The Kansas City Chiefs clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with their 17-14 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16. The Pittsburgh Steelers halted a three-game losing streak and clinched the NFC North with their come-from-behind 28-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts. So everything is A-OK with the two conference frontrunners, and we can pencil them into the AFC Championship Game in a few weeks, right? Not so fast.
Week 16 NFL Recap piece | The curious historical significance of the Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick dynamic
A pair of narrow wins by the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers, at the end of a month of general vulnerability by both teams, raised as many questions as they answered. And while NFL Recap still thinks one of these teams will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, the conference playoff chase is suddenly tighter than ever.
Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts recap
The Colts appeared to be in complete control of the game after taking a 24-7 lead and stopping the Steelers at the goal line midway through the third quarter. Then the Steelers came alive on both sides of the ball at once.
Ben Roethlisberger, who looked like Father Time for much of the first half, connected with Diontae Johnson in the end zone for a 39-yard raindrop late in the third quarter.
Roethlisberger and Eric Ebron capped an early fourth-quarter drive (built mostly out of a pair of pass interference penalties) with a short touchdown. Roethlisberger then used a pump fake to freeze the Colts secondary and delivered a third touchdown strike, this time a gorgeous 25-yarder to JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Week 16 NFL Highlights | Steelers start slow vs. Colts
Meanwhile, T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Cameron Heyward, and Avery Williamson took turns getting into the Colts’ backfield and harassing Philip Rivers into mistakes. Mike Hilton intercepted Rivers to stop one late comeback attempt, and a final Colts drive stalled when Rivers could not convert 4th-and-8 at the Steelers 33-yard line.
The Pittsburgh Steelers victory clinched a playoff berth and positioned them as the likely second seed in the AFC entering an important (for both teams) Week 17 matchup with the Cleveland Browns.
Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons recap
It was another one of those games where the Chiefs looked like the class genius who forgot there was an exam, didn’t study, and showed up expecting to get an A-plus based on sheer genius. Patrick Mahomes was off for much of the first half, and the gameplan was as needlessly complicated as ever.
Seriously, Andy Reid and company. They’re the Falcons. You can beat them by running the ball and waiting for them to do something stupid.
The Falcons led 14-10 with 4:33 to play when the time came for the natural order of the cosmos to reassert itself. Mahomes led a crisp drive that ended with a Demarcus Robinson touchdown. Matt Ryan then drove the Falcons into field goal range and searched for ways to lose the game.
The Chiefs dodge another bullet — how many can they dodge with the margin for error slimming?
He tried to get sacked out of field goal range and failed. He tried to get strip-sacked and failed (his arm was moving forward). And he tried to throw an interception but failed. Finally, the Falcons sent Younghoe Koo out to lose the game with a 39-yard chip shot field goal attempt. The kick appeared to be on target until someone yanked an invisible bungee cord and sent it sailing wide right.
The Chiefs are now on a 10-game winning streak. By clinching the first seed in the playoffs, they rendered next week’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers meaningless. That gives them a few weeks to rest some hobbled starters, most notably tight end Travis Kelce.
Reasons Kansas City Chiefs fans should be afraid
Andy Reid should get a mild electrical shock every time the Chiefs run some variation of the “Wing T formation — everyone in the backfield does a little supermodel twirl, direct snap to Darrel Williams, pivot pitch to Sammy Watkins, option pass to Patrick Mahomes” crazy cakes play concepts they concoct while drinking moonshine (alcohol-free eggnog with extra nutmeg, in Reid’s case) and watching footage of 1930s Rose Bowls.
Week 16 NFL Highlights | Chiefs dodge a bullet, Falcons miss field goal
The Kansas City Chiefs have won their last seven games by a total of 27 points. Their offense outsmarts itself. Their defense plays up or down to the level of competition. It’s the perfect recipe for playoff disappointment.
Reasons Pittsburgh Steelers fans should be afraid
Roethlisberger had one of those games that look spectacular on the highlight montage and stat sheet but not nearly as good when examined more closely. He had passes batted at the line, floated near-interceptions into the middle of the field, and bounced one third-down pass four yards in front of its intended target. The Steelers caught a few late-game breaks when off-target Roethlisberger passes led to borderline pass interference fouls.
The Colts outgained the Steelers 217 yards to 93 in the first half and dictated terms on offense except for one Watt strip-sack and Hilton recovery. The Steelers live or die by big plays on both sides of the ball. When they don’t get enough of them, they can lose to any team in the NFL, even Washington or the Cincinnati Bengals.
Reasons Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers fans can relax (a little)
The Colts had the Steelers in position for a knockout blow and could not seal the deal. The Cleveland Browns lost to the Jets. Yes, the Browns lost their entire receiving corps to reserve list protocols, but they would have been able to beat the Jets by running the wishbone. The Dolphins did not look like much of a threat when the Las Vegas Raiders gave them all they could handle on Saturday night. AFC Wild Card Weekend looks like glorified cannon fodder.
That leaves the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, both of whom will play after this Week 16 NFL Recap segment goes to press. Both are known threats at this point in the season. The Steelers beat the Titans but lost to the Bills. The Chiefs beat the Bills. No one truly looked outclassed by anyone else in any of those head-to-head matchups.
Like it or not, Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers fans, the AFC is more of a four-team race than a two-team race. That may cause some anxiety in Pittsburgh and Kansas City come mid-January. Yet, it will make things more interesting for the rest of us.