Alex Smith endured watching film of the Kansas City Chiefs‘ meltdown in Pittsburgh earlier this season “a bunch of times” this week, still trying to figure out where everything went wrong.
As if he hasn’t relived it enough in his nightmares.
Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes. Le’Veon Bell starred in his return from a three-game suspension.
The Steelers scored 22 first-quarter points, led 36-0 before the Chiefs finally scored and they proceeded to rout the eventual AFC West champions 43-14 that October night.
“It’s been a long time,” Smith said, “so they’ve changed. Over the course of the season, they’ve progressed and gone a certain direction. There’s a lot they change week-to-week as well.”
But the Chiefs (12-4) are a different team, too.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill has made a name for himself as one of the NFL’s most dynamic rookies, going from special-teams standout to offensive difference-maker.
Top pass rusher Justin Houston is also expected to be available after missing the first meeting while recovering from knee surgery.
Oh, and this matchup with the Steelers (12-5) will be at loud Arrowhead Stadium rather than Heinz Field, and a spot in the AFC title game awaits the winner.
“We got embarrassed in the first meeting,” Chiefs center Mitch Morse said, “and we had to come back and kind of take a step back and realize, ‘We’re a good football team.’ We had to understand where we were. We learned a lot from that game and we were able to take the next step.”
Indeed, the Chiefs ripped off five straight wins after that loss in Pittsburgh, a stretch that turned around their season.
They wound up overtaking Oakland for the division title on the final day of the regular season, earning a first-round bye and a home playoff game.
The Steelers basically had a bye, too: They routed Miami last weekend to advance.
“I think a postseason challenge on the road is one thing,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “but at a legendary venue like that is something else. We’re excited about it. We respect it.”
But they aren’t going to be intimidated by it. The Steelers have been in enough big games over the years that it takes more than a trip to Kansas City, where the Chiefs have not won a playoff game since the 1993 season, to leave them quaking in their cleats.
Besides, they already beat the Chiefs in a laugher once this season.
“If you need the ‘revenge factor’ in the playoffs to help you win, something is wrong with you,” Roethlisberger said. “You’re in the playoffs, so you need to throw everything out, whether you played them before or didn’t play them before, personnel or whatever it is. You need to start fresh.”
As the Chiefs and Steelers prepare to meet again Sunday night, here are some keys to the game:
LACE UP YOUR SKATES: The U.S. figuring skating championships are in Kansas City this weekend, and Arrowhead Stadium might make a mighty fine rink. Forecasts for Sunday call for a near-100 percent chance of freezing rain that could leave the turf, re-sodded just this week, with a thick glaze.
The game was supposed to kick off at 12:05 p.m. Central time, but was moved to 7:20 p.m. so stadium and road crews along with local and state authorities could ensure roads and parking lots were safe.
“No weather is a part of our ball,” Tomlin said. “We don’t overanalyze that.”
BYE, BYE, BYE: Chiefs coach Andy Reid has compiled a 16-2 record in the regular season after a week off, including a road win over Oakland this season. He was also perfect in three divisional playoff games in Philadelphia when his teams earned a first-round bye, including one season that ended in the Super Bowl.
“I don’t know if there’s a secret,” he insisted. “I think everybody does it the same way.”
OVER THE HILL: By the end of the regular season, Hill had returned two punts and a kickoff for touchdowns, and scored six times through the air and three times on the ground. But he also had a 78-yard punt return touchdown against the Steelers brought back by a penalty.
Tomlin called him “a weapon to be reckoned with,” but Steelers kicker Chris Boswell said dealing with Hill’s speed is more difficult than simply kicking away from him.
“One return man, you have to put the ball in play,” Boswell said. “It also depends on weather. He is going to return. It’s just a matter of covering and tackling.”
TURNOVER TROUBLE: The Chiefs led the NFL with a plus-16 turnover differential this season, thanks mostly to 18 interceptions and 15 fumbles recoveries. They also scored 27 percent of their points off takeaways, one of the highest percentages in the league.
They were minus-2 when they faced the Steelers in October.
ROAD WEARY: Much has been made of Roethlisberger’s Jekyll-and-Hyde home-road splits, but it’s more than just a talking point. He’s completed 71 percent of his passes for 320 yards per game with 20 TDs and five picks at home, and 59 percent for 238 yards per game with nine TDs and eight picks on the road.
Not that the Chiefs wonder which version they’ll face Sunday.
“He is who he is,” Chiefs safety Eric Berry said. “A great quarterback.”
Republished with permission from The Associated Press.