to what they allow on defense when their opponent passes. It is one of the strongest indicators of a team’s potential to win a championship.

So here goes:

  1. San Francisco +1.7: This is the best darkhorse to win a title. The 49ers are far from perfect with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and an inconsistent secondary. However, their combination of power running game and stout defensive front make them a handful for any team. They overcame a four-game losing streak in the middle of the season to get back in contention. They are 4-4 against playoff teams this season, including two road wins (at Cincinnati and the Los Angeles Rams) and narrow losses to Green Bay and Tennessee. Also remember, this is a team that had a 10-point lead with one quarter to go in the Super Bowl two years ago.
  2. Green Bay +1.4: Much has been made of Aaron Rodgers making up with the Packers organization this season, including his own recent comments about General Manager Brian Gutekunst. A lot of that has to do with how well the Packers and Rodgers are playing, which is reflected in this statistic. However, if the Packers don’t take advantage of this strong season (just as they failed to do so last year), you have to wonder if that will send the mercurial Rodgers into another tizzy where he demands to get out. Don’t think it can’t happen.
  3. Buffalo +1.3: Are the Bills the team that started the season 4-1 and ended it with a four-game winning streak and five consecutive games with at least 27 points? Or are they the team that was 3-5 in the middle of the season, including ugly losses to Jacksonville, Indianapolis and New England? A big problem for the Bills has been the consistency of their running game. But this is a full-on contending team…when they are right.
  4. New England +1.3: This has been a wonderful bounce-back season for the Patriots and finding Mac Jones gives them hope for the future. However, there’s nothing about the Patriots offense that scares anybody and they are bad when having to play from behind. This is a team driven by an underrated defense and a quarterback who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, which works in the regular season. Can Jones be the first rookie quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl? It would be a fun story. Don’t bet on it.
  5. Cincinnati +1.3: It’s tempting to anoint this Bengals team as the future of the NFL after seeing Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and the rest of the crew dazzled this season. But this is the Bengals and there’s a reason this organization has never won a Super Bowl. Ownership of the Bengals does not know how to finish the deal. That said, this team can play with anybody and no team this year is invincible. If the Bengals hoist the Lombardi Trophy in a few weeks, it would make sense. But it would also go against everything in their history.
  6. Tampa Bay +1.2: The defending champions are still the team to beat and they have the greatest winner in the history of the game running the show. But even Tom Brady can’t both throw it and catch it. The losses of Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown (along with the other injuries) may simply be too much for this veteran team to overcome. At the same time, it’s Brady and we’ve seen him do much more with far less. In fact, Brown’s recent shots at Brady may be enough fuel for another Brady run.
  7. Las Vegas +1.2: This is not a typo and people who don’t take the Raiders seriously tend to get bitten in the rear. At the same time, Raiders fans should proceed with caution. The Raiders are good and almost great statistically. Where they kill themselves is with penalties and Derek Carr fumbles. In fact, they were lucky to survive another Carr fumble on Sunday night against the Chargers. The Raiders also haven’t really shown up against good teams. They are 4-0 in overtime and 5-1 in games decided by a field goal or less. In other words, they have won a lot of games that can flip on a play or two. They were 2-4 against playoff teams, including blowout losses to Kansas City (twice) and Cincinnati. There has been progress. Probably not enough.
  8. L.A. Rams +1.0: The Rams are a representation of the movie “Let It Ride” with Richard Dreyfuss. No team has gambled its future on a title this heavily since the 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs made the massive trade for coach Jon Gruden. The Rams probably can keep this situation going for another season, but as the Red Hot Chili Peppers — the greatest rock band to ever come out of L.A. — once sang, “Never been a better time than right now.”
  9. Dallas +0.8: Like the Raiders, there has been a lot of progress in Dallas, especially after the disaster of the 2020 season. The Cowboys led the league in scoring and have made the full transition to this being Dak Prescott’s team, which is wise. That said, there’s still something I don’t trust about Prescott on third down in a playoff game, and Dallas’ 3-4 record this season against playoff teams includes a 2-0 mark against thoroughly mediocre Philadelphia.
  10. Arizona +0.7: At one point around Week 10, the Cardinals stood at over +2.0 yards per pass differential. The loss of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and defensive lineman J.J. Watt have killed both sides of the ball and have exposed the fact that the Cardinals running game is something of a mirage when they can’t play wide open sets. Still, there’s a ton of talent here if they can somehow get healthy.
  11. Tennessee +0.6: Mike Vrabel is the only former Bill Belichick disciple to really make any headway as a head coach because he understands the fundamentals of football. It’s about being physical. That’s why gaudy numbers don’t mean as much for the Titans (or most of the years that the Patriots won championships). The Titans play a very basic brand of football that limits mistakes. They have continued to do that even with Derrick Henry injured. The one drawback is that it’s hard to see Ryan Tannehill making enough big plays to win a title.
  12. Philadelphia +0.5: Like San Francisco, the Eagles are a great running team. Like San Francisco, the Eagles have a limited quarterback. Unlike San Francisco, Philly doesn’t have a single wide receiver who scares you yet. If the Eagles win even one playoff game, it will be remarkable.
  13. Kansas City +0.1: The best thing to happen to the Chiefs may have been losing the top overall seed in the AFC and having to be under pressure. The Chiefs respond best when challenged. The problem is that they are so talented that they rarely think anything is much of a challenge. One day, we’re probably going to look back at this era and think, “Man, K.C. should have won a lot more titles.” They are still the most dangerous team in the field. They have to play like it.
  14. Pittsburgh -0.8: The Steelers are like the 50-year-old guy who still goes to the club for drinks on Friday, ignoring the fact that you’ve gained 50 pounds, the clothes don’t fit and you can’t drink like you used to. It’s kind of sad, but nobody is quite ready to kick you out. Suffice to say, this is Ben Roethlisberger’s farewell, so that will be enough of a storyline to cover up for all the ugly sweat stains that have become apparent to the other club goers.

