KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the Kansas City Chiefs host the Pittsburgh Steelers for an AFC Wild Card game Sunday, only three weeks will have passed since the teams met in the regular season at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs hammered the Steelers 36-10 on Dec. 26 despite a COVID-19 outbreak within the team that left them without tight end Travis Kelce, right tackle Lucas Niang, cornerback Rashad Fenton and linebacker Nick Bolton among others.
Kicker Harrison Butker and punter Tommy Townsend also missed the game on the reserve/COVID-19 list along with offensive lineman Kyle Long and safety Armani Watts.
It’s no wonder Kansas City opened as 12 1/2-point favorites, the most-lopsided betting line among the six postseason games this weekend.
But Pittsburgh (9-7-1) won’t simply roll over in what could be Ben Roethlisberger’s final NFL game.
“I think they’re playing well together,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I think they’re doing a nice job with that. Ben’s playing well. The runner’s (Najee Harris) running well. The offensive line’s doing a nice job, and Pittsburgh’s always good on that defensive side. They fly around. They’ve got some all-star players on that side of the ball that do really well.”
Reid also praised the Steelers’ wide receivers.
Pittsburgh defensive end T.J. Watt, who is likely to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was battling cracked ribs and played limited snaps in the initial meetings.
During the last two weeks, he’s racked up five sacks — finishing with an NFL record 22 1/2 this season, which led the league for the second straight year.
“He’s a special player,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “... They have a lot of guys that play hard the entire game and they continuously play and go and go. For me, it’s about whenever I do make those extended long plays, not making a bad play happen. Those guys will be around me the whole time following the play. When I scramble and step up in the pocket when stuff’s not there, I have to make sure I account for them, because they’re not going to give up on the play.”
Conventional wisdom says Pittsburgh won’t give Kansas City much trouble Sunday, but Mahomes won’t get overconfident given the postseason stakes.
“We had a great game that day where we executed at a very high level, but this is a good defense,” Mahomes said. “They’re going to come with answers. They have great coaches who have coached for a long time and had a ton of success, so we know it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a battle each and every play and we’ll come in with the mindset knowing that, if we don’t play our best football, we’ll be at home the next week.”
Certainly, the Chiefs’ game plan against the Steelers should have Reid’s crew expecting to win.
Mahomes went 23 of 30 for 258 yards with three touchdowns, including two to Byron Pringle and one to Mecole Hardman Jr.
Kansas City rushed for 127 yards and passes to the running backs accounted for another 95 yards, but Pittsburgh will be eager for the fresh start.
“You’ve got to come with a different game plan, for sure,” Mahomes said. “They’re going to go through and watch the game plan and try to take away that stuff we had success with the first time. ... They understand how to change stuff up, they understand (how) to go back to what they’re great at, so we’re expecting a battle.”
Make no mistake, the Chiefs, which ended a 50-year Super Bowl title drought two years ago and repeated as AFC champions last week, have a singular mission beginning Sunday — get back to Super Bowl.
“Playoffs are here,” tight end Travis Kelce said. “Everybody’s got to get juiced up and motivated to put everything aside. We’ve got five weeks to try and achieve the ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl, and one week at a time. This week is the Steelers, so we have to make sure that we’ve got all the answers for anything that they can do.”
NFL Wild Card weekend playoffs schedule
() indicates seed
Saturday, Jan. 15
(5) Las Vegas Raiders at (4) Cincinnati Bengals, 3:30 p.m. (NBC)
(6) New England Patriots at (3) Buffalo Bills, 7:15 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Jan. 16
(7) Philadelphia Eagles at (2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 12 p.m. (Fox)
(6) San Francisco 49ers at (3) Dallas Cowboys, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
(7) Pittsburgh Steelers at (2) Kansas City Chiefs, 7:15 p.m. (NBC)
Monday, Jan. 17
(5) Arizona Cardinals at (4) Los Angeles Rams, 7:15 p.m. (ESPN)