It didn't feel like these two teams would be playing again this season after the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-10 in Week 16. Not only did it appear that Kansas City would be in a position to rest during Wild Card Weekend; the game also felt like the stake in the heart of the Steelers' campaign.
After the loss that ended as the team's second-worst defeat of the season, the talk of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's retirement really started to heat up. It was the following week where he admitted the upcoming home game could be his last with the Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger won’t speak in definites, but he says “all signs” are pointing that “this could be it” his last game — at least regular season — at Heinz Field. pic.twitter.com/9jlhR99Kty— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) December 30, 2021
Since then, Pittsburgh has won two games — and with the help of other AFC teams collapsing, they are in the postseason. They will now get the chance to avenge the last loss they suffered this season — but many believe that vengeance is impossible.
All the data and analysis of this matchup suggest that it should be a comfortable win for Kansas City — but internally, the Chiefs don't allow themselves to buy into that.
"We certainly don't look at it that way," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo assured on Thursday. "There are 14 teams that make this tournament, and any team can beat any other teams — and the minute you don't think that's the case, that's when you get knocked out... we're not taking anything for granted, and hopefully we play that way; we certainly need the top of our game defensively to help our organization get on to the next week."
"This is playoff football," added Tyrann Mathieu. "It doesn't matter if you're the underdog, top dog... you have to find a way to take the field to win the game, trying our best to win one game at a time and not get too far ahead of ourselves."
There shouldn't need to be a worry about getting up for a postseason round — but that's the fear of playing a team that isn't expected to win: one side might be more relaxed than the other side, which is playing with no pressure and no expectations.
Over the final two weeks of the regular season, it did appear that the energy or effort level of the Chiefs' defense wasn't the same as other games — and that was proven with the amount of missed tackles and lapses in coverage they presented.
Spagnuolo isn't sure if that's what happened, but he's hopeful it doesn't continue into the playoffs.
"I hope that wasn't the case," Spags said of the possible mindset change of his unit. "Maybe it was just a missed tackle here or there, and it looks ugly, and certainly we want to be playing better than we did the last two games — I think we'd all agree with that. Knowing that what we're faced with is no margin for error now, that was the first thing we talked about on Tuesday. So we prepare from now until the time we kick it off to eliminate as many mistakes as possible. Hopefully, we'll do that."
Effort and a willingness to hit will be critical if you ask Spags. He knows what kind of teams the AFC North will produce after an entire season of beating each other up. From his tenure with the Baltimore Ravens from 2013-14, he picked up on the style of play in that division.
"I got a lot of respect for that organization," explained Spagnuolo. "They play 'AFC North' football, where they try to out will you. They're a physical football team — and if we don't match that, we're in trouble against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's something we've talked about, and hopefully when we get to Sunday night, our guys will bring that kind of mindset."
The Chiefs definitely brought the requisite energy for the first matchup — and they'll do their best to replicate it, but a leader like Tyrann Mathieu is trying to be realistic about the do-or-die game for both teams.
"Obviously, a couple weeks ago the game didn't go the way that they wanted to... I don't think we're necessarily expecting it to be that kind of a ball game," Mathieu admitted. "Just watching these guys the last couple weeks, even before we played them a couple weeks ago, this was a big fourth quarter, second half team. So, for us, coming into this game, we understand it's going to be a four-quarter game, possibly could be more, and then you're dealing with a quarterback that really has all the experience in the world. He's won two championships, he's been to the playoffs a bunch, and then he has some great talent around him as well. So, we've got our work cut out for us."
As a fan, if you're feeling bad because you can't help but overlook the Steelers in the Wild Card round, don't beat yourself up. It's not your job to keep a focused mindset on the task at hand.
That job is for the team that's taking the field this weekend — and based on Chiefs players and coaches' words this week, they won't be looking a minute past 7:15 p.m. on Sunday.