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Steelers visit Chiefs with nothing-to-lose playoff attitude

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)
Ed Zurga
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo.

Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger are brutally honest about the Steelers' chances of advancing past the wild-card round of the playoffs, especially given the Chiefs humiliated them just a few weeks ago in Arrowhead Stadium.

First, the Pittsburgh coach: “I don't know how much you learn from it, to be quite honest with you. They smashed us so definitely," Tomlin said of the first meeting. “More than anything, this is like a reboot.”

Then, the quarterback: “We probably aren't supposed to be here,” Roethlisberger said. “We probably are not a very good football team. Out of 14 teams that are in, we're probably at number 14. We're double-digit underdogs in the playoffs.”

You almost wonder whether the Steelers will even show up Sunday night.

But they need only look at their own postseason history to know there's always a chance. The likely retiring Roethlisberger was a second-year pro in 2005 when the Steelers parlayed another wild-card berth into their most-recent Super Bowl triumph.

Few folks back then expected a team featuring the retiring Jerome Bettis to make such an inspired playoff run.

“We're probably 20-point underdogs,” Roethlisberger said, “and we're going against the No. 1 team that's won the AFC the last two years — arguably the best team in football we don't have a chance. So let's just go in and play and have fun.”

Indeed, the Steelers (9-7-1) are playing with nothing to lose while the Chiefs (12-5) carry the weight of hefty expectations.

Not only have they won the past two AFC titles, they've been to the past three championship games, and they're fresh off a record sixth West division title. The organization that once went nearly three decades without winning a home playoff game has now won five in a row, thanks to a bevy of talent surrounding Pro Bowl quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

“I think the first thing you realize is that at any moment, one play can change the entire game,” Mahomes said. “It's like that in the regular season, but the playoffs, it even goes to another level. One play can end your season or keep it going.”

The Chiefs were downright dominant during the middle part of the season, when a defense that was among the worst in the league did an about-face. But they stumbled down the stretch, losing in Cincinnati in their penultimate game — costing them a chance of having the No. 1 seed, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

They still get to start at Arrowhead Stadium. But rather than spend this weekend resting up for the divisional round, they get to face the nothing-to-lose Steelers on Sunday night.

“Right now it's all Pittsburgh,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It takes every bit of effort right now to be ready for this team.”

Juju is back

JuJu Smith-Schuster's season isn't over after all. The Pittsburgh Steelers have activated the star wide receiver off injured reserve. The move clears the way for Smith-Schuster to be on the field when the Steelers open the playoffs at Kansas City.

Smith-Schuster hasn’t played since injuring his right shoulder during a victory over Denver on Oct. 10. He underwent surgery a few days later and was expected to be lost for the season. Instead, Smith-Schuster returned to practice this week, wearing thicker shoulder pads in an effort to protect his right shoulder.

Watt's up, doc

Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt was a beaten-up non-factor against the Chiefs last month, playing about half of the defensive snaps and making one tackle. But he's much healthier now, and despite missing two games entirely and parts of two others because of injuries, he tied Hall of Famer Michael Strahan's sack record with 22 1/2 this season.

“I don't know what runs in that family, but they have great football players over there,” Mahomes said. “He's special the way he can bend and get to the quarterback, but also the effort he plays with. They have a lot of guys that go and go.”

Stuck in the blocks

The Steelers have lost their past three playoff games, and two came at home when they walked onto the field as favorites and fell behind by 20-plus points. Slow starts have remained a bugaboo this season; the Steelers trailed Kansas City 23-0 at halftime and by 30 in the second half of their meeting earlier this season.

Get your kicks

Chris Boswell is one of three current Steelers that played in an 18-16 win over Kansas City in the divisional round in 2017, and perhaps the most important. He went 6 for 6 on field goals, helping them advance without reaching the end zone.

Catching Kelce

The Chiefs' 36-10 romp past Pittsburgh the day after Christmas came without Travis Kelce, who was in the NFL's COVID-19 protocols. He'll be back on the field Sunday against a team that has trouble dealing with talented tight ends.

“You allow him to have a (short) catch, but you pretty much better tackle,” Steelers linebacker Robert Spillane said. “He’s known to take 5-yard catches and turn them into 55-yard touchdowns. Tackle the catch is the main emphasis for us. ”

Over the hill

Tyreek Hill dealt with COVID-19 around the same time as Kelce, though he was cleared to play against Pittsburgh. While he was noticeably slowed, Hill still had two catches in the game. That helped him to break Kelce's single-season franchise mark with 111 catches, albeit during an expanded 17-game regular season.

“That record," Kelce said with a grin this week, “is supposed to be held by a wide receiver.”