By: Patrick Damp/KDKA-TV
KANSAS CITY (KDKA) - Against all odds and amid improbable circumstances, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in the NFL Playoffs.
They'll take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at 8:15 p.m. at GHEA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC Wild Card matchup.
How They Got Here
It was an up-and-down season for the Steelers -- everything from being out of playoff contention to being in the hunt to winning the AFC North.
Ultimately, the Steelers finished second in the division, behind the Cincinnati Bengals, with a 9-7-1 record.
The team recorded wins over the Bills, Broncos, Seahawks, Bears, Titans, the Browns twice, and the Ravens twice.
Meanwhile, a tie against the Detroit Lions and losses to the Bengals, Raiders, Packers, Chargers, Vikings, and Chiefs, kept the team from winning the AFC North.
The Chiefs, winners of the AFC West, compiled a 12-5 record, following a 3-4 start, to win the division.
With the AFC West and AFC North taking one another on this season, the Chiefs split their games against the Steelers' division, losing to the Bengals and Ravens, but beating the Browns and Steelers.
Their seasons put the Chiefs in second place overall in the AFC, with the Steelers sneaking into the seventh and final spot, giving them a date in the Wild Card.
The Chiefs and Steelers met one time this year in Week 16 and it was not a pretty outing for the Steelers, losing 36-10.
The Steelers trailed 23-0 at halftime.
"We didn't do enough in any three phases (of the game) to give ourselves a chance," Coach Mike Tomlin said following the loss. "On offense, we turned the ball over. We've had our struggles on offense, but when we take care of the ball we give ourselves a chance."
He wasn't wrong.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception and Diontae Johnson lost a fumble, giving Kansas City scores on each turnover.
The only bright spot for the Steelers was rookie running back Najee Harris, who ran for 93 yards.
Meanwhile, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw for more than 250 yards and three touchdown passes to give the Chiefs their sixth straight AFC West title.
With tight end Travis Kelce out, Mahomes' main target was wide receiver Byron Pringle, who made six catches on seven targets for 75 yards and two touchdowns.
The Difference Makers
For the Steelers to make their way out of Arrowhead Stadium with a victory, they'll need their defense to make a difference, and that all starts with the man who many believe could be the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year: TJ Watt.
This season, Watt put himself into the history books, tying Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5.
"It's not just myself, it's so many other people involved, great players, coaches, schemes, and a lot of unselfish guys in the locker room that allow me to make plays," Watt said after the Steelers' Week 18 victory over the Ravens in which he tied the sack record.
Bringing pressure on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and not allowing him to find a rhythm will be paramount for the Steelers to upset Kansas City in their home, considered one of the league's most hostile environments for visiting teams.
On the offensive side of the ball, what was a sensational rookie season for Harris needs to continue into the postseason. He set a record this season with 381 touches without a fumble, passing Barry Sanders' NFL record of 375 set in 1994.
Opening holes on the offensive line, giving Harris room to run and keeping the Steelers defense off the field for extended periods of time will be keys to success for the Steelers.
It all starts with the man under center who has taken the league by storm since entering full-time in 2018, Patrick Mahomes.
It was yet another big season for the quarterback, recording 37 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He's also run for two touchdowns this year, which continued his trend of getting two rushing TDs each season.
Mahomes is a threat both in the air and on the ground, and for the Chiefs to get back to the Super Bowl, he will once again have to be the catalyst.
While the Steelers can lean on Harris, the Chiefs have a balanced running attack with Darrel Williams and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who rushed for six and four touchdowns, respectively.
"The guys all played together, which I don't think you can avoid talking about," Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said after the team's shorthanded win over the Steelers. "The way they supported each other when there was a problem, when something didn't work, everybody just hung together."
That balanced attack will help the Chiefs in their journey to avenge last year's Super Bowl loss. Having the league's fourth-best offense and eighth-best defense, the Chiefs can put up points and keep other teams off the board.
One Last Ride
As it had all season, speculation swirled that this could be Roethlisberger's final season.
While Roethlisberger didn't confirm it was his final season, he sure hinted toward it before the team's final home game against the Cleveland Browns.
"I don't ever speak in definites or guarantees," he said. "That's just not what I've ever done or who I am. But, you know, looking at the bigger picture, I would say that all signs are pointing to this could be it. Regular season, that is."
Roethlisberger has been the Steelers quarterback since 2004, winning two Super Bowls, playing in a third, and compiling a career record of 163-81-1.
If this is it for Big Ben, it could represent a motivating factor for the Steelers in the postseason to help him go out on top.
