The Kansas City Chiefs are now division champions — and continue to hold the AFC’s first seed — after a 36-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here are five things we learned from the game.
1. For the sixth consecutive season, the Chiefs are AFC West Champions
Many Chiefs fans — and analysts — probably wish they could erase their takes on social media following the team’s brutal 27-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans that dropped the team’s record to 3-4. At that time, the Chiefs found themselves alone in last place in the division. With a defense that seemed to hemorrhage yards and points, the national narrative had solidified that the Chiefs would have a difficult time even contending for a Wild Card berth.
But after an eight-game winning streak, the Chiefs are now the first AFC team to clinch a playoff spot. Sunday’s win — combined with the Los Angeles Chargers’ shocking loss to the Houston Texans earlier in the day — also clinched another AFC West title for the Chiefs.
After outscoring division foes 145-60 in four games during the streak, the Chiefs are again champions — and are guaranteed at least one home playoff game — for the sixth consecutive season. The Chiefs can clinch AFC’s first seed by winning their remaining two games — or a combination of one Chiefs win and one Titans loss.
2. Patrick Mahomes can win by taking what the defense gives him
For the first time in a game that matters, Patrick Mahomes was tasked with winning a game without the safety blanket of tight end Travis Kelce — who missed the game due to being in the COVID-19 protocol. Mahomes responded with one of the most efficient performances of his career, completing 23 of 30 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns. Mahomes finished the day with a passer rating of 135.1.
Mahomes was particularly effective when staying in the pocket and attempting quick passes.
Patrick Mahomes & Byron Pringle (16-yd TD)— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 26, 2021
Route Type: SLANT
Yards After Catch: 9 (+6 YACOE)
TD Probability (at catch): 4.8%
» Mahomes: 20th TD on a quick pass (< 2.5 sec), most in NFL (Rodgers, 19); Today: 9/9, 68 yards, 2 TD#PITvsKC | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/ZTw37PTUY2
Mahomes never seemed to push for the big play during this game. On top of missing Kelce, wide receiver Tyreek Hill — who was activated from the Reserve/COVID list on Saturday — made no impact after catching two passes on the first drive. But by targeting 10 different receivers, Mahomes was in control from the start — and never looked back.
3. The Kansas City defense was prepared for a second-half Steelers surge
At halftime, the Steelers trailed 23-0. While it’s far from ideal for any team, it would have been foolish to count them out; in the past five weeks, the Steelers have come from behind to win against both the Titans and Baltimore Ravens. They also scored 27 and 28 second-half points in close losses to the Chargers and Minnesota Vikings. While most would agree Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has not been playing well, he has certainly had his moments during the second halves of recent games.
After forcing the Chiefs to go three-and-out on the first possession of the second half, the Steelers appeared to have a chance for more second-half heroics. The Chiefs, however, never left an opening for Pittsburgh to get back into the game — although some of the Steelers’ inability was self-inflicted.
Wide receiver Diontae Johnson fumbled while trying to shift the ball into his other hand — and Mahomes then found Byron Pringle for their second touchdown hookup of the game, bringing the score to 30-0. At that point, the Chiefs began playing their safeties deep, content to exchange short plays for time off of the clock.
The Steelers finally broke the shutout with a field goal — but not until taking more than five minutes off the clock to do it.
The Chiefs forced their second turnover of the half when defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton sacked ben Roethlisberger and forced a fumble. Jarran Reid took the ball to the Steelers seven-yard line — and Mahomes ended the day early, staying on the sidelines when the offense took the field.
4. The NFL’s COVID-19 protocols are more difficult than ever to predict
For the past two weeks, every day has seemed to bring news of more key players across the league being placed on their teams’ Reserve/COVID lists. The pandemic has loomed over the past two Chiefs games; multiple key players missed either Sunday’s victory or the Week 15 victory over the Chargers.
With missing teams missing significant portions of their rosters, the league revised return-to-play requirements for vaccinated players who test positive — all in hopes that players would clear the protocol faster and miss fewer games.
The result of the rule changes, however, has made the entire process even more unpredictable.
On Monday, the Chiefs placed Kelce, cornerback Charvarius Ward, and kicker Harrison Butker on the COVID list. You may have missed Ward’s quick journey through the protocol after he returned on Thursday — and then went on to make might have been the most spectacular play of his career with a first-quarter interception of a Roethlisberger pass.
Meanwhile, Hill — and several other players — were placed on the reserve list with positive tests on Tuesday. Hill and tight end Blake Bell were able to return — though Hill was not activated until Saturday and missed practice all week. On Saturday, the Chiefs activated Kelce, tackle Lucas Niang and linebacker Nick Bolton in hopes that they would test negative before the game and be able to play. None of the three met the requirements to rejoin the team.
This week, there will be more positive tests across the league — and likely in the Kansas City locker room, too. It is an exercise in futility to make predictions about who will — or will not — be eligible for his team’s next game.
5. It’s a great time to have Andy Reid’s experience leading the team
As if late-season injuries — and how teams adjust once opponents have a season’s worth of scouting film — aren’t enough, this year brings even more adversity. COVID-related uncertainty appears ready to reign over the last part of the regular season — and into the playoffs.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid faced the possibility of playing Sunday’s game without both of the team’s 1000-yard receivers — and many other key players. While Ward, Hill, and Bell were able to return, most of the players who had positive tests in the past week did not.
While overshadowed by the absence of the future Hall of Fame tight end, the Chiefs also entered Sunday’s game with temporary replacements at placekicker and punter, too.
Throughout the week, Reid and his assistants offered what can only be called a smattering of coaching clichés when discussing game planning with so much uncertainty. In every media appearance, Reid never showed any sign of panic — or that he was approaching the week any differently than the way he would if he were simply missing a few players due to injuries.
Even coming off of such a stressful week, the Chiefs appeared well-prepared for the Steelers right from the opening kickoff. If someone looked at the game without knowing the details of the team’s COVID outbreak, it would have been impossible to guess that the team game-planned with so much uncertainty.
In a week where several playoff hopefuls suffered devastating losses, Chiefs fans should feel confident in the experienced hand that is guiding the team through an unprecedented set of circumstances.