NFL playoffs: Steelers get by Chiefs thanks to great defense, even better kicker
The Steelers will face the Patriots in next week's AFC title game
All Sunday night against the Chiefs, the Steelers kept putting three points on the board. Six times Chris Boswell lined up for a field goal, and six times he connected. He set an NFL playoff record in the process.
The biggest play of the night, though, came on a two-point conversion. The Steelers continually settling for those field goals meant the Chiefs managed to stay within shouting distance in a game where they were completely outgained and outpossessed, and when Alex Smith marched them down the field for a touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, they actually had a chance to tie the game at 18 with a two-point conversion.
Smith dropped back to pass, hung in the pocket for a while, and eventually found tight end Demetrius Harris in the back of the end zone ... but tackle Eric Fisher was called for holding, having tackled James Harrison to the ground on the play. Harrison was a monster all night (six tackles, three for loss, a sack, and two additional QB hits), so it was fitting that he was involved in the most important play of the evening. The ensuing do-over attempt resulted in an incomplete pass to Jeremy Maclin.
A poor return from Justin Gilbert on the following possession pinned the Steelers back near their own end zone, but a Le'Veon Bell run and two Roethlisberger passes later, they had a first down and the ability to run out the clock.
The offense closed the game out, but the defense was the big story. The Steelers held Kansas City to 227 total yards on 49 plays from scrimmage, an anemic average of 4.6 a pop. They shut down Spencer Ware (eight carries, 35 yards, TD) and held Alex Smith to just north of five yards per attempt. They got targeted pressure on Smith, who went 0-for-7 when he was hit or hurried, per Pro Football Focus. Bud Dupree and James Harrison came screaming around the ends, the boys up front held their ground, and the underrated secondary held Smith's targets in check. Boswell did the rest.
Here are a few more things to know about Pittsburgh's 18-16 win.
Stars shine bright
Roethlisberger did not have his best game (20 of 31 for 224 yards and a pick) but Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown sure made their contributions were noticed.
Bell is on an absurd run of late, and it continued in this one. He carried the ball 30 times for an incredible 170 yards, showing that trademark patience in the hole that just drives defenders nuts. The result was another monster game, and an NFL record.
Brown tore it up before halftime with five catches for 101 yards, then went quiet for a while. When the Steelers needed him most, though, he converted the biggest third down of their season. His sixth catch of the night gave him 108 yards total and allowed Pittsburgh to advance to the conference championship.
Prior to this game, we zeroed in on a specific area where the Chiefs had to improve if they wanted to come away with a win, rather than the loss they suffered to the Steelers back in Week 4. Kansas City got pressure on Ben Roethlisberger on only 14 percent of his dropbacks in that first game, and he picked apart their secondary all night -- he finished with 300 yards and five touchdowns.
Things didn't get much better in this game. Ben didn't quite light up the Chiefs through the air like he did in their earlier matchup, but the Chiefs did not affect him with their rush at all. They got pressure on only three of 32 dropbacks, allowing Ben to operate from an almost entirely clean pocket all night. The one big play the defense was able to make came on a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage, as Ben was sacked just once and barely hit or hurried. The Chiefs needed their pass rush to make game-changing plays and it simply didn't happen.
The Tyreek Effect
The Chiefs' most explosive player this season was Tyreek Hill. The wide receiver/kick returner was used in creative ways all over the field throughout his rookie season, which he ended with 12 total touchdowns.
On Sunday evening, his fingerprints were all over the game. The Steelers squib-kicked the ball after their game-opening field goal in order to avoid letting Hill get his hands on the ball for a return. The Chiefs used him as a decoy in several play-action passes, one of which resulted in a touchdown on Kansas City's first drive.
Hill didn't quite have his typical massive impact in the return game (18 yards per return, 9.4 lower than his season average) but he carried the ball three times for 18 yards and finished with four catches for another 27 yards as well.
There was quite a sequence midway through the second quarter, where on back-to-back drives, each team came away with an interception on a pass that was tipped into the air. That's how you know both teams practiced their tip drills this week.
First, Bud Dupree came around the edge and popped Alex Smith just as he was letting go of the ball, allowing Ryan Shazier to take advantage:
Neither team turned its interception into points, but it was still a nice defensive sequence.
The Chiefs' season is over, and now it's time to get ready for the offseason and the NFL Draft. They have several important free agents to re-sign, especially on defense, and they'll have the No. 27 overall pick in the 2017 draft.
The Steelers, meanwhile, will travel to New England next week to take on the Patriots in the AFC title game. In their only previous playoff game against the Pats during the Roethlisberger era, the Steelers lost 41-27 in the 2005 AFC Championship (2004 season). It's the only time the Steelers have lost the AFC Championship Game in Roethlisberger's career. They defeated the Broncos in 2006, the Ravens in 2009, and the Jets in 2012.
Relive all the action of the Steelers' close win in our live blog of the festivities.
If the live blog below is not loading properly for you, please click here to view it.
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