Watershed Game for Chiefs and Steelers

On Sunday the Chiefs will be looking in the mirror. They face the Pittsburgh Steelers in what could be a preview of the AFC Championship game. It's early in the season but it's clear these are the best two teams in the AFC.

Each team won with ease last Sunday. The Steelers beat the hapless Baltimore Ravens 34-15 in Pittsburgh and the Chiefs manhandled the Chargers 27-14 at Arrowhead. The Steelers were led by quarterback Tommy Maddox and the Chiefs by Priest Holmes.

The key to this game is very simple. The Steelers defense must shut down Priest Holmes and the Chiefs must get to Maddox. Last week, Maddox picked apart the Ravens defense for three touchdowns. Before we anoint Maddox the next Joe Namath, he was the benefactor of shoddy secondary work by Baltimore. Twice in zone coverage the Ravens safeties failed to cover Steelers wide receiver Hinds Ward when the cornerbacks released them down field.

That won't happen in Kansas City with Jerome Woods and Greg Wesley. The Ravens were hoodwinked by Maddox and his slight of hand. Going into the game, Baltimore was focused on stopping Pittsburgh running back Amos Zereoue. Maddox used the play action pass, froze the safeties and hit wide open receivers.

The Chiefs with an energized and revamped defensive line should be able to put pressure on Maddox. Vonnie Holliday, coming off a three sack performance against the Chargers, needs to follow up with a similar performance against Pittsburgh.

Maddox, who won AFC player of the week honors, can be deadly if given the time in the pocket. Ryan Sims and John Browning were solid against the run and clogged the middle and the Chargers running game. San Diego paid little attention to Holliday but the Steelers will double team him and if that happens, Eric Hicks should be the benefactor.

Hicks must be a more productive pass rusher on Sunday. The Chiefs are the second ranked defense in the AFC thanks in large part to their defensive line. The front four put so much heat on Chargers quarterback Drew Brees that it allowed the Chiefs linebackers to drop back in pass coverage.

The Chiefs have an easier task stopping the Steelers running game this week. Zereoue is not in the same class as Tomlinson. He can be deadly but the Chiefs should have little trouble containing him.

The defense might not be so lucky with the Steelers wide receivers. Without a doubt, they have the best group of wide receivers in the AFC. Hinds Ward, Plaxico Burris and Antwaan Randle El present the Chiefs stiffest challenge to date. Ward caught two touchdown passes last week, Burress caught over 100 yards and Randle El lined up at quarterback. He can do it all and the Chiefs must identify where he is on every play. The Steelers use him as a decoy.

Cornerback William Bartee will be inactive this weekend and the pressure will fall on Dexter McCleon and Eric Warfield to shut down Burress and Ward. The Chiefs used Woods as a nickel back last week and will do the same this week. Scott Fujita and Shawn Barber will again drop back in coverage like they did against the Chargers. The Steelers, despite beating up on the Ravens, can move the ball and control the clock. The Chiefs can't let them do that. The crowd noise will be a factor but long sustained drives will cool the temperature inside Arrowhead.

The Chiefs offense should be able to exploit the Steelers secondary. Although they are a veteran group, Kansas City has the receivers to challenge them. Even with Holmes in the backfield, the Chiefs are going to find it hard to run the ball on the Steelers four-three defense.

Though they are missing their best defensive player in linebacker Joey Porter, the Steelers front seven is aggressive and solid. Clark Haggans will again substitute for Porter, who is recovering from a gun shot wound. Haggans and company held the Ravens to 231 net yards.

The Chiefs had nearly 400 yards of total offense against the Chargers. The Steelers want to force the Chiefs to pass. In their last meeting in 2001, Trent Green had one of his worst performances as a Chief against the Steelers. With Holmes ineffective, Green over and under threw his receivers all game long. However, he's not likely going to force passes this time around.

But the Chiefs offense stalled last week in the second half and they can't afford to do that on Sunday. If the Chiefs get ahead, they have to continue to score and be effective in the red zone. Tight end Tony Gonzalez who has a minor ankle injury has to play a larger role in the Chiefs offense. He caught only two passes last week. The Chiefs will need to make him a larger part of the offense if they want to win on Sunday.

Nick's Notes

*The Steelers are 9-4 all time vs. the Chiefs in Kansas City. They beat KC 20-17 last year at Arrowhead.

*Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox was the comeback player of the year in 2002. You think Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan second guesses himself for releasing Maddox back in the 90's?

*Steelers head coach Bill Cowher has one seven division titles in his 11 seasons in Pittsburgh.

*The next catch made by tight end Tony Gonzalez will be his 400th of his career.

*If the Chief win on Sunday, Tommy Maddox will be 8-8 as a starter in the NFL. *The winner of this game could determine home field advantage for the playoffs. Both teams are ranked #1 and #2 on offense and defense.

Fearless Prediction Chiefs 27 – Steelers 21

Season Record 1-0!

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