First Round Predictions

Tom Brady Stands Behind His Offensive Line
Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

AFC

  • Cincinnati 27, Las Vegas 13: This could be uglier if Zac Taylor really pushes the Bengals. He won’t. Not his style.
  • Buffalo 24, New England 10: The only way this is really competitive is if the weather is horrible again and limits Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
  • Kansas City 34, Pittsburgh 9: The only thing that could make this close is if the Chiefs decide to play with their food.

NFC

  • Tampa Bay 31, Philadelphia 13: This will not be as close as the score indicates.
  • San Francisco 24, Dallas 23: This is going to be a great, great game, although I still can’t see either of these quarterbacks winning a title.
  • Los Angeles Rams 38 Arizona 30: The NFL picked a good game for their first Monday night playoff game. Should be a track meet, which is the way they both like to play.

Notes & Lamar Jackson’s Future

Lamar Jackson warms up before playing the Browns in 2021.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images
  • Any team that doesn’t seriously consider hiring the likes of Brian Daboll or Greg Roman, the respective offensive coordinators for Buffalo and Baltimore, really doesn’t get it. Moreover, teams that don’t show interest in them probably fall for the stereotype of not wanting to hire short head coaches. Daboll has developed Josh Allen and worked with both Tua Tagavailoa and Jalen Hurts at Alabama. As for Roman, he maximized the abilities of both Lamar Jackson and Colin Kaepernick with his ability to be creative.
  • Speaking of Jackson, one NFL personnel man said that he wouldn’t give Jackson a long-term deal at this point. “He hasn’t improved as a passer at all and he probably never will. At the most, I’d franchise him,” the personnel man said. “I still want to keep him because he’s so dynamic and you hope the passing will come around, but I’m not investing $40 million a year.” That’s tough to argue. Jackson played in 11 full games this season. Outside of his brilliant game against Indianapolis (37 of 43, 442 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions), he was bad. He has 12 TD pass and 13 interceptions in the other 10 games. In addition, outside of that Colts game, his completion percentage continued to dip to 61.4 percent.
  • The Sunday night game between the Chargers and Raiders was fascinating, particularly for a game in which a tie suited the interests of both teams. With that in mind, I have a couple of huge questions about the consistency of thinking by Los Angeles coach Brandon Staley. While I’m not a big fan of his decision to go on fourth-and-1 at his own 20 in the first half, but if that’s his predetermined idea about how to win the game, I’m good with that. Likewise, if he called timeout at the end of overtime with the intention of trying to win the game, I’m OK with that. However, if Staley is playing all-out to win the game in those situations, why did he play for a tie at the end of regulation instead of go for a two-point conversion? Likewise, if the reason he called timeout (as he explained after the game) was to get the right defensive personnel in the game, why didn’t you do that earlier in the 42 seconds between when the previous play was run and when you called timeout and, worst of all, why did that personnel then allow a 10-yard run that go the Raiders into field goal range? Finally, if your goal was to win the game (even though you didn’t need to), why did you wait so long to call the timeout?

MORE: Cole’s Thoughts: A Scout?s Opinion on Baker Mayfield + Why Cam Akers is a Secret Weapon

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Jason Cole has covered the NFL since 1992 and has been a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame since 2012. He is the author of seven books, including the biography of John Elway (Elway: A Relentless Life).
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