KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers have leaned into the underdog role ahead of an AFC Wild Card playoff showdown Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
"We probably aren't supposed to be here,” Roethlisberger said sarcastically in an interview Wednesday. “We're probably not a very good football team. Out of 14 teams that are in, I think we're probably at No. 14.”
He went on to note that the Steelers, who opened as 12 1/2-point underdogs against a Chiefs team that whipped them 36-10 on Dec. 26, are facing “arguably the best team in football” and “don’t have a chance.”
Pittsburgh hasn’t won a postseason game since beating Kansas City 18-16 in the 2016 AFC Divisional playoffs, and the odds are stacked against them, especially if running back Najee Harris doesn’t play.
But, the Steelers are heavy underdogs for a reason.
The Chiefs led the NFL, scoring on 48.2% of all offensive drives during the 2021 season.
Nine of the top-10 teams in percentage of drives ending in a score reached the playoffs. The lone exception was the Los Angeles Chargers, who finished fourth (45.7%).
Every playoff team finished in the top half of the league — except Pittsburgh, which finished 20th (34.7%).
It was a similar story for points scored per drive.
Kansas City again topped the NFL, averaging 2.71 points per drive, and every team in the top 14 — again, except for the Chargers, who ranked second (2.65) — made the playoffs.
The Steelers, who finished 24th in the league at 1.70 points per drive, were the only team not ranked in the top 14 in points per drive to reach the postseason.
If there’s a glimmer of hope for Pittsburgh, it’s the fact that Kansas City has the worst defense statistically in the playoffs.
The Chiefs ranked 27th in the NFL, allowing nearly 370 yards per game.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, which ranked 24th and allowed more than 360 total yards per game, their defense hasn’t fared much better.
But Pittsburgh did lead the NFL in sacks, including an NFL record 22 1/2 by T.J. Watt. Fellow Pro Bowler Cameron Heyward added 10 sacks, while Chris Wormley (7.0) and Alex Highsmith (6.0) also had productive seasons getting after the quarterback.
Defensive tackle Chris Jones, who had nine sacks, was the only Chiefs player with more than 4 1/2 sacks in 2021.
The Steelers’ best hope might be in catching the chance they’ll face an overconfident Chiefs and play with an emotional edge, knowing that their next loss likely ends Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career.
Kansas City will have to match Pittsburgh’s emotion early in the game, but the Chiefs could snuff out the Steelers’ will by building a big lead — as it did three weeks ago, a game in which Kansas City led 23-0 at halftime.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for that organization,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who served as an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens from 2013-14, said. “They play in the AFC North. I’ve been in that division before. They play ‘AFC North football,’ where they try to pound it at you and just try to out-will you. They’re a physical football team, and we’ve got to match that. If you don’t match that, you’re in trouble against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s one thing we’ve talked about and, hopefully, when we get to Sunday night our guys will bring that kind of mindset.”
Here’s your tale of the tape for the Chiefs-Steelers, which is the last AFC matchup of Wild Card weekend.
With Las Vegas at Cincinnati and New England at Buffalo both scheduled for Saturday, Kansas City (or Pittsburgh) will know the path forward in the playoffs before kickoff at 7:15 p.m. on KSHB 41.
AFC Wild Card playoffs
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
Series record (last meeting): Steelers lead 23-13 (Chiefs, W 36-10)
When (TV/radio): 7:15 p.m. (KSHB 41/WDAF-106.5 FM)
TV commentators: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya, Terry McAulay
Spanish-language radio: KPRS-103.3 HD2