Ben Roethlisberger is ending his career the way he started it, leading a team that not many people expected to be very good to the postseason. It wasn’t always pretty, but Roethlisberger was able to deliver in several critical situations to punch his 12th ticket to the playoffs, while extending his final season as the Steelers quarterback.
Roethlisberger has a chance to cap off his career by helping the Steelers record the franchise’s greatest playoff upset. The Steelers are 12.5-point underdogs entering Sunday night’s wild card playoff game against the Chiefs, who defeated Pittsburgh by 26 points in Week 16. The Steelers are 1-2 in playoff games where they are double-digit underdogs, with their lone win coming against John Elway’s Broncos in the 1984 divisional round.
Despite the odds, the Steelers are more than capable of upsetting the Chiefs, who are vying to become the fourth team in NFL history to make three consecutive trips to the Super Bowl. Here’s how the Steelers can do it while adding yet another feather to Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame cap.
This was the word Bill Cowher used most when explaining why he thinks this game will be “a lot closer” than the first matchup between the two teams. Cowher would know, as his 2005 Steelers team upset the top-seeded Colts after losing to them in a lopsided game during the regular season.
“We got embarrassed on a ‘Monday Night Football’ game,” Cowher said of the ’05 Steelers’ regular-season loss to the Colts. “We had been a team that was noted for running the football. We came out and threw early and started running the ball later in the game. That kind of served us well in that game because it went against the grain.
“You play a team a second time, there’s a little familiarity with that. I think the familiarity really benefits the team that loses.”
Speaking of familiarity, Steelers kicker Chris Boswell has already had playoff success in Arrowhead. Boswell set an NFL playoff record by booting five fields in Pittsburgh’s 18-16 win over the Chiefs in the 2016 divisional round. The former Pro Bowl kicker was specifically mentioned by Cowher when explaining why he thinks this game will be closer than the teams’ previous matchup.
Led by T.J. Watt’s 22.5 sacks, the Steelers led the NFL in quarterback takedowns for a fifth consecutive year. Pittsburgh tallied 55 sacks in 17 games, as Watt, Cameron Heyward, Alex Highsmith, and Chris Wormley accounted for 45.5 of those sacks. As displayed in the Chiefs’ loss in Super Bowl LV, getting pressure on Patrick Mahomes is the key to stopping the Chiefs’ fast-paced offense. The Chiefs will get their share of plays, but the Steelers’ pass rush should minimize those plays, while also helping Pittsburgh’s defense win its share of possession downs.
The pass rush is key, but the Steelers will need a complete effort on defense. At its best, the Steelers’ defense is capable of winning a game by itself. The unit did exactly that in forcing turnovers during Pittsburgh’s upset win over the top-seeded Titans in Week 15. The Steelers’ defense has elite talent in each level led by Heyward, Watt, cornerback Joe Haden and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh’s inside linebacker play has been spotty, but Joe Schobert has made his share of splash plays this season, none bigger than his forced fumble late in Pittsburgh’s Week 8 win in Cleveland.
Pittsburgh’s secondary has improved considerably since the start of the year. Haden’s return from injury has been a big reason why, along with the steady play of Cam Sutton and reserves Ahkello Witherspoon and Arthur Maulet. The unit will get a chance to display how much it has improved against the Chiefs’ talented receiving corps of Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson.
Along with minimizing big plays, winning possession downs, and putting pressure on Mahomes, the Steelers will have to hold their own against the run, which has been their biggest Achilles’ heel this season. But if Heyward, Wormley, Henry Mondeaux and the rest of Pittsburgh’s front seven can contain the Chiefs’ rushing attack, an upset is certainly possible.
As a kid who grew up in the 1990s, one of Roethlisberger’s favorite players to watch was quarterback John Elway. In his 15th season, Elway finally won his first Super Bowl despite Denver being a heavy underdog against Brett Favre and the defending champion Packers. Before the game, all Elway asked was that the game would be close enough where he could win it in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger is surely hoping for the same thing on Sunday night.
Elway was aided in that game by running back Terrell Davis, who won MVP honors after running for 157 yards and three touchdowns. Roethlisberger will need similar support from Najee Harris, who ran for 93 yards against the Chiefs in their first matchup. Harris’ impact may depend on the health of his injured elbow that kept him out of most of last week’s win in Baltimore.
Even if Harris is somewhat compromised, Roethlisberger is capable of keeping the Steelers in the game. He came through in Pittsburgh’s regular-season wins over Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, and Baltimore. And while his comeback bids in Los Angeles and Minnesota came up short, Roethlisberger’s right arm and quick decision-making gave the Steelers a chance late in both games.
Roethlisberger has formidable teammates at the skill positions in Harris, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. Pittsburgh’s young offensive line — a group whose struggles this season have been well-documented — has shown signs of growth in recent weeks, especially with J.C. Hassenauer moving into the starting lineup at center.
The Chiefs are double-digit favorites for a reason. They have arguably the NFL’s best player in Mahomes, a dangerous receiving corps, and an opportunistic defense, led by Tyrann Mathieu, Nick Bolton, Chris Jones and Frank Clark. But the Steelers also have talent on defense, formidable skill players on offense, and one of the NFL’s best kickers in Boswell. Above all, they have a future Hall of Fame quarterback who would love nothing more than to end the Chiefs’ reign atop the AFC before riding off into the sunset.