Out For Revenge
Last season, the Chiefs found themselves in their second straight Super Bowl, but this time losing to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This year, the team is looking to make it to its third consecutive Super Bowl and win its second in three years.
While there are no guarantees, and the Chiefs have played a lot of football since 2019, having a top-ten offense and defense is one way to get yourself in a position to succeed.
What The KDKA Sports Team Is Saying
Bob Pompeani: The Steelers have the most daunting assignment of any team in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. They're a whopping 12.5-point underdog to the team that many believe is the best team in the AFC, but this has been the season of strange happenings in the NFL.
The top-seeded Tennessee Titans lost to the Jets and Texans (Almost twice!) and the Steelers!
We saw the Bills lose at Jacksonville (who had the worst record in the NFL) and the Colts miss a golden chance to get into the playoffs by losing to those same Jaguars.
So, while anything is possible, this will be a tall assignment for the Steelers
First and foremost, the Steelers MUST start fast, something they have not done all season.
Pittsburgh has the worst first-half scoring numbers in the league, especially on the road.
The last time they played, Kansas City drove right down the field and took early control. That must change this week.
To me, that starts with winning the possession game.
The Steelers' last playoff win was in Kansas City (interestingly a No. 2 seed just like this year) and they rode Le'Veon Bell into a field possession and defensive game.
They only got six field goals, no touchdowns, but still won that game on the road as an underdog. This to me is where they must start with Najee Harris and an offensive line that played better last week.
Conversely, the Steelers must be able to stop the Chiefs' run game, which is not their primary source of offense. That is still Patrick Mahomes in the passing game, but Andy Reid simply cannot pass up the chance to run the ball down the Steelers' throats they way just about every team has done this year.
The Steelers' defense allowed 24 runs of 20+ yards this season, by far the most this season and the most allowed by any team since the 2011 Tampa Bay Bucs allowed 28.
Defensively, the Steelers still are the best sack team in the NFL, recording a fifth straight season with more than 50 sacks. TJ Watt generated 22.5 (or more), more than the entire Falcons' team total.
In those passing downs, they have to do what Tampa did to Kansas City in the Super Bowl last year: get after Mahomes and rattle him a bit, something that gets harder to do by the year.
All in all, the Steelers are playing with house money but they should be highly motivated in that nobody is giving them a chance. Plus, they might continue to ride the emotion of playing hard for Ben Roethlisberger.
I suspect this will be a close game and if it is, the pressure should increase for the Chiefs as the game heads into the latter stages.
But, Kansas City has the experience element on their side and that should serve them well.
Josh Taylor: The Steelers' chances against Kansas City probably seem slim to anyone you might ask, but believe it or not, there is a formula that has helped them win games this season:
- An even or plus turnover margin
- The defense holds their opponent to 20 points or fewer.
- TJ Watt records at least one sack
In the games where the Steelers have checked off all three of those items, they are a perfect 8-0.
Now the question is if that criteria is possible for the Steelers against quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense, and the answer is yes.
Two teams have beaten the Chiefs this season by forcing more turnovers, holding the Chiefs to 20 points or fewer, and getting Mahomes on the ground: the Buffalo Bills in Week 5 (38-20) and the Tennessee Titans in Week 7 (27-3).
It's also worth mentioning both Buffalo and Tennessee are teams the Steelers beat using said formula.
Mix in the emotional value of Ben Roethlisberger's potentially final playoff game, and the Steelers' chances to win seem far more realistic. But Kansas City's defense has been following something close to the same script in six of their last eight wins, also aided by the league's fourth-best scoring offense (28.2 points per game).
The Steelers could realistically make this a much closer game than many expect, but Kansas City is stronger in all phases of the game, and that eventually will surface.
One of the few reasons to be optimistic for Sunday night is that TJ Watt and Pat Freiermuth are both expected to play. Both players missed the game on Dec. 26.
Travis Kelce also missed the game but is expected to play Sunday night for the Chiefs.
The Steelers are huge underdogs, the biggest underdogs on Wild Card weekend, in fact. They haven't been able to score early this season, and that's a huge problem when playing the Chiefs.
The Steelers haven't scored a first-quarter touchdown in six of their last seven games.
There are two ways the Steelers can win this game:
- They need to jump out to an early lead, which we know they have struggled with this season
- They need to put pressure on Patrick Mahomes and use that pressure to get him to make mistakes, which hopefully will lead to turnovers.
What Do You Think?
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How To Watch
The game can be watched on NBC on Sunday at 8:15 p.m. and on the Steelers Radio Network on 102.5 WDVE FM.
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