Five To Watch: Chiefs v. Steelers

When the schedule came out last April, almost every Chiefs fan looked at it and gave the Chiefs a predictable loss this weekend. But after coming back from an 0-2 start to even their record at .500, the Chiefs now face a Steelers team that has lost three in a row and is on the brink of a post-Super Bowl collapse. Can the Chiefs win their third in row?

It's interesting that the Chiefs haven't played in Pittsburgh since Oct 29th, 1989. Since then, the Chiefs have played eight straight games against the Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium, winning four. Playing in Pittsburgh is another story. Kansas City is 4-7 in the Steel City and hasn't won there since 1986.

So with a 20-year gap since KC's last victorious moment in Pittsburgh, the 2006 version of the Chiefs face an uphill battle as they try to steal a game on the road against a reeling team.

The Steelers won their home opener but have lost three games since, including a home contest against division rival Cincinnati. That loss showed all of Pittsburgh's weaknesses.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs have been very impressive on the road this season, showing heart and guts in splitting games at Denver and Arizona.

Backup quarterback Damon Huard has been impressive, to say the least, and his confidence is running high. As desperate as the Steelers might be for a win, I doubt Huard will be daunted by the aura of Heinz Field. He nearly pulled an upset at Denver, one of the league's toughest road environments.

Huard is riding a wave that is both unexpected and wonderful, and with Trent Green sidelined for at least two or three more games, he has everyone believing that he can carry the load on offense.

Huard has done it with a running back (Larry Johnson) that is averaging only 82.8 yards rushing per game and an offensive line that is barely able to protect him in the pocket. Despite those things, Huard has continued to play well.

Statistically, he's the second-best quarterback in the NFL. That's a far cry from the quarterback on the home sideline on Sunday.

Ben Roethlisberger had it all going for him after the Super Bowl. He led his team to the pinnacle of the sport by riding a wave of veterans.

But after the retirement of Jerome Bettis and the free agent defection of wide receiver Antwaan Randle El to the Washington Redskins, ‘Big Ben' hasn't been able to make enough plays to guide the Steelers to any wins as a starter in 2006. Backup Charlie Batch led Pittsburgh to its lone win this season while Roethlisberger was recovering from an emergency appendectomy in Week 1.

Roethlisberger is currently ranked 31 out of 32 starting quarterbacks in passer efficiency. He leads the league in interceptions with seven in three starts after only throwing nine in 12 starts last season.

But it's not all his fault. Wide receiver Hines Ward has been plain ordinary and some in the NFL believe his best days are behind him. Running back Willie Parker hasn't been able to carry the rushing load and the entire offense is out of sync. That's good news for the Chiefs fourth-ranked defense.

But Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards isn't taking anything for granted when it comes to Roethlisberger. He knows all too well that once you take a player lightly, he can burn you. Expect his defense to be prepared, especially after rookie Matt Leinart burned them last week.

The forecast for Sunday's game could give the Chiefs an edge. It's supposed to be cool and rainy. That bodes well for Johnson, who could have a monster game, especially since linebacker Joey Porter and his top backup, James Harrison, are out. The Steelers signed Chad Brown on Thursday but its doubtful he can be ready to play by Sunday.

That means the Chiefs have a golden opportunity to defeat a very down football team on the road. In fact, Kansas City is the more talented team in my opinion, and they should win this game. But the Chiefs' road history hasn't been the best, so they'll have to play their best game of the season to win.

I have a hunch they will.

Five To Watch:
1. LB Kendrell Bell - This was a no-brainer. After last week's big sack in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs linebacker returns to Pittsburgh, where he was one of the most dominating linebackers in the game before injuries derailed his NFL career. Now healthy again and far more comfortable with his role on defense, Bell could have a big game. Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham stuck his neck out for Bell after a disappointing 2005 season. I have a hunch that he'll have a game that Chiefs fans will remember for a long time.

2. RB Larry Johnson - This is a big game for LJ, who played his college ball at State College, Pennsylvania. He led the NCAA in rushing four years ago at Penn State. After his near decapitation last week at Arizona, he'll be running the ball in front of a lot of family members and Nittany Lion fans. He's due for a big game where he carries the load for this team. Left tackle Kyle Turley will see some action this week and that should help the efficiency of the running game. LJ has to be more patient. If he can get into Pittsburgh's secondary, he could find the end zone more than once on Sunday.

3. CB Ty Law - No cornerback in the NFL can read a struggling quarterback better than Law. He made the interception of the season last Sunday in Arizona. He's becoming more comfortable on defense and is one of the main reasons the Chiefs have only given up four touchdowns so far. He's intercepted a pass in back-to-back games and I expect that streak to continue on Sunday.

4. LT Jordan Black - I'm going to give Black one more shot to prove me wrong. He was stellar against the San Francisco 49ers but didn't do a solid enough job against the Arizona Cardinals to get a passing grade. Turley's back is feeling better this week, so perhaps Black won't have to play a full 60 minutes. His job will be easier with Porter on the sidelines.

5. K Lawrence Tynes - Not many people have noticed the kind of year Tynes is having. After winning a special teams award a week ago, Tynes has quietly become one of the better place kickers in the NFL. His two clutch kicks last Sunday in Arizona sealed the win for the Chiefs and this Sunday his golden right foot might save the day for Kansas City.

Nick's Prediction:
Chiefs 17, Steelers 13

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