Officially, the Chiefs are still in playoff contention despite a 20-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
But the Chiefs, 8-7, after squandering four possessions in the red zone, put themselves in the precarious position of having to beat San Diego, 9-6, in the regular-season finale next Sunday at Arrowhead and hope for some unlikely help in at least two other games.
“It certainly changes things from how it was,” said Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, whose team could have clinched an AFC wild-card spot had it won its final two games.
“But we have a lot of character inside our locker room, and I don’t think it will impact how we go about this next week.”
The Chiefs can blame their inability to score touchdowns inside the 20 for their fourth loss in their last five games.
In six of their seven possessions they reached the Pittsburgh 8, 4, 12, 28, 25 and 5 came away with four field goals, a stop on fourth and inches and a fumble.
The Chiefs entered the game ranked second in the NFL in red-zone offense, having scored 26 touchdowns in 40 attempts, for a 67.5-percent success rate, so they were searching for answers after watching Pittsburgh, 10-5, celebrate clinching a playoff spot.
“Lack of execution was part of it,” Smith said. “We got ourselves in some bad situations; a couple of times on those drives things were flowing and then we would get into the red zone and have a negative play or a sack and then you’re fighting uphill after that.”
As a result, the Chiefs failed to score a touchdown for the first time in the 31 games since Andy Reid became head coach.
“They got us today,” Reid said of the Steelers. “Initially they showed us a little different look. I thought we came back and adjusted decently for it. But they got us.”
The players weren’t making any excuses.
“This is the NFL,” said offensive tackle Ryan Harris. “No defense is going to play the same week to week. We have to give credit to the Steelers. They stopped us from scoring touchdowns, and that ended up being critical in the game.
“We score a touchdown in any one of those situations, and we’re having a different outcome.”
Facing the NFL’s top-scoring offense, the Chiefs knew kicking field goals wasn’t going to beat Pittsburgh. That’s why in the second quarter, with the game tied 3-3, the Chiefs faked a field goal from the Pittsburgh 12, and Dustin Colquitt’s 6-yard pass to tight end Travis Kelce picked up a first down.
On second down from the 4, Smith’s pass to Dwayne Bowe in the corner of the end zone appeared to be the Chiefs’ first touchdown pass to a wide receiver all season. But at the last instant, Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake knocked the ball from Bowe’s grasp.
“They really thrive on the quick passing,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said, “and we took away the early looks a couple of times. I thought our defensive backs really stepped up in the red zone. Antwon Blake getting that ball out of Bowe’s hands was huge.”
Reid didn’t want to settle for a field goal when the Chiefs, trailing 10-6 with 27 seconds left in the first half, faced fourth and inches at the Pittsburgh 12. He elected to go for the first down, but Jamaal Charles was stacked up for no gain.
“The Steelers’ defense wanted it more than us,” Charles said. “Someone came free, and we just did not execute on that either.”
Charles figured in the next missed opportunity to score when he was stripped of the ball by Pittsburgh defensive end Stephon Tuitt at the Steelers‘ 25 midway through the third quarter. The Steelers converted the game’s only turnover into the only touchdown in the second half, a 3-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown, giving Pittsburgh a 17-6 lead.
“I had the ball in the wrong arm,” Charles said. “I should have had it in the right arm. That hurt me, and it hurt the team. They know that I am sorry for losing the game for us today.”
Charles wasn’t the only one to blame.
Smith threw for a regular-season, career-best 311 yards against a Steelers secondary that conceded underneath routes playing without safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor. But Smith was sacked six times — matching a season-most against Denver four weeks ago — which contributed to keeping the Chiefs out of the end zone.
“Reflecting on it now, there were just a handful of plays that affected the game,” Smith said. “There was the fourth and 1, me and Albert Wilson (not) connecting on a deep post or converting a few of those third downs.
“In a game like this, two teams in the hunt going after it, it’s to be expected, a handful of those plays to be made, and we didn’t get them done.”