In many ways, the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ 2021 season should already be considered a success. Picked by many to finish third or fourth in the AFC North, the Steelers instead finished second in the division with a 9-7-1 record. Their record was good enough to secure the AFC’s seventh and final playoff spot while assuring that Ben Roethlisberger’s final game would be played in the postseason.
If Pittsburgh wants to make this season truly special, it can do so by upsetting the Chiefs, who overcame a 3-4 start to capture the AFC’s No. 2 seed by virtue of their 12-5 regular season record. One of the Chiefs’ wins this season was a 36-10 blowout win over the Steelers back in Week 16. That game likely contributed to Kansas City being a 12.5 point favorite to beat the Steelers again in the wild-card round. Sunday night’s game marks only the second time that the Steelers have been this big of an underdog in the playoffs.
We’ll preview the game along with giving our prediction for Saturday’s outcome. Here’s how you can follow the action in real time.
How to watch
When the Steelers have the ball
The big question is how effective Najee Harris will be after the Steelers’ rookie running back sustained an elbow injury in last week’s win in Baltimore. If Harris is compromised, that puts more of the onus on Roethlisberger, who at times has been able to will Pittsburgh’s offense on scoring drives.
Harris is a crucial part of the offense, but the Steelers have other playmakers in receiver Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. Pittsburgh may also have JuJu Smith-Schuster after the former Pro Bowler returned to practice this week. Smith-Schuster has been out since sustaining a serious shoulder injury back in Week 5.
The Steelers’ embattled offensive line will have to hold its own against a Chiefs pass rush that is led by Chris Jones and Frank Clark. The unit will have to keep an eye on former teammate Melvin Ingram, whose big forced fumble on Melvin Gordon set up Nick Bolton’s momentum-turning touchdown in the Chiefs’ Week 18 win over Denver. The Chiefs’ secondary continues to be led by Pro Bowler Tyrann Mathieu, whose recovery of Johnson’s fumble in Week 16 set up Kansas City’s back-breaking touchdown.
Speaking of turnovers, the Steelers committed three while during their first meeting with Kansas City while not forcing any on defense. Cleaning this up may be the biggest key to the Steelers’ being able to make this a close game heading into the fourth quarter.
“They cannot turn the football over,” former Steelers coach and current CBS Sports NFL analyst Bill Cowher said during the week. “That is the biggest thing, I think, going into this game. Find a way to keep it close going into the fourth quarter and all of a sudden, the pressure now goes to Kansas City. And having one of the best field goal kickers in the league (Chris Boswell), one of the best fourth quarter quarterbacks in the league. If they get this game to the fourth quarter, they may have a chance.”
When the Chiefs have the ball
The Chiefs’ offense struggled during the team’s 3-4 start. Patrick Mahomes kept turning the ball the ball over as opposing defenses began anticipating low-percentage downfield passes. Mahomes still creates big plays from time to time, but the Chiefs’ offense has been much more methodical over the past 10 games.
The Chiefs started their Week 16 game against the Steelers with a 14-play, 73-yard drive that included two third-down conversions and one fourth down conversion. The Steelers will have to win more possession downs the second time around if they are going to have a chance at pulling off an upset.
Pittsburgh’s pass rush, which led the NFL with 55 sacks, will have to consistently put pressure on Mahomes, who was sacked twice in Week 16. The Steelers have several formidable pass rushers in T.J. Watt (who tied Michael Strahan’s single season sack record with 22.5 sacks), Cam Heyward (10 sacks), Chris Wormley (7 sacks) and Alex Highsmith (6 sacks). Pittsburgh also has enough depth in the secondary to keep pace with the Chiefs’ talented skill players, led by Tyreek Hill.
The Steelers’ run defense will have to do a better job after allowing the Chiefs to run for 258 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries three weeks ago. Wormley, who did not play in the Week 16 matchup, should help the pass rush as well as Pittsburgh’s run defense.
Forcing turnovers, winning possession downs and minimizing Travis Kelce’s impact will be the Steelers’ three biggest keys to victory on defense. Kelce, who didn’t play in the first matchup, is Mahomes’ favorite target. Limiting his impact while forcing Mahomes to look elsewhere will be critical to Pittsburgh’s success on defense.
Latest Odds: Pittsburgh Steelers +12.5
A lot of things have to go the Steelers’ way, starting with the health of Harris, who if healthy should be able to take advantage of the Chiefs’ defense that was 31st in the league in average yards-per-carry allowed. But if there’s one things we learned about the Steelers this season, it’s that Roethlisberger is still able to occasionally put the offense on his shoulders. If the Steelers can force turnovers on defense, that should allow the Steelers to keep things close entering the fourth quarter. If that happens, fans might bear witness to one more game-winning drive from Roethlisberger, who would love nothing more than to end the Chiefs’ reign as AFC champions.
Score: Steelers 23, Chiefs 20