The weather was cold and rainy; the sky overcast, dark and foggy. The backdrop for the Chiefs’ AFC Divisional playoff game against Pittsburgh on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium was classic January football, the kind of weather old-school football lovers could only dream of.
And appropriately enough, the Chiefs and Steelers — two of the NFL’s storied franchises — played a game befitting that backdrop. Run the ball. Stop the run. Control the clock. Win the turnover battle. Those would be the keys, and players on both sides knew it.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the Steelers — a battle-tested group led by a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback and a Super Bowl-winning coach — were more prepared to win that type of battle.
The Steelers protected the ball (they won the turnover battle 2-1), patiently pounded it between the tackles and suffocated both the Chiefs’ running game and quarterback Alex Smith in an 18-16 victory that sent Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship Game against New England.
The loss continues the Chiefs’ divisional-round suffering. They’ve lost five straight divisional-round games (four at home), and dropped to 2-8 all-time in this round. They’ll also have to wait another year to reach the AFC Championship Game, which they haven’t done since 1994.
The Chiefs only have themselves to blame. Playoff games are often won and lost up front, and the Steelers racked up 171 rushing yards, with star running back Le’Veon Bell patiently churning out 170 yards in 30 carries, an average of 5.7 yards per run. The Chiefs finished with 61 rushing yards in 14 carries, and while they threw the ball 34 times, by comparison, the Steelers were the picture of balance. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected enough to keep the Chiefs’ defenders honest, finishing 20 of 31 for 224 yards.
Yet, you can argue the Chiefs’ defense largely did its job, clamping down in the red zone and holding a potent Pittsburgh offense that ranked 10th in the NFL in scoring to nothing but field goals. This was a victory against a team like Pittsburgh, but it put the onus on the Chiefs’ offense to put some points on the board against a beatable — but physical and rapidly-improving — Pittsburgh defense, and the Chiefs were, ultimately, not up to the task. The aforementioned running game was largely impotent, and the offense was plagued by penalties, drops and a general failure to execute — a common theme all year long.
“We just couldn’t sustain a drive, man,” Chiefs receiver Jeremy Maclin said. “Our defense, they held their own, they held them to six field goals. You would think that could get the job done; offensively, we just didn’t do our part.”
Never was the Chiefs’ ongoing quest to shoot themselves in the foot offensively more evident than late in the fourth quarter, when they had a two-point conversion that would have tied the score at 18-18 wiped out due to a hold by 6-foot-7 tackle Eric Fisher on 6-foot edge rusher James Harrison.
“Fish got called for one that, you know, if you’re playing a shorter player, that could go either way,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid explained. “I’d be curious to see that on tape.”
Regardless, the ensuing pass attempt fell incomplete, and the Steelers — who moved the ball on the Chiefs all day — churned out enough yards to convert a first down and run out the clock.
It was a fitting ending, in a way, considering the way the Steelers opened the game by moving the ball.
After winning the toss, they came out throwing from three-wide sets, passing five times before mixing in a few Bell runs. The Chiefs’ defense held firm in the red zone, however, and forced Pittsburgh to settle for a 22-yard field goal.
The Chiefs came back firing. Smith completed his first four passes against a Pittsburgh defense that was seeking to take the run away. Smith’s fourth completion, a 5-yard touchdown throw to a wide-open Albert Wilson, came on a bootleg to his left out of a creative inverted wishbone formation, with three running backs lined up in a triangle behind Smith.
The scoring drive, the first touchdown the Steelers have surrendered on an opening drive all season, gave the Chiefs a 7-3 lead with 6:09 left in the first quarter. It amounted for 55 of the Chiefs’ 106 first-half yards, as the Steelers.
Pittsburgh’s offense continued to roll, racking up 108 yards on its next two drives, both of which ended with field goals. But given the Steelers’ offensive might, you could almost consider the result of those drives victories for the Chiefs, who trailed 9-7 early in the second quarter.
The Chiefs didn’t help themselves on their next drive. Bud Dupree beat Jah Reid, in the game as a sixth lineman, drilled Smith — who finished 20 of 34 for 172 yards with a touchdown and an interception — and forced a floating pass that was intercepted by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier.
After safety Eric Berry was beaten for a big gain by Steelers tight end Jesse James, Berry responded by intercepting a pass tipped by Frank Zombo in the end zone.
The Chiefs did nothing on their ensuing drive. Pittsburgh, on a short field, picked up another field goal from kicker Chris Boswell and took a 12-7 lead into the break.
The second half brought more of the same, as the Chiefs continued to concede the run, before locking down on their side of the field. Boswell drilled another field goal to open the third quarter, but after a defensive stand, the Chiefs — who were down eight points — found themselves in a prime position to potentially tie the game, as their next drive started at Pittsburgh’s 46-yard line.
The offense, however, started to self-destruct when tight end Travis Kelce dropped a catchable deep ball in the red zone, and a few plays later, shoved a Steeler to the ground after the play, resulting in a brutal 15-yard penalty.
“You can’t do that,” Reid said. “That’s obvious. Those are the little things that, when you’re playing against good competition, you can’t have.”
Maclin saved the day by making a tough contested catch near the sideline on third and 20 to keep the drive alive. Kicker Cairo Santos ended the quarter with a 48-yard field goal that cut the deficit to 15-10 entering the fourth period.
The Steelers, as they did all day, would answer. Boswell drilled another field goal — his sixth of the day, an NFL playoff record — to give Pittsburgh an eight-point lead.
But the Chiefs weren’t done yet. They proceeded to mount a clutch 13-play, 75-yard drive that included a fourth-down conversion by Smith and was capped by a short touchdown run by Spencer Ware.
That set up a two-point conversion, which was good when Smith found tight end Demetrius Harris in the end zone. But the hold on Fisher wiped it out, and the ensuing pass attempt fell incomplete, leaving the Chiefs down 18-16 with 2 minutes and 43 seconds left.
"With the game on the line, for me to let the team down, it's going to be a hard one to let go,” Fisher said.
The stadium fell silent at that point, though the Chiefs had some life left. They just needed to force a punt, and convert a field goal, and they’d get the win.
But given the way the Steelers moved the ball all day — they outgained the Chiefs 389-227 — it just wasn’t in the cards. Roethlisberger completed a clutch third-down pass to Antonio Brown that could have got the Chiefs off the field, and proceeded to run out the clock from there to set up a showdown in New England, ruin the Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes and extended the Chiefs’ divisional-round misery.
The mood in the locker room after the game was somber, as one might expect. Several players dressed silently and left, but Andy Reid didn’t want them hanging their heads. They’re hurting right now, he told them, but they needed to keep their heads and be proud of some of the things they did. This result, another divisional-round loss — just like the one to New England last January — was not what anyone had in mind, but they still went 12-4 and won the AFC West for the first time in six years, and there’s something to be said for that.
“We can learn from this,” Reid said. “I know that’s hard to hear right now, but we can learn from it and be better for it next year.”
There’s some truth in that statement. A good place to start would be the offensive and defensive lines and the linebacking corps, all of which could have been better on Sunday. The quarterback, Smith, could have been better too, and after he said they all share responsibility for the loss.
But when asked to reflect on what exactly they could take from the loss, Smith shook his head before mentioning the hurt was still too fresh, too deep to properly analyze, and something Reid said later in his presser shows he clearly understood what Smith was feeling at the moment.
“Unless you hold the trophy,” Reid said, face largely blank, “there’s an empty feeling to it.”