Kicker Chris Boswell #9 of the Pittsburgh Steelers kicks a field goal against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY — Mike Tomlin swore all season that the Steelers would not live within their fears. Then they arrived at Arrowhead Stadium and, suddenly, the Steelers coach appeared to get cold feet.
Fortunately, Chris Boswell didn't.
Thanks to Boswell's six field goals and a defense that came up with timely stops, the Steelers escaped with an 18-16 victory here in an AFC divisional playoff game Sunday night.
That it came down to a holding penalty that negated a Kansas Chiefs 2-point conversion and a pass breakup by rookie safety Sean Davis on the ensuing attempt made this one of the hold-your-breath variety.
“I'm just thankful that we were able to get the victory,” Tomlin said. “The guys fought. They fought together in a hostile environment and, boy, that's good to see.”
That they overcame their coach's early apprehension and their quarterback's failure to score a touchdown in seven trips inside the Chiefs' 25-yard-line was good to see, as well. The Steelers coach took no satisfaction in having Boswell set an NFL playoff record.
“That's not comfortable,” Tomlin said. “It's not. We desire to score touchdowns.”
But, true to his word, Tomlin acknowledged the Steelers' shortcomings and took ownership of them. The defense did the rest.
“Obviously, we weren't perfect,” Tomlin said. “But we were good enough.”
Roethlisberger echoed that sentiment, relieved that the Steelers escaped what he called the loudest stadium atmosphere he's played in. The Chiefs defense deserves credit for keeping the Steelers out of the end zone, of course, but some of it was self-inflicted.
“Obviously not the way we want to finish drives,” Roethlisberger said. “We moved the ball down the field but give credit to their defense. They kept us out. We didn't make a couple plays.
“Not good, but it was enough.”
The Steelers know this type of performance won't be enough to beat the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game next Sunday in Foxborough, Mass. The Steelers have been to the Super Bowl three times with Roethlisberger and twice under Tomlin, but they didn't have to go through the Patriots for any of them.
“There's a lot of things we've got to do to be successful against them,” Roethlisberger said of the Patriots. “They're the best in the world for a reason. Not an easy test coming up. Obviously, possessing the ball, we've got to score points. We can't turn the ball over. There's a lot of things we're going to have to try to figure out to beat them.”
Le'Veon Bell broke his own team post-season rushing record by running for 170 yards last night in Kansas City. (Orlin Wagner/AP)
The Steelers marched downfield on their opening possession. Curiously, after Bell ran for successive gains of 6, 11 and 8 yards to the Chiefs' 5, the Steelers chose to throw. Roethlisberger's first pass, intended for Bell, was incomplete. His second pass, to Eli Rogers, went for a 1-yard gain. On fourth-and-1 at the 4, Roethlisberger tried to catch the Chiefs while they were sending their special teams unit onto the field. When Kansas City called timeout, Tomlin sent Boswell out for a 22-yard field goal.
The Steelers then had Boswell squib kick the ensuing kickoff to avoid the Chiefs' electrifying return specialist Tyreek Hill, who has returned two punts and a kickoff for touchdowns this season. Instead, tight end Demetrius Harris returned it 25 yards to the KC 45.
Given favorable field position, Alex Smith directed a six-play, 55-yard scoring drive capped by the Chiefs quarterback rolling left and finding Albert Wilson for a 5-yard touchdown and 7-3 lead. It was the first time this season an opponent scored a touchdown on the opening drive against the Steelers.
“I think the significant part is they went down the field on us on the first possession, and the guys didn't blink. They're to be given credit for that,” Tomlin said. “I liked the look in their eye, the resolve. It was more that than anything. They took that look, took that resolve and continued to play and played at a high level.”
The Steelers dominated the remainder of the half, even if their 12-7 lead didn't show it. Roethlisberger avoided the pressure by nose tackle Dontari Poe to hit Antonio Brown for a 52-yard pass at the KC 23, but the Steelers settled for another Boswell field goal, this one a 38-yarder.
And this is where it gets strange. The only thing that seemed capable of stopping Bell was the Steelers' play-calling in the red zone. Bell became the first player in team history to rush for 100 yards in the opening half of a playoff game, rushing for 101 on 18 carries, and broke his own playoff record with 170 yards on 30 carries.
Big Ben might believe winning is the only thing that matters in the playoffs, but the Steelers knew two statistics were necessary: They had to avoid turnovers, especially costly interceptions.
After linebacker Ryan Shazier intercepted Alex Smith at the Kansas City 44 and a 26-yard pass to tight end Jesse James, the Steelers had a first-and-goal at the KC 5. Instead of running Bell, the Steelers chose to throw again. And Roethlisberger's pass was deflected by linebacker Frank Zombo and intercepted by a diving Eric Berry in the end zone.
“Red-zone offense, those guys (the Chiefs) did a good job,” Tomlin said. “It's not only about our inability to execute. They executed.”
The Steelers added two more Boswell field goals in the second half, then survived the Chiefs' comeback. The Steelers were good enough to escape Kansas City, a team they beat 43-14 in October at Heinz Field. They won in the playoffs, on the road, in a hostile environment.
So the Steelers deserve to celebrate.
“That's what you have to do. You have to enjoy it. This is a big win,” Roethlisberger said. “Anytime you can win in the playoffs on the road against a really good team in a hostile environment, you have to enjoy it because they don't come around very often.”
Roethlisberger, however, said the celebration would be short-lived.
The Patriots await, and the Steelers know that good enough won't be good enough.