KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Aside from Patrick Mahomes’ debut in the 2017 season finale, he’s never taken the field without Travis Kelce at tight end.
Tyreek Hill has never played an NFL game without Kelce suited up alongside.
But COVID-19 separated the Kansas City Chiefs’ Pro Bowl trio Sunday for a critical showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Needing a win to stay atop the AFC playoff race and clinch a record sixth straight division crown, the Chiefs were forced to get it done without Kelce — one of 12 players, including those on the practice squad or injured reserve, to be on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list for the game — and did so in convincing fashion with a 36-10 victory.
“The guys all played together, which I don’t think you can avoid talking about that, the team aspect of it,” coach Andy Reid said. “I was most proud of that part on both sides of the ball.”
The win coupled with the Los Angeles Chargers’ stunning loss earlier Sunday at the Houston Texans, who are coached by former Chiefs assistant coach David Culley, give Kansas City its record sixth straight AFC West championship.
“To be able to win the AFC West and get that first goal — obviously, we have more goals that we want to go after — but this was the first one,” Mahomes said. “To take this step, we’ve got to build that momentum into the playoffs and try to make a run at it.”
With the win, the Chiefs (11-4), who have won eight straight games, are assured at least one home game in the playoffs and remain one game ahead of the Tennessee Titans in the race for the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC and a first-round bye.
Kansas City — which had been tied with the 1972-76 Raiders and 2011-15 Broncos, who also won five straight division titles — got off to a lava-hot start.
After the defense forced a punt on the opening drive, quarterback Patrick Mahomes went 7 of 8 for 58 yards on the Chiefs’ first drive, which Clyde Edwards-Helaire capped with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Pittsburgh tried to fool Kansas City’s defense with a flea-flicker on its second drive, but Ben Roethlisberger floated the pass high and into Charvarius Ward’s hands for an interception.
Six plays later, Mahomes threaded a 5-yard touchdown to Byron Pringle for a two-touchdown lead.
It was Mahomes’ 62nd career touchdown pass at Arrowhead Stadium, which tied Trent Green for the most in stadium history.
Mahomes, who finished 23 of 30 for 258 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, did it in 19 fewer games.
Starting in place of Harrison Butker, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week, kicker Elliott Fry made both extra points for a 14-0 lead after the first quarter.
Kansas City’s defense shut out Pittsburgh in the first quarter, the eighth straight game without giving up a first-quarter touchdown.
Early in the second quarter, Fry connected on a 44-yard field goal to extend the Chiefs’ lead to 17-0.
His counterpart, Chris Boswell, who had made 43 straight field goals from inside 40 yards, missed a 36-yard try on the Steelers’ ensuing drive.
Mahomes broke Green’s record with an 8-yard TD toss to Mecole Hardman Jr. with 2:13 left for a 23-0 halftime lead.
Fry missed the extra point and, after the defense strung out Najee Harris on a fourth-down toss sweep deep in the Steelers’ own territory, missed a 39-yard field goal shortly before halftime or it could have been even more one-sided.
Pringle’s second touchdown — a 16-yard catch and run midway through the second quarter — bumped the lead to 30-0.
Without Kelce, Hill was limited to two catches for 19 yards, both on the Chiefs’ opening drive, but Pringle had a team-high six catches for 75 yards with two TDs.
“He plays really hard,” Mahomes said of Pringle. “At the end of the day, I think he just goes out there and puts it all out there. He does his job and understands his role in the offense. Whenever he needs to make a play, it seems like he makes plays.”
Pittsburgh didn’t get on the board until late in the third quarter with a 34-yard Boswell field goal, but Kansas City answered with a pair of Fry field goals — from 34 and 30 yards out — sandwiched around a Roethlisberger interception.
Edwards-Helaire’s injury seemed more serious. He already missed five games with a knee injury earlier in the season.
Darrel Williams finished with 11 carries for 55 yards and added three catches for 30 yards, while Derrick Gore racked up 104 total yards from scrimmage, including a career-long 50-yard reception.
The Steelers finally found the end zone with 2:54 remaining against the backup defense, a 15-yard touchdown from Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson.
Kansas City can guarantee itself a first-round bye as the top seed in the AFC with wins at Cincinnati and Denver to close the season.
“We played well today, but this league is so up and down right now that it’s crazy,” Reid said. “You’ve got to be spot on every week. We’ve obviously got a lot riding here, so every game means something to us. We’ve got to be even sharper and keep increasing the play."